Home Books What I read in: June 2019

What I read in: June 2019

by Ellie Hopgood

This month’s books were split across climate change, travel writing, socialism, general writing, sex and US politics… and one Icelandic novel about a depressed man who travels to a hotel in war-torn country. An eclectic mix of books.

Hotel Silence – Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir

Hotel Silence tells the story of a depressed, lonely man in Iceland who has just found out that his daughter is not his biologically and is feeling generally lost and despondent. He decides to end his own life, but, not wanting his daughter to have to find his body, he travels to an unnamed war-torn country in order to, ironically, kill himself in peace. However, as he waits in Hotel Silence for the right time to end it, he starts to help the owners rebuild the hotel and put their lives back together after the war. And slowly, he starts to find his way back to himself.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book, to be honest. It is a very Icelandic book. Of course something this sad and moving was written in a country where it is dark for half the year. It manages to be a tender, quiet book about loneliness and purpose that is not particularly gloomy or difficult, despite hinging on an imminent suicide, which is a feat. If you are looking for a quick, hopeful read about finding light during dark times then this book might resonate with you.

The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis

This book has two distinct threads. Firstly, Lewis explains just how completely unprepared Trump was to take over the White House after winning the election. After speaking with Chris Christie, Trump’s short-lived transition team manager, Lewis pieces together the terrible delays, corruption and poor judgement that went into staffing a myriad of underappreciated and crucial roles in the US government. After establishing how at risk the federal government now is for poor governance and mismanagement due to Trump’s antics, Lewis shares some stories from these departments, elucidating what it is exactly these unknown departments do and why they are so vital to the functioning of America.

The structure of this book was a little clumsy, but Lewis is a good enough writer telling good enough stories that it doesn’t really matter. The start makes clear exactly how terrifyingly underqualified Trump is to be in a position of such power and reaffirms everything we’ve been led to believe about how chaotic Washington is at the moment. But his stories of talented, intelligent government employees and their passion and belief in the various government vehicles they run are fascinating. One day, I would love to have a biography like one of these officials, who have really dug into their industries and launched programs with far-reaching effects. The book quickly delves into examples and data, which worked well for this data nerd, talking about weather predictions, the funding of rural communities and the management of nuclear material. One of the officials describes five primary risks he sees in the Trump government, the fifth of which is “program management.” He explains that it’s the risk you don’t think of or the things that don’t happen that are often the biggest issue, a risk that is multiplied by lack of knowledge and, crucially, a lack of people who understand these departments and the big picture. This was a fascinating read that really shines a light on Trump’s incompetence and the US government’s undeniable importance.

Future Sex – Emily Witt

This is a book all about the fringes of modern sexual culture, explored by a slightly reserved and sceptical woman in her thirties. Witt takes an orgasmic meditation glass, attends sex parties in rented lofts, goes to fairly out-there live sex show called Public Disgrace, has sex in the orgy dome at Burning Man and spends so much time chronicling a polyamorous couple’s experiences that she ends up invited to their eventual wedding.

I liked this book a lot. The actual language is so precise and expressive that it took me aback a first – the writing itself really stood out, which is a novelty. I love books about sex, especially the unusual parts of sexual behaviour, so this book was right up my street. It is a brief and fascinating look at kink, porn and all the ways you can be romantic and sexual without conforming to our culture’s prescribed notions of monogamous relationships. In theory, Witt is looking to expand her own mind after spending years looking for a life partner, but while she clearly enjoys the exploration at a journalistic level, I can’t say she came across as particularly suited to a lot of these lifestyles. Regardless, it must have been a hell of a few years of research, and the book she wrote is both fun and insightful.

On Writing – Stephen King

Oh man, did I enjoy this book. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is solely dedicated to sharing the tools of writing in such a direct way. King starts by telling a few stories from his childhood and his early days as a professional writer – including selling his first novel – in order to show you his roots before spending the latter half of the book explaining his philosophy of writing and offering advice on how to write well.

As it’s easy to tell from the book itself, the man likes to be straightforward. He implores the reader to always use the simplest word they can think of when describing something: “Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’ and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.” Amazing.

Another writing tip I enjoyed was his rant about adverbs – he’s right, unfortunately, and I found myself combing through the blog I was writing while I was reading this book and removing every adverb I could find (the blog is better for it). He emphasises the absolute necessity of being a voracious reader (“if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write”) if you want to be a writer and ends the book with a long list of book recommendations. King is a fiction writer, which is different from most of the writing I do, but I have been thinking a lot lately about trying to write a few stories so this book came at a perfect time. His great love is telling stories and his philosophy of plotting (i.e. don’t bother) was refreshing. I haven’t read any of King’s books, as supernatural/horror stories are so not my genre, but I appreciated his musings on writing all the same.

The only part that seemed a little suspect to me was when he discussed getting your start in the industry through getting published and finding an agent. Maybe it was just easier then, maybe it’s because he was white dude – probably a bit of both – but King essentially says that if you publish a few stories in decent starter magazines you’ll have no trouble finding an agent and kickstarting your professional career. Given what I know about publishing, this seemed too good to be true for many, and much of the advice sounded quite dated.

However, overall, it was witty, straightforward and honest. He offered this quote up toward the end of the book:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

I love that. Do any of you feel enriched?! I certainly do!

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism – Kristen R Ghodsee

This is a very interesting book. Ghodsee, an experienced scholar who researches the intersection of feminism and state socialism in Eastern Europe, makes a compelling case for why capitalism is particularly bad for women and how we would thrive under a socialist system. It is persuasive. Ghodsee discusses work, motherhood, sex and citizenship in a bid to explain exactly why socialism disproportionately improves women’s lives and ends the book with a rallying call to use your voice in politics.

I liked learning more about the twentieth century regimes and understood a little better why socialism is seeing a resurgence now, as young people have no memories of the USSR and what happened when communism took a bad turn. It made me feel more compassion for the older, ardent capitalists, for whom the free market seemed vastly like the lesser of two evils compared to the stories coming out of Eastern Europe and other communist regions. My one criticism is that Ghodsee seems to gloss over the terrible parts of twentieth century state socialism, by using research that shows that many Eastern Europeans were as happy, or even happier, before the Berlin Wall fell (though she admits that this might be because the promised riches of capitalism never made it to Eastern Europe). Having travelled regularly to Eastern Europe, studied twentieth century history and spoken to people who lived in or visited communist Europe, Ghodsee’s spin on state socialism seemed far more positive than most of the accounts I’d heard. But it is an important perspective regardless, and she is not advocating for a return to Stalin-style communism (obviously). Ghodsee wants to use the best parts of twentieth century state socialism (state healthcare, childcare, retirement, parental leave and guaranteed jobs) to alleviate sexism and inequality, mainly due to women relying on men for their money and getting caught up in bad transactional dynamics as result, making sex (and most other things) worse.

I was especially interested in her analysis of sexual economics, which made a lot of sense to me, exploring how sex operates as a commodity in the free market. I tend to agree that recent gendered relationship expectations (men providing, women being domesticated) are bad for women and for love and it was helpful to see that elucidated through a socialist lens. I also enjoyed Ghodsee’s promotion of powerful socialist women from the twentieth century, who had achieved great things for women under communism. The book does some service to intersectionality – e.g. discussing the wage gap through the lens of race as well as gender – but not every moment or point is evaluated through an intersectional lens (though perhaps that’s because communist Europe was fairly homogenous, I’m not sure).

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism combines two of my favourite things to read about: feminism and economic analysis. How could I not love it?

Climate Change – Joseph Romm

In last month’s book blog, I reviewed Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a five hundred page tome discussing the social, political and economic causes and implications of climate change. At the end of that review, I said that I wanted to read more actual climate science, to understand the scientific reasons that our world is changing rather than just the human element.

Well, this book delivered. It is the most comprehensive book I’ve found so far for explaining the actual mechanisms of the climate crisis and showing exactly how our seas will rise, the ice sheets will melt, storms, fires and droughts will increase and how all of these processes will speed up exponentially over time as worsening climate changes speed up the rate of further climate effects, in cheery news.

The book is structured as answers to a series of questions, organised into broad categories. Most of it focused on the practical impact of climate change while the latter chapters take a look at politics and individual actions. It is a very accessible format and makes clear exactly what each section will tell you, rather than letting it all blur together as page after page of tornado statistics and forgotten policy proposals. Romm has read the original research and bases his answers on more than just conversations and IPCC reports – if you want to know, in an accessible and condensed format, what the scientists are saying about climate change, rather than the activists or politicians, then this is the book for you. It is perhaps the most useful book I’ve found so far on climate change, and would be a good starting point before reading further material to expand your understanding of the wider cultural implications.

The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells

This book is a good compromise between the serious science in Joseph Romm’s Climate Change and the more accessible, sociopolitical analysis of climate change in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In the Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells takes us through a variety of potential impacts of 2-8 degrees Celsius warming, looking the effects of the climate crisis on food supply, water, conflict, disease, productivity, extreme weather and rising temperatures. His view of the situation is summed up by his opening line: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” Having read a decent amount on climate change recently, I was prepared for the doomsday predictions, though if you are new to learning about all the ways climate change may affect our planet beyond rising sea levels then book will be an unwelcome, though necessary, wake-up call. It is more digestible, though a lot less detailed, than Romm’s Climate Change, so if you’d like to know more about what we’re up against but are intimidated by climate science, this book is a good place to start.

Wallace-Wells comes to same conclusion as Romm, which is that the likelihood of keeping warming to under 2 degrees Celsius is painfully low and looking less and less likely with every month that goes by without meaningful intervention. I ‘enjoyed’ (if you can call it that) the chapters on plagues of warming, conflict and the economy, because these are very real implications of our warming planet that get very little airtime. Not only does the ‘plagues of warming’ chapter refer to a spreading of tropical diseases (as larger swathes of the planet transition to a tropical climate), but also to prehistoric diseases being released from melting permafrost (anthrax already killed a boy when it was released from a frozen reindeer carcass as it melted) and the potentially disastrous, and unknown, effects of higher temperatures on our own bacteria.

I do wonder, though, about the point of a book like this. I mean, I understand that the point is to open our eyes to the reality of the climate crisis, and to impress upon us the absolute necessity of limiting warming as much as possible, and eventually taking carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. But given that Wallace-Wells is light on the effect of individual actions and makes few, if any, rallying cries for increased personal responsibility, it is a depressing read. He knows that most of his readers are unable to make a meaningful difference – indeed the question of who needs to, and is able, to make change when it comes to the climate is one of the most pertinent of the whole movement – and still urges everyone to read a book making clear just how awful the future will be. Klein’s climate book manages to end on a more optimistic note and Romm’s remains fairly neutral (it’s about the science, rather than fear-mongering), but still includes a section on how people should make decisions given what we know about our changing world. I would definitely recommend this book given its pertinence, but I do question whether people should be surrounding themselves with apocalyptic scenarios, even if those scenarios are real and likely, when they can do nothing meaningful to change the situation, if doing so causes stress. I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that.

The Socialist Manifesto – Bhaskar Sunkara

I expected this book to be something different. I was hoping to read a manifesto for modern socialism, with an analysis of our current political climate and tangible ideas for transforming our capitalist economy to a socialist one. I have read a lot about capitalism this year and I wanted to balance that out with some socialism to get a broader picture of the political spectrum. But this book is not a socialist manifesto – despite that literally being the title – instead, it is a fairly in-depth history of socialism across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and therefore largely inaccessible for someone new to the movement, like me. I wanted to enjoy it more, because I can tell that it is a thorough and lively retelling of the last 150 years of socialism, but I don’t have the overall framework to process this much detail in one go. Sunkara takes us through the history of socialism (and communism) in Germany, Russia and China, in a text full of names, acronyms, treatises and Marxist terminology that is overwhelming to an uninformed reader like myself. I wish I’d been able to take it all in, but it was too much for me, and I found myself skimming the dense pages and hoping to reach something broader and more current, which I finally found the last few chapters. I feel like I will come back to this book again in the future, but for now, I need to find a book about socialism that panders to my lack of knowledge better.

To Hellholes and Back – Chuck Thompson

I forgot how much I love travel writing. Thompson’s 2009 book chronicles his visits to the four places in the world that scare him the most: the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Mexico City and Florida Disneyworld. He writes acerbically and incisively, taking no prisoners in his examination of life around the world and travelling to places with poor infrastructure, a reputation for crime or an unholy fondness for neon and cartoon characters.

Then again, this sharpness might be part of the problem. I feel almost guilty for enjoying this book so much, given that I think there’s a lot to be said about how wealthy white American dudes write about poor places around the world, particularly in Africa. The thing is, like it or not, if you’re a rich white guy, pretty much every joke you make that involves another person or culture is punching down. Making a witty comment or slightly mean joke about your haphazard Indian driver takes on a new meaning when you consider that the per capita income in India is $7k per year, and likely a lot less for cab drivers, which is about the same amount that Thompson spent in a few weeks in the Congo. I don’t think he is trying to be hurtful – indeed, Thompson is ruder about America than anywhere else – but it did feel like the book had aged given our current social climate. It also brought up thoughts for me about the purpose of travel writing, and the audience, which I’m sure I’ll turn into a whole blog post soon. But basically, while I am interested in a traveller’s observations from the DRC, I don’t need some American guy talking authoritatively about the importance of sex in African culture. Dude, what do you know?!

I think he became more likeable as the book went on, and that perhaps it was a mistake to start with the DRC chapters, as white men writing about Africa can be so political. If the book had happened in reverse order I think I’d have warmed more to him before he got to the socially and politically dicey stuff.

But I did really enjoy this book, because it is nice to read travel writing that is about exploring places in their political and social context, rather than talking about how “stunning” your boutique hotel room is. Thompson goes to interesting places, has interesting conversations and takes a genuine interest in the history and culture of his destinations and America’s part in their situation. It is refreshing and a lot more nuanced than your average travel blog. While Thompson is clearly the kind of guy that thinks that ‘political correctness’ is oppressing his identity as a funny guy who pokes fun at people of all nationalities and backgrounds indiscriminately, his book is witty, honest, interesting and thoughtful, and I would recommend it.

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