24th of April: Little bit of variety

Not saying I get self-conscious about how many war books I read, but having a weekly (more or less) record of my reading on here does sort of make it obvious. So been trying to diversify a bit.

I like this song for lots of reasons. It doesn’t seem to have any concept of pace or dynamics or go anywhere, which should make it a boring five minutes, but it’s not. Also, even though I know who Bobby Womack is and can just about recognise his voice, there are several points on the record where he sounds more like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, which is cool. Finally, the lyrics are kind of ridiculous! Enjoy that.

Last Man in Tower – Aravind Adiga

Book choosing strategies by me, your humble book reviewer:

Step One: realise you’ve got books overdue despite living half an hours’ walk from the library and being mostly unemployed

Step Two: renew said books three times until you feel guilty/it’s sunny out and you need an Errand to validate your day

Step Three: Go to the library, go straight to the 20th Century History section, do not pass go

Step Four: Are there any paperbacks on WW2 battles you haven’t read and that don’t look terrible? Grab.

Step Five: Feel guilty that you only read tank books by old white men. Drift through the novels section and pick up any famous and/or colourful-looking novels, preferentially ones that tick some demographic boxes!

Step Six: Double-check the tanks section.

Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower is a novel, has a colourful cover and is written by an Indian fella – result.

 

It’s also very good! It’s very pacey and entertaining, while giving you a compelling look at redevelopment in Mumbai and how those involved respond to the changing city. There’s enough pretty prose about flowers to make you feel like you’re reading some art, without being too tossy. It’s often quite funny.

It’s a story that feels very universal (to a certain extent it’s a gentrification tale like what we can’t stop talking about in London) and yet, through the protagonists’ religions and the particular practices of Indian construction moguls and residential societies, feels very specifically “Indian”. I don’t know if it is! Maybe it’s actually a weird pastiche of Mumbai life with terrible politics and I only enjoyed it because I know nothing about India. But it did that nice thing of making me feel like I understood completely different lives to mine a little bit better than I do now.

Good, imo.

Ghost Fleet – Peter Singer and August Cole

It’s not as good as Red Storm Rising, but it tries its best. Could leave it at that, really. Peter Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet portrays a well-researched version of how World War Three could play out, drawing on trends in military technology that are so integral to the book they have footnotes. The tech seems plausible to me, an almost-layman. I mean I cited Singer (it’s not the philosopher one) in at least one university, so I’m not about to doubt that side of things. There’s a lot of near-future war – killer robots, cyber-warfare, space warfare, etc. The near future setting allows this all to be described to contemporary readers – there are enough characters who were around in the early 21st Century and are suspicious of all these darn drones to justify explanations and comparisons. So you know, if it was just a more engaging way of examining how war might look tomorrow, that’d be OK.

But of course, it’s a thriller, and so it has to have all that goes with that. The hubristic enemy admiral who literally mutters/proclaims Sun Tzu quotes to himself throughout the book and the final battle. The officer with daddy issues. The gruff old sailor who knows the old ways are better. etc. etc. The literal femme fatale. The U.S veterans of Afghanistan who become guerrillas in their own home towns and isn’t this ironic. Nothing outright awful but there are a lot of pulpy clichés. The narrative itself, IDK how much I buy it. Red Storm Rising succeeded, as I recall, by making it clear that the whole thing was a desperate gamble by the Soviets that had to bring quick victory or complete defeat. So in that book, the “at first we lose but look through sheer American grit and force of will and good tanks we ultimately triumph” arc worked. I won’t spoil Ghost Fleet but TBH, I think that quote is a pretty generous characterisation of how it plays out.

Anonymous play a crucial role in this book, is all I’ll say.

IDK, it’s alright, I was reading it whenever I had a spare moment for a weekend, so it wasn’t terrible I guess but eh. Here’s an interview with the authors that might be as interesting in terms of technology and trends, really.

War Stories – eds. Sebastian Faulk and Jorg Hensen

Quite hard to review an anthology, it turns out! There’s good bits and OK bits, very few that I’d consider Bad. As a collection, it is very WW1-heavy, I don’t know why. Vietnam gets a big showing, and I think there aren’t any excerpts later than the Gulf War. There’s an interesting effort to avoid obvious choices. I’m not as well-read on war fiction as you might expect from this blog, so I can’t comment on all the choices, but, for example, the only Hemingway excerpt is from Farewell to Arms, and it’s not even one of the more military ones in there (I’d have expected the chaotic retreat scenes to feature over this one) – but it did have the side-effect of reminded me of the horrific ending to that book (rude). Similarly, Vonnegut only appears as the foreword to Slaughterhouse Five. It makes it much more likely that you won’t have read any of it, which is nice. There’s a fairly decent spread of perspectives and sides of the wars, including several translations, which is nice.

Probably more of a “dip in and out” than a “read for three hours straight while you’re waiting to meet someone for a fun evening out” book, as it turns out the Holocaust is not good pre-drinks material. Who knew.

Leningrad – Anna Reid

OK so this was a war book but it was written by a woman at least, so there’s some sort of change at least.

I don’t know as much about the Eastern Front as I should! My previous attempt to rectify that was …not successful. Part of the issue, I think, is that while histories of the Western Allies are far from apolitical, there is so much of an agenda when it comes to discussions of the invasion of the Soviet Union. You feel constantly on the look-out for distortions, knowing that there have been several revisionist understandings of the war already. Reid points out and rebuts, for example, the Cold War efforts to excuse the Wehrmacht as an institution from the crimes it committed during the war.

Fortunately (and unfortunately), this isn’t a military history. I still don’t know much about Kursk or how the Red Army recovered from catastrophe to win the war or enough cool facts about the T-34. What I do know is that the siege of Leningrad was bloody horrific.

Attention tends to be paid to Stalingrad, for probably obvious reasons, but on the numbers alone, this is a different scale of horror. Reid estimates that between 1/3 and1/4 of the city’s pre-war population perished during the siege, or about 700,000 people. Most of these were from starvation.

Food, its absence, and how people tried to get hold of it, are at the heart of this book. Compellingly told through the use of diaries, memoirs, and interviews with survivors, Reid is able to give devastatingly personal stories of how the siege reduced people to shadows of their former selves. Poor planning, corruption, and a blockade set up with the deliberate intention of starving the civilian population created a nightmare situation over the almost 900 days of the siege.

It’s heavy reading, made somehow more bearable by all those diaries and memoirs. It’s a very human book, despite the horrors it recounts. You will obviously feel a little bit hesitant to ever describe yourself as “hungry” again.

The military side of things, as I say, is less effective. It might be because Leningrad wasn’t a decisive front, but there’s not an enormous amount of “this regiment attacked on this day with these tanks” stuff, which probably sounds like a positive to you fools. It makes it slightly harder to follow the overall situation of the war outside the city, however, and where Reid does focus on military bits, it’s a bit rushed and confused. That said, there’s one Wehrmacht perspective in the book, the diary/memoir of a German captain occupying outlying villages, and it’s pretty compelling.

Still. Good, depressing, more tanks required imo.

Advertisements

17th of April: Later and Later

So I know what’s happened this week. I haven’t connected the tablet to the Internet so anything I bookmarked on there hasn’t been kicked to the cloud. This list is a complex little machine and if one part falls out, you get mediocre results. Still. Means the list is a bit more light-hearted than usual, so that’s fun.

Think I’ve actually done a song of the week off this album in the last few months, if not weeks. In fact, if memory serves, they follow each other on the album. Still, the opener from The Strokes’ most recent album is one of the rare songs that’s evocative of a happy emotion, which is bleaker than I intend it to sound, but I think I got this album on the day of my birthday, or of my last exam of the year, which happened to be my birthday (UCL never fails to spite me) and it was sunny and everything was alright. It’s a good song, too, off a good album.

  • Think Sam Kriss captures some of the ambiguous feelings we have in response to international tragedy here, in the wake of the Brussels attacks
  • This is quite sweet on the UK’s beleaguered bowling greens
  • Takes kind of weird swerves here and there (yes the problem is definitely Tumblr feminists) and fair warning, some graphic and horrible anecdotes, but this is decent and generally nuanced (perhaps more than they deserve) on toxic male subcultures online – can’t quite find a term that encapsulates them.
  • The rare BuzzFeed article that I felt needed to go longer, this is a very good critique of Kanye and Kendrick’s treatment of women in their lyrics. It’s not my place to evaluate these critiques, but it shows real knowledge of their work, places their sexism in the context of their political messages, and seeks to improve not dismiss – A*.
  • Like, I’m probably never going to turn my back on little 17-year-old Gabriel with the two Guns N’ Roses T-shirts, so had this article concluded that actually they were bad, it’d have been irrelevant to me. Still, it’s a decent little column from a Guns N’ Roses fan, even though I’ve got objections to about eight of his points (Chinese Democracy was a great album – fight me)*.
  • So this is kind of evocative and lovely and bleak all at once on Indie Club Nights and it left me feeling weird and bereft at getting literally none of the references which I guess is just one of those Third Culture Kid things (ugh) but yeah. Maybe I haven’t lived but it sounds like they were bad anyway.
  • Affectionate look at how Jay-Z has gotten old (sometimes I sell these articles well, honest)
  • I’m sure everyone knew Stairway to Heaven, along with most of Led Zeppelin’s music, was kind of robbed, so the court case is kind of irrelevant. Still, it’s quite entertaining to try and wander round Denmark Street and break men’s dreams.
  • I once wrote a story for something like 10,000 words on a world where this sort of game was a viable possibility, and now, here we have an embedded war correspondent in a multiplayer game. It’s great.
  • The Elder Scrolls games are such an endless fountain of weird stories that make me miss them and then I go back and I’ve left my character stuck somewhere boring and I give up and go back to Company of Heroes but! This is good story about a dog in Skyrim.
  • You’ve seen the new Star Wars trailer yeah?
  • Bit of a struggle with linking this to you, settled on the “how-to” tag but basically, Albert Burneko’s recipe columns at Deadspin are my favourite thing. I don’t even know if they’re good recipes! They slant towards the American, and he’s delightfully intolerant of other ways of cooking, so if you have Strong Opinions about Eggs, maybe give those ones a miss but yeah. Fun.
  • Speaking of food, Ruby Tandoh’s series reviewing British fast food joints is lovely writing and very fun.
  • Demi’s back! Don’t think these Uptown Funk mash-ups quite reach the highs of the Hozier ones, but his face is still a joy.
  • Look this probably won’t happen but it’s a very good idea for a calendar is all I’m saying.

*I still own both those shirts and all bar one of Guns N’ Roses’ albums (Greatest Hits compilations are for Fake Fans) on CD tbh.

3rd of April: Can I Be Bothered?

Guess the answer to that is yes! I started compiling links this morning and realised taking the train to my girlfriend’s without a book means I get a lot of article-reading done! Consequently, lots of good reads for you all today! And proportionate levels of despair as I faced the prospect of writing this all – but here we are!

As promised last week, one off Kendrick’s new mix-tape untitled unmastered. Except it’s kind of all so good, with so many stand-out moments, that I struggled to pick. Could have gone for the (apparently) bit where he does a Drake impression to take the piss, or Cee-Lo Green’s guest appearance, or any point where he says “get God on the phone” or “levitate”, but I went with (I honestly hate the naming conventions I had to Rap Genius to work out which one I wanted) untitled 5. Got pretty Anna Wise singing and the first verse is incredible. Game-changer here, I’m having to link to Spotify as it’s not on Youtube! Enjoy.

  • Oddly, I saved this article, on the challenges and failings of Belgian institutions and politics that have made it one of the biggest sources of European foreign fighters, just after it was published, when Brussels was shut down for a day – I read it while watching the BBC reporting live on the recent attacks there. Anyway, it’s an interesting article and clearly speaks of a problem that wasn’t solved.
  • Never know what to make of Brazilian politics but this, from Jacobin* (more on them later) is a decent outline, capturing the complexity and different interests involved in the slow-rolling crisis there
  • Think this long article on the arms trade has some limitations (confession: I don’t remember what didn’t sit well with me anymore), but it’s as good a leftist critique as I’ve seen in a while
  • Tend to find criticism of the UN frustrating a lot of the time, but as this good piece from a departing senior official reminds me, there’s a lot to criticise! The article is good because it is written with lots of understanding of how the UN works and fails, and because there are concrete reforms of a kind of boring nature suggested.
  • God-awful headline, but interesting profile of the British ambassador to Ukraine and how she’s faced homophobia (and sexism!) in her career and in her postings
  • Very interesting review (by the Ask Polly author) of the memoirs of the mother of the Columbine shooters
  • Hadn’t heard a peep about this shooting outside the Sé cathedral in Sao Paulo. BuzzFeed went to investigate who the ‘hero’ was before his death – quite poignant
  • Cool, slightly surprising profile of an American border guard
  • Very cruel but funny letter to mid-level government officials who are going to be out of a job when Obama’s term ends
  • Apparently MSG is fine for your health, and it’s largely the victim of bad science and racism!
  • Kind of resisted clicking this one went it got circulated just because of how bad the Spectator is but it’s actually a really good account of how ‘political correctness’ improves people’s lives and it being published in that vile magazine is pretty decent
  • Cool feature on Jacobin magazine and its success – written in quite a pleasant tone. Somewhat surprising, given Vox and Jacobin’s politics and outlooks – I imagine there’s no love between them somehow.
  • Fascinating (somewhat dispiriting) on getting plastic out of the oceans, and a very bittersweet feature on how climate scientists cope with despair
  • Two decent articles on “Keep Calm and Carry On” – one is an interview with Owen Hatherley, the author of the other. I think he’s plugging a book.
  • Drifts a little bit at times, but very interesting on the psychology of public toilets. Could have done with less of the “maybe it’s because they’re scared of becoming gay” angle but. (good marketing here, you’re going to have to read the article to find out how wilfully misleading that sentence was)
  • Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Joel Golby. Anyone I’ve ever cooked for will know I’m cripplingly dependent on Jamie Oliver. So I was naturally very nervous when I found out which side of the “Is Jamie Oliver Bad” debate Golby was arguing in this piece. It’s good though.
  • I like this on “the internet’s boyfriends”
  • Fascinating bit of archaeology which uncovered the site of a massive Bronze Age battle
  • This, on adapting Japanese dating sims etc. for Western audiences, is kind of really creepy but there’s an interesting issue of translation and cultural differences within it
  • Little bit of history, on the massive exercises the U.S. Army carried out before WW2
  • Feels kind of odd getting Golby to do a serious piece, but I guess interviewing one of the survivors of that plane crash that had to eat other passengers to live is sort of his wheelhouse.
  • Chip critic is an incredible job and I want it.
  • Possibly just because this article gives me hope of being able to spin a stint behind the bar of a Spoons into some similarly buzzword-y and empowering stories, but I really like it! On the big lessons learned from working as a short-order chef.
  • This would have been more useful last weekend as it’s now the third of April, but a reminder that April Fools is bad. It’s history, here, and a classic Golby** takedown, here.
  • What do music genres really even mean these days? IDK read this article to find out
  •  Both of these articles are sort of interestingly positioned on the edges of PR strategies, I reckon. Possibly because Rihanna’s seems less cynical and annoying, I kind of prefer this review of her tour and how “real” it is. This one’s a bit old, and it’s on Taylor Swift, and I think it could have done with going a bit deeper, but it’s interesting enough if you take it as a description of her PR re-branding exercise kind of thing.
  • Speaking of brands, interesting feature on Brewdog – they do sound exhausting!
  • Not exhausting: The Lonely Island. I liked this little tribute to them (even though they’re not dead and even though the author’s love for them started about five years before I’d ever heard of them)
  • Really cool little look at how adaptations of just two comic book scenes misinterpreted them entirely and the perils of adaptation. IDK might not be interesting if you’ve not read Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. If you haven’t maybe go do that and come back.
  • Finally, possibly NSFW, but quite funny on the people and bots replying to the Pope’s tweets.

And there we have it! Have a good week/fortnight xx

* and from an author I just realised I know. Spooky

**look if I’m going to break the no-Golby rule I imposed on myself, might as well go all out and break it three times. I was actually going to post a fourth thing by him but his personal site is broken so you’re safe!