Thursday, April 30, 2020

Raymond Chandler - Trouble is my Business

This collection of stories by Raymond Chandler will be familiar to anyone who has read any of his other works. They all begin from a similar theme - the lonesome, hard drinking, cynical detective confronts a conspiracy or mystery that usually involves a beautiful woman. First published as a book in 1946 the stories were themselves published in magazines between 1933 and 1939 and carry a flavour of their times. Prohibition is over, but gangsters, millionaires and confidence tricksters rule the roost in an underground that frequently erupts into violent crime. Mostly ordinary working people are bystanders - like the hotel staff that the hero of Guns at Cyrano's slips cash too because they wages don't stop their hunger (though perhaps he's the gullible victim here?).

Cyrano's is a slightly unusual story for Chandler, as it initially focuses on a boxing match were one fighter has been asked to take a dive. The mob feature heavily, but it soon becomes clear that the real criminals are one step removed and no-one is actually telling the truth.

The title story Trouble is my Business is the most Marlowe of  the novels though the detective doesn't share the name (which doesn't stop publishers marketing the book as being a collection of Marlowe stories). Here is a convoluted plot that involves a wealthy heiress, a no good lover with gambling debts and a really annoying butler that carries the reader along rather than tells a story. Chandler once said about his style:
The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers.

This is very true of these stories here. Like those science fiction stories that are read just for the twist ending, the resolution of the story is key here. Though the resolution is not always the ending, that is usually the bit where Marlowe (or whoever) bemoans the fact that the beautiful heroine has left/been murdered/or rejected him.

Chandler was very aware that he followed a formula when writing. One of the problems reading several of his stories or novels in succession is that you notice they all have very similar scenes. There's almost always a point when a couple of policeman play good cop/bad cop with the detective and threaten him because it looks like he killed someone. There's also always a bit when Marlowe (insert other name here) discovers a body then leaves after cleaning all traces of him. Then his apparent pre-knowledge of a killing allows him one over others in the story.

These sound like negative points, but Chandler was writing to sell stories, and his style worked. Nonetheless he isn't just a hack writer, he has a knack of painting pictures with a couple of sentences, and creating scenes with barely a paragraph. None of us has ever seen Benny Cyrano, but when Chandler tells us that he was "shaped like two eggs, a little one that was his head on top of a big one that was his body" we can all picture him instantly. The opening paragraph to Red Wind is classic Chandler:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Its a paragraph that drags you in to the whole story. The ending to Goldfish was for me, marked not by the actual location of the missing pearls, but the realisation that the wife of the main criminal almost pulls the wool over the eyes of the detective who is trying to recover them for the insurance agency. That he is doing so for reward money to split with a policeman who has been kicked out of the force for marrying a known criminal who is now in prison makes it all the more brilliant.

If you've not read Chandler this is a good place to start, though its also true that Chandler's short stories never quite get it as much as the full length novels. Nonetheless they're fun and classics of a genre that stand out from among tens of thousands of similar tales.

Related Reviews

Chandler - The Long Good-Bye
Chandler - Playback
Chandler - The Little Sister
Chandler - Farewell My Lovely
Chandler - The Big Sleep
Hammett - Red Harvest
Hammett - The Maltese Falcon

Monday, April 27, 2020

Jeffrey St. Clair & Joshua Frank - The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink

This excellent collection of essays by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank brings together beautiful travelogues infused with ecological science, polemical critiques of the big businesses and politicians destroying the planet and a celebration of those that fight to protect the environment. Almost all of the essays focus on the United States, though several of them have a wider remit. A chapter on the human and environmental devastation caused by the US' repeated wars in the Middle East and the impact of industrial fishing are testament to the way that imperialism drives destruction far from national borders.

I initially chose the book because I had hoped to visit Montana in the United States which is the subject of several chapters. Sadly, that voyage is unlikely to happen now, but the opening chapters made me realise that this would have been the perfect read for visiting that part of the world. These combine wonderful portraits of the flora and fauna, particularly the wolves and buffalo of Yellowstone, with devastating critiques of the impact of global warming and government policy. Here we see writ large the limitations of a strategy to protect biodiversity that is reliant on creating islands (even very large ones) of nature within a wider landscape.

Only a capitalist system could imagine the way to save animals like bison that stray out of their designated area (who knew bison couldn’t read signs) from hunting would be to sell the herd to the biggest cattle market in the region. As one campaigner said, "how did the promise of wild buffalo in Yellowstone National Park for the enjoyment of future generations become ranched buffalo fenced behind PRIVATE, NO TRESPASSING signs?". The problems are made worse because of those politicians for whom permission to allow the hunting of wild animals is based on the number of local swing voters.

One theme that runs through the essays is the close link between multinationals and politicians. Whether its oil companies in the Mexican Gulf or nuclear power corporations, having several friendly politicians can help smooth the wheels of environmental destruction. Readers who are more used to seeing Obama praised to the high heavens might find themselves surprised at the extent of anger directed at his Presidency by these authors. In a chapter that has a great deal of resonance during the current Coronavirus epidemic "How Obama Defanged the Environmental Protection Agency", the authors complain about his reaction to the Deepwater Horizon disaster:
Even though it was the largest oil spill the US had experienced in decades Obama prevented the agency in charge of overseeing the country's environmental regulations from being involved in any meaningful way. Could it have been that Obama surrendered to BP because he had two years earlier accepted more campaign cash from the company- a mix of cash from employees and political action committees - than any politician over the last two years? Not many in the environmental community were asking."
The final sentence hints at another theme. The mainstream environmental movement, particularly the NGOs, is culpable in the destruction itself. This is not that the authors argue the NGOs and charities wilfully destroy the environment. Rather that their lobbying and well-funded, media savvy campaigns are part of a movement that operates by aiming for concessions within the system. They're happy to take a few green offerings even if they have to agree to let much else go by.

The last section of the book celebrates those struggling to protect the environments. That's not to say that they're ignored elsewhere, many of the essays, whether it’s those about bison in Yellowstone, or mid-west towns facing cancer clusters or water pollution, emphasis the role of local activists organising - sometimes in difficult circumstances. The shadow of Karen Silkwood hangs heavy over the chapters that look at the sordid history of nuclear power in the United States.

So the last few chapters focus on several activists in groups like Earth First! that have fought the multinationals, the US government and institutions like the FBI. Here's another dirty tale - the framing and violence used against those who dare to protect ancient forest from logging or protest nuclear power. The authors contrast these activists with the limited successes of the big NGO environmental movement and I'm glad they do - there is at least some hope here. But because these are the only options offered to saving the planet it felt like the book was concluding that only such action could save the environment. Commenting on the protests that exploded when Trump was elected the authors are understandably a bit cynical when they complain that those marches didn't achieve anything concrete. But they continue:
Where were those people during eight years of Barack Obama, an oil and gas man of some distinction? Where were they during eight years of Bill Clinton, one of the greatest environmental con men of our time?... Action, however, is not marching in a parade a couple of times a year, featuring puppets, vagina hats and signs printed up by the Sierra Club.
We certainly do need to go beyond NGO stamped marches. But I think this approach is unhelpful. If we're to build a movement to defeat the powerful multinationals, corrupt politicians and inappropriate capitalist solutions to ecological disaster, we'll need the type of movement that can challenge capital through mass movements. I don't think we will build that movement by dismissing those demonstrating, possibly for the first time, as not doing enough. We'll need to show how we need far more than just marches. We'll need the sort of movements that can shut down big oil, big timber, big nuclear power - through mass protests and strikes as well as direct action. But we shouldn't counter-pose the strategies. A living, breathing mass movement will involve all sorts of actions interacting and giving each other energy. Mass marches in particular can inspire further, radical action. That movement won't start were we'd like it to - our job is to develop and shape it. And that is partly what this book will do.

Because despite my strategic disagreements with its epilogue, I have no hesitation in recommending this collection of insightful and inspiring essays. I hope it will inspire activists to block roads, protest and strikes - and ultimately overthrow the system that sees nature as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
Wilcox - Shamrocks and Oil Slicks: A People's Uprising Against Shell Oil in County Mayo, Ireland
Extinction Rebellion - This is Not a Drill
Everard - Breathing Space: The Natural and Unnatural History of Air
Commoner - The Closing Circle
Carson - Silent Spring
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene

Friday, April 24, 2020

John Bellamy Foster - The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

John Bellamy Foster's classic work Marx's Ecology was published in 2000. Since then it has rightly become a classic study of the ecological core to Karl Marx's thought. The Return of Nature is his latest work which, he says, has taken nearly twenty years of research.

This detailed study of those scientists, thinkers, activists and socialists who, in the years following the death of Marx developed and expanded the dialectical thinking that Marx and Engels first developed, is ground-breaking. It will join Marx's Ecology as a classic work of radical ecology.

My review of John Bellamy Foster's book was published in the International Socialism Journal 167, July 2020. You can read it here.

Related Reviews

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Foster & Clark - The Robbery of Nature
Foster - The Ecological Revolution

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy
Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Peter Berresford Ellis & Seumas Mac A'Ghobhainn - The Radical Rising of 1820

April 2020 was the two hundredth anniversary of the forgotten "Scottish Insurrection" of 1820. First published in 1970 for 150th anniversary, this book seems to be the only popular account of the Insurrection and for that reason alone it should be celebrated. One reason the Scottish rising of 1820 is ignored is that it took place in the shadow of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester the previous August. Yet the conditions that led to that mass protest and state killing were not confined to Manchester. Rather they reflected the great anger and frustrations of huge sections of the British working class at their conditions of life and the lack of popular democracy.

In Scotland however there was an additional factor - the Union with England. The book begins by looking at the history of the union and shows how popular discontent in Scotland often manifested itself in the radical traditions of Republicanism and Independence. The end of the 18th century saw a growth in radical ideas driven by the French Revolution. In Scotland radicals were inspired by Irish radicals. For instance Wolf Tones' well known United Irishmen had their counterpart in the United Scotsmen. Growing Scottish discontent in the early part of the 19th century led increasingly to the growth of radical movements that sought to break from English rule. By 1820 these movements had searched the point of support where leading figures considered a revolutionary break with Britain as distinct possibility.

If radicals believed it, the English authorities certainly did. Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth had an extensive network of spies embedded in the movements, and it seems likely, effectively controlled the main leadership of the movement in and around Glasgow. These spies, like they did across Britain in the same period, encouraged rebellion. It is well attested that such spies tended to do more than simply report activity. If they could provide evidence of potential rebellion they were more likely to get paid, and by encouraging rebellion among disaffected workers, they could make their prophecies true.

They also gave the authorities license to crack down. In April 1820 it came to a head. A week of discontent, protests and, crucially, mass strikes exploded. The radical movement had, despite the spies and agent provocateurs, had built a large network of activists and sympathetic workers. ON Saturday 1 April 1820 a Radical Committee placarded the streets of Glasgow and a strike exploded across much of Scotland's industrial areas the following Monday. A group of badly armed workers marched towards iron works near Falkirk, south of Scotland with the aim of seizing more weapons. They had expectations of meeting much larger revolutionary forces marching from elsewhere. At Bonnymuir they encountered British Cavalry, who overwhelmed the workers, killing capturing them. The expectations of mass numbers of revolutionaries had been concocted by spies, and the small numbers surprised the authorities and the rebels alike. Nevertheless the state had to have its blood and several rebels were selected as examples - two leading figures John Baird and Andrew Hardie made defiant speeches from the dock, but they, together with another leading radical James Wilson, were executed.

There is no doubt there was mass popular discontent. The scale of the strikes and the huge protests that were put down by bloody violence show that. There was clearly less of a mood for insurrection, and the small numbers that did rally to a more revolutionary flag did so because they were persuaded by spies who hard to work very hard to encourage them. The authors of this book make it clear that the executions of some of the leaders and the transportation of many others was the result of a gross distortion of justice. Indeed the actual trial itself was illegal as the authorities ignored the niceties of Scottish Law to push English convictions on the men. The fact that everyone was pardoned a few years later demonstrates the gross injustice.

Nonetheless, I was struck by the defiance of those convicted and the solidarity from the Scottish working class. I also noted that the jurors themselves stood up to an intimidating judge in their refusal to convict some prisoners. Nonetheless I was disappointed that the mass crowds at the executions didn't storm the scaffold and free their heroes.

There is little history about the events in Scotland in 1820. This is, as the authors explain, mostly to do with the importance given to events like Peterloo in 1819. The stressing of English history in the British Isles means even those of use who think we know a lot of our radical history ignorant of events like this. Welsh radicals will no doubt remind us that few today remember the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the repression of of which was as bloody as Peterloo or Scotland in 1820. As such, this is an excellent piece of history which should be read in this, the bicentenary of those cruel events.

Related Reviews

Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye
Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances
Hutchinson - The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris & Lord Leverhulme

Lev Grossman - The Magician King

Following my enjoyment of Lev Grossman's The Magicians I've pitched in quite quickly to reading the sequels. This, volume two, continues on from where the first book finished with the main protagonist, the insufferable Quentin Coldwater, firmly established as one of the kings of the magical land of Fillory. Quentin is one of the most annoying "heroes" of any fantasy book and his dismissive attitude to anything but his own well-being means that he's excellent monarch material. Ruling alongside him are a couple of other graduates from Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a school that is hidden from normal people in North America.

Ruling alongside these three is Julia, by far the most interesting character in the book. Julia failed her entrance to Brakebills, but the magic designed to wipe her memory also failed and she manages to teach herself the rudiments of casting spells. From here she finds her way into a secret underground network of magic, hidden from normal society and from the magical authorities. Her skills develop faster and further than any other contemporaries making her a powerful rival. Angry at the world, at the way that Quentin failed to help her with magic and the likes of Brakebills Julia's rise to power means she uses most people around her. Ultimately she finds her way into a grouping of magicians that begin to do very deep, dark and primordial magic.

The story of Julia's past fits around Quentin's contemporary quest, which is to save Fillory from the end of magic. His arrogance and failure to grasp a more nuanced understanding of the world leads to him making a series of errors which dump him out of Fillory and he has to begin a new quest to find himself back in the magical land.

The well rounded characters, the complex back stories and the surreal landscape of Fillory makes this an excellent read. I particularly enjoyed the secret underworld of "alternate" magic, with its traditions and it's naive spell users. I also liked the dragon living in Venice's canals. I look forward to the final volume.

Related Reviews

Grossman - The Magicians
Grossman - The Magician's Land

Cynan Jones - The Long Dry

One morning a Welsh farmer Gareth wakes up during a long, hot, drought-ridden summer. He kisses his wife Kate and tells her he is off to find a pregnant cow that has gone missing. That is, essentially, all that happens. But as Gareth walks around the land we learn about the history, his family, his deep yearning for his wife and her fears about her attractiveness as she ages, their mutual delight in their daughter and her games. The care that farmers have for their animals - both those destined to be meat at someone's dinner table and those, like the dog, that live around the farm.

We also learn a great deal about farming life. This is a book written by someone who understands farming - not just the growing of crops or the husbandry of animals, but also the historical struggles, the poverty, the mental illnesses and, the constant worries about money. Gareth and Kate's eldest son exemplifies the contradictions - he's pulled by the excitement of the town, the nightclubs and prospects of a better life, but he also likes and, Gareth hopes, might come to love the farm itself. The loss of animals, financial worries and concerns for the land are one thing, but worse is to come. Its a delightful book - with a dark and savage twist. In barely 100 pages Cynan Jones covers a lot of ground - including discussions on the threat of ducks, and what goes through the mind of a cow that's lost as well as a moving moment when two small boys encounter a rabbit dying of myxomatosis - something lost on Gareth when he finds the tiny body. Nature is everywhere, part and parcel of the farm and life, changing, growing and threatening. This is one to look out for.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Terry Hunt & Carl Lipo - The Statues that Walked: Unravelling the Mystery of Easter Island

In the last couple of decades the story of Easter Island/Rapa Nui has been retold many times because of its supposed relevance to accounts of ecological collapse. One of the key reasons for this is Jared Diamond's 2005 book Collapse in which he tells the story of the "last tree" being chopped down by islanders who, while knowing it was the last tree, couldn't help themselves. The deforestation that they'd caused ultimately destroyed themselves. The story of Easter Island has become a universal story for humanity - a metaphor for our self-destructive impulses wherever and whenever people have lived.

The problem is that Diamond's story is incorrect. There have been a few works that have challenged his narrative, not least the excellent Questioning Collapse (2009). But sadly few of those have broken through into popular understanding. The Statues that Walked is an impressive book about Easter Island that challenges misconceptions. It relies on detailed archaeological field work as well as comparative studies with other Pacific islands to draw out a much more nuanced explanation of the enigmatic people who lived on Easter Island and built the incredible stone monuments.

The authors begin with misconceptions, some of which arise from Colonial attitudes to indigenous peoples that mark encounters between European travellers and settlers in many parts of the world. The key one of these is that indigenous peoples are lazy and don't utilise land properly. Despite their ability to erect massive monuments, people don't use the land properly. As one account from 1722 says, "this place [Rapa Nui] as far as its rich soil and good climate are concerned, is such that it might be made into an earthly Paradise, if it were properly worked and cultivated; which is now only done in so far as the Inhabitants are obliged to for the maintenance of life".

To a certain extent, similar attitudes led scholars to miss interpret the real nature of Rapa Nui's archaeological remains. In 1996 a graduate student Joan Wozniak noticed that while there was "no obvious evidence of cultivation" there were countless places were broken rocks, stones and obsidian splinters. The "surface remains appeared to be just a carpet of cobbles and boulders, the subsurface demonstrated plenty of prehistoric activity". It turned out that the soil had been deliberately "enriched" with broken rocks to improve soil fertility and improve growing conditions. Rapa Nui is an "engineered landscape". Rapa Nui's seemingly barren landscape was actually carefully managed. Similar investigations by the authors show that there was an extensive road network which facilitated the moving of the massive stone heads that are the principle known monuments from the island. Incidentally, the book has a detailed explanation of attempts to understand how these heads were moved and how they were most likely moved. The explanation is relatively straight forward and is similar to the way we might move a tall and heavy fridge. The nuance is that clever sculpting of the heads themselves which ensures they have a low centre of gravity. Belief that these statues couldn't be moved by people with stone age technologies is reflective of the same racist colonial attitudes that suggested they didn't farm their landscape because they were too primitive.

The authors explain that the people of Rapa Nui cannot be understood without seeing them as a society that operated carefully to maintain a delicate balance between them and their environment. Rapa Nui is not resource rich. It is likely that it was colonised only once by Pacific islanders which explains the small number of plants and animals that were used. Deforestation did occur, caused by the rats that probably arrived with the original settlers. But deforestation was not total - many early accounts did refer to trees and woodland (as well as agriculture). These were forgotten in the construction of European colonial myths about the islands.

What did destroy the Rapa Nui's pre-contact society was contact itself. A series of violent encounters which brought disease (as well as colonial murder) decimated the original populations. The "collapse" of Rapa Hui's society is, according to Diamond the result of islanders "pent up anger at their leaders" similar to the throwing down of statues by East European's in their "paroxysm of anger and disillusionment... at the end of communism". However, less emotionally (and politically charged) Hunt and Lipo conclude that while some toppling "may have been purposeful... many more likely came down as a result of inattention and lack of maintenance". They conclude that "what is clear... is that with the arrival of Europeans the rationale for participating in moai construction and movement had been undermined; the activity had lost its value."

Whatever the reasons for erecting the statues (and we can only speculate) the point is there was a reason that was inseparable from the nature of pre-contact Rapa Nui society. The arrival of Europeans broke the social relations up on the island (with some evidence of a 'cargo-cult' type worship of European goods developing). Other things arrived with the Europeans apart from disease, guns and goods - one of these was ideological. Diamond refers to "cannibalism" appearing on the island after European contact which along with chicken farming "underwent explosive growth" after 1650. Hunt and Lipo argue that this was a myth: "references to cannibalism became a common theme only after the missionary presence, and these references become increasingly embellished, especially in the European accounts painting a treacherous picture of these 'savages' and their wild past."

Hunt and Lipo's analysis of the history of Rapa Nui is underpinned by archaeology and comparative studies of other, similar, inhabited island environments. But they also use game-theory to model how it such societies might live and conclude that it is much more likely that the pre-contact islanders lived in communal societies, rather than savage warlike ones. One intriguing argument is that the a by-product of statue building was that while it "wasted" resources from a purely economic point of view, it was also reducing reproduction to ensure that population levels in an environment were total resources were short. The authors explain:
We have to be careful to emphasise that we are not saying the islanders consciously decided to spend more time making and moving statues in efforts to take time and resources away from reproduction. The role of the statues as costly signals probably explains why so much time was devoted to them. But the benefits of bet-hedging offer a strong explanation for why spending so much time and energy on the statues didn't threaten Rapanui survival, and indeed probably helped to sustain it. In considering what leads to evolutionary success, those reaping the benefits of any given practice need not understand why it contributes to their survival.
What emerges from this account is not one of humanity self-destructive behaviour. But rather one that shows that humans actually worked hard to protect and utilise the resources they had and, even in environments were resources might have been limited, they were able to create impressive and complex cultural societies. The arrival of European imperialists, with their myopic view of land utilisation and commodity fetishism broke the delicate balance between social and economic life, and that's what led to collapse. The story doesn't make for as great newspaper headlines as Diamond's version does. But it is more useful in terms of understanding how human societies have worked in the past and how they might organise to be sustainable in the future.

Related Reviews

McAnany & Yoffee - Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire

Rob Boffard - Adrift

This novel puts an science fiction twist on the age old story of the sailors trapped on a lifeboat after their ship is sunk. Set in a universe where two factions of humanity are on the edge of war, we begin the book as Sigma Station, a luxury space hotel on the edge of the Horsehead nebula, is blown up by an unknown ship. The ship also destroys the wormhole back and the only survivors from Sigma are a handful of people in a decrepit old tourist shuttle. The shuttle has no food and limited water, the bare minimum of essential medical supplies and systems that date back decades. Hannah Elliot is the guide, this is her first day on the job, she's got know experience, knows no-one and little in her education has prepared her for this. The pilot is a grouchy war veteran who drinks vodka and the passengers range from a couple of annoying adolescents and their pampered parents to a retired former space miner and a alcoholic travel journalist.

The novel works quite well. There are some decent backstories that get exposed, and various secrets are outed. The adolescents are relatively know-it-all, like most teenagers, but that proves useful and Bob Boffard manages to neatly shift the focus of the story away from Hannah and on to others, so we get quite a claustrophobic sense as we bounce from character to character.

Unfortunately it doesn't all work very well. In places the characters get themselves out of fixes in ways that are a unbelievable, or rely on chance too much. The finale is entertaining and ties up all the lose ends rather well, but just doesn't work from a in-universe point of view. The book works because of the characters and scenario, not the plot.

Monday, April 06, 2020

James D. Hornfischer - The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

For those of us living in Europe, the history of World War Two tends to be dominated by events in Europe. Even this is distorted - the British remain convinced they won the war against Nazi Germany single-handed, with the story of Russia's huge contribution tending to be relegated to a side-show. In this context the story of the war against Japan in the Pacific is often neglected and even though Britain was involved in Burma, Singapore and elsewhere, British World War Two history tends to neglect events in the greatest ocean on Earth. For many Americans though this was the war and Hornfischer's book is only one of many books that deal with events.

Despite professing to be a history of events from 1944-1945 Hornfischer's book focuses on the Battle of Saipan. The capture of Saipan was a key strategic event for the US military as it would bring the Japanese mainland into bombing range. It was very much total war, with a massive naval contribution supporting the landing of US marines and army units on the island. Hornfischer tells the story well, deftly moving from the strategic overview afforded by commanders such as Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, who headed the US Fifth Fleet to the experiences of individual soldiers on the battle field to Japanese civilians and troops on the other side. Spruance is one of a handful of characters that Hornfischer uses to tell the wider story.

The focus on Saipan gives a real sense of a turning point in the war in the Pacific, one that allowed total war to be taken to the Japanese mainland. It marked the end of Japanese air power with the massacre of hundreds of her carrier borne aircraft which shifted the balance of forces heavily towards the US. Important though it is, the emphasis on Saipan means the neglect of other events such as the invasion of Iwo Jima, the capture of Guam and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. These events get a few pages at most (Leyte Gulf was the biggest battle in Naval history, yet is described almost in passing) which tended to distort the history somewhat.

Nonetheless what Hornfischer does well is to give the reader a sense of the vast shift that takes place in US military might in the Pacific in the years after Pearl Harbour. There's a figure depicting annual US naval production by ship-type early in the book, which shows a massive growth in the manufacture of craft. In 1943 the US war economy produced 15 aircraft carriers, with 8 in 1944. Production of landing craft peaked at 38,000 in 1994. It was this enormous production that was to lead to victory in the Pacific.

The final part of the book discusses the most controversial part of the war - the use of atomic weapons. Hornfischer doesn't avoid controversy. For instance, he is honest about the reality of the conflict on the Pacific island which lead to US soldiers repeatedly killing Japanese POWs. Conversely he also makes it clear that the Japanese military were able to encourage Civilians to commit mass suicide through their propaganda and violence. Total war in the Pacific, just as it did on the Eastern Front in Europe led to atrocities on both sides. In this context the use of the atom bomb for Hornfischer was a choice made by commanders who wanted to end the war with minimal casualties on their side. It was also rational by political leaders with an eye on the future world where their emerging economic power would confront the USSR in a potential new conflict. From the point of view of US imperialism the use of the bomb was rational and this book makes it very clear why the US ended World War Two as the most powerful global superpower. While Hornfischer devotes little time discussing whether the targeting of civilians was morally acceptable he doesn't ignore the suffering caused.

My belief that the use of atom bombs was a war crime remained unchanged by the discussion here, though I did find the discussion on the inability of the Japanese high-command to see that they were defeated, and thus agree to surrender, enlightening. I also felt that the discussion of US-Japanese relations after World War Two was a little to rose-tinted. The behaviour of US troops on Okinawa long after the end of the war remains a sour point decades later.

To be fair to the author though I didn't pick up the book with the intention of getting a political and moral discussion of the end of the war, I was after a history of the Pacific War itself. Unfortunately the detailed focus on the Battle of Saipan, interesting and well written though it was, meant that the wider ebb and flow of the conflict was harder to see. That said, this well illustrated book will be of interest to those trying to understand World War Two in all its arenas.

Related Reviews

Toll - Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942
Toll - The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands 1942-1944

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Lev Grossman - The Magicians

The story of a young man discovering he has magical powers and finding out there's a secret magic school that he can attend to develop his skills and enter the hidden world of magic naturally draws parallels with JK Rowling's books. However Lev Grossman's The Magicians is a much more rewarding novel which draws on much older traditions of fantasy. The majority of the book deals with Quentin Coldwater's entry into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Here he learns about magic and the wider magical world. Quentin is also a huge fan of a series of intriguing novels set in the world of Fillory. These are enormously popular and are heavily modelled on CS Lewis' Narnia books. Eventually Quentin and his friends make their way into Fillory, the story of which forms the latter half of the book.

What makes the book most interesting is that it deals with issues that are far more complex than many fantasy books are willing to take up. Death, sex, violence are some of the themes. But perhaps more importantly is the way the book looks at how the world of magic turns out to be at odds with the fantasy's of the naive young outsiders who first discover it. Quentin's still thinking in terms of the fantastical magical lands of Fillory even as the reality of those lands leads to death and destruction among him. The wizards who graduate Brakebills don't worry about poverty or work - they're too busy using their powers to live lives of luxury and relaxation.

It's an intriguing story which Lev Grossman writes very well and I look forward to the sequels.

Related Reviews

Grossman - The Magician's Land
Grossman - The Magician King

Hubert Mingarelli - Four Soldiers

Hubert Mingarelli's beautifully written short story set during the Russian Civil War delivers an emotionally powerful account of comradeship and friendship among a small group of soldiers. Set during a lull in the fighting it tells of a summer that would have been idyllic if it weren't for the war just over the horizon. The four soldiers in the title form a close knit, secretive group within the larger camp and become emotionally and physically dependent on each other.

Their friendship has the intensity that can only be matched by those formed under the threat of intense stress. Mingarelli doesn't overburden the story with wider details. There is nothing here about the Civil War itself, though we learn a few background facts about some of the characters that tell of grinding poverty. The army also requisitions food from surrounding villages, but the soldiers have little to say about this. The ending isn't cheerful, but it is enormously powerful. But perhaps not the most positive of stories to read during the anxiety of global lockdown.

Friday, April 03, 2020

David Reisman - Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus is usually remembered today for his thoughts on over-population. Since the publication of the first edition of his infamous An Essay on the Principle of Population he has been attacked, usually from the political left, for his views.

However Malthus' thoughts weren't just about population. Indeed his economic theories were important contributions to bourgeois thought about how economic systems work, and what can be done to bring the best benefits to the population. While Karl Marx rightly attacked Malthus' thoughts on population he also often used his ideas on economics as a foil to put across his own views in works like the Grundrisse or Capital. So for those trying to better understand Malthus its welcome that this new biographical work has appeared, though unfortunately its ridiculously high price will put it out of reach of those who do not have library access or are lucky enough to find it in an online sale.

Reisman begins, of course, with Malthus' work on population. Few people today read his Essay (in all its variations). So it's good that the author has taken time to do this. The Essay has often been the target of vicious polemic (not always, however uninformed). William Taylor Coleridge (who had read it) argued that Malthus took "350 pages to prove an axiom" and "a pop-gun would batter down the impregnable Fortress". Marx, wrote that it was "schoolboyish, superficial plagiary".

Reisman is, perhaps by contrast, keen to show that Malthus had a consistent method. He quotes Malthus, writing to his friend the economist Ricardo, "The science of political economy is essentially practical". A few pages later he explains how Malthus introduces statistics to the "British Association" and quotes Malthus as "establishing systems upon facts". This may indeed be what Malthus wanted to be remembered as doing, but I'm skeptical. For instance, the key theoretical argument about population at the heart of the Essays is the idea that population rises geometrically whereas food rises aritchmetcally. This will inevitably lead to starvation. But there is no empircal evidence today, or when Malthus was writing, that this is actually true. A later quoted comment from Malthus to Ricardo is more telling, "My object was to elucidate principles... To do this I magined strong cases that I might shew the operation of those principles."

That said, Malthus was a child of his time and class. He can be criticised for having views that today might be seen as right-wing and based on inaccuracies. But Malthus was trying, in his own way, to explain the world and understand it in the interests of the general betterment of society. Like most other bourgeois economists Malthus thought that improvements for the wealthy would lead to improvements for the poorest. A general rising of boats. Though he was also contemptuous of the poor for the laziness. As Reisman summarises:
Political economy makes the civics clear. The deprived should seek out well-paid employment, limit the number of their dependents and practise self-denial through frugality. They should learn that they alone are the captains of their fate: 'nothing perhaps would tend so strongly to excit e a spirit of industry and economy among the poor, as a through knowledge that their happiness must always depend principally upon themselves'.
Reisman continues, "Charity begins at home. It is the lesson of 'nature and reason' that ordinary people, not the capitalists, the landowners or the politicians are 'themselves the cause of their poverty".

Those with a deep interest in 18th and 19th century economics will find Reisman's study of Malthus' economics useful. But unfortunately I was very disappointed by the book. I found the style, as perhaps the quotes above show, inaccessible. Reisman frequently summarises Malthus' views supplemented by quotes from many different sources in a way that obscures whose voice is being told. At times it reads like Reisman is trying to be Malthus personified in articulating his points of view. But I found it frequently obscured understanding Malthus' arguments. Take the following sentences introducing chapter 10, "Society and State":
Economics is about passion. Every undergraduate knows that. There is the passion for spending: 'An adequate passion for consumption that may fully keep up the proper proportion between supply and demand, whatever may be the powers of production'. There s the passion for not spending: 'A passion for accumulation must inevitably lead to a supply of commodities beyond what the structure and habits of such a society will permit to be consumed'. The passion for the immediate plus the passion for the deferred add up to the national income. Every statistician knows that.
The quotes are from Malthus. The rest is Reisman, but it's not clear whether the author believes this, or that he is paraphrasing Malthus. Either way, "every undergraduate" and "every statistician" may well not agree with the propositions.

As such I was deeply disappointed by this book which I think will be of most interest to academics studying Malthus.

Related Reviews

Kallis - Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care
Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Ehrlich - The Population Bomb

Dorling - Population 10 Billion