The Books of 2017, #4: Meeting Infinity, Jonathan Strahan, Editor

This collection of short sci-fi stories basically made no impression on me whatsoever. I’m not kidding; even though it features some of my all-time favorite authors, I’m sitting here a few weeks after I finished reading the book and am struggling to remember a single goddamned thing about it.

I think this is more my problem than that of the authors or the writing itself; I’ve never cottoned to sci-fi short stories. I liked some horror collections in the past, I still enjoy essay collections and fiction short stories, but sci-fi, specifically, I think I need full-length novels to really get into and be affected by.

Sorry shrug. This isn’t to say that this is a bad book by any means, it just wasn’t the right book for me to be reading at this time, apparently.

The Books of 2017, #2: The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, by Mark Levinson

the_great_A&P.jpg

When I was very, very young, the A&P was our corner grocery. Since we didn’t have a car, we walked down to that A&P a lot. It quickly converted into a Butera and now is a Supermercado of some sort, but I remember the A&P logo on it most strongly.

When I mentioned I was reading this book to a buddy about 10 years younger than me, it was made clear that he had never even heard of A&P. Given that A&P was the world’s largest company for 43 straight years, I find this kind of amazing. They were the Wal*Mart of America for a very long time.

So I grabbed this book when it popped up on my radar. In The Great A&P, Mark Levinson does yeoman’s work in describing how A&P came to occupy such a domineering position and why they fell so hard, so fast, that adult Americans today can credibly say they’ve never heard of them even though there were thousands of A&P stores across the country in living memory.

Telling this story is complicated by the fact that a) A&P wasn’t a publicly-traded firm and b) the men of the Hartford family who ran it were notoriously private. Therefore, I can appreciate the archaeology the author had to do to bring this story to light with any level of detail.

The rise of A&P in the late 19th and early 20th Century consumes the first half of the book, where the reader is given a lovely look into the frankly disgusting world of pre-refrigeration grocery selling. A somewhat predictable tale of effective utilization of economies of scale plus advertising mastery thus follows, with the rapid advances of transport and refrigeration technologies playing a strong role in the changeover of America’s food shopping habits from being primarily conducted at tiny corner stores run by independent owners to the chain store-dominated landscape we’re all too familiar with today.

Where the book gets particularly interesting is in the government’s rather persistent attempts to curb A&P’s growth, if not destroy them outright. Thanks to one particularly stubborn Southern Congressman who made his nut latching on to the issue of chain stores being bad for America (just in case you thought idiot populism was something new in our culture…), A&P found itself fighting the Federal Government from about 1930 through to the Eisenhower presidency nonstop. And while I’m generally in favor of strong government regulation of just about everything (because almost all entrepreneurs are also raving psychopaths who should be prevented from having unlimited funds to push their agenda in all possible arenas but I disgress…), Levinson makes a very, VERY strong case that the government’s arguments against A&P were entirely baseless from any economic or consumer-protectionist perspective.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the history aspect of how shopping for food, something every person has to do on a regular basis, changed over time, with a lot of that change pushed by A&P’s innovations in its own business in ways that quickly reverberated through all retailers of food in the country. I further enjoyed the bizarre history of the government’s attempts to take A&P down for literally being TOO GOOD for consumers, by lowering prices too much. It’s a clear case of the kind of almost vindictive government overreach that leads far too many people to assume that ALL regulation is bad, and is precisely the sort of thing those of us who believe in strong but careful government regulation need to look out for.

The last bit of the book covers how, after finally putting the government’s crusade against it to bed, mostly successfully, a change in previously-entrenched leadership quickly led to the rather rapid demise of America’s largest chain. While those of us who have been living in the Age of Disruption (rolleyes) are unfortunately used to seeing legacy industries with tens of thousands of workers suddenly go under in disturbingly quick fashion, A&P might’ve been the first to go through this process, and it did so before Silicon Valley was around with its life mission of murdering traditional companies for profit.

I would’ve liked for Levinson to spend more time on this process, but it’s presented more as an epilogue to the story than an integral part of it. I guess it would be hard to spin a dramatic, engaging narrative out of bad managers consistently making wrong little decisions (and avoiding making any big ones) day after day for years until younger, more aggressive and more nimble competitors are eating your lunch and you go under.

So, in the end, I can recommend this book to anybody interested in the various topics covered within. It’s a deep look at a by-gone era of American business and government, with a side order of weird, private bachelor dudes running a company together for many, many decades with very little in the way of outside input and doing it damned well. Levinson obviously saw something uniquely American in The Great A&P and told that story here well.

The Books of 2017, #1: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, by Robert Gerwarth

the_vanquished

Started off the year with a fun one, I did…

Wars are exhaustively covered in Western literature. No human being can read all of the books, even just in English, much less in other languages, that have been written about World War II, for example. That war is covered in many excellent volumes that cover the war as a whole, from a nice high overview, down to increasingly specific topics like the experience of individual German squads on the Eastern Front in 1943.

The point being, when it comes to wars, particular of the “modern” era, you can probably find at least one, if not many, books that speaks to whatever about that war you wish to know about in greater detail.

That is, unless what you’re interested in is: What Happened After?

Fortunately, this genre has been picking up steam in recent years. For World War II, there’s the excellent Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe, which tells the sad but necessary epic of the decade after VE Day, when an entire continent basically smashed to bits had to try and rebuild and also have a reckoning with what they had done to each other for a second time in a generation now. In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia by Ronald Spector does the same thing for the Pacific Theater. There have been many volumes rethinking the “Fall of Rome” and going into great detail regarding the century after 476CE in Europe.

And now, it’s The Great War’s turn.

The immediate postwar era of World War I is even more fascinating due to how those five or so years made the Second World War basically inevitable. And this is the ground The Vanquished covers.

From the “end” of what we refer to now as World War I in November of 1918 until about 1923, everything from the Rhine to the Pacific coast of Russian, from Finland south through the Balkans and into Mesopotamia, experience further violent conflict. Even the victors, with the sole exception of France, suffered additional violence and chaos (Britain with the Irish uprisings and Italy thoroughly enmeshed in the former Austro-Hungarian littoral on the Adriatic as well as suffering internal convulsions).

Gerwarth walks the reader through this tangled muddle as best he can, grouping events like revolutions, civil wars, interstate wars, irredentist conflicts, etc., together, in an admirable attempt to make sense of it all. To give an idea of the difficulty of the task, Wikipedia (not an authoritative resource but, again, to just give an idea) lists SEVENTY distinct violent conflicts in Europe from the end of 1918 through 1922.

The Vanquished tries to avoid descending into just an unending narrative of violence and cruelty, even though this is what the period was about, and instead tries to show the causes of the violence and the longer-reaching effects. I’m not personally certain that there was any result other than the breakup of the four empires that ended World War I and directly resulted in the chaos of the aftermath covered here that was possible, but Gerwarth makes a fairly convincing argument that it would have been difficult to fuck up the details and implementation of those breakups any worse than the Allies actually did.

Worse, the mismanagement of the “peace” contributed directly to the fall of democracies across this entire region and the resulting, even worse conflict of World War II. A lot of folks are aware of the correlation between the harsh Treaty of Versailles and its effect on the defeated Germans, but Gerwarth gives equal time to the equally harsh Treaties of Sevres and Trianon, each of which also carried great weight as contributing causes to World War II.

Trying to make sense of all of the horror that happened in the immediate half-decade following World War I is a tough task for any author, but Gerwarth manages it well here and this is a great one-volume overview of the entire period. If you wish to dig deeper into any specific aspect of it, I’ll just mention here that, per my Kindle, the narrative ends at 60% of the book. The remaining 40% is just to cover all of the documents and other books referenced in said narrative. Yeesh.

 

 

The Books of 2016: The Runners-Up

A couple more books totally worth reading that just weren’t quite my favorites last year…



The Power of the Dog
& The Cartel, by Don Winslow

I’m not sure these even qualify as fiction, because both novels are a thinly-veiled (VERY) retelling of the rise of the modern Mexican cartels seen through the lens of one cartel boss in particular and the DEA agent whose entire life is consumed with bringing him down.

Winslow has done a lot of the better reporting on the Drug War over the years, and anybody even slightly familiar with that history will recognize a lot of the events in the books as being ripped right out of our real-world headlines; from the smashing of the original marijuana cartels in the 70’s (the original War on Drugs funded by America in Mexico) that was so successful in its myopic goal that it led directly to the much stronger, more resilient modern cartels that have sprung up since the 90’s… to the increasingly nihilistic violence that has accompanied the cartels’ various wars for territory, to the Mexican mainstream media bowing out of covering the drug war at all due to the incredible cost they paid in doing so, to said coverage being picked up by hopefully-anonymous bloggers… it’s all in here, presented in a decades and generations-spanning epic that rivals the Godfather series in its scope and surpasses it in emotional impact.

I read both of these back to back when I had some time off over the summer and, I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed them tremendously but they also put me into a funk for a few days. Admittedly, I’ve been against the War on Drugs for years at this point, but this book really drives home the cost that’s being paid by EVERYONE; the users, law enforcement, the taxpayers funding all of the useless “enforcement” activity, the dealers, and, of course, the everyday citizens of Mexico who would love nothing more than to ignore it all but can’t, because it intrudes into their lives down in Mexico in ways the American consumers of said products would never, ever tolerate. Well, for now. Let’s see where we’re at after a few more years of the opiate epidemic. The cheap heroin all those Oxy addicts are going to need has to come from somewhere…

It’s grim, depressing stuff, but holds up as a story (Winslow’s sharp, concise writing keeps this long duo moving along without ever bogging down) and I recommend it to anyone who wants a readable way of understanding the War on Drugs without wading through newspaper articles or academia, or who just enjoys a good crime read.


Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons

I wanted to dislike this book. I didn’t love Lyons’ Fake Steve Jobs shit, I don’t particularly like tales, fictional or not, of “oddball miscreant doesn’t fit in but is secretly smarter than everyone in the In Group”, but I realized that something I dislike more than all of those is Start-Up Culture. That, combined with the recommendation of a good friend who has worked for nothing but Silicon Valley startups since we met in the late 90’s, was enough to get me to read this thing.

I’ve also worked for some startups, but only of the Web 1.0 variety and certainly not in California. I had fun, made life-long friends and learned a lot. I did NOT become a millionaire or even a thousandaire, really. And I learned that startups are mostly bullshit and hot air, and what wealth any of them generate is mostly extracted at an extreme discount from young, smart but naive kids who don’t know any better. The fact that companies like Uber and Twitter and, fuck, even Amazon are super-famous and considered Best of Breed even though they literally DO NOT MAKE ANY FUCKING MONEY is just fucking infuriating.

This… is starting to sound like the topic of another post, so let’s get back to the book for now.

Disrupted does one thing pretty goddamned well: show what fucking insane, intense bullshit almost all startups are. They’re snake-oil factories, run, often, by borderline sociopaths who will extract value from the labor of their employees and use that to pump up valuations with a goal of getting a new business over the hump of being a startup and turning it into a long-term profitable business. HAHAHAHAHAHAH JUST FUCKING KIDDING! The goal is to baffle venture/vulture capitalists into ponying up a large number of millions in VC funding and then keep the smokescreen up using that money until an IPO occurs, at which point anywhere from one to even five folks get really rich and everybody else gets fucked when the business inevitably collapses under the weight of real-world expectations of profitability that their horseshit business idea never had a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting.

This is the story of those 99 out of 100 startups that, somehow, the completely-compromised tech “press” manages to rarely if ever cover. The ones that fail, completely and with a lot of wreckage left behind. The simple truth is: very, very few people get rich at this shit, and it’s mostly a whole lot of people who ponied up a whole lot of sweat equity getting a whole lot of fucked.

Disrupted, in particular, tells that story of one specific real-world firm the middle-aged and suddenly-careerless author finds himself working for as a not-really-even-wanted media/marketing/PR flack dude. He’s surrounded by millennials for whom this is a first gig so they love all the fluffy, non-work-related bullshit (parties! free beer! nerf swordfights!) that they’re getting in lieu of, say, a living wage or health care. They’re also stunningly, spectacularly bad at their jobs, according to the old-media author who’s been dumped into their midst, and whose many decades of hard-earned, real-world work experience is about as welcome and wanted as a fart at a funeral. Lyons quickly also realizes that his immediate bosses weren’t told about him being hired, and that the big boss who did hire him probably did so solely for the small bit of real-world media cachet Lyons’ name carried as a former writer for Newsweek crossed with the bit of Internet fame he had as the Fake Steve Jobs guy.

Hijinks ensue as Dan bravely tries to do real work and come up with real projects that might actually turn into something useful for a company he’s never quite sure has an actual product worth investing in or buying. Eventually, things sour, Dan leaves, and a weird coda occurs where (ALLEGEDLY) his former bosses at this place get wind of his book idea and possibly break into his house to steal the laptop it’s being written on. Read the book if you want the details of that; suffice to say that I liked that part best because it hammers home the point that too many people are otherwise willing to hem and haw about: most of these tech start-up founders are real fuckers, if not outright sociopaths. And I don’t mean in the “well, Steve Jobs was a real asshole” way; Steve at least was an asshole in service of a vision that actually produced beautiful products and created thousands of good jobs and made a whole lot of people lots of money and so on. The founders in this book, of which there are a lot more of in the world than there are Steve Jobs, know their product is shit and rely on every old school, pre-Internet trick the sales greaseballs of the world have been using to scam people out of money since a neanderthal with slicked-back hair and a tamer-than-yours mastodon to ride around on sold ice to an eskimo. If anything, Lyons doesn’t hammer this point home enough: a very lot of the startups that are hailed as innovative, new technology wonders are actually nothing more than classic sales scams dressed up in new suits; think Theranos moreso than Google.

In the end, I liked this book because it was a great hate read, in the tradition of how I enjoyed PJ O’Rourke (before he went full Cato) and still enjoy Matt Taibbi (until Putin orders Trump to have him rubbed out). It’s a total case of a book reinforcing shit I’m already mostly in agreement with, which isn’t what I usually seek out in a book, but I need one or two of those a year just to keep me steady.

It’s by no means a great book, but it sets hard facts against a lot of shit I already suspected was going on in that industry in general, and Dan’s a good-enough writer to where it was surprisingly fun to get through. I can’t recommend it unless you have worked at a start-up yourself, really, or are at least really familiar with the tropes of Silly Valley start-up culture. If you’re a complete outsider to all of that, you’re just going to think “what a bunch of useless assholes” without also getting to enjoy all the inside baseball snark the book is quite enjoyably larded up with.


So there you go. Two more books that I seem to have written more about than my actual favorites of the past year. Go figure.

The Books of 2016: Fiction

I read more non-fiction than fiction, but the books that have stuck me most strongly this year tended to be from the latter category. To wit, here are my favorite fiction reads of 2016 (note: doesn’t mean they came out in 2016, just that that’s when I read ’em):


The Dog Starsby Peter Heller

I love me some apocalyptic fiction, and The Dog Stars is one of the finest examples of the genre, particularly those focused on the impact of a global catastrophe on a very small group of people. If you like this genre mostly for the disaster-porn aspect of reading about society collapsing and all the bad shit that attends that, this isn’t the book for you (not judging you for that; I love that shit, too, but that’s just not what this book is about).

If, rather, you’re cool with picking up the story of how basically one man, his dog, and the less than a dozen folks he’ll interact with for the rest of his life post-apocalypse get on in the face of such sorrow, this IS the book for you. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but this book gives the reader at least a smidge of hope that, even if everything were to crumble, if you can survive that, there are ways to hold on to your humanity and even perhaps find happiness even given everything you had grown to love and live with being destroyed.


The Nix: A novel, by Nathan Hill

I’m an admitted sucker for the classic Iowa MFA-style of “Big Books About Families”. If this debut is any indication, Mr. Hill is going to be an author on my auto-buy list for years to come. Imagine a Franzen novel where you didn’t loathe every major character and wish them harm. Where the author didn’t revel in their misery. Where bad shit happens, because bad shit happens to everyone, but there may actually be reasons and redemptions along the way.

That’s how The Nix read to me. Spanning generations of a family, from Norway in the 40’s to Chicago in the late 60’s to modern suburbia and even the Internet itself as a place where people form relationships, The Nix explores the many ways the urge to conform to the mores of a time and place can affect people, from outright rebelling against them to taking comfort in such boundaries, if at a cost that will be paid tenfold later in life.

If you at all like the sort of fiction that NPR can’t shut up about, embrace that about yourself and pick this book up. It was wonderful.

Tomorrow, we’ll hit some books that didn’t quite make the cut as my personal Best Of for last year, but are still totally worth reading.

 

The Books of 2016: Non-Fiction

Welp, due to the usual causes of laziness and poor follow-up, I’m waaaay behind on reviewing the books I read in 2016. So, we’ll just do a Greatest Hits type thing this week to wrap that up before I fall behind on 2017 as well. Which I will. Because I suck.

Anywho. These are the best non-fiction books I read this year.



The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India
 
by John Wilson

Wilson’s case here is simply that the entire British experience in India was an orgy of unplanned violence and accidental conquest that cared solely about perpetuating itself. So, a revisionist take for sure, but a much-needed one, even if Wilson often commits the authorial foul of ascribing the worst possible motives to English agency at all times while excusing/diminishing those of the Indians themselves.

I’m not sure that Wilson makes his case entirely, but it’s enjoyable regardless to wade through the reams of evidence he piles up to make his point that the entire British legacy in India amounts to little more than a bureaucratic predilection towards writing things down and never referring to them again, alongside an almost incalculable pile of bloodshed and death via, if not outright violence and racism, then criminal administrative indifference to the fate of the governed.

Taking or leaving agreement with the author’s thesis, the book works well as a single-volume history of Britain and the subcontinent, a solid achievement in and of itself as such volumes aren’t exactly in abundance.


The Fall of Paris: The Siege and The Commune 1870-71 by Alistair Horne

Even the French admit that Horne, an Englishman, is one of the best historians of France ever to exist. I love every book of his that I’ve read (his Seven Ages of Paris will forever remain one of the most enjoyable works of history I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading through), and figured it was high time to start in on the trilogy that he made his name with back in the 60’s.

The Fall of Paris is the first of three books dealing with pivotal events in the history of modern Paris (and, through its crown jewel of a city, France in general), the other two being about the Battle of Sedan in 1916 and the German invasion and defeat of France in 1940, both of which are on my docket to read this year.

This is a long book, because a fucking LOT happened in those two years. And Horne can almost make you feel like you were there, from the initial expectations of victory over the hated Prussians, through the agony of the following defeat, and then the increasingly bloody chaos of the Commune and the Republic’s savage reaction afterwards.

This is not a topic well-covered or even known much about by many Americans, but it’s one of the more-fascinating stories in Western history and this book is a fantastic way to learn about it. Horne loads the book with personal details about the events and all of personas dramatis that have roles in them; it’s a hell of a narrative as well as a history.


So, there ya go. Two great non-fiction reads I enjoyed immensely in 2016. There were others (Paper, by Mark Kurlansky, was oddly engaging for a book about, well… paper, so consider this an Honorable Mention), but these two, when I look back, are the ones that stood out most.

The Books of 2016, #13: The Gates of Europe, by Serhii Plokhy

the_gates_of_europe

Hooooo boy… nothing says “light summer reading” like a history of Ukraine.

“The Gates of Europe” is a fairly traditional telling of the land and people that have, at some times, but not at others, been referred to as Ukraine and Ukrainians. I say “fairly traditional” as, while it’s mostly a chronological narrative of events that occur over time in a reasonably specific patch of geography, Ukraine has not been an independent, sovereign state for much, nay, most of that time, and the people we today identify as Ukrainians often weren’t in the past.

It’s a bit of a muddle.

Due to Ukraine’s anomalous status throughout most of history, its story is of necessity thickly intertwined with those of the other nations of which Ukraine has been part over the centuries. To his credit, Plokhy keeps a pretty tight focus on the Ukrainians and only brings in the Poles, Austrians, Russians, etc., as much as is needed to put the Ukrainian narrative into proper context. More importantly, he spends a good amount of time covering what each period itself thought it meant to “be Ukrainian”, going into detail on contemporary academic and literary trends and arguments that were completely unknown to the vast majority of peasants whose identity was being argued over. This detail spent on the arguments of tiny elites isn’t, I’m sure, by choice; as ever with history, nobody cared to write down much about what the vast majority of people felt about these things at the time. So Plokhy is just working with what he has here.

The book covers well the various bases on which a putative Ukrainian “nationhood” has been claimed over time; religion, language, Cossack-ness, the ancient Kievan kingdom of Rus… part of the difficulty in writing a book such as this is that there is not, even today, any agreement that characteristics X, Y and Z being present in person A makes them a Ukrainian as opposed to a Russian or a Belarusian.  There are diehard Ukrainian nationalists today who can only speak Russian, for example. Likewise, there are Uniate Church-adhering Ukrainian speakers who consider themselves fully Russian, and who would like their chunk of the nation-state of Ukraine to revert to the Rodina as soon as possible.

Plokhy does not place value judgments either way, an admirable locking down of whatever bias he may actually feel on the issue; it’s a pretty dry, straight-forward narrative that does not push a belief that Ukraine is a unique, distinct culture/nation/person-type separate from Russia in any overbearing fashion. That he wrote a book about Ukrainian history in the first place makes his point of view clear; overselling the point would probably just turn the rather intense partisans on either side of the divide off from the get-go (a point which online reviews of this book make sadly clear).

I enjoyed the book, though I found Plokhy’s studious devotion to detachment to have rendered it rather dry at times. There aren’t many English-language histories that cover the whole of the Ukrainian story in one volume without including a lot of non-Ukrainian narrative, so I’m glad “The Gates of Europe” exists. If you just want to try and wrap your head around Ukraine’s deal, you’d easily do worse than to pick this one off of the shelf.