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The fat of the land has become the fat of the supermarket; and the fat of the supermarket has settled around our waistlines. Hunger is not the spectre that stalks the lives of men and women in modern consumer societies: the enemy now is greed.

When I first read Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene I became fascinated with the notion of memes. I was enthused to discover that someone had invented a theory for ‘viral culture’, a unit that represented the transmission of ideas. Dawkins also wrote in a very clear way about evolutionary science, in a manner that engaged the reader and explained concepts that rarely escaped the academic lecture hall. While I do not always agree with Dawkins, as a proselytiser of scientific theories his status on the world stage is essential in contributing to the exchange of ideas.

So when Richard Girling, a writer for the Sunday Times magazine, opens his discussion of greed as a component of human nature with a summary of Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene‘, my expectations were raised. As I have said above, Dawkins is a fine writer, one who inspired vociferous argument from other equally eloquent science writers, such as Daniel Dennett and Steven Jay Gould.

Girling rephrases Dawkins’ argument in his own words, before segueing into an anecdotal discussion of greed. Western society is one with a preponderance of available food, possessions and sex, with Girling initially drawing a connection between contemporary actions and early hominid acquisitiveness.

The difficulties with even this initial section of the book arose for me from the opening chapter. There is a confusion of tone, the scientific discussion mismatched with jocular asides and observations of British society. For the majority of the book Girling makes comparisons between his observations of life in the UK with the various studies of greed under discussion. As a result the arguments presented feel insular, perhaps understandably so given his career in the British press. Still this felt limited.

Further problems emerge when he tackles the global economy, the history of the church, feminism and third world poverty. Perhaps you can tell where I am going with this. So much of the material here is familiar. Well of course, I hear you say, this is the 287th book you have read in as many days. You are going to retrace your steps every now and again.

When Girling mentions the gross profits earned by Goldman-Sachs, I remember reading A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. When the crimes of the Church fall under discussion, I sigh, having endured the horrific descriptions of abuse featured in Geoffrey Robertson‘s excellent book. His condemnation of the WTO and the World Bank is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

There is this sense that Girling has simply absorbed the work of so many other writers and theorists and is simply splurging his interpretation back onto the page. Greed is a fascinating theme, but there is no coherent argument throughout. Is this a work of science, sociology, or economics? Of course an account of this element of human behaviour should touch on these disciplines, but the book itself feels like it is dipping in and out.

You know what? I blame Alain de Botton. Opening with appeals to various received ideas and then indulging in conversational anecdotes, it is the same formula employed by that populist philosopher.

Indulgent, repetitive and superficial. I was not greedy for more.

This suffocating indebtedness (along with the fear of terrorism) is the closets the UK population comes to having a collective identity. We hold our breath while a few oligarchs suck in the oxygen, even though we’re supposedly “all in it together” (“it’s up to all of us”).

Today’s author is described on the Zer0 Books website as having previously worked as a “cappuccino frother, data enterer, trainee teacher, cashier, mail sorter, jobseeker, factory drone, warehouse operative, writer, street sweeper, audio tester and care worker“. In my time jaunting around the world between different temp jobs I have ticked off at one time or another almost every single one of the same ‘career paths’, with the exception of trainee teacher and care worker. I think my parents between them held down five jobs in total. I have already had double that number of positions over the past fifteen years or so.

Of course in the 90’s this was described as the bright future of my generation, employees having won the opportunity to change their careers multiple times, upskill, diversify and so on. The idea of long service pensions, health care contributions and emergency leave already seems like a mirage.

Southwood’s discussion as regards the relationship between employees and ‘their’, jobs advances through a series of stages, opening with a critical assessment of worker rights in society – where the notion of a trade, or a job with any sense of ownership has been deconstructed in favour of continual movement between jobs, or the imminent loss of work, a state defined here as ‘precarity‘ – before engaging the reader with the personal perspective of the author as regards living on a meagre wage, having to pay off large amounts of debt and the dissolution of unemployment assistance from the state. As such Non-Stop Inertia is no theoretical academic treatise that remains at a remove from the material. Southwood presents himself as a case-study of how this modern form of personal insecurity is all-pervasive and psychologically detrimental.

At one point Southwood bemusedly comments that writing this book may affect his future job prospects, but then of course there is little likelihood that the jargon-spouting temp agency recruiters he has to meet with will have read it.

The current digital age has produced what is wittily described here as ‘cultural stagflation‘ – continuous stimulation, with no genuine possibility of action. Twenty-first century popular media is designed to titillate and excite, but not engage or challenge. Similarly the workplace is a site of constant activity, but little chance of any sense of achievement. Instead workers are encouraged to compete for positions that will soon be outsourced – “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of “occupation”: all belong to another historical world.” In an insidious inversion of existentialist psychology employees are told that they must choose their futures, even as their options become increasingly limited – the individual has become a function of profit.

Southwood’s experience as a temp overlap with his having to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. He describes how the Tory government of the early 1990’s redefined the job exchange as a despiriting, compulsory process of constant assessment, one which in turn become increasingly precarious. The era of New Labour continued to carry the ball, increasingly limiting the concept of British social welfare. In the media crime and sundry social malaises are blamed on families who remain on the dole – with the attendant counter-point that working families can barely make ends meet rarely addressed.

Another strand of discussion is how trade unionism and worker’s rights generally are being undercut. The concept of the ‘Virtual Assistant‘, is introduced, in effect an out-of-office P.A. who must compete for assignments from his/her ‘clients’, but has little to no rights. If the V.A. is unable to work, whether it be due to maternity leave, or illness, a competitor simply takes their place. Once again, to be able to work from home is sold as the greatest form of freedom, whereas Southwood observes it as being completely unsupported and unguaranteed employment. The Virtual Assistant is the epitome of temping culture, which threatens to erode the capacity of trade unions to represent their members. After all, if employees can be replaced by short-term workers, the unions have not only lost members, they are unable establish representation.

Rounding off this incisive and intelligently paced critique, Southwood addresses various methods of resisting the debilitating effects of job insecurity. This jack of all trades can now add ‘author’, to his C.V.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

 

‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock-climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

The first time I visited London, a friend took me on a guided tour of sorts, taking in all the sights with a particular emphasis on Buckingham Palace. We stood outside the gates with the throng of tourists and my friend drew my attention to the flag on top of the building. “That means the Queen is in residence”, she said. At the time I expressed a great reluctance even to stand outside Buckingham Palace. I am a lapsed Irish nationalist, but every now and then I feel a flush of wounded racial pride. When I found myself looking up at that flag and all the pomp and ceremony of the guard patrols, the ornateness of the palace itself, I felt a surprising degree of sympathy for the royals. It all seemed so insular and removed from the life of modern London.

Over the course of my own lifetime their status as national symbols has become ever more precarious. How much worse must the decay of that esteem for the institution seem to the Queen herself, remembering how important her family’s refusal to leave London was regarded during the Blitz?

This perception of the increasing irrelevance of the role of the British Monarch is treated of in Alan Bennett‘s comic novel. The push and pull between the public and private lives of the Queen herself becomes rich material for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the potential future importance of the Royal Family in British affairs.

It is also a book about how the love of reading can change one’s life.

Her Royal Highness has come to discover an interest in reading late in life. A fortuitous meeting with a member of her kitchen staff at a mobile library introduces her to a new kind of activity – reading for pleasure. The Queen’s life is dominated by her sense of duty, one which has isolated her from her own privileged existence. She has been to so many places, met so many great minds and leaders – and yet conversation has been limited to polite chit-chat, her experiences stage-managed for public consumption.

Norman the former kitchen staff becomes her ‘amanuensis’, a guide to a wider world of letters. Amusingly she chooses the works of Nancy Mitford as her introduction to literature – after all, she knew the family – and from there often finds herself reading the words of authors she has met, even knighted, but sadly had nothing to say to. Norman encourages her interests and quickly comes to be seen as a nuisance by the staff at the palace, especially Sir Kevin who has taken on the role of making HRH more appealing to the general public. The Queen’s new interest has inspired her to inquire more into the lives of the people she meets, a topic of conversation they are often unprepared for. Even the Prime Minister of France finds himself nonplussed when she asks his opinion on Jean Genet. Obviously the books – and Norman – will have to go.

Fans of the recent Oscar smash The King’s Speech will find much to enjoy here, although Bennett has bigger fish to fry. As I have mentioned above, one of the fascinating threads in this novel is how the Queen’s new found interest causes her to question much of the tired and moribund traditions controlling her life. The cynicism of government ministers towards this newly invigorated Queen drives the plot to a fascinating climax. With some unexpected help from Marcel Proust.

Of course, Bennett’s optimism of how this scenario of a suddenly engaged Monarch would play out must contend with the actual behaviour of the current heir to the throne, who thinks nothing of using his position to interfere with government policies on issues that interest him.

Witty, humane and even somewhat radical in a genteel sort of way, which is only fitting.

‘Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.’ A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept.

Last month the Irish Times reported that two German lawyers, Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, had submitted charges of crimes against humanity naming Pope Benedict XVI to the International Criminal Court. The document accuses the pontiff of preventing members of the Catholic church from using contraceptives, and hence stopping the spread of HIV, as well as the systematic cover-up of the abuse of children.

I wonder if the lawyers read this book by Geoffrey Robertson, which given its subtitle ‘Vatican Accountabilty for Human Rights Abuse‘, sets out to explain the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the Holy See. ‘Privilege’, is quite an appropriate word, given its etymology in old French: ‘private law’. As it happens, news of the book’s publication was greeted with vociferous defence of the head of the Church by sites such as Protect The Pope, which states that a commentator for the site had refuted many of Geoffrey Robertson’s misguided accusations and erroneous legal conclusions in his legal analysis, ‘A Worldwide Conspiracy? (sic).

Not only does Robertson’s account identify the extent of the horrific crimes against children in the care of Catholic priests across the world, it also seeks to define what is meant by canon law, as well as the Vatican’s status as a nation state and non-member of the U.N., which grants various protections. As a QC, Robertson concentrates on identifying what liability for the crimes committed by priests the Church is responsible for. He argues that the abuse of children is both a crime and a violation of tort law. Given the global occurence of these offences, it falls to the Church to defend itself in a court of international law for crimes against humanity. As Robertson points out, Vatican representatives at the U.N. have repeatedly used their position to lobby against the spread of equal rights for men and women, as well as efforts to combat the HIV virus in third world countries. That it enjoys such a privileged position – one denied to any other religion, charity, or human rights organisation – is due to a treaty signed with Mussolini for their mutual benefit in 1929 is just another piece of uncomfortable history for the Church to ignore. It is also, Robertson claims, a very tenuous basis for the Vatican’s statehood.

The contempt of the Catholic Church for accounts of child-sex abuses in the media, described variously as ‘an American problem’, or a conspiracy mounted by homosexuals, or Jewish newspapers, or even as Pope Benedict memorably phrased it ‘petty gossip’, shows just how much the institution itself is an enclave that sets itself apart from the rest of the world. Hence the importance placed on canon law and the secrecy with which the Vatican protects its findings on the rates of child molestation occurences. Pope Benedict even went so far as to congratulate Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas for hiding an abuser from the police. The testimonies of bishops responsible for the conduct of priests in their diocese through inquiries in the States, or from the Murphy Report in Ireland, reveal a disastrous combination of gross ignorance in some instances and the willingness to ‘smuggle’, paedophile priests across state lines, or even internationally, in others.

It was actually through commentary on the Murphy Report featured on Irish satirical site Bock the Robber that I discovered that my own parish priest in Rathcoole, Fr. Noel Reynolds, had been identified as a paedophile long before being appointed to the village I grew up in.  Proof of the efficacy of canon law.

Geoffrey Robertson has written a powerful indictment of the Church’s policy of obfuscation, outlining a series of legal arguments that define the case against the institution and the flimsy pretexts of its defence.

In a couple of hours I am off to Armageddon in Sydney’s Olympic Park. Nerd nivana. Will I ask John Rhys Davies to say ‘bad dates‘? Will I convince Lance Henriksen to do the knife trick from Aliens? Will I manage to stop myself from geeking out when I meet Gail Simone for the first time?

All of these things are doubtful.

So for today’s review I have chosen a comic book – but given the day that is in it, with Armageddon no doubt featuring plenty of promotions of upcoming superhero comics, movies, toys, it occured to me that if I must review a ‘graphic novel’, I see no reason why I should restrict myself to the caped brigade. Comics are a medium just like any other, a method of story-telling that combines text and image.

Why on earth are there so many comics are people punching one another really hard?

While Gene Luen Yang does introduce several fantastical elements into this tale of growing up Asian American, at its heart it is a story about a kid not able to fit in, who chooses to reject and hide from his culture in order to become more ‘normal’.

However, to get back to magic and fantasy, our story begins with a summary of the traditional Chinese myth, Journey to the West. The minor god Monkey wants to join the other deities in Heaven at a lavish banquet, but is rejected because he is just a monkey. In a rage the little god attacks and defeats his social betters. Over the years he becomes even more capricious, inventing new titles for himself and daring to antagonise the Almighty, Tze-Yo-Tzuh. For his hubris, Monkey is punished and buried beneath a mountain.

Jin Wang’s mother told him the tale of Monkey. To him though it is just another story from China, another thing that sets him apart. Bullied by the other children at school, he is desperate to be accepted, even tolerating the ‘friendship’, of a boy who physically abuses him. One day another student, Wei Chen Sun, arrives from Taiwan. Jin seizes his chance to finally become the bullier, raise himself up through the social pyramid by belittling another student. Instead, he finds himself becoming Wei’s best friend. Now if only he could work up the confidence to ask the beautiful and blond Amelia Harris out on a date.

A third story thread mixes the realism of Jin’s adolescent angst and the fantastical excesses of Monkey’s tale, involving an all-American boy named Danny, who is embarrassed when his distant cousin, Chin-Kee, arrives to visit. Followed everywhere by his cousin, who spouts stereotypical racist dialogue, can grow in size and insists on drawing attention to Danny’s relationship with him in a humiliating fashion, any hope he has of being popular quickly vanishes.

Chin-Kee is a monstrous manifestation of the contempt Jin sees directed to him by the other children at his school. As the three stories continue we discover how they are inter-related, how Monkey, Jin and Danny are in fact all connected.

When I was a kid growing up in Co. Dublin, I was obsessed with the Japanese show Monkey Magic which shares the same mythological source material as this book. Emmet at age five just saw it as an entertaining program and used to swing from the bicycle railings outside of school singing the theme song. So I am familiar, albeit in a distant fashion, with some of the fantastical elements Yang employs in American Born Chinese. I also, however, grew up an outsider, bullied in school, not able to fit in and reading this book brought all of that back to me.

I love how Yang links these autobiographical elements of growing up in America with the more supernatural and religious aspects of the story, representing an overall metaphor for the cultural differences thrown up before a young Chinese boy. The story is also wickedly funny, quite sweet at times and well paced.

This is an excellent book, well told by a confident and imaginative story-teller. Fantastic.

Right, now I’m off to geek it up.

Do not speak so harshly of poor King Pluto,” said Proserpina, kissing her mother. “He has some very good qualities; and I really think I can bear to spend six months in his palace, if he will only let me spend the other six with you. He certainly did very wrong to carry me off; but then, as he says, it was but a dismal sort of life for him, to live in that great gloomy place, all alone; and it has made a wonderful change in his spirits to have a little girl to run up stairs and down. There is some comfort in making him so happy; and so, upon the whole, dearest mother, let us be thankful that he is not to keep me the whole year round.”

I grew up fascinated with ancient mythology. The Nordic cycle, the Greco-Roman legends, but most especially Celtic myths, I devoured the lot. Robert Graves was a great help in supplying my addiction, his translations of Greek mythology in particular managing to present the adventures of various demi-gods, heroes and tricksters in an easily digestible form.

Of course, I read Graves’s translations as the literal truth of these myths. I did not realize they were reinterpretations of the original stories, or that the written versions of these tales represented dozens of differing accounts transcribed from ancient oral histories of same. Then we come to the Irish myths. I started to notice that the Christian religion was routinely inserted into stories featuring pagan heroes. This struck me as profoundly wrong. To reinterpret the story spoiled the original meaning. Mythology itself is the kind of subject you need to go to college to get access to the ‘real’ stuff, or perhaps more accurately a frank discussion.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had previously written a book titled A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys wherein the bawdy adventures of heroes was rewritten to become more suitable fare for children. Tanglewood Tales is a sequel of sorts to that book, with the narrator meeting up again with his young friend Eustace Bright, after having enjoyed a measure of commercial success thanks to the publication of the previous title. Hawthorne revisits another selection of Greco-Roman adventures, including the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, Hercules’ battle with Antaeus, the kidnapping of Europa and the visit of Ulysses to Circe.

Each of the tales is retold in a more folksy, humourous manner. Hawthorne, as part of the framing device, sees fit to correct the consensus view of certain mythological accounts. So for example Ariadne is not abandoned by Theseus, but stays on Crete to care for her aging father. The Minotaur itself, though monstrousness, is shown to be a figure deserving of pity. The encounter of Hercules with the Pygmies has the great hero be shamed into retreating from their passionate defence of their land, instead of turning the humble creatures into playthings for a child.

The book also contains a number of illustrations, depicting pivotal moments from these stories. Overall this is a sweet and entertaining revisiting of the Greek myths. I cannot take issue with the tone, or differing interpretations of the original stories, as they are, after all, simply one more among a multitude.

Sweet, witty and perfect introduction for children.

Is there – and this is the question, the real question – is there one girl, just one, whether she be called Bea or Eva or Djemia, who has not experienced the war? Just one who has not made war with her body, with her gentle face and moist eyes, with her mouth and teeth, with her hair? Just one who has been neither prey for the hunter, nor hunter herself? On all sides are watchful gazes, darts bristling from loop-holes. On all sides, breastplates, shields, scabbards, arrows, machine-gun barrels.

Stephanie gave me this book as a gift. “Here’s a nice short one”, she said, an easy read that would not take up too much of our time during the weekend. Oh how wrong she was.

I have gobbled down some fat books well under a day. As I tell people, this is usually because I have an interest in the material. If I am having a good time reading, my speed increases. If I am having a hard time, my reading speed crawls to a halt. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying today’s book was poorly written – I do not have the courage to go up against the judges of The Nobel Prize for Literature – but it certainly belied its slim size.

This book is something very special.

For a start, from the book’s beginning the tone is quite similar to a long-form prose poem. War is described as an onrushing event, an already present eschaton, indeed the inevitable death of humanity itself that is prophesied by modernity. Bea B and her lover Monsieur X are the nominal protagonists of this book, witness to the dehumanising influence of ‘war’. The ruining of a face is revealed to be symbolic for the destruction of a cityscape. Bea B imagines herself becoming electricity and infusing a simple light-bulb with energy. War is the chaos of clashing forces, the impossible to predict outcome of humanity’s desire to destroy itself.

Le Clezio extrapolates this same desire from every innocuous element in life. Each chapter opens with a seemingly random quote from science, literature and science fiction. A particular favourite was a long quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, describing a world entirely covered in artificial, man-made structures. Le Clezio shines a new light on this most anachronistic of science fiction authors, identifying a Ballardian aspect to his writing that has perhaps gone unnoticed. Ballard is largely credited as a prophet of urban nihilism and War certainly evokes a similar style. This is a comparison that, thankfully, others have noticed.

I also found his vision of the apocalypse, an absurdist eruption of meaninglessness, reminiscent of Antonin Artaud, where the apocalypse is simply a breakown in our sense of what is real, what is normal. Le Clezio mines a similar theme, such as when Bea B. finds herself involved in a ‘man hunt’, or Monsieur X’s description of events in Vietnam. That he can describe such war crimes in such a matter of fact manner once again underlines the omnispresence of horror and destruction in today’s world. So who is to say that the ‘war’, has not already begun?

I found this to be a very difficult read, but a nonetheless incredible piece of writing. Sublimated poetry, with a philosophical tone, a literary revelation.


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