book review: capital in the twenty-first century

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was a big book a couple of years ago. It’s still large (mwah waaah) but it’s a not-inaccessible examination of some of the economic history we find ourselves embroiled in today.

Piketty uses a lot of historical data to look at how economic income patterns have changed, especially in France, since they had records going back to the 18th century, but more generally in the West. Why did Marx’s prediction that runaway capitalism would lead inevitably to its own collapse not work out like that? Why are we coming into a new age of inequality where the rich own more and more and the poor have less and less, and is this unprecedented?

I quite enjoyed learning about this stuff. I’m no economic specialist and wouldn’t be able to quibble with the data Piketty chose and didn’t choose, but I found it very interesting that the shocks of WWI, the great depression and WWII had on income and ownership were much bigger than I’d thought. For people growing up after the 1940s we have a perspective that equality is possible and the best thing to invest in is an education, but that’s skewed by specific postwar policies that have been undone by specific 1980s policies and greater deregulation. Inequality will be growing and if we don’t want that to continue we have to make changes to the capitalist system. Piketty never really goes so far as to say we should get a new system instead of capitalism, which is probably my biggest beef with the book.

It was written in an accessible enough style and Piketty re-explained concepts he was relying on at the beginnings of chapters so even a nonspecialist could follow along. I do think David Graeber’s Debt was more interesting in both writing style and content, as far as big modern books on economic principles go.

book review: towards a new manifesto

Towards a New Manifesto is a dialogue about Marxist philosophy between Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They are important in Marxist critical theory and are the kinds of theoreticians I did not read enough of in my undergrad and then took “professional” graduate degrees that fled even the notion of critically examining the ways our professions think about what we do. Or I just slacked off in those classes.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It was a very fragmented dialogue that I felt I was missing a lot of context for. I did not feel very smart while reading it, but if bits of it got lodged in my brain somewhere for the next Marxist theory book I read, then I think it’s succeeded.

book review: days of destruction, days of revolt

Some days, most days really, I want to be a journalist. Not the kind that writes press releases, but the kind that goes out into the world, sees something and tells everyone else what it looks like. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is exactly that kind of book, created by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s about the United States and the people who are at the bottom of a destructive economic system designed to enrich only the already rich. It culminates in Zuccotti Park with a chapter on Occupy, but it gets there via coal-mining, land claims, agricultural work and for-profit urban decay.

It’s not a scholarly book, but it has data to go with its interviews. Sacco illustrates the whole thing, which contributes to the personal feeling of it all. I loved the Sacco bits where he went into the full on comics as oral history treatment, drawing the stories the person was telling them.

This was an unabashedly political and very good book about 21st-century recession-era America. Highly recommended.

book review: neptune’s brood

Neptune’s Brood is a great space opera about interstellar banking by Charles Stross. Seriously great.

The protagonist, Krina Alizond, is a banking historian who now that she’s worked her way out of her indentured servitude to the hugely wealthy intelligence that created her, is into Ponzi schemes and especially how they play out over huge distances and slower than light travel. There are tonnes of digressions into the history of banking and how to set up a colony around another star when you can only travel at a percent of the speed of light and building a ship to do that is planetary economy expensive. The solution is debt and repayment over the long long term.

Alizond, is also interested in what happened to her sibling (who was also forked off of the same hugely wealthy being) on a distant world so she’s going there by hitching a ride working on a chapel-ship dedicated to the Fragile (ie humans who have not been upgraded to actually function in space and over the timescales one needs to be thinking in if you want to make a difference in a huge uncaring universe). There are banking privateers and mermaids and queens and a (really boring) space battle. It’s set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, but I haven’t read that one and it did not matter at all.

Definitely one of my favourite books of the year, and it even includes an epigraph from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (one of my favourite nonfiction books). If you like thinking about how things could be if they were different, this is a book you should read. We have science fiction basically so books like this can be made.

book review: who’s your city?

Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? is the kind of book that reminds me why I’m not such a fan of nonfiction in book form. It’s much trickier to check up on the assertions being made when you aren’t reading nonfiction online. Habits of reading the whole thing through before checking up on it can lead one into being absorbed into the book’s world and eventually buying into what it has to say even if you wouldn’t, had you read it through someone’s Twitter feed. There’s just more investment in reading a book that makes me a bit less likely to argue with it.

Who’s Your City? is about how people should choose the place they live. The thesis is that even though the internet has changed the way the creative economy works, place still matters. Florida breaks it down by major life stage and provides tables of what the best places in the U.S. for each of those demographics is. The idea is that clustering creative people together makes for more creativity and better urban existence.

The problem is that this whole thing applies solely to his “creative class” or what in previous decades would be called yuppies. There’s no real discussion of the working class, beyond “suckers that can’t afford to move somewhere better should hope they have a support network built in wherever they’re stuck.” Doing some post-book reading of Florida’s other work it’s clear he doesn’t really have anything to say for people who want to make the places they already live any better. The U.S.-centric nature of the discussion also made it less than useful in the Canadian context, where we’ve got far fewer cities to choose from.

Basically, I feel like I should have read a good critique of the book rather than the book itself. Not recommended.

book review: the demon trapper’s daughter

I read Jana Oliver’s The Demon Trapper’s Daughter for our teen book club’s Paranormal Creatures session because I hadn’t really read much in the Demons and Angels subset of YA Urban Fantasy (I am sighing at myself for using these marketing pigeonholes, just so you know).

The story follows Riley, a 17-year-old Atlanta girl who is an apprentice demon trapper, following in the family trade. Usually apprentices deal with tiny vandals and thieving demons (grade 1 demons), but there are far more powerful ones out there, the machinations of which she gets caught up in. She’s a resourceful active likable heroine, even as she has a lot to learn about her chosen profession.

The setting of the book was interesting. It’s 2018 Atlanta and demons and angels are very out in the open, making nuisances of themselves/being aloof and inscrutable respectively. It’s kind of weird metaphysically because the angels and demons are tied very very firmly to a pop-Roman Catholic kind of worldview that’s treated as almost scientifically accurate (a lot of the plot rests on the nature of Holy Water, which is mass-produced and certified and taxed specially), yet the pagans are also becoming a stronger voting-bloc in Georgia. There are also necromancers who can reanimate corpses as servants for a year after their deaths.

The economy has been spiralling downwards, which gives the economic incentive to the characters. There’s conflict over the taxes and paperwork you have to fill out as a demon trapper doing things the right way. Also, I appreciate that these are demon trappers not demon hunters. Demon hunters are the Vatican big-firepower badasses who get the (wildly inaccurate) TV shows made about them. The demon trappers aren’t dilettantes, or supernatural navy SEALs, but working stiffs trying to control the supernatural pest population, and dealing with paying rent.

Now that makes it sound very Ghostbusters, and to a large extent it is, but it’s also got its requisite love-triangle between Riley and the gruff young man who’s like a brother to her and the delicate apprentice who sets her heart aflutter. There are misreadings of character motives that are annoying in their desire to keep the triangle going. Also, because it’s the first book of a series, there’s no real resolution at the end of the book (though there is a lot of denouement from the final set-piece).

I liked it better than the bits of Cassandra Clare’s angel books I’ve read, and will be recommending it to fans of her work (and of Buffy).

books review: the revolution business, the trade of queens

It’s weird that a science fiction series that ends with a huge American nuclear attack on a fantasy world feels like it petered out, rather than built up to a grand huge climax, but that’s how the final couple of books (The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series felt to me. I’ve talked before about how each book felt like it was only a small part of a bigger story and the thing as a whole is probably what should be judged. But well, now that I’m done I have to say I can’t really recommend this series. Charles Stross has way better stuff out there.

What I did like about these books was the use of actual American politics in dealing with the revelation of other worlds. The books were set in the mid 2000s and the American administration at the time is used to full effect. There are stolen nukes and terrorist attacks and not creating fictional politicians to deal with that, but using the real characters helped.

Sadly, the story just kind of flops along. Miriam was pregnant with the heir to the throne in Gruinmarkt and then she has a convenient miscarriage and the nobles hide in a refugee camp in the other world, and everything is generally unsatisfying. Stross seems to have had a good time planning out the nuclear bomber wave, and that chunk of the final book was my favourite since the economic thinking from the first two books.

That’s what really got me about this series. The cool concept of these parallel worlds and the realistic way characters reacted to it by figuring out how to make a better living, well that gets lost along the way. Maybe it would have worked better if the books had jumped bigger timeline gaps so the economic stuff had more time to develop. I don’t know.

So my advice is to read the first two books of the series (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family) and stop there.