Orientalism

Edward W. Said

1978


It's hard to criticise such a classic, and I really expected to like it more than I did. It still reads well after over half a century.

But... do we really believe that the behaviour of an entire continent – Europe – was shaped by the writings and fantasies of a few pioneers? Do we believe that we can extract the fundamental beliefs of a myriad of managers and workers from close reading of a few key texts? Do we believe, indeed, that those key texts have such internal consistency that it's meaningful to parse them sentence-by-sentence to extract the author's own beliefs and expose their inconsistencies?

We academics would like to think that our writing was read in this was, was important in this way. But I find it hard to believe, and I don't think the situation was different a century or more ago. The valid criticisms made of "Western" attitudes to "the East" (accepting that these are gross generalisations) neglect the fact that similar criticisms were made of other, "Western" groups. Substitute "working class" for "oriental" in many works of the nineteenth century and you'll see the same points of sloth, mistrust, and dependency being made.

The besetting issue seems to actually be a lot simpler: the danger of treating any group as a group, and eliding the individuals' characteristics in search of general schemata. It's something that still goes on, and still has to go on if we want to make sense of the world. It's just that we need to be conscious of the limitations that this imposes on our reasoning.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:39:20 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

The Naked God (Night's Dawn, #3)

Peter F. Hamilton

1999


This trilogy is an impressive achievement. More so in the detail than in the broad sweep, I think: the individual episodes, characters, technologies, species, and other elements are all wonderfully creative and varied, deeply envisioned and carefully described. So at a micro level, the plot is a success. But at the macro level, it's less satisfying. (Spoiler now coming.) A large number of plot twists and difficult pathways are set up, ready for a clever resolution. What happens instead is that a character encounters an alien god-like entity who ... well, allows anything to happen, which means that any possible twist can be straightened out. It's only slightly improved on the stereotyped "and then she awoke from a dream" ending, and really isn't respectful of all the efforts the author went to in the rest of the books.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:31:10 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

Carol Tavris

2007


A study of cognitive dissonance and the need for self-justification. The authors explore the ways in which people respond to the realisation that they've been wrong, and the likelihood that they'll try to rationalise-away the resulting dissonance coming from having two contradictory thoughts in mind. The same phenomenon re-appears in many guises, from personal relationships to wrongful prosecutions and ill-starred wars. What was fascinating for me was the way in which the same mechanisms can protect a poor self-image as well as an inflated one; but also the observation that both self-deception and its alternatives in the form of self-scrutiny and making deliberate amends come with harsh psychological prices, contrary to what the modern self-help literature might suggest.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jul 2018 05:02:06 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

The Reality Dysfunction (Night's Dawn, #1)

Peter F. Hamilton

1996


Science fiction on a epic scale. You can hear the echoes of many modern writers in this work, perhaps most clearly William Gibson and Iain M. Banks, but it's also positive and heroic in the way that Robert Heinlein and E.E. "Doc" Smith were: there's no loss of confidence in the face of danger. A lot of the set pieces are wonderful, as are the descriptions of the technology and its implications. I'm looking forward to the other two books of the trilogy.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jul 2018 04:55:31 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There

Rutger Bregman

2014


A paean to what's to come, to the need for radical changes in the economy and social norms in the face of a "utopia" of automation and globalisation. It's a provocation of the first order, strongly in favour of universal basic income, strongly against nationalism and hard borders. As such it feels "utopian" in the classic sense of being an unrealisable dream – but a closely-argued dream that highlights desirable changes, and well aware of the irony that the world we live in, with health and wealth and many jobs being automated, is exactly the world that most of human history aspired to.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jul 2018 04:50:23 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

All the President's Men

Carl Bernstein

1974


A story of dedicated reporting in the face of both active and passive discouragement. This book is interesting because it, again, it written before the end of the story is known: before Nixon's resignation and all the subsequent fallout.

Being written so in the moment, there's an assumption that the reader lived through and followed the events being described: Woodward and Bernstein don't seem to be writing for posterity. As such the book makes little sense unless the reader has at least a passing – and actually more than a passing – acquaintance with the events and characters. That can make it hard to keep up with.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jul 2018 04:43:07 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann

2017


A narrative history of a largely forgotten mass murder. It's a very American tale, in many ways: the Osage Native American Nation is exiled from its homelands and forced to live on a rocky and barren reservation of worthless land – which then turns out to sit on top of huge oil deposits. In many ways the tribe is lucky, because the laws of the US have advanced sufficiently that they are allowed to licence their oil rather than being moved on again; in other ways they are unlucky because, in order to avoid making native rich too easily, a system of "guardianship" is instituted whereby "incompetent" Native Americans have their interests looked after by local whites, which turns out to be an open invitation for fraud, theft, and murder. It becomes such an industry that husbands can honestly say, when asked their profession, "I married an Osage".

The killings and the investigation are carefully and dramatically described, but the real sting is in the tail, the last chapter that demonstrates how the investigations were really only the tip of an iceberg that gave rise to a huge number of unexplained and unexamined deaths as whites sought control of the oil revenues. While the case gave rise to the FBI in its modern form (and was used ruthlessly by J. Edgar Hoover), its investigation was plainly deficient and limited in order to generate maximum victory with limited wider scandal. It's an open question how many other allegedly "closed" cases hide a similar secret.

Finished on Sat, 26 May 2018 12:58:42 -0700.   Rating 4/5.