Red Wheelbarrow Book Reviews

Renee Abigail Penelope Harold Meg

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Meg's Reviews


The Shock Doctrine

by Naomi Klein
Metropolitan Books

Available at RWB for 15,00€!

Only a crisis, actual or perceived can produce real change. That in a capsule defines the Shock Doctrine. As conceived by its primary proponent Milton Friedman, the shock doctrine allows the imposition of otherwise unpalatable economic conditions on an unsuspecting populace through the haze that follows a catastrophic event. By taking advantage of a crisis or disaster (natural and increasingly man made) the three primary tenets of the doctrine, namely deregulation/free trade, privatization and severe cutbacks on social spending could be imposed with impunity and without regard for what is considered as nationalist safeguards. As envisioned by Friedman and his disciples (whose economic policy is forever known as the Chicago school of thought), the objective is to strip away all regulations until all distortions are removed and the markets are free to regulate themselves. The idea being that the free regulation of the market would allow all people to benefit from the wealth that is subsequently created. But in Milton's hands and as practiced by his fervent disciples, it has evolved to pure corporatism coupled with a disaster capitalism. The basic doctrine thus put in place, Naomi Klein's excellent book the Shock Doctrine sets out to challenge the basic assumptions and tenets of the Doctrine by showing that its unfettered application all over the world has brought about the grossest violations of human rights and created and in numerous instances broadened and increased a hundredfold the inequality between the rich and poor. It has brought about the very opposite of what it purports to bring about.

Given such a highly controversial and potentially contentious subject, Klein has undertaken in depth research and from the wealth of information contained, has put in a significant amount of time to gather all the facts and to ensure that the facts speak for themselves. And the facts are damning indeed.

The first half of the book is devoted to studying the cases of the countries where the doctrine was first applied. From Latin America, to South Africa, Poland, Russia, China, Korea and Indonesia, the book shows us how the application of the doctrine has necessitated the most brutal repressions (i.e. Chile's Pinochet and Argentina's generals) and wide application of torture. Indeed the stringent economic measures required that torture be applied. It was the means of ensuring compliance of the people and to remake the society in accordance with the vision of its creators. As such it was carried out systematically and clinically both on individuals and on whole societies. And the result of such experiment was the almost complete privatization of its national industries, the lay-off of thousands of state employees, huge national debts to the IMF and World Bank, and the enrichment of a very tiny segment of society. It does not even begin to describe the misery, exploitation and deprivation that was endured and in some cases, still being endured today by the ordinary people of these countries. And because the interests of big multinational companies are involved, it comes almost as no surprise to learn that the US backed several coups which subsequently put governments in place that supported the Chicago School.

The second and third parts of the book deals with the application of the doctrine to the country of its birth-the US. And we see how the evolution of the doctrine and its accompanying disaster capitalism has led to the Iraq war and even more disastrously, the privatization of all but the most basic government functions. What has happened is the logical next step in the process. Where the national industries of other countries were once the target, it only makes sense that the target now is what may be the richest prize of them all, the US Government. From the findings of the book, it appears that any and everything that could be contracted out has been contracted out, reducing and stripping away functions that have traditionally belonged to the State. Thus, we see how the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has lead to rich gated communities (built by private contractors) and huge blocks of poor areas that are still without water or electricity. In the words of the book, what has evolved is the hollow state. If the previous chapters have already been already sickening in its detail of torture, murder and poverty, this chapter is perhaps the most sickening as it enumerates in painful detail the huge amounts of public money that have gone to line the pockets of very select corporations (in many cases owned by very prominent individuals). It is cronyism and corruption at the highest levels and banana dictators have apparently nothing on them when it comes to amassing enormous amounts of money.

Klein concludes the book by showing that at the moment there is a growing move to reject the policies of the Chicago school and this is by no means an easy task. Despite the experience of countries under the shock doctrine, there are ominous signs of its continuing power. A quick look around us confirms the existence of rich gated communities while increasingly large segments of society remain disenfranchised and down trodden. And should the shock doctrine continue, these gated communities could become fiercely armed and read to fight to the death to maintain its stranglehold. But as with everything else, there is hope. Latin America is now on its first attempts to bring back a democratic socialism, which attempt was brutally cut short in the 70s. They have before them a few models, namely Scandinavia, but it remains to be seen whether it can be applied everywhere else. An important insight to take away from reading the book is the idea that we owe it to our collective existence to fight against the continuing hold of this insidious doctrine whether or not we are from countries that have been under shock. As pointed out by the author, disasters have traditionally united humans; it cuts across religious, cultural and political ties and alliances. We must learn to do so again and we must learn to rebuild our society into a more just version of what we have thus far created.

Coco on my mind...

Three books about Coco Chanel

As the title suggests, my reading list lately is filled with Chanel related books. Numerous hours were whiled away reading about this supremely fascinating woman.

The first book titled “The Collection” by Gioia Diliberto is the story of Isabelle Varlet, a young talented seamstress who dreams of one day joining the great Parisian couture houses. Her dream comes to pass after a personal tragedy pushes her to leave her hometown and to make her way to Paris. Through the efforts of her kindly previous employer, she is able to find employment in the house of Chanel. It is here that we see the inner workings of the atelier, with Chanel depicted as a hard and demanding taskmistress. It is fascinating to read about the inner workings of the atelier, with all the seamstresses competing and scheming to be in the good graces of Mademoiselle, as she is referred to. However, once one of them does catch the eye of Mademoiselle, her success does not last. One of the more seasoned seamstress warns Isabelle that the fall is not far for her once she is singled out for her work. The book is simply, if elegantly written and is rich in period details that give the reader a good idea of life during those times. More interesting is the way the author depicts the process by which clothes are prepared for their unveiling before the clients in the first fashion shows of those times. And while the story also includes the love story of Isabelle, far greater attention is paid to her work at the atelier and her struggle to be successful at her chosen profession. Despite whatever aversion she might personally feel for Mademoiselle, there is likewise great admiration for her grit, determination and the sheer talent that has taken her to the heights of success.

The second book to deal with Mademoiselle tells a far more personal story. Written by Chris Greenhalgh, Coco and Igor is a retelling of the tumultuous affair between Coco Chanel and the composer Igor Stravinski. At this period of her life, Coco is enjoying the fruits of her hard work and the fashionable set clamor for her personal attention to dress them. Despite her success however, she is suffering from the innate snobbery and prejudice against a working woman who has managed to succeed largely on her own. She is likewise suffering from the death of Arthur “Boy” Capel. Stravinksi on the other hand is in exile with his family. His monetary position is precarious as he is dependent on the kindness of strangers and his wife Catherine is ill. At a fateful dinner hosted by Diaghliev, he is introduced to Coco and there is a frisson of attraction, unaccountable and unacknowledged between them. Soon after this dinner, she invites him and his family to spend the summer at her villa in Garches. Marveling at such generosity, he acquiesces and soon moves his entire family to the villa. Unsurprisingly, they drift close to each other till they succumb to the secret raging attraction. The consequences are of course dire, but surprisingly, it is the women of this story who come out on top. In writing a story about Coco and her relationship with Stravinski, the author has given us a portrait of a more vulnerable Coco. She is shown here as a woman and who, cliché or not, wants to be loved for herself. Despite herself she hopes to be accepted in the high echelons of society. But it is the affair with Stravinksi which reinforces her belief that work comes before everything. She is adamant in insisting that her work merits the same respect as that accorded to artists. It is a finely written elegiac portrait of a supremely talented woman determined to succeed even at the cost of personal happiness.

Third but certainly not the least is the book Different like Coco written and illustrated by Elizabeth Mathews. It is a jaunty telling of the highlights of Coco’s life. It is charming book filled with amusing illustrations that still manage to tell the story of this formidable woman who’s changed the face of fashion in so many ways. It makes for a nice gift for anyone looking to be introduced to Mademoiselle.

The Family That Couldn’t Sleep

by D.T. Max
Random House

The book starts with a story of a Venetian family cursed over the generations by dying through the absence of sleep. Yes, that’s right, absence of sleep. And no, this is not the good old fashioned case of insomnia that occasionally keeps all of us awake at one point or another. In this poor family’s case, the victim, almost always in his 50s is suddenly unable to sleep and starts copiously sweating. More ominously, he or she becomes delirious and the situation worsens until ultimately death results. All this takes place in the space of a few months, a year if he is lucky or unlucky, depending on how one looks at it. To date they remain afflicted.

This is the frightening start of a gripping book—and if truth be told, it is the scariest book I’ve read so far. It is also compulsively readable and sympathetically written. The Venetian family’s story is a counterpoint and frame for the hefty scientific and medical examination of the history of prions which are basically a kind of protein. To fully appreciate the importance of prions, the author takes pains to explain its nature [they are the building blocks and engines of the body and most importantly has only one stable form], what differentiates it from other proteins [it is able to hold two stable forms, unlike others] and why this difference is lethal to us.
After long years of painstaking work, scientists have found that the prion in its second form wreaks havoc by causing several fatal brain related diseases. This includes the Mad Cow disease, the scrapie sheep disease and more ominously for humans, the Fatal Familial Insomnia of the Italian family as well as the Creutzfeldt Jakob disease which afflicts far more people than we would think. It is the medical community’s belief that it is likewise linked to Alzheimers. The most frightening thing about all this information is the fact that to date there is no cure for any of the aforementioned diseases and the fact is, the medical and scientific community still doesn’t know why or what triggers the prion to become lethal.

Despite the grimness of the topic (there are several stomach churning chapters involving sheep and cows) and the barrage of scientific information, what stands out is the sensitivity and empathy of the author for the human characters involved. The writer, himself suffering from a rare neurological disease understands that over and beyond the science of the matter, is the human story and it is an important one. Apart from the Italian family, the book narrates the stories behind the different personalities that have dominated the prion field and they are fascinating to read. We meet Carl Gajdusek who did groundbreaking studies on the cannibalistic Fore people who suffered a variant of the Fatal Familial Insomnia disease. Gajdusek had a strong penchant for young boys and along the course of his work brought back several children with him to the US. He later went to jail for his proclivities. Then there is Stanley Prusiner, Nobel prize winner, who coined the term “prion” and who dominates the field. He has a taste for the expensive life and much of the scientific community speaks about him in terms both admiring and envious.

In the end we come away enriched with scientific knowledge, not always accessible to ordinary people but more importantly knowing the people who have struggled long and hard to bring such knowledge to us all.

Dark Alchemy: Magical Tales from Masters of Modern Fantasy

Edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Dark Alchemy is an impressive collection of stories from authors ranging from the venerable Orson Scott Card and Gene Wolf to the newly minted best sellers Eoin Colfer and Garth Nix. The editors are renowned for their editorial work in short story anthologies, Dozois notably for the annual “Year Best Science Fiction” collection.

A short story collection is frequently troubled by the unevenness of the stories particularly when it is collaborated upon by a number of different authors. I’m happy to say that Dark Alchemy does not suffer from such trouble. Simply put, this is a collection of truly rich and well written stories. The theme as its title may imply is wizardry and magic and each author has explored this theme in their own unique way. At the end of Dark Alchemy we are left with a very good idea of each of the author’s writing. And it is a real pleasure to be introduced to new and unfamiliar authors and an even greater pleasure to read a master at work.

Whenever I am asked about the relevance of fantastic stories in the real world, I always say that these stories cloaked in the realm of fantasy more than address the issues that beset the modern world. And this is amply demonstrated by the stories of this collection. Take for instance Stone Man by Nancy Kress whose young disaffected protagonist discovers his magical abilities and finds in it a way to a better life. Or Peter Beagle’s powerful Barrens Dance which tells the tale of an all consuming lust by a greedy man and the saving power of love, albeit from an unexpected source. There is the gem by Neil Gaiman (which by the way sets the book to a rocking start) where a young boy tries to do right by someone who had been wronged once upon a time. In another story (The Stranger’s Hands) the classical theme of “be careful what you wish for” is twisted in a wholly different way and demands that we ask ourselves to look carefully into what we think is good and evil. All considered, the fantastical elements of the stories all serve to highlight what confronts us today in our high technology, high definition world where blood and gore are commonplace things for view. It’s true that fantastic stories provide a measure of escape. It is so much easier when the lines between good and evil are well drawn, and the enemy is easily dispatched by magical means. But contrary to those who view fantastic stories are mere escapist fare, I think there is no escaping the full spectrum of human nature in its weakness, capacity for cruelty and redeeming powers of selflessness, bravery and even generosity. And these fantastic tales carry a full measure and unflinchingly confronts these elements in its magical milieu. What then is so escapist about such tales?


DELUXE: How Luxury Lost its Luster

by Dana Thomas
Reviewed by Meg Gerner

Writer Dana Thomas has written a fact filled, well-written and engaging book on the loss of luxury in the modern world. The book is written with the premise that the democratization of luxury has distorted its meaning and caused the loss of its intrinsic value. In Thomas’ hands, luxury with its new philosophy of democratization is simply capitalism and the accumulation of profit.

Deluxe gets off to a running start with the evolution of the luxury industry. It traces its beginnings from the nobility period when craftsmen were proud to make and present the best of their wares to royalty. At that time luxury had noble aspirations. However, the inevitable rise of the middle class gave birth to a new phenomenon whereby the newly rich could now afford the very things that used only to be within the reach of the very rich. And this fact was very cleverly seized by businessmen and launched the new era of luxury where it was made available and indeed, accessible to everyone.

From there, the book goes on to detail the activities of several high fashion groups and the way they run their empires. It is especially interesting to learn about the designer, who we normally know only by their name, or by their bag, shoes or clothes, as an actual person. For instance, Miuccia Prada is described as “a woman who had been raised in haute bourgeois society, with servants and grandeur and politesse. Unlike her competitor, Donatella Versace, who came from nothing, Prada’s airs are not airs at all: her snobbery is in her bones.” Flattering or unflattering, such descriptions gives a sense of the person behind the label and how such personality reflects on the house designs.

The author likewise takes pains to detail how luxury shopping has encircled and continues to encircle the globe. And it’s very funny to read detailed chapters on the spending habits of several different countries. One realizes just why people are limited to a specific number of items when shopping and why when walking down Champs Elysee, you could get asked to buy a bag for someone. It seems that shopping habits have been studied with as much intensity as global warming, if not more so.

Reading this book, one is lead to ask whether there is anything wrong with making luxury as accessible to everyone, as much as possible. What is wrong with the democratization of luxury and the derivation of profit? As Thomas points out, Bernard Arnault and other luxury group stockholders certainly can’t and indeed don’t complain. And the ever expanding prosperous middle class and newly minted millionaires of developing countries are among the first to welcome such development. Certainly there is nothing wrong if we don’t consider that we are losing a more genteel, rarefied way of life. And even more certainly, there is nothing wrong with thinking that we are all entitled to luxury. And does it really matter that the proliferation of so-called luxury products in our every day life has all but erased the distinction between what real luxury is and the mere appearance of it. What is wrong with buying into the dream? Simply this, luxury is no longer a dream. It’s now a business; a multi-billion dollar one. The very antithesis of what it used to be. It is no longer the experience of having something that was produced out of genuine passion and waiting to be able to acquire such a thing; where the waiting enhances the experience and becomes as delicious a moment as having the actual object in one’s hands. It is about having something of beauty that lasts more than its allotted shelf life and getting a glimpse of eternity. That is what we are all entitled to but paradoxically in today’s world is now as rare as real luxury. It is in losing such experience that luxury has lost its luster.

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