arkadi cloud

tech, teaching, and books

Fascism by Mark Neocleous

Small, clear and succinct book from the Open University Press: Concepts in Social Sciences about Fascism. It addresses a few very 'simple' questions: (1) What is the relationship between fascism, modernity, and capitalism? (2) What is the basis of the fascist attack on Marxism and liberalism? (3) Why is fascism inherently destructive?

I really enjoy books like this. Fascism is a term you hear a lot, but the meaning has gotten muddled and confused over the decades.

This is the sort of book I read, not understanding all parts perfectly, but I am thinking about it for weeks after. Reading this book felt like taking a 1 semester course in Political Science. I hope to find and read more of the books in this series.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #75 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #fascism #war #MarkNeocleous #PoliticalScience #politics #NonFiction

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

This is the Man Booker International 2021 Winner. I started and finished it last night in one sitting. I didn't realize it is only 145 pages long. This is translated from French.

The story is about Alfa Ndiaye, who is a soldier, from Senegal, in the French military during WW1. This novel captures the madness of trench warfare. The longing for home. The camaraderie of going to war with a 'brother'. The novel jumps back and forth from his different memories, from the trench, to his memories of Senegal, and what he did.

It's amazing what the author has been able to do in such a short book. He could've fluffed this up a lot to hit a 200-300 page book to please his publisher, but he kept it succinct. This book feels like being in the mind of a soldier when he's on his deathbed and thinking about the most intense period of his life, the war. All his regrets, and actions are laid bare without explanation or justification.

“Yes, I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones. No continuous madmen. As soon as the fighting ends, we’re to file away our rage, our pain, and our fury. Pain is tolerated, we can bring our pain home on the condition that we keep it to ourselves. But rage and fury cannot be brought back to the trench. Before returning home, we must denude ourselves of rage and fury, we must strip ourselves of it, and if we don’t we are no longer playing the game of war. Madness, after the captain blows the whistle to retreat, is taboo.”

This novel is so short and moves from one thing to the next so quickly I would highly recommend you read this in one sitting.

The Man Booker International Prize has been hit and miss for me lately, but this one seems like a great novel. I am not sure why it has sub-3 star ratings on GoodReads, but I really enjoyed the journey it took me on.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #73 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #DavidDiop #WW1 #war #ManBookerIntl2021 #trench #Senegal #TranslatedFiction

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Metro #1

Incredible sci-fi set in a post-apocalyptic world where the only humans to survive are those who were lucky enough to be caught in the Moscow subway system when the nukes came raining down. Humans survive on pork and mushrooms. Humans are under constant attack by 'monsters' from the surface that make incursions into the subway system. Are there any survivors outside of the Moscow Metro? We don't know.

The atmosphere is just great in this one. It's creepy, and you can feel the sense of claustrophobia when the main character walks from station to station. I am a very visual person, so I printed a Moscow subway map so I could follow where the characters were going. This isn't necessary, but I think it's cool to see where the real subway stations are. Sometimes when he describes some of the subway stations, I would hop on my phone and look at a picture of the real station. If you didn't know, Moscow has a very beautiful subway system so check it out!

I like the ideas that he plays with in this story. Will humans every work together? What cults take hold of people's imagination? Do we lose our humanity, or draw closer together?

The main plot is that Artyom has to deliver a message to a certain person in a certain station. Along the way he meets many different characters and sees all sorts of different governments in the different stations. He gets in lots of scrapes but miraculously, through fate, or the help of others, survives. Once he does deliver the message, the mission changes.

I was enthralled with this one from the beginning. This is the sort of book you need to curl up with in bed with the lights really low and read by yourself.

I have started reading the sequel Metro 2034. I don't have very high hopes for it, but it will be in the same world which I enjoyed so it shouldn't be that bad.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #72 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #DmitryGlukhovsky #PostApocalyptic #Moscow #Future #SciFi #ScienceFiction

The Parthenon by Mary Beard

I've never yet been disappointed by a Mary Beard book, and this book is no exception.

Beard takes us through not just the history of the Parthenon, its construction, use throughout the years, but also touches on the myths and stories associated with the building. Why is it famous? What have others said about in the past? and of course gets into the largest controversy in the past 250 years, the Elgin Marbles, which rightly ought to be called the Parthenon Marbles.

It was interesting reading about the times when the Parthenon was used as a church and as a mosque because the Byzantine time period has been glossed over when the new myth of the Greek state as being a continuation of ancient Greece was invented. I understand why it was done, but it's not good to forget your history.

This book has lots of illustrations, diagrams, and photos in it as well. I made a point to buy a paper copy of this book so I could enjoy these to the fullest.

As with all of Beard's books, she has a lovely Further Reading section at the back of the book which explains the sources she has used, and suggests other sources for those interested in learning more.

The cover of the edition I read was awful though. Beard looks like she's grimacing and not at all happy. I'm not sure if she chose that picture, or the publisher chose for her. Either way, it is the only detraction from a stellar book.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #71 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #MaryBeard #Parthenon #AncientGreece #History

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

(Culture #6)

There seem to be two lines of thinking about this book: one that this is not really a Culture book because of the absence of 'sci-fi' elements, while others say it's the best goddamned culture book because it's beauty is its subtlety.

I have read lots of reviews on GoodReads about this and think it's a great novel, but not my favourite Culture novel.

Description from the publisher: On a backward world with six moons, an alert spy reports on the doings of one Dr. Vosill, who has mysteriously become the personal physician to the king, despite being a foreigner and, even more unthinkably, a woman. Vosill has more enemies than she first realizes. But then she also has more remedies to hand than those who wish her ill can ever guess.

Elsewhere, in another palace across the mountains, a man named DeWar serves as chief bodyguard to the Protector General of Tassasen, a profession he describes as the business of “assassinating assassins.” DeWar, too, has his enemies, but his foes strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more direct.

None trust the doctor, while the bodyguard trusts no one, but what is the hidden commonality linking their disparate histories? Spiraling around a central core of mystery, deceit, love, and betrayal...”

There are lots of common themes in the two stories, and similarities between the two main characters. There are even love stories but they don't take the focus off of the deceit and betrayals in these different kingdoms.

“Truth, I have learned, differs for everybody. Just as no two people ever see a rainbow in exactly the same place – and yet both most certainly see it, while the person seemingly standing right underneath it does not see it at all – so truth is a question of where one stands, and the direction one is looking in at the time.”

After reading other reviews, it makes sense that the two main characters might actually be Culture agents tasked with keeping the two leaders alive, the King, and the Protector (hints in the Epilogue). The Culture does sometimes carefully intervene in worlds if they think it's in the best interest of the Culture.

I enjoyed this novel and couldn't put it down once I got near the end. It's a great ending that pulls all the elements together. I'll be thinking about this for a while to unravel the subtle story lines that Banks has put together here. This is certainly the most unique Culture I've read thus far. It has all the things I love in an Iain M. Banks story – dark humour, interesting dialogue, and compelling conflicts. This is a solid 5 star story, but don't come into it expecting it to be like the other Culture novels.

“You can draw the blinds in a brothel, but people still know what you’re doing.”

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #70 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #Culture #IainMBanks #SciFi #ScienceFiction #Medieval

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

I usually steer far clear of business books. They usually are stuffy, poorly written, and humorless affairs, not this one though. Netflix co founder Hastings writes with candor about Netflix's success and failures as they tried to navigate being a creative technology company. There is humour and concrete examples throughout the book. This book feels so genuine and so bereft of bullshit and long sentences filled with academic language. This book is part biography of Netflix, and part useful lessons Netflix has learned along the way in how to run their company, the 'special sauce' if you will.

The main takeaway from the book is that we don't need to run companies like they are factories in the industrial revolution. For companies who are creating creative products, which is many, many companies out there, we need to start ditching the controls of factories.

“If you have a team of five stunning employees and two adequate ones, the adequate ones will sap managers’ energy, so they have less time for the top performers, reduce the quality of group discussions, lowering the team’s overall IQ, force others to develop ways to work around them, reducing efficiency, drive staff who seek excellence to quit, and show the team you accept mediocrity, thus multiplying the problem.”

This is one of the quotes that hit me hard. We have this problem at our workplace. I feel I'm one of the stunning employees and feel demotivated working beside dummies. The problem with my workplace is that we can't afford to hire the best. So, we will have to just trying praying every time we hire a new person, keep them from quitting, and push the others out the door as fast as possible.

This is where a lot of Reed's arguments fall apart. If you can't afford to pay the top dollar for the best employees it will be difficult to implement a lot these points of the Netflix method. The first one is 'high talent density', which is pay your best employees well, and get rid of the just 'OK' employees.

This is not to say the book is useless, you can still take things away from this book, but very few companies would be able to copy every single point in this book. I like his snappy, easy-to-remember catch phrases for a lot of the points they make: the keeper test, the 4 A's, no 'brilliant jerks' and lead with context. I don't want to spoil the book, and I won't be able to explain it adequately so you'll just have to read the book to find out more about these phrases.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #69 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #ReedHastings #ErinMeyer #Netflix #business #NonFiction

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

It started off great, but never got as interesting as it felt it should. There were lots of interesting hints of topics it might explore, but they stayed around the edges as if only superficial window dressing. This novel had the possibility to as deep as Never Let Me Go but turned out to be a pale imitation.

The main character of this book is an AF, artificial friend. Now, why do children need these? That is only hinted at. This AF learns about the world by looking out the window and eventually ends up with a family to be the companion of a little girl. There are two sorts of children – lifted and not, and we don't find out much about it at all. Why? How? There is very little world-building here. I think this novel could've been so much better if we understood a bit more about the world these AF's are a part of. There was also the part about 'communities' for adults, which are somehow different than having a job? That was also never explained as well.

Now, I am not a fan of this author, nor an enemy, but have had trouble understanding the praise heaped upon him. I'm glad the fanboys haven't piled into the ratings on Goodreads. This novel is a comfortable 3 star novel. It was interesting, light, perfect for the beach. It stays in your thoughts for a few days, but then fades. Most of all I keep thinking, this novel could've been so much more. It just didn't do it for me.

Rating: ★★ Book #68 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #KazuoIshiguro #SciFi #future #ScienceFiction #Fiction

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries #6

Another decent installment in the Murderbot Diaries. It was an enjoyable read. If you've read previous stories in the series, you know exactly what to expect.

Rating: ★★★★ Book #67 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #MarthaWells #robot #SciFi #Murderbot #action

Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) by Walt Whitman

It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy; Whoever is not in his coffin and dark grave, let him know he has enough.

I‘m not one to read lots of poetry but after hearing about this book in many contexts, mentioned in books & movies, I thought I'd check it out. It was not at all what I was expecting. His poetry is long, joyful, and free from conventions of rhyme. Some of the poems were really great, and some seemed to go on too long.

This is the Dover Thrift Original 1855 edition. It's only 128 pages. I've seen some editions of Leaves of Grass are over 600 pages. So, I'm not sure if Whitman added way more poems to his book over the years, or there is just lots more commentary in it. I shall have to read the Original / Deathbed Edition now to check it out.

EDIT: After further investigation, it seems Whitman added more poems. For example, his famous poem about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain”, wasn't written until 1865. Now I'm secure in my conviction that I need to read the Deathbed Edition.

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #66 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #poetry #WaltWhitman #joyful

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

An unvarnished look at the morally dubious actions of the CIA from its inception to now. They sure spent an awful lot of money, to assassinate, and install some terrible people in governments all over the world. This is not the CIA you see in movies. It's actually really sad how they are spending so much money on the CIA and not being very effective. Now some will argue that we only hear about their failures, and not their successes. I believe there may be some truth to that, but very, little truth.

This history shows us a CIA that doesn't really know it's purpose. Ever president seems to struggle how to utilize the CIA, is it a secret ops force used to start military coups? (that seems to have been its main purpose after reading this book!) is it to gather intelligence about terrorists? or about North Korea? It seems like a rudderless organization.

It boggles my mind to think about the billions of dollars that the CIA spends every year. Even though they have a fraction of the money of the military, they still get billions. If only humans invested in schools, libraries, and the environment instead of bombs. This is the second book in a row that made me sad, the first being Witness Palestine. That being another book about a place Americans are pouring millions into supporting a morally reprehensible apartheid state.

It was a good read though. You get a feel for the politics of the CIA, and their relationship (or lack thereof) with the President. It makes me think, how do you run a secret intelligence service well?

President Eisenhower in 1959: “This agency demands of its members the highest order of dedication, ability, trustworthiness, and selflessness-to say nothing of the finest type of courage, whenever needed. Success cannot be advertised: failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung.”

David Kay, CIA's chief weapons inspector: “Wars are not won by intelligence. They're won by the blood, treasure, courage of the young men and women that we put in the field... What intelligence really does when it is working well is to help avoid wars”

Rating: ★★★★★ Book #65 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #TimWeiner #war #CIA #spy #USA #journalism #NonFiction