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PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
by Paul Mason
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The dot.Communist Manifesto, 7 Sept. 2016
This is a strange book: one-third polemic and two-thirds Marxist economics textbook. Sadly, the lumpy disquisition on Marxist economics at the start of the book fails to shed much light on the rather idealsitic polemic with which it ends. What we're left with is a curate's egg of a book, in which neither the white nor the yolk is all that tasty.

Be warned then that, when you buy this, you're signing up for many pages of Paul Mason mulling over the implications of Marx's labour theory of value and, even more mystifyingly, the proper interpretation of Kondratieff waves. What's a Kondratieff wave, I hear you ask? Well, Mason seems to take a perverse pride in having once perplexed a whole lecture-theatre full of economics students with the same question. Kondratieff, it turns out, was a 1930s Russian economist, who reckoned he's detected a regular 50-year pulse in the global economic cycle: a 'wave' that begins with innovation and investment in new technology, peaks when profitability and prosperity from this reach their maximum, tails away into a phase of recessions, financial instability and labour unrest, and then regenerates once capitalists are forced by the anger of their workers to seek new opportunities from new investment in new innovation. Which is probably where we should be now, according to Kondratieff, were it not for the fact that the neoliberals' systematic destruction of the world's organised labour movements over the past 30 years has now stalled the Kondratieff cycle. Without the impetus of organised labour resistance, argues Mason, capital has been able to fob workers off with the transient low-skilled jobs of the new gig economy, rather than making the massive investments it should be making into new productive technology, which would then create a new cycle of secure and high-paid employment.

Well, maybe. If you're already as bored and suspicious of Kondratieff waves as I became while reading Postcapitalism, you can do yourself a favour and bypass the whole first half of the book. Mason himself concedes towards the end of the book that, Kondratieff or no Kondratieff, capitalism faces much more fundamental challenges from demographic change, climate change, government indebtedness and - interestingly - from the tendency of the information economy to produce such an abundance of data, at such a fractional marginal cost, that the effect is to drive prices of all products towards zero (as predicted 150 years ago by Marx's labour theory of value, apparently). Free Stuff will increasingly be the way of the world - something with which neoclassical economics has no way of dealing.

It's on the infotech revolution that Mason pins his hopes for the future: post-market models such as Linux, Open Source, peer-to-peer lending and Wikipdeia providing a template for a whole new economy based on non-monetised gift exchange between leisured post-workers, rather than the tired and destructive old idea of market forces. If that all sounds a bit airy-fairy and idealistic to you, well, it does to me as well, I'm afraid. The book's final chapter, an 'If I Ruled The World' shopping list of actions that might together solve the world's problems, is flimsy and unconvincing in the face of the mighty forces of capital's vested interests waiting to shoot this kind of thinking down. Even if information wants to be free, the Apples and the Googles of the world are making a lovely living out of privatising what would otherwise be the Global Commons. While my heart's definitely with Mason's noble sentiments, if I were a betting man, my money would still be on Silicon Valley's ruthless billionaires.

All in all, this was a less coherent, less insightful and much more Marxist book than I'd bargained for. I'd only really recommend it to people who think post capitalism means privatising the Royal Mail.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 26, 2016 6:40 AM BST

City on Fire
City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over-ambitious, 1 Sept. 2016
This review is from: City on Fire (Paperback)
A frustrating read. There is some superb writing here - in fact, there's probably far too much superb writing here. That's the problem. Debutant novellist Garth Risk Hallberg seems almost desperate to show us all the writing chops he's got, in one single doorstep of a novel. As a result, City On Fire succumbs to the classic Great American Novel pitfall of confusing quantity with quality.

Even though there are some brilliant evocations of place here, and some superbly-realised characters, there are just too far many of both of these things, and Hallberg completely overreaches himself in trying to tie all the book's many disparate threads into one coherent narrative. As a result, after 400 or 500 pages of grippingly readable set-up, the plot starts to suffer from fundamental credibility issues, and eventually it collapses in on itself into a spongy morass of half-baked nonsense. Don't expect any pay-off as a reward for your patience in making it all the way to page 903. The pleasure, such as it is, is very much more in the journey than in the destination.

Where the novel is more succesful is in re-creating some of the gritty, dangerous texture of New York in the 1970s. And yet, even here, the novel's 'voice' sometimes feels just slightly off-pitch and anachronistic - more of a 2010s re-imagining of what the 1970s must have been like, rather than the actual 1970s themselves.

On balance, this is probably still just about worth the effort of reading. Hallberg is clearly a fabulously gifted writer and, with a fabulously gifted editor at his elbow, this could have been a 500-page masterpiece. However, stand City On Fire against this decade's one truly great 'New York' novel, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and, sadly, it falls short in just about every respect - including concision.

Harry Potter Wizard Wand with Ollivanders Box from The Noble Collection
Harry Potter Wizard Wand with Ollivanders Box from The Noble Collection
Offered by AnniVerdi
Price: £29.95

60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Straight Outta Ollivander's, 10 Aug. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is, to be brutally frank, nothing more than a textured plastic stick in a cardboard box. As such, it's possibly the most insanely overpriced item available anywhere on Amazon.com. It's also now my Potter-mad daughter's most treasured possession.

What can I say? If you want a replica Harry Potter wand enough to pay twenty-odd quid for one, then this item will not disappoint you. The packaging is properly deluxe and authentic-feeling, and the plastic stick, sorry, wand, is nicely weighted and has clearly been crafted with much love, care and attention to detail. Luckily, it has also so far failed to demonstrate any actual spell-casting functionality, but that's not for my daughter's lack of trying.

Unreservedly recommended, particularly to half-blood princes, prisoners of Azkhaban and cursed children.

Bosnian Chronicle
Bosnian Chronicle
by Ivo Andric
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Turkish delight, 10 Aug. 2016
This review is from: Bosnian Chronicle (Paperback)
The Balkans are little more than a footnote in the history of the Napoleonic Wars; a backwater that only occasionally felt the eddies and ripples created by the battles raging elsewhere on the continent. Nevertheless, both France and Austria understood the strategic importance of securing their supply lines through the Balkan region, which is why, in 1807-08, both sides sent small consular missions to the remote Bosnian town of Travnik.

Such is the premise of Ivo Andric's remarkable 'Bosnian Chronicle', which imagines the trials, the frustrations and the rare, fleeting triumphs of the Western outsiders manning the consulates as they try (and usually fail) to get to grips with the unfathomable political and cultural cross-currents of their exotic new 'oriental' home (Bosnia being, of course, part of the creaky old Ottoman Empire at the time). As such, it's a book that will certainly strike many chords with anyone who has had the disorientating but rewarding experience of living as an expat - and, of course, anyone interested in the turbulent recent history of Turkey and the Balkans, about which Andric's steady drip-drip of dramatic irony conveys a uniformly pessimistic 'plus ca change' message.

The plot, such as it is, unwinds at a leisurely, almost torpid pace. No doubt this was Andric's intention. Life is slow and difficult in Travnik, and any progress is hard won; likewise any plot-driven reader's progress through 'Bosnian Chronicle'. But Andric isn't at all concerned about hurrying us towards a narrative destination; instead, he invites us to slow down, relax, and admire the scenery. And there is some fantastic scenery to admire for readers with the stamina to complete this slow and episodic book: some truly wonderful character vignettes, and some great and telling anecdotes about life in the remote Bosnian hills in the early 1800s.

Full marks to Head of Zeus / Apollo for the excellent quality of this paperback reissue. One of life's great pleasures is the physical sensation of reading crisp, well-set type on lush, creamy paper that's bound in a durable, tactile binding. Apollo's new edition of 'Bosnian Chronicle' provides this pleasure in spades, which only enhances the subtle and gently addictive pleasures of Andric's prose. Warmly recommended.

Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul (Deluxe Edition)
Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul (Deluxe Edition)
Offered by FLASH
Price: £10.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kevin Rowland: still on song, 13 Jun. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Dexys' new disc, even though it's 'just' a covers album, is very much in the same vein, musically and emotionally, as Tonight I’m Going to Soar. A song like 'You Don't Know What It's Like', dripping with pugnacious self-pity, would fit perfectly on the previous record, with the band and Kevin's vocals both packing a real punch. Even the more traditional Irish numbers are given a distinctive Dexys twist. The way Kevin sings I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen, you really do fear for Kathleen’s safety. Best of all is the runout on Both Sides Now, where we hear Kevin ruminatively muttering to himself, “I don’t know love, I don’t know love, I don’t know love at all”. Marvellous.

Recommended as an enjoyable companion piece to Tonight I'm Going To Soar. Anyone who rates that disc as highly as I do (i.e. one of the finest releases of the current decade) will find much to savour on Let The Record Show. Not quite the full five stars though: one or two of the tracks do veer dangerously close to what you might hear on karaoke night in an Irish pub and, tragically, the sleeve art doesn't feature any pictures of Kevin Rowland modelling ladies' underwear.

Slim Fit Blue and White Dobby Cotton Shirt Single Cuff Size Large by Charles Tyrwhitt
Slim Fit Blue and White Dobby Cotton Shirt Single Cuff Size Large by Charles Tyrwhitt

4.0 out of 5 stars Something for the weekend?, 8 Jun. 2016
Nice design, and lovely fabric (good quality oxford cotton), but a word of warnng on the 'slim' fit: I'm a middle-aged man with a middle-aged man's physique, and the fit is pretty loose and baggy on me. I was hoping for something a little more fitted and office-friendly, but what I've ended up with is a loose-fitting and relaxed weekend shirt. I have to say that, for the price, I think TM Lewin offer sharper shirts for workwear, but I still won't be sending this one back as it's a great casual shirt.

The Power of the Dog (Vintage Classics)
The Power of the Dog (Vintage Classics)
by Thomas Savage
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, 25 May 2016
This deft and economical novel achieves tremedous depth and insight with an absolute minimum of fuss and effort. In a relatively small handful of well-told episodes, it convincingly conjures up a satisyingly complex family dynamc. The enigmatic Phil and his taciturn younger brother George are wealthy ranchers on the tough, unyielding plains to the east of the Rockies in the mid-1920s. Phil's longstanding emotional dominance of George is threatened by George's unexpected marriage to Rose, a pretty young widow with a look of Mary Pickford about her. Phil sees Rose's fey and alienated son Peter as a way of driving a wedge between her and George, but perhaps Peter is made of stronger stuff than Phil has given him credit for..

Savage explores this interplay of relationships with enormous subtlety and wit, but perhaps the real star of the book isn't the characters so much as the landscape which they inhabit. The descriptive writing is strikingly vivid, convincingly evoking the sights, sounds and smells of Montana and Utah's cattle country through the changing seasons. And likewise through the changing times: the narrative looks back to Phil and George's early days on the ranch at the turn of the century, and contrasts these with the coming of the jazz age, the motor car, and the first flickers of urbanisation and civic society in the former frontier towns. But this is far from a cliche'd 'lament for the Old West'. Instead, the harsh and uncompromising setting serves primarily as a metaphor for the interior life of the characters - not least Phil, whose struggle with his suppressed inner demons, which Savage never quite spells out, provides a further thread of narrative tension.

All in all, this is a memorable and richly enjoyable read, which devotees of Cormac McCarthy, Charles Neider and Annie Proulx would almost certainly enjoy. Another 'Stoner'? Yes, insofar as this is another buried gem of American mid-century fiction that's well worth (re)discovering - but The Power of the Dog is a fish of an entirely different feather: a richer, more humane and less nihilistic read than John Williams' bleak masterpiece.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2016 9:16 AM BST

Fallen Angels
Fallen Angels
Offered by Champion Toys
Price: £3.59

13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shadows in the Day, 20 May 2016
This review is from: Fallen Angels (Audio CD)
Old blue eyes is back - again! And that's good news. Anyone who has had the good fortune to hear Bob live in concert recently will know just how much this old, old material has energised his performances. This second volume of American classics is clearly part of an ongoing labour of love, and on a first listen it's perhaps an even more engaging record than last year's charming but rather one-paced and crepusclar Shadows in The Night. There's a much more balanced mix of material here, with a few shafts of bright daylight to contrast with the after-hours gloom of its predecessor, and some of the sunny, upbeat numbers like Polka Dots and Moonbeams, That Old Black Magic and Skylark are handled with real style and grace. There's a wry self-mocking humour in Dylan's weary croak though Young at Heart, and there's at least one genuine masterpiece as well in the delightful Melancholy Mood, a brilliant piece of songwriting with ricocheting internal rhymes every bit as good as those on Bob's own Mozambique, and which Bob negotiates with utter aplomb.

It is of course wholly bizarre that Bob Dylan is devoting such love and energy to burnishing these hoary old chestnuts. For now, Dylan's laser-sharp writerly creativity seems to be taking an extended afternoon nap out on the verandah, but there is an artistic point to these recordings nevertheless: Bob seems to me to be very consciously locating his own output within the broader context of the immense heritage of classic 20th century American songwriting. Is this growing footnote to Bob's canon now his ongoing retirement project, or is it (like the two folk solo records from the early '90s) a regathering of resources that will in time bear fruit in one final phase of original songwriting? While we wait to find out, this lovingly-produced and wholly amiable record will have to be good enough for now.

And (by the way) what a handsome album cover! One of the best-dressed Dylan albums ever? Columbia Records has clearly embraced the concept of Bob as a 'heritage artist', and the grain and texture of the enigmatic cover photo fits the feel of the material perfectly.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 23, 2016 4:30 PM BST

The Course of Love
The Course of Love
by Alain De Botton
Edition: Hardcover

30 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Off Course, 20 May 2016
This review is from: The Course of Love (Hardcover)
This is not a novel. It is, at best, an extended case study, through which the author explores a few of his pet theories, such as (i) we're all a bit mad, really (ii) the idea of romantic love doesn't help: it's just an ideology, and one that only makes us even crazier (iii) John Bowlby's work on attachment theory explains all this pretty well (iv) if we want to check this out for ourselves, a bit of couples therapy might be a good place to start, or (v) alternatively, we could all take a leaf out of the ancient Greeks' book, especially the Stoics.

It's not a novel because De Botton's exploration of these ideas ignores the novelist's most basic injunction: show, don't tell. De Botton tells, at length; crowding his own characters out of the narrative with his own all-knowing authorial voice, reducing them to the status of specimens on a Petrie dish, which he holds aloft professorially for our further enlightenment. Worse, once De Botton tires of telling, he commentates, in the form of the trite, italicised homilies that punctuate the text with dismaying frequency, just in case those of us snoozing at the back are missing the point of his lecture. In fact, perhaps The Course of Love is actually the name of a study option at De Botton's School of Life, and this is its core textbook. It wouldn’t surprise me.

Maybe this odd, didactic approach to novel-writing has spared the book from being even worse than it already is. De Botton simply cannot write dialogue. On the rare occasions that his characters manage to get a word in edgewise, we find to our dismay that they talk exactly like Alain De Botton, in a calm, measured, prolix and slightly patronising monotone, even when they are supposed to be really angry.

Without real characters, without a real plot, and with nothing that could be described as narrative impetus, what we're left with are the kindly and well-intentioned musings of a gentle, humane and thoughtful man. Sadly, for the reader, the experience is rather like being stuck in a lift for hours on end with a particularly po-faced and sanctimonious vicar.

However, amidst the fug of well-meaning editorial condescension that suffocates this as a novel, there is some genuinely insightful thinking here about the long-term dynamics of married relationships. Anyone who’s married, and especially those of us who’ve been married for a while, will spark with recognition on reading some of De Botton’s more penetrating apercus, and his injunctions towards greater kindness and understanding are well-expressed and genuinely thought-provoking. It’s as a long-winded piece of marriage guidance counselling that this book scrapes itself a second star but, as a novel, I’m sorry to say I think it’s an unmitigated failure.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 4, 2016 9:45 PM BST

And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
by Yanis Varoufakis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.99

48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars European comedy, Greek tragedy, 4 May 2016
This brilliant and sweeping analysis of the European debt crisis, and its deep historical roots, makes most macroeconomics look as flimsy as short-term weather forecasting.

Varoufakis convincingly argues that two seminal events have, together, doomed European monetary policy to perpetual failure: the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 and the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the 1950s. Bretton Woods had, until 1971, functioned in effect as a globalisation of America’s New Deal economics. The USA's balance of payments surplus was 'politically recycled' to Europe by guaranteeing a gold-backed dollar peg for Europe currencies - thus providing a basis for Europe's post-war redevelopment and, by extension, a willing market for America's exports. The 1971 'Nixon Shock', in which the USA unilaterally abandoned the gold standard, left a gaping hole in European monetary policy, which Europe's central bankers have been trying to plug ever since, by using the Deutschemark & Bundesbank as a surrogate for the Dollar and the Fed.

These attempts, argues Varoufakis, have failed serially: first in the form of the 'snake' of the 1970s, then in the ERM of the 1990s, and currently in the highly dysfunctional Euro. The base cause he identifies for these failures (apart from, of course, the unmitigated evil of Germany’s bankers, for whom he harbours an undimmed hatred) is the impossibility of de-politicising an area of policy that's intrinsically and unavoidably political: namely, monetary policy. In other words, monetary union without political union is clearly a nonsense - and it’s a bitter irony that the tensions caused by the monetary union are now making political union appear ever more unachievable. But the EU's institutions are, by their nature, technocratic, bureaucratic, and therefore anti-democratic, and this lack of democratic legitimacy makes them inherently unable to wield the necessary sovereignty to make coherent and valid political decisions about Europe-wide monetary policy. In other words, a democratic deficit, coded into the EU's DNA, is dooming not only its monetary policy to failure, but also its ongoing quest for closer political union. The taproot of this democratic deficit dates all the way back to the ECSC of the 1950s, which was conceived as a price and tariff fixing cartel for European heavy industry - a brief in which democratic representation and accountability played no part, and whose ghost, argues Varoufakis, still haunts the corridors of Brussels to this day.

When elephants fight, the grass below is trampled. Varoufakis is utterly scathing in his condemnation of austerity: morally, politically and economically. While the EU and its bankers flounder around trying the shore up the crumbing architecture of their faulty central institutions, those paying the price for their leaders’ failures are the poorest and weakest members of European society – and, of course, the Greeks, for whom there is a generous amount of special pleading here by Varoufakis. But the central point of his thesis still holds true: that the principal victims of austerity are the poor, and the principal beneficiaries are the rich.

If I’ve made this all sound as dry and technical as the contents of a Brussels bureaucrat’s briefcase, don’t be deterred. Varoufakis tells his tale with the pace and clarity of a political thriller, and he is grippingly interesting on the internecine machinations that have shaped the current mess in which Europe finds itself. He himself briefly had a ringside seat for some of these in 2015, but this book touches only lightly on his time as Greece’s Finance Minister. Instead, the emphasis here is very much on the Big Picture, and here he succeeds brilliantly into bringing into sharp focus the fundamental problems that are currently facing Europe. One of the most insightful books on macroeconomics I’ve ever read, and warmly recommended for anyone who wants to take a long hard look at Europe before they cast their Referendum vote.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 23, 2016 6:08 PM BST

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