20th of March: Third Spring

Two years of this reading list! Imagine how many miserable articles I’ve shared about Syria that have proven too optimistic. Imagine how many predictions have been linked to that’ll look foolish reading them now. Imagine only gaining, on average, one subscriber every two months!

link at the end of the list

Wanted to share a song off of Kendrick Lamar’s new album because a) It contains some spectacular moments and b) I wanted to look cool posting new Rihanna, new Kanye, and new Kendrick on successive weeks. Alas, I am honour-bound to share what I’m actually listening to and what I actually love, and so we’re back to Carly Rae. Have almost reached the point of blunting this song for myself through over-listening, so while the chorus still soars with wistful joy (idk man not a music writer am I), have a bit of this.

As ever, you can get this reading list every fortnight on the blog or as an email newsletter. Either way is fine, but tell your friends!

  • As we reach the fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war, this is a decent (if almost certainly representing a Certain Narrative) history of how the revolution become what it is today
  • Thinking about this article, I wondered if there’s ever been a time in my life I’ve read headlines about Iraq that aren’t miserable. This one is next level though, promising an apocalyptic tidal wave and hundreds of thousands of dead.
  • Analysis of what the murder of a Honduran activist implies for the country and a poignant tribute to her life and work
  • Couple of sympathetic left pieces on Corbyn, clear-eyed about the challenges and the failings of the past wittsix months – they say similar things, this one is much longer (too long?) and more thorough, but you can get away with this one imo
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates very good on the colourism involved in the casting of the Nina Simone biopic
  • Twitter’s funny, I think I remember reading, slightly horrified, as James reported this incident when it happened, and now he’s written this excellent piece on “what headbutting a homophobe on a night bus taught me about political violence”
  • Classic BuzzFeed longread, this one goes on a little bit too long, but it’s a fascinating story. An Idaho school so remote and isolated that police can’t reach it in emergencies has installed gun lockers in secret locations around the building and trained all its teachers to use them, and by the end of the story, you kind of understand what they’re going for.
  • Will share anything involving Stevie Wonder tbh, but this is good on contemporary black activism
  • Very easy to make ‘fat person on plane’ jokes, but this is very honest and personal on what it’s like being that fat person
  • The future is so weird and cool – this reporter got to ride shotgun for Google
  • Really fascinating history of the unit of U.S. Army soldiers sent to stop the KKK in a South Carolina county after the Civil War – read this with a Spoons lunch in the middle of a very bad day and emerged at peace with the world

‘nother little interlude here – look how cool they look!

  • There’s a really cool geographically accurate tube map in here that’s quite fun to play with for a bit
  • Don’t necessarily share Hughes’ experiences with Twitter here but quite a nice tribute for its’ tenth anniversary regardless
  • This feature on Michelle Obama’s use of social media to engage is kind of ‘meh’ but look how spectacular she looks in the photos! Also the turnip Vine.
  • Aziz Ansari is kind of sweet on a trip back to India mediated through food
  • Combining veganism with silicon valley tech-utopianism, this story of the start-up replacing animal products should be more annoying than it is
  • Fascinating on what it’s like being a defender (in football) – really captures the moment-to-moment decisions they have to make
  • TBH I half suspect I’ve shared this before but I really can’t bear House of Cards and since it insists on coming back again, I’ll share this on why it’s bad (ish) again.
  • Nice bit of perspective this – humanity’s only a few dozen generations old
  • Needs more Russian lady tankers but cool photos of women in WWII – that’s where I got them photos up the page from. Not sure about this experiment in illustration but there we go.

And there we have it! See you in April! xxx

13th of March: But who are the *real* criminals?

Solid bit of Mock The Week level humour there which you’ll get upon completion of the reviews. BBC3, you know where to find me.

Been a bit delayed this one, which does mean there’s a few books to get through, which is nice. Also the first war book I’ve ever given up on! And I’ve read some mediocre war books in my time. Feel like some nerd off a WW2 forum is going to march up covered in Nazi memorabilia (they’re always weirdly keen on Nazi stuff these lads) and call me a “fake nerd” now.

Song of the week was gonna be a Kanye one but they’re still not on YouTube (my free Tidal subscription ends tomorrow 😦 ). Then I thought of a new Dylan one I saw him play at work but it’s not on YouTube either (the Internet is an upsetting place here’s a live version at least). So have an old one, I guess.

video may be NSFW, it asked me to verify my age. 

A Man of the People – Chinua Achebe

There’ a very weird pull quote on the back of my edition of this one, from Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess – “probably the best book to come out of West Africa”. It gave me pause a little, but I could hardly feel too superior, as I probably wouldn’t have heard of Achebe if not for his status as The Great African Writer.

[This review almost got crippled as I waded into a debate over #problematic issues way out of my understanding, so I’m just going to straight jump to the next bit.]

Regardless, I felt like, tokenistic as it was, spotting A Man of the People on the shelves of my local library was a good way to take a break from war history books. And it was! It’s a short and fairly light-hearted little book (novella?), told from the perspective of an idealistic young teacher who gets involved in politics for dubious reasons and gradually disillusioned. Centred on the titular man of the people, a very entertaining corrupt politician, Achebe provides a more nuanced discussion of corruption than is common, condemning it while illustrating how it’s rationalised, etc. Women don’t do too well in the story, reduced to pawns in the central power game, but apart from that, it’s good.

The Road to Stalingrad – John Erickson

Christ this one made me want to pack it all in and go back to reading Batman comics. I was conned by the cover, which, being a re-edition, made it look like a vibrant new best-seller history, read-able and maybe a bit shallow. Instead, it’s a seminal 1975 work from one of the Anglo world’s leading experts on Soviet military history. and it is deathly dull.

Readers of the blog know I’m a big fan of war books. Love me some tank battles and analyses of manoeuvres. But I’ve got to confess, I fell asleep reading this one repeatedly. Turns out there are only so many times you can read detailed descriptions of command reshuffles and shifting of brigade positions in January 1940 before you throw a book at a wall.

I held out until Barbarossa was launched, assuming it’d pick up then, with one of the largest invasions of the war, a world-historic shock etc. etc. It didn’t. It was still boring even as millions of men and machines went to war. Got sick of it, packed it in. Next.

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio – Misha Glenny

Another “I should stop reading about tanks and this has a nice cover” read, this one. It was also a book about Brazil by an author I vaguely recognised, so I thought fair. Also, gang/drug wars are not too far off my usual pursuits, so.

Nemesis is good. Pulpy, fast-paced and vividly written, with a fascinating subject and balanced analysis, it’s what you would hope for from this kind of book, mostly. It tells the story the rise and fall of ‘Nem’, one of the Rocinha favela’s most successful drug lords. It is based on extensive interviews, including with Nem himself, which helps capture the ambiguity of his status. In the absence of real state control of the favelas until very recently (and probably even today), the drug lords came to occupy a position of power over their inhabitants, which extended to providing some of the basic services we expect from the state. Glenny does well at capturing the difficulty of judging a man who is, on the one hand, responsible for a small and brutal private army, unelected and violent, but who also offered stability, peace, and protection for the residents of Rocinha.

It’s impressive he captures this nuance, because it’s a breakneck-paced book. Drug lords rise to power and are struck down in mere pages, and I stopped really paying attention to their names. Part of this is because, until Nem is in charge, Glenny does a bit of time-hopping, sometimes taking us on tangents that stretch back ten years before returning to the narrative. This can be a bit confusing if you’re trying to pay attention. He’s also a bit keen on Foreshadowing Dramatically – ‘little did he know these steps would change his life etc. etc.’ which fair enough.

It’s also fascinatingly like The Wire at times – there are parts that are almost identical to Season One, and I wish Glenny had done more on the police investigations.

It’s good.

The Big Short – Michael Lewis

Watched the film of this and finished the book tonight, but it’s not really going to be a film review because I don’t like or understand films well enough (it was alright, an entertaining, I didn’t understand the changes they made, but I liked some of the music).

The book is good! It’s very thrilling, despite being about the dullest, most fiddly collection of acronyms and interest rate swaps. By choosing the handful of outsiders to carry his story, Lewis humanises the baffling workings of the mortgage bond market. This works to an extent. It was still very confusing at times – to the point where he occasionally explicitly says “don’t worry about understanding this bit”. I think some knowledge of markets and trading stuff is required going in – I kept having to re-explain “shorting” to myself, which, admittedly, was probably an entry requirement for a book with this title.

There’s a politics to it, naturally (less so than in the film, which crowbars in some Meaning at the end and comes off like Owen Jones). It’s interestingly pitched, because arguably these are all awful bankers who all made millions for work of no social value and really, to the bin with them all, but, without obscuring the real social cost of their decisions, Lewis does successfully make the “underdog” millionaires sympathetic characters. Partly through some interesting but kind of cheap “look this guy has a puppy” humanising techniques, partly through this being a story set within the world of banks, traders, and brokers, it works! I stopped having Corbyn-y twitches about five pages in*

*apart from the absolute seething realisation of how much money was sloshing around these books and how I didn’t have any of it, which never really went away. I think I’d have hated banking, and the door closed on me anyway when I didn’t get on the career track aged 18.2, but man alive, these lads made millions and I was quite pleased when I got a 50p/hour pay-rise the other day.

 

 

 

so you see the joke was that, there were books on corrupt politicians, literal Nazis, and drug lords this week but maybe the bankers are the worst? I’m available for hire if you need someone to write the slogan for your next anti-austerity protest.

6th of March: Greggs and Pokemon

Mother’s Day! You should be talking to your mum, not reading this, but since you’re here, I’ve got a big selection of great stuff for you to read, as ever.

I know technically I should have posted a review last week and there’s a case to be made for just delaying the schedule a week and doing reviews today but there’s already a big pile of links for you here and I make these decisions mostly at random if I’m honest.

Song of the week is largely just plucked at random off Rihanna’s new album cos it’s really good and I still haven’t really clocked the individual songs yet.

As ever (did you know I don’t copy-paste this paragraph – I write it out every week. Since I make that effort, seems like you could too), tell your friends if you find anything you like or that they might like. The list is available as a fortnightly newsletter or every other Sunday on fillingthelonghours.

  • First up, I rescued a piece from my drafts! I wrote about the European Parliament’s call for an embargo on Saudi Arabia.
  • Big chunk on Syria. This, on how Russia is the decisive player in the war, strikes me as very accurate, and it’s encouraging it’s in quite an Establishment outlet like Politico. One of the reason third-party involvement can make civil wars drag on for years is the cycle of escalation and counter-escalation. If there’s a general throwing up of hands in Washington, that holds out a real possibility of some sort of peace-ish. And speaking of which, this is a helpful analysis of the recent ceasefire deal and the challenges it faces. One of those untold stories of suffering imposed by the rebels, in a siege of two Shia villages. I wrote about this topic a bit in my review of The Least of All Possible Evils, but this is very interesting on how the U.S. military decides how many civilian casualties are acceptable in their airstrikes on Syria. Also (from Iraq), a terrifying report on what is left of Ramadi after IS were cleared out (bombs, mostly).
  • More from Yemen, and how the war has affected life in Aden
  • Sharp critique of how Obama has handled the closure of Guantanamo
  • Gary Younge is excellent on how journalism misses big stories because it’s only after “man bites dog” stories
  • Bit over-long, this, but James Meek is always interesting on austerity – this time, tying it in with popular myths
  • Guess this is autobiographical, but it’s like a short story about an aid worker in Afghanistan
  • This is US-centric but still really interesting on how single women have the potential to be a decisive political actor. It addresses difference of class, race, and sexuality, which is quite rare in this sort of piece. It’s good!
  • Bit of a #hottake from Vox here – it doesn’t matter much that Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t practice what he preaches on climate change.
  • Couple of transport-based pieces! (Hardly Syria, I know). A nice piece on Megabus, and an interesting one on living just before the era of driverless cars.
  • Read this yesterday morning and spent the day craving Gregg’s. It’s actually very interesting on their business model, expansion, and success, but mostly it’ll make you want a steak bake.
  • I didn’t know anything about anything mentioned in this report from Arlit, Niger, where 8% of the world’s uranium is mined. So that’s intriguing. Also intriguing, this look at what it’s like being one of the USAF officers responsible for manning their ICBMs.
  • Speaking of long trips into the desert, this drifts close to the line of wank, but is ultimately good – the author visited the “no man’s land” where that guy tried to make his daughter a princess of last year.
  • Sometimes Sam Kriss pieces just drift into horrific short stories and it’s great. This is on Twitter.
  • Excellent on the Kesha clusterfuck.
  • Teddybless is one of the most endearing people on Twitter – this is lovely on getting through depression a step at a time.
  • Kanye-Alert. Another one on the recent fascination with whether Kanye has mental health issues. Tracing an ideal of black utopia through Tupac to Kanye. On faith and The Life of Pablo. And this weird lad who worked for Kanye when he was 19 is interesting enough.
  • This piece is dangerous – much like the Greggs one, it might give you cravings. A retrospective of Pokemon Red and Blue made me seriously consider digging up an emulator.
  • As ever, I feel this weird sadness reading about how the student experience has changed. This one, linking it into Fresh Meat, only makes that more acute – I watched the first episode the night before moving into halls, and it sort of set my expectations for university (none of them met). The notion that it is really more about a previous generation’s university experience feels quite accurate.
  • From Winterfell to the Nazis, why does the frozen North hold such fascination?
  • Very interesting on translating T.V. comedy (Seinfeld in this instance)
  • Good, sweary rant against the notion of “complete” in games
  • If this video of 106-year old Virginia McLaurin visiting the Oval Office and the First Couple doesn’t do anything to your emotions you might be a rock. Also a nice profile of her written afterwards.

And there we go. See you next Sunday! Have a good week x