Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Reading In The Mobile Era

Links to, and brief comments on, three works I’ve enjoyed recently, each read on a mobile device.

(click here)
This novel of great humanity is set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1970’s. It explores the tensions and entanglements between and among the homestead (“the flies, the smells, the fields and the rags, …stomachs which were seldom full, …dirt and disease…”) and black people and white people (here as represented by missionaries and convents).

Colonialism, post-colonialism, feminism, patriarchy, racism---there are many themes and subtexts in the book, but I was preeminently taken by the depiction of the relationship between the novel’s narrator (Tambu)  and her cousin (Nyasha), both young teenage girls, both born in the homestead but being “recruited” by the West, by the white culture. Nyasha has spent time at school in London, both girls are students at the missionary school in their home country, and there is much in the book about them navigating the two cultures. But Tambu and Nyasha are also teenagers, fresh and smart, full of life, and the author is right on the money in capturing the “lucid irreverence” of their behaviors, in front of their families, in front of their schoolmates, in front of each other---some of it laugh out loud funny. The relationship between the girls is so sweetly rendered, that when at one point they realize their lives are taking different paths and they are saying good bye to each other---man I was almost crying like a baby.   

(click here)

Reading in the Mobile Era, by Mark West and Han Ei Chew

Obviously if Nervous Conditions were written today, it would be a different book in many ways, one being the cousins would probably be using mobile devices to communicate and to read. This report, released by UNESCO in 2014, examines the use of mobile devices, and the increase in reading as a result.  The study (a free pdf download of 7.77 mb) was conducted in the countries of Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan.

The leap from preindustrial to digital economies in developing cultures is much written about. This report is focused on reading, and shows that reading increases as texts are made widely available via mobile devices. The conclusions are optimistic

(click here)
If Nervous Conditions represents the past, and the UNESCO report the present, this novel is the future. Situated between realistic and science fiction, and a literary descendent of Frankenstein, there are also other genres at work and play---horror, humor, metafiction, mystery, thriller et al.

It isn’t a pretty picture of humankind, and the author’s viewpoint is almost consistently a downer, but that attitude is offset by an expansive, gargantuan and Wikipedic level of erudition combined with a circus of literary antics and stunts. At 638 pages the book is a beast, but very compelling.

Here’s one of the cute, more humorous passages from the novel to conclude this post. The narrator is a young man who has fallen hard for a gorgeous woman named Lorelei who is way out of his league. Nonetheless, they have gone together to a fast food restaurant. He’s loco in love and she is 

“…radiant in a light blue hoodie, white V-neck, and jeans. Lorelei was the kind of girl that could pull off wearing a Kevlar vest while reading Wordsworth. What a first-date story this would make for the grandkids. Her, impenetrable and romantic; me, lost and longing. Her slender fingers plucked up another fry, with a grace that concert pianists would covet. She slid it through the viscous surface of her shake, like the mother of Achilles baptizing her baby in liquid Lethe. Then a subtle twist of the fingers as she pulled it free, the milkshake reaching up after it, trying to hold tight, to fill in the emptiness her fry had drilled out, until finally gravity overtook it, and the chocolate stalagmite let go, dropped back into itself, a brief peak of nostalgia, until its tip tilted downward and wept its way back into uniform smoothness, all evidence erased and forgotten…Lorelei held the fry in her mouth, like a lollipop almost, and tilted her head to the side with bemused sympathy…”

I can say with pretty reasonable confidence that you’ll be happy with any of the three works mentioned above.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Starting You A Circus?

Attention Shoppers:  Ten days into the Golden Quarter a new book release from me, just 99 cent.

William Faulkner, his short novel Spotted Horses: early on one character says to another “Starting you a circus?” It is a hilarious story (with some heart-rending and fervent pathos).  I thought I knew Faulkner, but I didn’t know he could be funny.

Robin Coste Lewis.  You have to do some research to find her work, but recently she released this book and it is up for some awards.  She’s good (and she’s in Los Angeles!).

And for the third time in the past few months I quote and concur with Joe Keppler’s recent statement: “Philosophy, history, and art at the present moment seem to me alive with beautiful surprises.”


Friday, October 2, 2015

LOL: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970 was awarded to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature".

Solzhenitsyn is, as Adam Mars-Jones puts it in The Guardian:  “a writer with few equals for his industry, capacious memory and the passion of his convictions.” 

But he’s also cynical and funnier then hell.  To demonstrate, I will set aside all the magnificent research and literary virtues and virtuosity comprising the novel August 1914 (set in Russia, the beginning battles of World War I between the armies of Russia and Germany, and premonitions of the Russian Revolution of 1917) and extrapolate a critique of large organizations. 

This won’t come as news to anyone who has worked in large bureaucracies or organizations, either at headquarters or in the field (knowing in your hearts that what’s going on back at headquarters is total bullshit).  But there is no little satisfaction in having a Nobel prizewinner pointing it out.

Solzhenitsyn shows organizational relationships, the tension between headquarters and the field, and the bureaucratic “cultures” that demand conformity to authority, where “‘look both ways’ [is] the rule for all on the hierarchical ladder.” and the power of rumor is treacherous. 

Here’s an example:  Solzhenitsyn describes an upper echelon type as a “colorless, indecisive, but painstaking major general [who] had never been on active service. He had served for many years in one staff job after another, more often than not ‘on special duties,’ and had been a general for eight years.”
Who among us, with bureaucratic time served at whatever level, hasn’t seen these “special duties” desk jockeys, with little or nothing to do of any consequence, trying to fill out their work days by making regulations for situations they’ve never experienced or jobs they’ve never performed? People, who as Solzhenitsyn continues to describe, “valued above all else undeviating observance of regulations and punctuality in collecting and dispatching directives, instructions, and reports.”

This behavior, of course, results in pervasive CYA actions, and  Solzhenitsyn is all over it: “Provided he acted in accordance with regulations, directives, and instructions a man could suffer any setback or defeat, retreat, be smashed, flee in disorder—and no one would blame him for it. Nor need he rack his brains trying to find reasons for his defeat. But woe betide him if he departed from instructions, used his own head, took some bold initiative—he might not even be forgiven his victories, and should he suffer a defeat he would be chewed up and spat out.”

Take for example the person who “had suffered only two real disasters in his military career: failure on one occasion to produce a piece of paper when it was asked for and an unfortunate misunderstanding with an influential person.”

OMG!  Failure to produce a piece of paper!  Pissing off a higher-up!  Two of the biggest sins in all bureaucracies. 

These executive suite minefields result in a leadership style which, according to Solzhenitsyn, is “distinguished by aversion to any sort of methodical work, absence of any sense of duty, fear of responsibility, and total inability to value time and use it to the full. Hence the sluggishness…the inclination to act mechanically…”

Distinguished.  The sarcasm isn’t just dripping, it is flowing.  And the sluggishness breeds incompetence, which in too many bureaucracies and large organizations, is perversely rewarded.

For example, Solzhenitsyn writes about one recently promoted person on an upward trajectory, a newly appointed Chief of the General Staff:  “He had held that position only four months, and the main effort so far required of him had been to prevent the war from failing to break out. That done, he had intended to remain aloof from subsequent menacing developments...How could he bring himself to refuse what was undoubtedly a great advance in his career?

More sarcasm:  to prevent the war from failing to break out.  And for that dubious accomplishment, a promotion. Indeed, how could the individual’s ego permit any other conclusion?

This nuttiness at headquarters then translates to the battlefield, the escapades and fails of the armies involved.  Solzhenitsyn describes leaders devising obtuse plans “to pin down the Germans (who were not there to be pinned) on the coast, so as to prevent them from reaching the Vistula (which was not what they were trying to do).”

“Friendly fire” usually epitomizes the ultimate in military (organizational) incompetence, and Solzhenitsyn doubles down in his description of such incidents, in one case adding:  “Again, no one was alarmed: Russian troops often opened fire on their own side.”

Of course it’s not just the Russians.  The dysfunctional memes are everywhere.  Solzhenitsyn describes German army attacks that “ended in absurd failure, with nothing working out as expected. More than once…wheeling squadrons were mistaken by [their] own infantry for Russian cavalry, fired upon, and scattered. [German] artillery opened fire on [German] infantry.”

Outcomes?  Solzhenitsyn wraps it up with this piece of analysis:  “So then, on 28 August, everything necessary had been done on the Russian side to ensure the enemy’s triumph and his revenge…”

Again, he’s writing specifically about armies, but it applies to large organizations and bureaucracies everywhere.  Everywhere.  I don’t care if you are in a buttoned up vertical highrise or the disruptive campus fun houses of high tech, human nature is what it is.  “Bad people always support each other—that is their great strength,” Solzhenitsyn writes. There are few exceptions.