October 31, 2014

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, October 2010

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Victor LaValle, The Devil in Silver
Mind candy: literary fiction about life in a mental hospital. Enjoyable and humane; I'll look out for more by LaValle.
Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker
Mind candy, at the border between literary fiction and several genres. A recurring theme of epic fantasy is that the great days are past, and yet some echo of them comes through at the last desperate moment. This captures that exactly, only it's all mad science (well, mad technology) and the secret history of the British Empire (minus the massacres of civilians, concentration camps, and famines in the name of ideology), British technology developed along a Lovelace-Ruskin axis that ought to have existed, and London crime.
Johanna Bockman, Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism
This feels like three rather unequal and not-altogether-related books:
  1. A history of neo-classical economics's engagement with theoretical models of socialism, including the role of "social planners" in welfare analyses of capitalism. It's a fairly explicit, and I think successful, attempt to argue that there is much more to the story than Hayek's self-serving account of "the socialist calculation debate", or even than Lange's equally self-flattering if more intellectually honest account.
  2. A history of the market socialist tradition in the Communist countries, especially Yugoslavia and Hungary, with some glances at the actual economic institutions in those countries.
  3. An attempt to explain how eastern Europe went from aiming at some sort of market socialism in early 1989 to disaster capitalism by 1992.
The first endeavor seems pretty successful to me. The second is decent but spends so much time establishing that Yugoslav and Hungarian economists were in contact with the profession in the rest of the world, and that many of them saw no conflict between being market socialists and being neo-classical economists, that it never really explains their positive ideas, or how their countries' economies actually worked, much less the relations between the ideas and the workings. The third is just sketchy; I don't think it goes anywhere near far enough either within any one country or comparatively to actually explain much.
Even with this, and the fact that Bockman's style is the sort of thing people mean when they complain about "writing like a sociologist", there is a lot of valuable and original information in here, and some important insights about the relations between economics and ideology. It'll be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of market socialism and the political role of neo-classical economics. (Bockman might've been a good contributor to the Red Plenty seminar.)
M. F. Bloxam, The Night Battles
Mind candy, psychological horror division. In which a seriously messed-up Italian-American academic specializing in anthropological micro-history may or may not con her way into a small town in Sicily whose inhabitants may or may not be living out one of Carlo Ginzburg's anthropological micro-histories. In the classic tradition of English-language ghost-stories, it is systematically left ambiguous whether anything supernatural ever happens, but there's no doubt that lots of subtly horrid things occur, and the atmosphere of oppressive secrecy and reckless despair is skillfully invoked.
Disclaimer: I got a review copy of this book through LibraryThing, way back when it was published.
Kelley Armstrong, Omens and Visions
Mind candy contemporary fantasy. I liked the sections where other characters gave their perspectives on the one who's usually the first-person narrator.
Daryl Gregory, We Are All Completely Fine
Mind candy: group therapy where every one of the patients was the sole survivor of a different supernatural outrage. The group dynamics are funny, and there are some genuinely creepy bits, though the climax is more conventional and less effective than some of the earlier chapters.
Harry Furstenberg, Stationary Processes and Prediction Theory
I wrote a long exposition of this, but then saw that P. Masani said it all already, and better, in 1963. (Though I see more application for predicting finite-valued functions of finite-state Markov chains than Masani did.) This book is intensely relevant to my interests, and I really ought to have read it in graduate school, but I'm pretty sure it didn't need to be quite so hard going as it was.
Kathe Koja, Skin
Literary fiction with the look and feel of a horror novel, but no spooks. Instead it's just — just — a story about two underground artists, one who works in metal and robots and the other in performance art and body modification, in an unnamed rust belt city (*). They meet, they form an intense emotional bond and artistic collaboration, they drive each other on to new heights, and then it all goes too far, which is to say rapidly and excruciatingly to hell. I had to force myself to read through the climax, not because it was bad but because I knew something awful was coming, and I could hardly stand seeing that happen to the characters.
The book is now old enough to buy liquor, but the only respect in which it really feels dated is that now there would surely be viral video of the Surgeons' shows, and less shock about mere piercings. (Cf. Broken Monsters.) The other stuff is still (still?) beyond the pale.
*: I suspect Detroit, because the characters call convenience stores "party stores", but it doesn't really matter.
Lauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla
Mind candy, drawing on the vampire stories of the early 1800s.
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword
I re-read Ancillary Justice to accompany this, and was even more impressed with it on the second go-round. That's a very tough act to follow, and I think it's fair to say this isn't as brilliant as the first book. (In particular, Breq guesses right too often.) That still leaves it an excellent space opera. — The audiobook, read by Adjoa Andoh, is really good.
Sequel, finishing the series.
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs
Mind candy: something like a spy thriller, in the after-math of a reversal of imperial fortune, in a world full of faith-powered gods whose worship has been forbidden. (The names suggest Russia occupied by India.) There was an Awful Secret which I guessed within the first few chapters, but I frankly didn't care; it was that engaging.
Jeff VanderMeer, Authority
Mind candy, science-fiction/horror, sequel to Annihilation: the view from inside the vague yet menacing government agency. Intensely creepy and well written.
Cherie Priest, Maplecroft
Mind candy: Lizzie Borden re-imagined as a slayer of Lovecraftian monstrosities. The characters' frailties, and their remarkably different views of the same events (human and inhuman), help elevate the reading experience. In the end, however, I am not sure I care enough to look for the inevitable sequel.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Commonwealth of Letters; Mathematics; Enigmas of Chance; The Dismal Science; The Progressive Forces; Tales of Our Ancestors

Posted at October 31, 2014 23:59 | permanent link

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