strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
[personal profile] strange_complex
In this post I am reviewing three books which I actually read in 2015. I'm aware of how utterly ludicrous that is; just humour me. It's a thing I feel I need to do.

6. Conrad Russell (1999), An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism

After the 2015 General Election, various Lib Dems shared lists of reading recommendations in the spirit of fuelling a #LibDemFightback. This one seemed the most universally-recommended, so I got it out of the University library and read it. It is indeed a very good articulation of what liberalism is about today (or was at the time of publication), and how it has evolved from its earliest recognisable origins in Whig opposition to James II’s interference in parliamentary autonomy through a series of different issues (religion, economics, personal freedoms, the environment etc.) as UK politics has changed over the centuries. I found the chapter on economics the most interesting and helpful for clarifying my own understanding of liberalism. Broadly, it points out that liberalism does not really have a clear default economic position in the way that (say) socialism does, because it initially evolved in a context where the main dividing lines in politics were not economic ones, but others – primarily religion. But because liberalism is essentially about the redistribution of power from those who are hoarding big chunks of it to those who don’t have any, it isn’t too hard to translate this to economic forms of power, and indeed there are plenty of early examples of liberals siding with the economically-exploited over their exploiters – e.g. Whig involvement in passing laws for the ten-hour working day in the mid-19th century. This in turn opens the door for a vision of liberal economics which is much more about cooperatives, mutuals, trade unions, breaking up monopolies and cartels, encouraging entrepreneurialism and ensuring level playing fields than the laissez faire approach often described as ‘classical liberalism’. I would love that vision to be more deeply embedded and widely understood in the Liberal Democrats today, never mind in wider politics – but unfortunately it is not. Meanwhile, back to the book, its big flaw is that it is unlikely to be at all accessible to anyone not already interested in liberalism and familiar with UK politics. Fair enough, it bills itself as being for the ‘intelligent person’, but that in itself is not very liberal really – hardly in keeping with the Liberal Democrats’ consitutional pledge (adopted verbatim from the Liberals before them) to ensure that no-one is enslaved by ignorance. And, as is often the case with similar riders, ‘intelligent’ is really just a synonym for ‘educated’ or ‘pre-informed’. So Russell will refer in passing to something François Mitterrand said in 1989 (I’m inventing the example, as I no longer have the text in front of me to provide a real one), without actually saying what it was or how it relates to the issue under discussion. A more accessible introduction to liberalism could certainly be written, then, and could do a lot of good by helping to ensure a broader understanding of what it actually is. As my friend Andrew Hickey, who also recently reviewed Russell's book points out, an awful lot of the people who are currently convinced that liberalism is a terrible scourge on society are actually working with a heavily distorted understanding of it, and would probably quite like the sort of thinking which Russell outlines if they knew about it. Attempting to communicate it is, of course, on us liberals, and clearly that is what Russell was trying to do. Until anyone can achieve a more accessible articulation of the same thinking, his book will probably remain the best introduction to liberalism we have.

7. Andrew Hickey (2015), Head of State

Talking of Andrew, he wrote a book of his own, and it's great! It is a novel, technically belonging to the Faction Paradox series, but I can personally attest that you do not need to have read any prior Faction Paradox stories, or really know anything about them, to enjoy it. It helps in particular that the story is very much set on Earth; though I don't know how much that is or isn't true for other FP stories – maybe they all are? Anyway, this one follows a surprise outsider's US presidential election campaign, which is clearly being manipulated by the Faction Paradox in some way, and which relates to traces of their activities also identifiable in the historical and mythic past. In order to tell this story, Andrew has used multiple interweaving narratives: different present-day perspectives on the presidential campaign, Victorian explorer Richard Burton, the 2002nd story of Scheherazade and various interpolations from non-human dimensions. This is not easy, but I thought he did it exceptionally well, capturing the various voices of his different characters distinctly and recognisably without making any of them seem over-mannered or cariacatured. For those reasons alone I enjoyed reading the novel and would recommend it to anyone. But there is of course an extra dimension of pleasure to reading a novel by a friend whose view on the world over-laps closely with your own. I recognised a lot of both the political and the online culture described, for example: in particular a female journalist blogging on a platform called 'dreamjournal', whom Andrew confirmed when I asked him was indeed based on the journalist I thought she was. He is even sweet enough to have included me in his acknowledgements at the end, although literally all I did was lend him a book of commonly-used Latin phrases with which he could pepper Richard Burton's prose. As for that presidential candidate – he's a Bernie Sanders, not a Donald Trump, but an awful lot about the campaign sections of this book did resurface in my mind during the latter part of 2016: high-level corruption and manipulation, people gradually realising that the 'no-hope' candidate is going to win, and a load of right-wing nutjobbery to boot. It's a pity real life has managed to turn out even more horrendous than what happens at the end of this book, but that's another matter. I'm really proud to know the author of such a great read.

8. John Buchan (1927), Witch Wood

I learnt of this book from the British Library's exibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination in autumn 2014, where it was presented as an example of folk horror and likened to Witchfinder General in particular. It's a reasonable comparison. This story deploys the classic folk horror motif of an educated outsider coming into a small, traditional village community: in this case a newly-ordained priest, David Sempill, assigned to a parish named Woodilee. It's also set during the Civil Wars, though in Scotland rather than in England, and involves accusations of witchcraft. After those face-value similarities, though, it's a pretty different kind of narrative: essentially a historical novel concerned with how the ideological conflicts of 17th-century Scotland translate into personal struggles for its main character. On the one side, Sempill owes loyalty to the Kirk and, through its Solemn League and Covenant, the parliamentary side of the Civil War. On the other, he increasingly finds that his efforts to help the sick and the needy put him at odds with his parish leaders and church elders, who are more concerned with personal reputation and formal doctrine than actual morals or spirituality, and that his sympathies are drawn instead towards royalists and aristocrats. Witches and indeed fairies are overlain onto this, in ways which allow Buchan to highlight the hypocrisies of the parishioners and tangle up Sempill's political leanings with romantic attraction. But there is nothing overtly supernatural in the book: only a bit of paganism-cum-Devil-worshippery and Sempill's hyper-romanticisation of his girlfriend. Most of the politics and religion I could take or leave to be honest, not having any great investment in either, but the novel does contain some very engrossing sequences: Sempill's terror journeying through the dark wood at night, the utter devastation of his village by the plague, or the tormenting of an obviously-vulnerable old woman by a witch-pricker. Those are what have stayed with me, and what made it worth reading.

Date: Friday, 1 September 2017 00:18 (UTC)
From: [personal profile] theandrewhickey
Thanks -- that's a genuinely lovely review, and really nice of you to say.
(As for Faction Paradox, not *all* the novels are set on Earth, but they're mostly either set on Earth or in Earth-derived cultures, so for example one is set in the City of the Saved, a city at the end of time containing every human who ever lived, while another is about a war between all the Earths where Rome never fell and all the Earths where the Nazis won, written in a pastiche of Graves' style in I, Claudius). In general FP tends to be about culture and history, and so it goes more into the Gothic or the fantastic than the science-fictional.

I think people familiar with the wider FP universe will probably get *more* out of it -- there are a few resonances in there that I put in (some of them after talking with Simon Bucher-Jones, who wrote the book before it, realising that we were coincidentally both using some of the same ideas, and so putting in stuff that says "we meant to do that"), and the last line would make a lot more sense to someone who's read The Book Of The War or heard the audio dramas. But I intended it to be readable to everyone, and I'm glad you found it so.

As for the Intelligent Persons' Guide -- yes, I agree with your criticisms there. The title isn't down to Russell, though -- there was a whole series of books called "An Intelligent Person's Guide To" Medicine, Ethics, Religion, and so on from the same publisher. Mark Pack and Alex Wilcock were apparently working a couple of years ago on an expanded edition, but I've not heard anything about it since then.

Date: Friday, 1 September 2017 11:43 (UTC)
From: [personal profile] theandrewhickey
Nothing at all to apologise for! Thanks for reviewing it at all.

And yes, I think you might well like the Romans vs Nazis one. That's Warlords of Utopia by Lance Parkin. It's a very enjoyable book, but one I sometimes hesitate to recommend because the narrator, Marcus Americanius Scriptor, is very much a creature of Rome, and so some of his behaviours (like having a child bride) can squick people out or even trigger them, so be warned about that. But to me it's actually an advantage of the book, in that the war isn't between "goodies" and "baddies", but between two empires both of which look pretty horrific to modern democratic eyes. (Which is, of course, how the actual Second World War also looks in retrospect).

It's been about six or seven years since I read it, and some of the reviews on Goodreads raise some aspects as problematic that didn't strike me that way when I read it, but which might now if I reread. But my memory of the book is that it's the most accessible and fun of the FP novels (not the best -- that's either Dead Romance or Of The City Of The Saved) and it has a surprising amount of depth for something so readable.

Date: Friday, 1 September 2017 05:24 (UTC)
sovay: (Rotwang)
From: [personal profile] sovay
8. John Buchan (1927), Witch Wood

I hadn't known this existed and I will look for it; thank you for the pointer. Your description also makes me think of Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (2013).

Date: Friday, 1 September 2017 20:58 (UTC)
softfruit: (Default)
From: [personal profile] softfruit
You probably know this, but the slightly at odds "for intelligent people" thing is a quirk of the book series it is from, with different authors offering "an intelligent person's guide to..." different things. So to me we have to give Conrad a pass on that one because it was about getting published rather than his own statement of intent or attitude.

(Edit to add: Oh, Andrew got there before me with this already. Don't mind me, I'm just here for the wine...)
Edited Date: Friday, 1 September 2017 20:59 (UTC)


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