Finishing 50 Books in a Year (2017)

My reading goal in 2017 started with a desire to finish a number of the books which I had started over the past three years for the purpose of getting them off my “Currently reading” list. On the list, those books which I started before 2017 are marked with an *. I’ve sorted the books into four categories: F (Fiction), NF (Non-fiction), E (Essays), and P (Poetry). Additional notes have been provided for distinctive experiences, or other informational tidbits.

Most interesting was the way the type of book I read evolved. In the last few years, I’ve displayed a propensity for non-fiction, particularly high theory and neo-Marxist economic treatises (lots of things published by Verso and Semiotext(e)). In the name of expediency, I turned to both poetry and fiction. Around the time I picked up Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (an excellent alternate history where the short-lived Futurist state the Regency of Carnaro, does not fail), with its introduction by Warren Ellis, I determined that I should attempt to read more fiction. That path led me to The Ballad of Black Tom, the genius of Victor LaValle, and a taste of the recent spate of Tor Publications of new Lovecraftian stories focusing on the voices that H.P. himself would have overlooked.

Working with the Lovecraft Arts and Science Council opened up a wealth of opportunities to pick up more Weird fiction (contemporary and otherwise). My time with them began in earnest around October, which is reflected, somewhat, in the wealth of Weird fiction novels that make their way onto the list around that time.

  1. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco [01.09] *F
  2. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams [01.11] – F
  3. Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams [01.17] – F
  4. Governing by Debt by Mauricio Lazzarato [01.19] *NF
  5. Hellboy’s World, Monsters in the Margins by Scott Bukatman [02.11] – NF
  6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine [????] – P
  7. Six Memos for the New Millenium by Italo Calvino [03.13] – E
  8. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling [????] – F
  9. Patient by Bettina Judd [04.10] – P
  10. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle [04.17] – F
  11. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle [04.27] – F
  12. The Agony of Eros by Byung Chul-Han [05.06] – NF
  13. Curious Visions of Modernity by David L. Martin [05.20] – NF
  14. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West [05.26] *P
  15. No Accident by Aaron Anstett [????] – P
  16. The Panopticon Writing by Jeremy Bentham [06.03] *(more @ this post)
  17. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion [06.11] – E
  18. Between Ghosts by Reno Dakota/SJ Lee [06.18] – P
  19. The White Album by Joan Didion [06.23] – E
  20. Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell [06.24] *E
  21. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery [06.29] – F (French)
  22. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White [07.05] – NF
  23. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the End of Heroism by Paul Young [08.06] – NF
  24. Censorship Now!! by I.F. Svenonius [08.14] – NF
  25. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 3rd Ed. by Timothy Corrigan [08.26] – NF
  26. Girls Omnibus by The Luna Bros. [08.30] – F (Graphic Novel)
  27. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod [09.09] – F
  28. Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti [09.10] – F
  29. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder [09.21] – NF
  30. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Franco “Bifo” Berardi [09.22] *NF
  31. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer [10.11] – F
  32. Authority by Jeff Vandermeer [10.13] – F
  33. Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer [10.14] – F
  34. Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling [10.28] – F
  35. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera [11.13] – F
  36. Looming Low Vol. 1 by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, eds. [11.20?] – F
  37. Songs of Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti [11.25] * – F
  38. King Lear by William Shakespeare [12.01] – F
  39. War of the Foxes by Richard Siken [12.03] – P
  40. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlyn R. KIernan [12.05] – F
  41. Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw [12.05] – F
  42. Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman, ed. [12.08] – F
  43. Parasite Life by Victoria Dalpe [12.09] – F
  44. Beta Decay #1 & 2 by Andrew Jackson King [12.15] – F
  45. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson [12.19] – F
  46. A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax [12.28] *P
  47. Beta Decay #3 & 4 by Andrew Jackson King [12.29] – F
  48. A User’s Guide to the Demanding Impossible by Gavin Grinden and John Jordan [12.30] – NF
  49. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb [12.30] P
  50. City, rediscovering the center by William Whyte [01.11.18] – NF

Obviously, I extended my deadline of “the end of 2017” by a little, but I needed to motivate myself to finish City by William Whyte, not because it was bad, but because the last few chapters deal almost exclusively with the issues facing zoning boards and their habits. Without underselling my enthusiasm for city planning, descriptions of zoning board decisions don’t even have the excitement of watching them make come about as one is able to do in transcripts or in person.

A list of 50 books does pretty much no one any good, however, so instead, I will tease my list of Top 10 Books I recommend after 2017:

  1. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  2. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West
  3. The Elements of Style by Strunk and Whyte
  4. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  5. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  6. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  7. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod
  8. Beta Decay (whatever Issue you can find) by Andrew Jackson King
  9. Girls Omnibus by the Luna Brothers
  10. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb

More on those ten books to follow.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X, but few things are as they first appear. The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out of Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, which has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. It features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski. It also features stories by less immediately familiar names, and as a whole serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which popular Weird and Science fiction, who stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk into the knowledge with some semblance of forewarning. His seekers after truth are aware that they are damning themselves by looking, but cannot keep themselves from it.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Ride Share Profiles II

E.

10 October 2017, UberX.

E. drives a shiny, new looking, red Toyota Camry. I only know the make of the car, because I remember reading it off the Google maps page with my UberX ride information. It’s weird to realize that I can see the route suggested by the app displayed on my own screen while this stranger drives to pick me up. I find myself critiquing the algorithm, because I have my own ingrained routes which offer themselves automatically when I register someone’s location.

He’s not quite my father’s age, but nevertheless, he reminds me that the sharing economy is not, as promised, a source of income for young workers looking to make some extra cash, but a source of income for people of all ages.

It’s nearly eleven in the morning, and he’s driving me to work in downtown Providence. I missed the bus and figured this is what the so-called “sharing economy” was made for: using someone’s side gig to get to my own side gig.

I ask him how he’s doing and he’s cheerful. His radio is tuned to 95.5 FM, which used to be WBRU – Brown University’s student radio station – but was recently sold and now broadcasts Christian rock music. I wonder if it’s a hold over, or if it’s a recent addition to his radio presets.

It turns out he’s from Puerto Rico. He tells me he still has family there, his mother and his brother. I ask how they’re doing and he says they’re fine. The house is made of concrete and withstood the weather, they have water from the ground, and his brother had bought a large generator. They have water and power, so they’re alright, he says. The only problem is food; the supermarkets are only letting people in 10 at a time to avoid mayhem and to ensure that people only take a few of the things they need, rather than everything. If you need batteries, you can only take two packets.

He asks me if I’m going to work, I say that I am, and that I usually take the bus, except that I missed it this morning. He tells me about how he took the bus once, in 1991 with his kids and said “never again.” The next year, 1992, he got a car. I mention that the bus is always crazy, always somebody having some problem on the bus. (The two bus lines which run near my house run between two transit centers and one runs between hospitals. A large portion of the regular riders are people who make use of the city’s human services – you see a lot of colorful characters, and hear a lot of interesting stories.)

E. tells me that he used to ride the train when he lived in New York. Always there were people who would get into fights and cause trouble. If a seat opened up, you’d have to deal with other people who wanted to sit there, regardless that you’d both been waiting for it. He’d often let other people take it, he says, he doesn’t know if the person who was sitting there was sick. Better to avoid the fight and the uncertain cleanliness. He’d wait for the seat to get cold, he says.

I ask him about living in New York; how long did he live there?

He went in 1977, three months before the Blizzard of ’77. He never forgot it, he says. At the time, he’d been living in an illegal basement apartment. There was no door leading to a hallway on the inside, only a door to the outside. When the snow piled up, there was no way for them to get out. The landlady didn’t want to call the cops or the fire department because the apartment itself was illegal. They were stuck there for days, eventually, she did call the fire department. When they showed up, they cut a hole in the floor of the kitchen and pulled everyone out. No more basements apartments after that, he said.

He asked me about my parents, I said that both of my parents had been born here, in Providence, but that my mother’s family was Greek, and my father’s father was Puerto Rican, but grew up in New York, and my father’s mother was from Ohio. So you have Puerto Rican blood, he asks. Yes, I say. But you’ve never been there? No, I tell him, but I’d really like to go sometime.

He tells me that July is the best month to visit Puerto Rico. Every day is a carnival. One day they’ll close one street, the next they’ll close another. It’s the best month to go on vacation. He always tells people to visit Puerto Rico in July. Wait for them to get everything back to normal, and go on vacation in July. I tell him I’ll do that.

I really hope I’ll have the chance to do so.

some thoughts on Catalonia

An intentional complication

There are 4 major areas to consider regarding the current situation in Spain, where the region of Catalonia recently held a referendum on a declaration of independence:

  1. the economic reasons for Spain’s insistence on retaining Catalonia,
  2. the questions arising from a newly independent Catalonia with regards to the European Union, with an eye towards the freedom of movement of goods, people, and money,
  3. the fascist history of the country and, specifically, Catalonia’s still fresh memories of life under Franco, in particular the condemnation of the present Spanish government as fascist without a meditation on the fascist history which continue to resonate in the present,
  4. finally, with the emboldening of racisms across the Western world, immediately embracing ethnonationalist separatist movements seems premature.

These are a series of spitball thoughts, I do not seek to present myself as an authority on the subject. Nor do I want to appear for or against Catalan independence. Ultimately, I believe many of my points might be justifiably used to support the arguement for independence. Equally, however, a geopolitically conservative and globalist thread in some of my points will be of little interest to certain progressive groups, and the hard left anti-imperialists who see globalism as a direct descendent and scion of colonial imperialism. (A position I am not, strictly speaking, willing to refute.)

1. Wealth and federalism

Spain, like most nations, is made up of regions with their own local governments and governance. Along with the political distinctions, these states create economic zones, which in turn feed into a larger national economy, with some wealth redistribution happening courtesy of the national government.

Barcelona and Catalonia more generally are among the few regions in the Spanish economy which are flourishing, despite the economic crisis which developed in Europe after the 2008 US financial crash. That prosperity is a strong motivator for the national government of Spain to maintain a hold on the region. Spain continuese to be strapped for cash, even having put into effect the austerity measures and the economic restructuring demanded by international creditors.

It bears remembering that the issue of Catalan independence, while not entirely new, did not have anything nearing its current prominence before the economic crash. It was only as the screws were put on and Spain began to feel the crush of its debt that Catalonia started its legislative saber rattling and invigorated the call for independence.

2. European Unity and the economy

The biggest question regarding secession from a European nation is how the new border and the new government will be integrated (or not) into the European project. Regardless of whether Europe welcomes a newly independent Catalonia into the European Union or not, that accession will have to be negotiated (or renegotiated, depending on your perspective). One can only presume that the Spanish representation in the European government will do their utmost to make life difficult for the new nation. It is unclear if they are likely to have allies who fear similar sucessions within their borders. (With Britain making its own European exit, the Spaniards are down an anti-Independence ally.)

Most importantly, Catalan independence means more uncertainty for the European Union, an already struggling and beleagured project. Until the details of Catalonia’s status within the bloc are worked out, there will be many people in limbo; European citizens who live and/or work in Barcelona or the region, who may or may not be allowed to remain. The fate of Spanish citizens who wish to retain that status yet continue live and work in Catalonia will also need to be negotiated.

Ultimately, Europe has created a region of porous borders which has greatly benefited workers who are able to travel across national boundaries in search of work. Additionally, as we are learning from Brexit, the porous borders of the EU have built an interconnected and interdependent infrastructure system. Renegotiating those contracts creates seemingly impossible quandaries in which the average citizen is left uncertain as to their future.

(New borders and new governments mean that all of the agreements and systems which undergird modern life will need to be examined and repartitioned to meet the requirements of the new government, and the limits of the new borders. This is an unenviable position to leave anyone; I invite you to explore the questions that Brexit has raised for the shared power grids bridging the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.)

3. History (Fascism)

Reaching back into the misty past and the heyday of the Spanish empire is superfluous for understanding the roots of this conflict. The most pressing history is that of the 20th century. It is a history which is still vivid in the minds of Catalans.

Under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, Catalonia was violently repressed, and much was done to strip them of their cultural and linguistic identity. An acquaintance told the story of how after Franco’s death in 1975 and the return to democratic governance, she had to put in the paper work for an official name change, so that her government documents would reflect the name her parents gave her, a Catalan name, which she was prohibited from carrying under the Franco regime. Her experience was not unique.

Many people who have visited Barcelona are familiar with the habit of Catalans to prefer English over Spanish when encountering someone who does not speak Catalan. Use of the language was banned under Franco, and these little “regional quirks” are the markers of the scars the fascist regime left on the people.

I am uninterested in defending the actions of the Spanish government. The choices they have made are abominable, in addition to making the government look terrible.

The vivid memory of fascism should have served as a reminder for the Spanish government to avoid violent suppression and the suspension of Catalonia’s limited independence. Nevertheless, those outside the country should be careful of invoking the imagery unless they are prepared to hold up the current government against past fascist regimes. Though the actions of the Spanish government are reprehensible, they have not reached the heights of dictatorship. We must urge them to remember their own history, and the respect they owe their Catalan bretheren, and furthermore, we must hope they have learned something from dealing with the Basque Separatist movement.

4. Ethnonationalism

Much of the Western world is preparing to do battle with nationalists of a variety of sorts. Ethnonationalists pose a unique quandary for those who seek equality. Self-determination is a noble goal, but it can create as many problems as it might purport to solve.

Thankfully, Catalonia is positioned in such a way to avoid the quandaries which have plagued the self-determination of the Jewish people. Hopefully, if they do achieve independence, the freedom of movement within Europe will been maintained even across these new borders and there will be no need for the “bloodless genocides” which plagued the establishment of a Greek nation-state and Turkey which saw the exchange of Greek Muslims and Greek Orthodox Turks. We can only hope that prosperity will forestall the possibility which resulted in the Bosnian genocide, and the continued unease in the region. Perhaps it we will avoid armed conflict, but the possibility of avoiding all political tension is a fantasy.

The consolidation of ethnic identities into nation states has left a number of wounds in the developed world. They are implictly tied to the history of empire, colonialism, and imperialism. There are no good answers, never mind any easy ones.

Personally, I have ever stronger reservations about the logic of ethnonationalist self determination. Mostly because it feels like an excuse for those who have to abandon those who have not, and those who have not to justify power moves which lead to greater pain down the line. Here I undoubtedly split with any anti-globalists, who see porous borders and rampant capitalist internationalism as the great evils plaguing all nations and peoples. Nevertheless, I stand with those who see globalization as a reality with which must contend and should make our decisions with an eye towards justice and equality when it comes to crossing borders and making opportunities for all people on our planet. Ethnonationalism seems to invite divisiveness and trouble.

Speech and Life: thoughts on security in the Internet age

reading: the Hill

The recent terror attacks in London are disturbing and dreadful crimes. But hearing that British PM Theresa May feels that there appropriate response is greater regulation of the Internet makes me worry about where this well-meaning concern (or misplaced hysteria) will lead us.
This past semester I read Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0, for my class, “Media, Technology, and Culture” (for an overview of the book’s basic argument checkout my podcast). Towards the end of the book – in the section where he examines “latent ambiguities” where code and law either don’t quite meet or leave some room for interpretation – he says of the United States:

We have exported to the world, through the architecture of the Internet, a First Amendment more extreme in code than our own First Amendment in law.

(p. 257)

As the global society attempts to manage a world where extremism and linked violent action become more prevalent and more visible, we must realize that it is the legacy of the First Amendment and of American democratic values that allow it. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined into the current structure of the internet in a way it would be impossible (certainly for equal reach) to achieve in “real life”.

There is a lot to be said for making the gap between legal speech and the speech that is possible on the Internet. In recent years, we have had a crash course in the negative outcomes that complete freedom can generate. From Gamergate and doxxing, to the radicalization of men and women by neo-Nazi ideologues and extremist jihadi ideologies. The links between the things we read and see and what we do are becoming starkly visible.

But does that linkage justify a limiting of free speech by government and corporate/commercial entities?

The most obvious question is: how does one determine what constitutes an extremist ideology?

It might seem easy to say it’s to cut down on neo-Nazi rhetoric or propaganda from the Islamic State. But where do radical Leftists and Libertarians who argue for the toppling of the State fall? How do we decide what counts as “humor” and what constitutes a real threat? (see: Kathy Griffin) If we’re seeking to destroy propaganda or misinformation, which debates remain open and which are closed? The Holocaust? Global warming?

It is never easy to walk the line between liberty and security. In today’s world, one which feels ever more dangerous, we in the West are hardpressed to choose between our way of life, and the lives of our fellow citizens. 

All arguments for liberty are “slippery slope” arguments, and as such I wish to avoid them. All I can hope is that we seriously consider whose interests are best met through regulation of our online speech.