Book Review: Submission

Submission, by Michel Houllebecq

Part 2 (Camp of the Saints being first) of my topical reading list for this fall. By sheer coincidence, I began reading it in Paris the day after the terrorist attack that resulted in hundreds of casualties there.

The novel essentially has two non-traditional plots. Francois, a middle-aged college professor in Paris, goes through a midlife crisis, having recently stopped banging his most recent and favorite student. (That’s one “plot.”) In the background, meanwhile, the real events happen, and we learn about them in bouts of exposition. The Muslim Brotherhood, a new party in France, finishes second in the presidential election, qualifying for the runoff against the far right National Front. The leftist parties, following a disrupted runoff election (but at those behest?) agree to a deal, throwing their support to the Muslim Ben Abbas in a power-sharing deal. (Something similar happens in Belgium, coincidentally the site of post-Paris terror.)

(spoilers below)

French society slows drifts toward a religious conservatism. Subsidies for stay-at-home moms drive women out of the workforce and remove unemployment. Suspiciously, crime in the heavily Muslim banlieus drops precipitously. Ben Abbas uses his influence to invite Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt (for now) into the EU, slowly reconstituting the Roman Empire that he ultimately hopes to rule. Most relevant, the Muslims take control of the educational sector, reforming education in line with Muslim beliefs, and the to plots begin to intersect.

Francois, removed from his post for not being Muslim, is later recruited to come back, and his main concern with his conversion is how many wives he would be allowed under the new practice of polygamy. The dean recruiting him has several, ranging from 15 to 40, while even the nerdiest elderly professor is provided with a young coed.

That, roughly, summarizes the story. Houllebecq spends a lot of time telling us about Francois’ love life, though mostly it reads like an old man’s dirty fantasies. (One fun part is the annual ritual wherein his last year’s fling tells him she met someone over the summer.) The political analysis is somewhat superficial. While Houllebecq admits he accelerated the predicted demographics of the 2040s into the 2020s, so I give him a pass on that, but he misunderstands present-day Europe badly. The sort of leftist elite that would rather elect a Muslim than a far-rightist would also NEVER cede the education of their children to someone else. The political elites that could barely get southern and eastern Europe into the EU would and could not get any Muslim countries admitted except perhaps Turkey. The refugee crisis and the response thereto, if extended into the next couple of decades, would make this resistance stronger, not weaker.

Houllebecq’s strongest talent is showing the Islamic takeover as non-threatening, even welcome for a society whose liberal decadence has left it defenseless from strong convictions. There’s an insidious inevitability to this story that doesn’t hit you until you think about it for a bit.

Mildly recommended. It’s a quick read.

Book Review: The Camp Of The Saints

The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail (full text PDF)

Yes, it’s racist. But we’ll get to that later.

I read this book a while ago but withheld review until I got through Michel Houllebecq’s Submission. I figured they would be topical reads, given the refugee and immigration crisis in Europe (and, more recently, the terror attacks). Now an even more notable coincidence inspired me to finally post the review: a Greek boat allegedly attempted to sink a boat of Syrian refugees, eerily similar to a Greek boat plowing through survivors of a sunk boat in The Camp of the Saints.

The plot of the novel is not a secret, so I’m not spoiling anything by summarizing it here. During a famine in India, the Belgian government suspends its policy of adoption of local children, prompting a riot that ultimately leads a million or so of India’s most backward citizens to seize a hundred ships and set sail toward, ultimately Europe. On the way, they’re redirected by the guns of Egypt and South Africa (who want no part of the Last Chance Fleet) around the Horn or Africa. During the two-month voyage, Europe shakes. The self-proclaimed liberalism of its elites – media, government, church – has left them without a way to say “we don’t want you here” even though no country wants to receive the undifferentiated mass from India. Those opposed are quickly denounced as racists, while the most idealistic on the left actively wish for the arrival of the comers. The non-white underclasses of Europe begin to rise in anticipation of the change, rebelling in France, the US, and the UK against the perceived domination by the white natives. The military, castrated by soft leadership, bails. It’s no secret that the ship arrives, its masses spill onto southern France, and slowly European civilization is destroyed. (No character is worth singling out. They’re all types.)

In many ways, Raspail has correctly predicted many aspects of the current refugee crisis. There is a certain subset of social-justice-warriors that finds Europe guilty and thus responsible for accepting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees. There is a media elite that is quick to denounce as racist anyone who mentions that refugees are Muslim and that ISIS has announced plans to use them to infiltrate the West. There is an imbalance of judgment and moral agency assigned to different groups (“Now, it’s a known fact that racism comes in two forms: that practiced by whites — heinous and inexcusable, whatever its motives—and that practiced by [non-whites]—quite justified, whatever its excesses, since it’s merely the expression of a righteous revenge, and it’s up to the whites to be patient and understanding.”). There is the assumption in public discourse that Western wealth is stolen, not earned or created. There is a softer, nicer Catholic church asking for accommodation.

There’s also a barely-mentioned subplot involving Chinese mass migration into Russia (that didn’t age well) and the story of the white state of South Africa (ditto). Asia, in general, doesn’t get nearly enough attention in this story, and even Africa, which presents the most demographic pressure onto Europe, is an aside.

Most importantly, Raspail has underestimated the European response, as we are seeing the closing of borders, the rise of isolationist parties, and general resistance to increased immigration flows. Those messages filter to potential migrants (not refugees, necessarily, but fellow travelers) and present a bulwark against the unlimited migration that could overwhelm European institution. (Say what you want, but post-Enlightenment European institutions work really well.)

Raspail, however, seems to care much more about the white race than European institutions, which is why I started this post the way I did. His portrayal of the Indians is in parts disgusting, delving into the details of the “monsters” on board the ships, smelly and engaged in a giant orgy with semen flowing freely. It’s an ugly image, and one that undercuts the message of the book. (It’s much easier to resist such a group than a nicer, friendlier group of immigrants that later votes to curtail women’s rights and free speech.)

In a particularly ugly instance, a woman raped by the mob is impressed into sexual slavery with other girls. Raspail hauntingly notes “A guard fed them and opened the door to all comers,” a phrase that I still think about, but Raspail’s main concern is that only a white woman can make a white baby, and once white women lost their racial pride, they’d lose all resistance.

There are important issues raised here – can an open society defend itself to remain open? – and the language is great in parts. If this were a movie, it could use a remake. Then again, we might be watching the remake in Europe right now.

Highly recommended, obviously without endorsement.

Book Review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea

The Old English Dictionary (the unabridged version) is 21,730 pages, and Ammon Shea read all of them in a year. If you’ve never read a dictionary, that may seem like the most boring way to use your life, but having spent plenty of time in dictionaries (out of necessity) I can at least understand why a lover of words could also become a lover of dictionaries. Shea clearly is one and it comes accross. He captures the tension in learning about words, ultimately concluding it’s worth it:

“When I learned that secretary meant “one privy to a secret” … I was utterly delighted. And then I almost immediately began scolding myself for not having already realized such an obvious precedent, and thought that I should feel no excitement at discovering something that in hindsight seems so obvious. But it is excting to make these little discoveries about language, and it shouldn’t matter at all if they are obvious to someone else.”

I also generally agree with his take on books: “The computer can only reproduce the information in a book, and never the joyful experience of reading it.”

My point of pride in reading this book was noticing that one word was misused. Shea refers to the “enormity of the English language.” Enormity, however, refers to “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong,” while enormousness refers to something very large. Small win for me. (I grant him a pass on saying “unconscious” when “subconscious” is a better fit.)

The book’s 26 chapters are split into a mediation on words and a list of particularly interesting words from the respective letter. Since there is no way to review that, I’ll leave you with a list of particularly fun words or Shea’s descriptions thereof. One realization you’ll have is one I shared with Shea: “Reading through the dictionary, I am struck again and again by the fact that many words that describe common things are obscure, while many words that describe obscure things are widely known.”

“Even though I do not feel a need to remember these words, I do feel a need to know that someone has remembered them.”

Strongly agree. Recommended for word lovers.

Airling (n.) A person who is both young and thoughtless.

Bayard (n.) A person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance.

Cellarhood (n.) The state of being a cellar. Along with tableity (the condition of being a table) and paneity (the state of being bread), cellarhood is a wonderful example of the spectacular ways English has of describing things that no one ever thinks it necessary to describe.

Desiderium (n.) A yearning, specificially for a thing one once had, but has no more.

Elozable (adj.) Readily influenced by flattery.

Fornale (v.) To spend one’s money before it has been earned.

Gound (n.) The gunk that collects in the corners of the eyes. Gound is the perfect example of a word that is practically useless, and yet still nice to know.

Heterophemize (v.) To say something different from what you mean to say. [I really wish this were more widely known because I do this frequently.]

Impedimenta (n., pl.) Such things as impede progress. Although impedimenta has most often been used in the sense of some concrete thing (such as baggage) that impedes progress, I prefer to think of it when I encounter any of the general things that slow one’s progress through life, such as having a moral code of some sort.

Jentacular (adj.) Of or pertaining to breakfast.

Kankedort (n.) An awkward situation or affair.

Leese (v.) To be a loser. [Learning this could really help Trump fit more into his tweets.]

Matutinal (adj.) Active or wide awake in the morning hours.

Nemesism (n.) Frustration directed inward. …a counterpart to narcissism.

Obdormition (n.) The falling asleep of a limb. Obdormition is the feeling you get just before prinkling (pins and needles).

Paracme (n.) The point at which one’s prime is past.

Quaesitum (n.) The answer to a problem; the thing that is looked for.

Redamancy (n.) The act of loving in return.

Stomaching (n.) A cherishing of indignation or bitterness.

Twi-thought (n.) A vague or indistinct thought.

Underlive (v.) To live in a manner that does not measure up to one’s potential.

Velleity (n.) A mere wish or desire for something without accompanying action or effort.

Well-corned (adj.) Exhilerated or excited with liquor.

Xenium (n.) A gift given to a guest.

Yepsen (n.) The amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also the two cupped hands themselves.

Zyxt (v.) ..”to see” in the Kentish dialect. … [I]i is the very last word defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Book Review: The Girl On the Train

The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Constantly compared to Gone Girl because it involves a woman and murder, The Girl On The Train is a very good thriller in its own right. Our main unreliable narrator, Rachel, is an unemployed alcoholic who takes the daily train to town to fool her roommate into thinking she’s still working. On one daily stop she sees into the houses of her old neighborhood where her ex Tom now lives with his new wife and former mistress Anna (and their child), but Rachel forms an attachment to a couple down the street that she builds up in her mind as the perfect couple. The plot is set in motion when Rachel observes Megan (of the perfect couple) cheat on Scott. Shortly thereafter, Megan disappears, and Rachel, still drinking heavily and essentially stalking Tom, wakes up with bloodstains and no memory.  The other women also get a turn narrating, with similarly unreliable accounts and some time-shifting.

While the surface story is about what happened to Megan, the true mastery of the book is in the psychological insights it offers. The characters are, for the most part, between flawed and terrible. Rachel’s growing despair that she tries to tame with alcohol, Anna’s jealous paranoia, and ultimately Megan’s loneliness; all of these are shown in subtle but powerful ways. Rachel, for example, explains what it’s like be too drunk to remember an embarrassing incident (“You want to be able to remember it for yourself, to see it and experience it in your own memory, so that – how did you put it? – so that it belongs to you?”) and wants to “scream with the frustration of it, the not knowing, the uselessness of my own brain.” (Ed.: Guilty.)

The women also agree on one point: the pleasure of control they get from being attractive to a man:

“That’s the thing I like most about it, having power over someone. That’s the intoxicating thing.”
“I was enjoying myself too much. Being the other woman is a huge turn-on, there’s no point denying it: you’re the one he can’t help but betray his wife for, even though he loves her. That’s just how irresistible you are.”
“I never meant for it to go anywhere, I didn’t want it to go anywhere. I just enjoyed feeling wanted; I liked the feeling of control.”

It’s an understandable temptation, and it’s particularly interesting to see it framed from three very different women.

Other highlights, sans context:

“Parents don’t care about anything but their children. They are the centre of the universe; they are all that really counts. Nobody else is important, no one else’s suffering or joy matters, none of it is real.”

“How much better life must have been for jealous drunks before emails and texts and mobile phones, before all this electronica and the traces it leaves.”


Book Review: The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

I’m still not sure what to think of The Dud Avocado. It’s highly acclaimed, which always makes me think that I’m missing something when I don’t share the reviewers’ enthusiasm. (Sometimes I get over it.) One thing the consensus gets wrong is how funny the book is: it’s not. It’s entertaining, to be sure, but the practice of calling books “funny” when they display the tiniest bit of wit is not helpful. That said, the book is a fun read, if a bit meandering, with great writing.

Sally Jay Gorce is the prototypical American girl in Paris: eager to check an affair off her to-do list, fascinated by Paris’s literary scene (and impressed by its many self-important bores). Flighty and spontaneous, she’s delightfully unpredictable but also self-aware: “I’m the colorful eccentric all these characters write about.” “God knows there’s no one in the world who’s more a slave to her passions than I am.” “(I have an attention span of about two minutes long.)” She analyzes her own “restlessness of vague desires” and dramatizes her failures (“I wanted to go off quietly somewhere and die.”). Let loose upon Paris with her uncle’s financial support, she seeks love (and lust), adventure and inspiration. A part-time actress, she sees Paris as “the rich man’s plaything, he craftsman’s tool, the artist’s anguish, and the world’s largest champagne factory.” She mingles with writers and wannabe philosophers, spends late nights at fancy restaurants and dive bars, looking for…something. Sally Jay goes through the usual trials of finding yourself, including unrequited love (“the one I loved best … sensationally uninterested.”) and life’s reluctance to play along:

“And I remember a little later wondering why things always turn out to be diametrically opposed to what you expect them to be. It’s no good even trying to predict what the opposite will be because it always fools you and turns out to be the oppose of that, if you see what I mean.”

You know, I think this book is funny after all. The language, as noted above, is fantastic, starting with the opening line: “It was a hot, peaceful, optimistic sort of day in September.” I just wish Dundy had given Sally Jay more space to do things rather than be content with her being places and telling us who was there. I’m not as impressed by learning about the proto-hipsters of Paris, although their parallels to the Brooklyn wannabes are fun enough. (Have to admit, it took me a long time to realize the book wasn’t set in the present.)

Recommended, apparently.

Book Review: The Fire Seekers

The Fire Seekers, by Richard Farr

When his father discovers ancient tablets in the Mediterranean, Daniel Calder’s life slowly unravels. His mother dies under suspicious circumstances on a mountain; his father’s former intern becomes a powerful cult leader; hundreds are disappearing worldwide. The teenager, with the help of his brilliant friend Morag and the powerful Rosko, tries to figure out mysteries in both the past and the present. The characters aren’t particularly interesting or boring; this is about the plot more than anything. The ultimate question is whether the supernatural Architects are real, a myth, or something else entirely.

There are two real parts to this story: the historical puzzles surrounding the origins of civilization, and the present-day mysterious disappearances. The former is significantly more interesting than the latter, with old documents and real-life unexplained phenomena woven into mostly satisfying explanations. (It helps to enjoy ancient history.) The present-day story is less well developed, and moves along in fits and starts, leading up to a final, somewhat muddy showdown.

Most aspects of this book are characterized with the same pattern: occasional brilliance punctuating a lot of average. There are some very insightful or funny lines here:

“[my father] wants to feel close to me, wants to understand me, and wants the easy road to that results, which is me being more like him than I am.”

“I am an Armenian, and therefore I hate everybody. I am also a Christian, and therefore I love everybody. Life is complicated.”

Rather than including more gems of this kind, Farr spends much of the time describing the action scenes (Daniel suffers lots of pain and describes all of it every time) in excruciating, though fortunately skippable, detail.

I haven’t decided if I’ll keep reading the trilogy. If you like books like The Rule of Four or Dan Brown’s work, you might like this.

Work, Drink, Sleep, Repeat

Slate’s Jordan Weissman reports on a new paper regarding the drinking habits of professional who work long hours:

Science has finally confirmed what anybody who has ever met an i-banker, lawyer, or journalist already knew: People who work exhaustingly long hours like to drink themselves insensate at the end of the week.

To be specific, an analysis published in the British Medical Journal found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with a slightly higher probability of “risky” alcohol consumption. The authors reached their main conclusions by analyzing unpublished data from 27 studies conducted in the United States, Europe, and Australia. They also looked at the findings of 36 previously released papers, many of which were also from Japan—where after-work binge drinking is basically a cherished part of its office culture.

I’ll confirm this from personal anecdotal experience, and I think we’re all intuitively on board with the finding. Weissmann, however, backs the wrong conclusion:

the data doesn’t give any clear answers on correlation vs. causation. Maybe those who tend to pull endless hours at the office are the same personality types who tend to imbibe heavily. Or maybe working long hours drives people to drink. Personally, I’d bet on the latter.

While no doubt some people drink to cope with the long hours, it is far more likely that the same factor causes both long work hours and heavier drinking. I’ve had this hypothesis for a while and this is as good a time as any to mention it: the brain’s reward system  is the same for all rewards. Your dopamine level doesn’t know if you’re raising it with work, sex, alcohol, or cocaine. My hypothesis is that the people whose reward center is more sensitive are more likely to exhibit addictive behavior in different domains; that is, they’re more likely to feel “rewarded” working long hours and similarly “rewarded” drinking that 8th whiskey. I’d bet that this common factor explains a lot of the correlation found in the paper.

Annoyed Thoughts About Planned Parenthood

I try not to comment on abortion because I’m baffled that it’s a major political issue, but the recent leak of Planned Parenthood videos and the ensuing effort to remove the taxpayer funding provided to PP are forcing me to point out two stupidities that I’ve seen circulated on Facebook and am currently watching on Larry Wilmore’s show. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s all the worst things of the Daily Show combined.)

1. “Planned Parenthood is the only place poor women can go for health care!” – Didn’t we just spend years installing a massive, expensive, invasive, and terrible federal program that ensures that even the poor have access to regular medical care like everyone else? Hasn’t the administration bragged about the program’s success? (Larry Wilmore has.) Shouldn’t you have to pick one between ‘everyone has health care access’ or ‘they have no place else to go for health care’?

2. “Taxpayer money can’t be used for abortions!” – Yeah, probably technically true, but also doesn’t matter. Money is fungible. If I want to give you money but don’t want you to spend it on drugs, I could pay your rent. Of course, you can then use your money which you were going to use for rent to buy drugs, so it’s no different than if I had bought you drugs. Same with abortions.

That is all.

Book Review: The Ark

The Ark, by Laura Liddell Nolen

Full disclosure: Laura & I went to the same law school and overlapped by a bit, and have met before.

Somehow I keep reading apocalyptic science fiction involving young female protagonists (like Exodus and Zenith and Ticker), and this is probably my favorite of the bunch. Excellently paced, we watch the end of the Earth as humans try to colonize the solar system to stay alive. There is plenty of action and just enough reflection to keep it from being shallow but not so much as to bore.

The story is told from the perspective of Charlotte “Char” Turner, a juvenile delinquent from an otherwise upstanding family. As an asteroid approaches Earth, the powerful and the lucky are leaving earth on shuttles that take them to five arks, large spaceships hosting 100,000 humans on their way to a new home. 19 billion must stay behind to die* in the impact. Char, having a criminal record, isn’t considered for the lottery, but on her final visit her mother slips her a ticket to the last shuttle.

*There’s a bit of a handwave as to why they remain so docile until the end, but it’s forgivable.

The race to the shuttle is interesting, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say she makes it. (You saw the title, right?) On the Ark, the politicians and military who are in charge (and likely to create the most sociopathic society ever) allege a terrorist threat from a group called the Remnant, and Char finds herself in the middle of these power struggles.

There are other characters here, but none are as compelling as Char. In part that’s because the plot moves fastest when Char is out on her own, but in part it’s because she’s just more interesting in this world than anyone else. There are two sequels planned, and I’ll probably buy both to see where she goes.

The prose in The Ark is solid, very similar in style to The Hunger Games. One passage stuck with me in particular for the haunting efficiency with which it shows a catastrophe:

The Pinball struck Africa directly. The mighty continent split apart, creating instant shockwaves that coursed over the surface of the Earth. Australia was underwater within moments, along with ll of Western Europe. Near the poles, the remaining clouds ripped apart, then evaporated as the atmosphere shattered.
Earth no longer existed.


Book Review: Everything Burns

Everything Burns, by Vincent Zandri

A nominal thriller, Everything Burns kept me reading without ever truly keeping me interested. Part of that is that I am not particularly fascinated by fire, so the dozens of separate descriptions of flames are about as interesting to me as descriptions of people’s clothes. (I tend to skip both. I finished The Devil Wears Prada in 25 minutes.) Part of it was the plot, which suffers from a number of weaknesses.

I have to give Zandri credit for his protagonist, Reece, who’s neither likable nor particularly impressive but is an intriguing profile of a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder. After his family is killed in a fire, Reece grows up with a fascination with it and also deals with some other problems. Reece is maddening in his decision-making and sometimes yo ujust want to shake him, but for some stretches – especially the slower moments – you see a man dealing with a mental illness, a man who wants to feel differently but can’t. (Zandri uses the verbal crutch of “I can’t help myself” so much that it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s using it intentionally.) Reece’s rollercoaster ride of love, jealousy, trust, anger…it’s frustrating but no more frustrating that being Reece. (I have to admit, it took some reflection to see what Zandri did here, especially because Reece can be very stupid.)

Unfortunately, Zandri doesn’t do much with this character. Having recently reunited with his ex-wife Lisa and moved back in with her and their daughter Anna, Reece is now a best-selling author. His wife is headed for minor surgery, and in her absence Reece becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a less successful writer named David. When his house is ransacked, Reece confronts David, and the day spirals from there. I wish I could say Reece’s unreliable narrator makes for great suspense, but it just doesn’t. Zandri makes some elementary mistakes that run the plot into the ground.

There are minor mistakes (law firms don’t have CEOs) but that’s not what ruins this. Two of these issues are so egregious I’m going to do a rare thing and put complete spoilers below the fold.

Continue reading Book Review: Everything Burns

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