Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I suppose this is science fiction, although any science involved is way beyond human understanding. There is a mysterious region somewhere in the U.S. called “Area X”. The people who go inside either never come back or come back as someone else. The latest group of volunteers to try their luck include a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, a linguist and a biologist. The biologist tells their story. As you might expect, the expedition doesn’t go very well. They encounter a lot of weirdness, along with mounting paranoia.

Annihilation is the first novel in the author’s Southern Reach Trilogy. I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to start reading the second novel, Authority. That one is followed by Acceptance (which could refer to either a positive or negative outcome). I can’t say reading Annihilation was a totally enjoyable experience, because the characters aren’t sympathetic. Area X is clearly affecting their minds. But there was enough suspense to keep me reading. What is going on in Area X? You won’t really find out in Annihilation. Nor will you find out by watching the 2018 “science fiction horror” movie. It’s based on the book, but a lot of it is different.

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The Good Times by Russell Baker

Russell Baker wrote a column for The New York Times for many years. At least at the beginning, it was called “Observer”. He presented his observations, usually humorous, on whatever he felt like writing about. I loved it. That’s why I read his first memoir, Growing Up. It dealt with his boyhood in America before World War 2. I loved Growing Up too.

When he died last month at the age of 93, reading his obituary in the Times made me want to read his second memoir, The Good Times. It sounded really interesting. After college, he got a job as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He worked his way up to being the paper’s London correspondent, and then covered Congress and the White House for the Sun and the Times. The story ends when he began writing his column in 1962 (something he did for the next 36 years).

I didn’t enjoy The Good Times as much as Growing Up. Baker’s wartime and college experiences weren’t that interesting. Neither was his job as a reporter in Baltimore. I thought he’d tell great stories from those days, but he mainly discusses his relationships with his demanding mother and the imposing editors he worked for.

It doesn’t even sound like he had a good time until he and his family moved to London. That’s when the book got interesting, maybe because London and Washington are more interesting than Baltimore. If I had to do it over again, I’d start with the second half of the book.

One other thing. Reading the book, it wasn’t clear why he called it The Good Times. Baker never seemed to be have a very good time except for his year in London. Then I got to this passage at the end of the book. He contrasts his career with the careers of the great reporters who covered the war, which, from a journalistic perspective, was a “great story”:

Well, of course, in my time as a reporter, which was from 1947 to 1962, there were not many great stories to broaden a newsman and deepen his character. Those were the good times, from the summer I started at the Sun in 1947 to Dallas in 1963, at least compared to what had gone before and what came afterward. They were especially good times if you were young, ambitious, energetic and American. Being young makes all times better; being American in that brief moment that was America’s golden age of empire made it the best of any time that ever was or will be. Provided you were white. Good times, though, are not the best times for a reporter.

Everybody Had An Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles by William McKeen

I’ll quote a few blurbs from the back of the dust jacket and then add a few thoughts.

A widescreen, meticulously researched account of how Los Angeles — the seedbed of surf pop and folk rock — became the epicenter of American music in the 1960s. McKeen follows the thread from the Beach Boys’ sunny innocence to Manson’s noir horrors — via Phil Spector, Jim Morrison, and a supporting cast of hundreds — and brings the music of the City of Angeles brilliant to life. (Barney Hoskyns, author of Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California)

Everybody Had an Ocean offers a detailed snapshot of the creative fertility, debauchery and importance of a signal moment in pop music history. Highly recommended. (Charles Granata, author of Wouldn’t It Be Nice)

… a fascinating, hypnotic look at the underside of the California dream. With smooth prose and keen reporting, William McKeen peels back the facade of peace and love and thoroughly examines the dark heart behind a generation of music… (Michael Connelly)

… Once again, the Beach Boys reign supreme. (Douglas Brinkley)

As the title suggests, Everybody Had an Ocean concentrates on the Beach Boys, especially Brian and Dennis Wilson. But all kinds of musicians appear, including Bob Dylan and the Beatles. If you already know a lot about a particular musician or group, you probably won’t find much new here. The main thing I learned about the Beach Boys was that Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson spent even more time together than I realized. On the other hand, I learned quite a bit about Jan and Dean, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds and the Doors (as well as the Manson “family”).

The book’s prose is not “smooth”, however. The author often resorts to distracting clichés and slang expressions, especially when he’s discussing who was having sex with who. In general, it could have used a better editor. But if you’re interested in the music of that time and place, Everybody Had an Ocean is worth reading.

The White Album by Joan Didion

The White Album is a 1979 book of Joan Didion’s essays. She wrote them between 1968 and 1978. They mostly chronicle her life in Southern California during that weird decade. Among the topics are a Doors recording session, a business that grows orchids, life in Malibu, how movies are made (it’s all about the deals and money), California’s water supply, the Hoover Dam, the women’s movement, Honolulu past and present, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing and the Manson murders. One of the topics she doesn’t write about is the Beatles’ White Album.

I’ve read quite a few of Didion’s books. She is a great writer. Sometimes I’ve had trouble understanding the point she is making. I didn’t have that problem this time. In the first few pages of the first essay, she explains her point of view:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling…. I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and Air Travel cards, a citizen… I made gingham curtains for spare bedrooms, … put lentils to soak on Saturday night for soup on Sunday, made quarterly F.I.C.A. payments and renewed my driver’s license on time…

This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement…

She made it through this especially disordered period, which lasted six years or so, but the fact that she went through it at all made it easier for me to understand her perspective on things. In these essays, she views the world from a distance, remarking on the interesting things she observes, some of which resist understanding. Shares her observations with us. It’s an excellent book.

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

Jason Stanley is a philosophy professor at Yale. He previously published a book called How Propaganda Works. His new book is a guidebook to fascism. He doesn’t spend much time on its history. His purpose is to explain how fascism and similar approaches to politics work.

The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them”, based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and no “them”, and supported by a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or “social justice”, and are out to destroy our culture … and make “us” weak. “We” are industrious and law-abiding … “they” are lazy, perverse, corrupt and decadent [188].

Among the mechanisms Stanley cites are: the idea that some kinds of people are inherently better than others; the creation of a mythic past; the widespread use of propaganda; the promotion of conspiracy theories; the use of contradictory statements to demonstrate power and obscure reality; anti-intellectualism; encouraging feelings of victimhood among the majority population; the celebration of law and order and military might; and respect for “traditional family values”.

Stanley doesn’t spend much time on the economic aspects of fascism, except for fascism’s general opposition to labor unions. Perhaps it’s enough to say that fascist leaders are authoritarians and wield extraordinary power over economic affairs. One possible problem with the book is that his use of contemporary examples may suggest that there is no significant difference between fascism and contemporary conservatism (or whatever we should call the reactionary politics of today’s Republican Party). His point, however, is that contemporary “conservatives”, in particular the current occupant of the White House, exhibit behavior that matches many of the distinctive behaviors of history’s best-known fascists.

Finally, one aspect of fascism that sets it apart is what Stanley calls the “Führer Principle”:

The father, in fascist ideology, is the leader of the family; the CEO is the leader of the business; the authoritarian leader is the father or CEO of the state. When voters in a democratic society yearn for a CEO as president, they are responding to their own implicit fascist impulses.

The pull of fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies human existence, gives us an object, a “them” whose supposed [defects highlight] our own virtue and discipline, encourages us t oidentify with a forceful leader who helps usmakese sense of the world, whose bluntness regarding the “undeserving” people in the world is refreshing…. If the CEO is tough-talking and cares little for democratic institutions, even denigrates them, so much the better. Fascist politics preys on the human frailty that makes our own suffering seem bearable if we know that those we look down upon are being made to suffer more [183].

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.