Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review of 'Meat: A Benign Extravagance'

Well, it won't be surprising if any of my vegetarian and vegan friends don't like this book much, but it's a shame if they don't read it. It's epic in scope, fabulously well written, and full of amazingly useful detail about agriculture, carbon emissions and energy budgets. It's astonishing how much research it represents.

Ultimately whether you agree with the author's conclusions depends (I think) on the extent to which you think it's ethically acceptable to kill and eat other sentient creatures - it's not an argument with which he engages at all. But if you are vegan or vegetarian for sustainability reasons then you really ought to spend some time with this book.

It's worth noting that he argues for a 'default' level of meat consumption - he agrees it's not a very good name - by which means a diet with much less meat, based on the amount of animal protein available because of the other ways in which animals are useful in agriculture - traction, restoring soil, consuming waste, etc. He isn't standing up for cheap factory-farmed meat (or eggs or dairy).

In passing he deals with lots of other arguments about carbon sequestration, forestry vs. grassland, and about different visions of a sustainable future for humans - it's worth noting that plenty of 'ecologists' including James Lovelock describe a future dystopia in which humans are shut up in nightmare cities and fed a load of factory-produced feed, and elsewhere nature reservations allow 'Gaia' to regenerate safe from us (but perhaps not from enjoyment by our betters).

BTW if you are at all interested, there seems to be pdf available for download.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Review of 'My LIfe as a Courgette'

A really beautiful, poignant animated film about children in an orphanage. It's stop-motion animation, with plasticine, so most of the animation and the feeling that the characters communicate is by tiny little alterations in the shape of a plasticine nose or mouth - which means that it's really created by the viewer. Remarkable too in the way that a few details - strewn beer cans, for example - tell so much story in a few minutes.

Notable in the way that it celebrates non-family communities and relationships while showing that 'natural', blood relationships are sometimes awful. Early on there's some teasing of the newly arrived Courgette by the dominant kid at the orphanage, but it soon subsidises and the orphanage is an almost ideal community.

Watched at Lansdown Hall as a showing by the film club.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review of 'Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948'

This is a really, really good book. It's meticulously researched, with lots of primary and secondary sources. It's on top of the literature, acknowledging the contributions of others but maintaining a critical distance from earlier work and showing its limitations. It's primarily an academic rather than a popular or polemical work, so sometimes (mainly at the beginning and the end) there are some rather dry theoretical sections - I'm sure I would have loved those once, but now I sort of skimmed them. There are also some places when the detail became a bit overwhelming - sometimes in the alphabet soup of the various Palestinian-Arab groupings, for example.

For me, the book is most important in finally laying to rest any residual identification that I might have had with 'Socialist-Zionism'. It's clear that Labour Zionism, as practised by Mapai and its predecessors, as not a kind of socialism - not even of the Second International flavour pursued by social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere, but rather a strand within the self-avowed colonialist project that was Zionism. Labour Zionism and its institutions, especially the Histradrut which was not a trade union movement or organisation as anyone else would recognise it, was a necessary element in delivering the Zionist project that involved the mass immigration of Jews from Europe - because it was a means to ensure that there was an economy and a labour market fit to absorb them.

In so far as it was interested in cross-communal solidarity with workers from the majority Palestinian Arab community, this was almost always with the intention of ensuring that low-wage Arab workers became less able to compete with their higher-paid Jewish counterparts. Most of the time it was utterly uninterested in such solidarity, though, and sought to build a differentiated labour market for Jewish workers through 'the conquest of labour', which included boycotts and campaigns for employers to dismiss Arabs and hire Jews instead. Reading some of the details of this, such as the campaign for construction companies to only use 'Jewish Stone', it is impossible not to feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Nevertheless the Histradrut and the various Jewish Labour parties dressed themselves in the clothes of socialism, with May Day rallies and singing of the Internationale, and appeals to Arab workers to show solidarity. Labour Zionism claimed that the mass immigration of Jews would benefit Arab workers too by raising their living standards, at the same time as it called for them to be dismissed from their jobs. This was rarely lost on the Arab workers, some of whom nevertheless showed remarkable forbearance in distinguishing between Jewish workers and the Zionist project.

Lockman resists the temptation to suggest that the professed socialism of the Zionist Socialists was merely cynical. He writes with some sympathy of the contradictions of the further reaches of the Zionist left, including first Poalei Ziyon Smol and then Hashomer Hatzair; he acknowledges that the colonialist perspective towards 'native' workers was not unique to the Zionist labour movement but characterised other imperial trade unionists too. Nevertheless, he also resists the temptation to suggest that with more goodwill and better luck the clash between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism could have turned out well, or even turned out better. The trajectory of the Zionist project was always to take over the territory and to 'transfer' its then inhabitants, the Palestinian Arabs, to somewhere else. And that's what happened.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Review of Walkaway

One of the more interesting books that I've read in a while, though I can't say for sure that it was one of the best. It's a sort of novelisation of some of the techno-utopian ideas expressed by, among others, Toni Negri and Kevin Carson. I was really surprised that neither of them got a name-check in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, because it seems to me to align quite well with their ideas and I find it hard to believe that Cory Doctorow has read widely in this domain and yet not come across them. On the other hand, it's a hell of a lot easier to read than actual Negri, which I find almost impenetrable.

It depicts an anarchist utopia in the not too distant future, existing in the instersices left by the mainstream world - 'default', in the novel. The future utopians just walk away from their militarised, impoverished, impossible lives in default, to take up a place in a technology-enabled cornucopia with few rules and no government.

As one expects from utopian novels, there's a lot of explaining, with plenty of conversations about how it all works that wouldn't happen in real life. I didn't much mind that. I didn't mind the need to provide some elements of drama and narrative by having the world of default strike out at the utopians, so that there was some actual tension that's hard to account for in a utopia. There's a sub-plot in that one of the utopians is a daughter of one of the patricians (zottas, from 'zotta-rich'), and is kidnapped by mercenaries hired by her father to deprogram her; that was fine too, and it let Doctorow discuss the contradictions of a society dominated by an ever-decreasing number of super-rich.

I was a bit more bothered by the other thread, though - the anarchists manage to scan 'minds' so that people can be backed up as software, so that no-one ever needs to die. I think this is an interesting thing to explore, but I felt it was too much going on in this book. I wished he'd saved it for a different one.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review of My Brilliant Friend

How much point is there in reviewing a literary phenomenon? I dunno. But I really enjoyed this, even though it's not the sort of thing I usually read. It helped that I read it in (and on the way to) Naples, and it was a great preparation for walking round the back streets off Via Toledo and Spaccanapoli. A very vivid evocation of the living poor in the 1950s - although Southern Italy was poorer than much of Europe, I think there'd be comparable stories from England and elsewhere.

I particularly appreciated the depiction of growing up in the shadow of a more talented/capable/beautiful friend, and the way the narrator treats the violence and oppressiveness of the way the Neapolitan men perform their masculinity.

Review of Pereira Mantains

A short, spare, beautiful book that somehow manages to feel much longer. I don't want to spoil its development for you, but I can say it's a very sensual book, even though it is written almost like a statement taken down from a witness. The colours, the feeling of the heat, the textures, the tastes of the food and drinks, and Pereira's own feelings of his obesity and his exhaustion are very vivid.

It's very clever, not least in the unusual voice which lets the plot develop despite the character's inability to understand what is happening. It's about politics, as seen through the eyes of someone that's not all that interested but is living in a police state.

Review of "Isle of Dogs"

And then, just when I couldn't face any more feel-bad films, this. I'd not rushed to see it, partly because some of the reviews were a bit lukewarm. But it was the only English-language film playing in VOSIT (version originale, subtitutlos Italian) in Torino.

And it was really, really enjoyable. A feast for the eyes and the brain, so many verbal and visual jokes, skits on language. The dogs's barks are all translated into English, but the Japanese characters speak Japanese with English subtitles - fortunately these are hard-coded on the film or we'd have had only Italian; as it was we had Japanese speak, English below and Italian below that.

I'm not even a massive dog fan (like all the villains in the film, I prefer cats) but all the dog characters are so great that I found myself looking at canine companions through new eyes.

The music and sound, and some of the political messages, are also fab. Family friendly, suitable for children but thoughtful and funny for everyone.

We watched this at a very comfortable cinema, with a huge screen and great sound, in Torino, just round the corner from the National Cinema Museum.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review of The Florida Project

Another feel-bad film, this time about Halley, a young single mum living in a clapped-out motel in Florida, near to Disneyland and the all-inclusive resorts around it. It's full of low-paid workers and welfare recipients, scraping by in through casual work in the fast-food joints. Halley doesn't do this; she deals drugs, re-sells cheap perfume that she buys from cash-and-carry outlets, and works as an occasional prostitute using a mobile app to market herself. While she is with a customer she leaves her daughter shut in the motel room's bathroom, with the music turned up loud.

Halley's daughter, and the other motel resident kids she runs with, are the focus of the film. In some ways they have a childhood that's a bit like the golden age of running wild that older people sometimes refer to; the kids explore the entire neighbourhood more or less unsupervised. Nothing really bad happens to them, though they do set fire to a derelict motel, and are exposed to a creepy old guy who might have been about to do something abusive.

The film is very acutely observed, even though it isn't particularly moralistic or judgmental. It sets out the bleakness of American life at the near-bottom (yes, there are rungs below this one). On the other hand it's obvious that Halley is crap at life and that things will end badly for her and her daughter. Others are managing their awful and hopeless poverty better than she is, and try to keep their kids away from her daughter less they be sucked in to her way of life.Whether it'll end up any better for them is not clear.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club.

Review of "The Party"

Nice acting by favourite British character actors, well-crafted dialogue, beautifully shot in black and white in what appears to be an Islington house...a claustrophobic feel like a stage set. But I was left a bit miffed by the whole thing. It's about a group of mainly left liberal intellectuals, gathered for a celebration but then there are bombshells, skeletons revealed etc. The apparently principled people turn out to be sexually unfaithful, deceitful, hypocritical etc.

Why is only left-wing intellectuals who are fit subjects for comedy? Why aren't people who's salaries are paid by corporate-funded think-tanks also funny? Or corporate lawyers? Sure, there's a token banker in here, but he's American, and a gun-wielding coke-head, so not really much satire of bankers going on then - just an easy shot at a stereotype.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via laptop and projector.