Reading #56: Elites, Apocalypses, and Tentacle Noir

There are some damn good books in this one.

Nonfiction

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

Twilight Of the Elites: America after Meritocracy – Christopher Hayes
Hayes  (aka “the host of that show on cable news where people don’t yell”) has one clear and central argument: the culture of meritocracy in this country is both ineffective and actively harmful. He argues this convincingly, both from theory (this is why meritocracies fail us) and recent political history (here are a bunch of meritocratic systems which failed us). The crux:

The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes will make equal opportunity impossible…. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy. (p. 57)

I find it pretty convincing. I’d recommend this book to anyone frustrated with the current state of politics in this country–but also to academics, teachers, and folks who work in that most meritocratic of cultures (in theory at least), Silicon Valley. It might change your mind about some things.

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations – Norman Davies
Vanished Kingdoms tells the story of nation-states that are no longer with us. They range from the recent and well-known (the Soviet Union) to the ancient and fairly obscure (Alt Clud). As history, it’s a mixed bag–Davies makes a strong narrative out of the history of some kingdoms, even when there’s little documentary evidence (like the aforementioned Alt Clud, or Kingdom of Strathclyde) but others, like the various Burgundies, seem more like lists of genealogies. Davies pokes some fun at himself for the last, but less defensible is his decision to promote Byzantium as the most important vanished kingdom of all–only to state that it’s too important to give us only a chapter about and move abruptly on to the next kingdom. Maybe his next book will be on Byzantium? Also, he really hates the British Royal Family. Not sure why, but man, he hates them.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home – Lucy Worsely
Worsley hosted the BBC television series of the same name, and my main problem with this book is the same problem I have with a lot of TV history: they tend to vaguely thematic historical trivia rather than strong narratives or coherent arguments. Worsley is trying to give us a sense of how different uses of our homes, and rooms dedicated to those uses, have changed over time. She succeeds in bits and pieces–there are some lovely descriptions–but the overall effect is factoids, and those most relating to the British aristocracy. If you want to know a bunch of details about Royal beds this is your book–only not, because you get only a tease. On the other hand, I will always be grateful to this book for introducing me to that sadly-extinct breed of dog, the turnspit dog.

Fiction

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
There’s a movie coming out, and I’m worried about it. Tom Hanks? Close to 3 hours in length? Dressing white actors up as Asian? Could be horrific. But give the movie credit: it was a trailer for the movie that reminded me to read the book, which I’d vaguely heard about without knowing much.

Man, this is a good book. Very few novels manage to be ambitious in ways literary audiences and genre audiences will both recognize. Even fewer novels succeed. So, take 6 stories, each set in a different time period and each in a different genre. You have a 19th century story (adventures on ships!) told through letters, another epistolary novel set in the 1930s about a composer, a 1970s crime thriller, a modern day satire, a near-future dystopia, and a far-future post-apocalyptic tale. Just making each of these good would be tricky, but Mitchell breaks five of them in half and orders them so forst you travel forward in time, then back again. And then there are the recurring characters, themes, stories commenting on other stories … it all sounds horrifically complicated but the beauty of this is that it isn’t. I had a little trouble with the first half of the 19th century story (my least favorite character, though the second half is better) but after that the whole thing just flows.

Part of what makes it works–and this is in comparison to many novels where (for example) a literary author tries his or her hand at genre fiction–is that Mitchell clearly knows and respects his inspirations. The best example is the postapocalyptic novel, which is an easy one to do badly. He nods to my favorite pos-apocalyptic novel, Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, avoids (or toys with) the common cliches, and by setting it on Hawaii’s Big Island, gives it a novel setting.

 

Graphic novels

Fatale Volume 1: Death Chases Me

Fatale – Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
San Francisco Noir, with additional tentacle monsters. If that’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this–and the cover art gives you a good idea of what to expect. It is the sort of thing I like. Brubaker’s dialogue is noir-ish without being too self-parodic, the plotting decent enough, the setting glorious. I am a sucker for old spooky San Francisco (and modern spooky San Francisco, and future spooky San Francisco …) and this gives me multiple eras happily. Or unhappily for the characters, who mostly come to tragic ends, as is only appropriate. San Phillips’s art evokes classic noir films without being cheesy, and his use of color is breathtaking.

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