Fleming’s Surviving the Future

Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy
David Fleming

Man what an odd little book.

In the Spring of 2020 when the NoVo foundation, led by Peter Buffet (yes, that Buffet) drastically changed much of its programing focus a flurry of articles came out about why. A number of articles discussed Buffet’s interest in hyper local philanthropy and influence this book had on his thinking. So, I picked it up.

In essence this is a book on de-growth, on focusing on developing local cultures where community and group survival are more important than profit. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, which shouldn’t be a surprise to folks who know David Fleming (he’s most famous for his claims about peak oil).

I’m generally sympathetic to de-growth arguments intellectually, though I doubt their real-world applicability. But I’m also often uncomfortable with the focus on shared culture in what is an incredibly diverse world. If you take climate change seriously, and I certainly do, then you can expect millions of climate refugees streaming, basically, north. I fear hyper local movements focused on preserving the “culture” of a place are unlikely to welcome these people, and the cultures they bring. Fleming doesn’t ignore this problem, but nor does he address it to my satisfaction.

Any serious consideration of slowing climate change needs to look head on at capitalistic growth and ask if it can continue. I think it can but arguing it cannot certainly isn’t crazy. If you want to see the de-growth movement’s policies argued well, this is worth you time, but if you’re like me you will leave unconvinced.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison

Of the Morrison novels I’ve read (and I have not read them all, yet!) this is my favorite. It is an absolute work of genius, full stop. Stunning from the first page to the last.

I find it hard to explain Morrison’s genius. Yes, she has incomparable technical skill – her sentences are gorgeous. But more than that she sets a mood, by setting a place, by creating a cast of incredible, surreally lifelike characters. Milkman Dead, the character at the center here, is at once chased and seeking, infinitely related and also inscrutable. This depth of understanding and nuance Morrison fits into a book of such modest length is, I really have no other word for this, magic.


King’s Where Do We Go From Here

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. King’s last book and as relevant now as the day he wrote it. It’s easy to forget how radical King was, especially in his final years. Calling not only for Black liberation, but for an end to the Vietnam war, and demanding economic equality. In turning him into a saint, we have left out the parts of him that don’t fit the narrative we want to place on him. We downplay the incredible, almost unimaginable, courage it took to commit to nonviolence when white supremacists are actively trying to kill you. And we forget his demands for truly just society, one far different from the one we have today. Instead we act as if his dream was realized and the work is done.

It is, to state the obvious, not.

There’s a lot going on in this book. King is laying out a broad agenda for social change, but the thing that stuck with me the most in the early section, where he discusses his difference with Kwame Ture (at the time, Stokely Carmichael). King and Ture were on opposite sides of black power. The differences were real, and serious, but in discussing their disagreement King takes the time to honor Ture’s position, explaining how Ture arrived where he did, how much white violence played a part in that journey, and argues against Ture from a place of love. It’s remarkable and so different from much of our modern discourse. I hope we can get back there.


Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door

The Spook Who Sat By The Door
Sam Greenlee

I think I first heard about The Spook Who Sat By The Door maybe twenty years ago, but this was the year I finally read this incredible book. The storyline is well known to the reader of leftist literature – Dan Freeman, a black man, joins the CIA in order to secretly learn the lessons of counter insurgency so as to build a guerilla army to fight for Black liberation. It’s an incredible, radical book and you can see why it was rejected by mainstream publishers. It is part thriller, part radical political manifesto. The writing is, I think its fair to say, work a day, but who cares.  The plot is propulsive and Freeman is a multileveled, complex “hero”. I can’t think of another work of fiction like it.


Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success
Walter Mischel

You probably know the Marshmallow test. Young children are offered a marshmallow. They can eat it right now. But if they wait, they can get two marshmallows. The children were then tracked through to adulthood and by and large, the children who could wait did better by almost every outcome of success – health, stable relationships, income, etc.

The test is famous, and every yuppie Brooklyn parent I know references it constantly. This is a book written by the dude who designed and implemented the test. You’d think it would be revelatory in its insights into how we can develop the mindset and skills needed to lead a fulfilling life. If you’re a normal person, who doesn’t read self-improvement books all the time or await the new David Epstein or Cal Newport book with bated breath, then their might be a lot here for you. But if you’re me, someone who follows the science of this stuff relatively closely, this is, frankly all old hat. There is interesting anecdotes, for sure. On how they developed the test, more on who the kids were and what became of them, and interesting additional experiments – all of which I’d already heard of. I enjoyed it well enough, but it wasn’t worth my time. Your mileage may vary.

Recommended for the (budding) enthusiast.

Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room
James Baldwin

When I was in my twenties, this was a favorite book of a number of friends. I don’t know why I never read it. This is Baldwin at the height of his powers writing with a kind of restraint that makes the themes of the novel even more explosive. I’m not literary critic, I don’t know why Baldwin set this novel of gay love in Paris. I don’t know why everyone is white. I sympathize with the critique that too much of queer literature is centered in tragedy, but that is the story Baldwin wanted to tell and what a story it is.

This book transported me. It is wonderful.


Review: Morrison’s Sula

Toni Morrison

Morrison’s second novel. Like every one of her works that I have read, it’s a masterpiece. I really have nothing new to say about one of America’s greatest novelists except to say that what stuck me about Sula was how fully formed the characters are, even those whose appearances are brief, and how through the development of these complex characters Morrison not only tells her story, but gives you a deep sense of what the Bottom is like. The entire novel is a study in economy of language – Morrison fits so much into a pretty slim novel – but you’ll notice she spends almost all her time on her characters, and not on the physical description of the Bottom in doing so she shows us that a community is a collection of individuals, complex, fraught, individuals, as much as it is a place.

Recommended (duh)

Review: Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

The plan was to wait until all three books came out and then read them one right after the other. As other reviews this year will make clear, that didn’t happen. One down, two to go.

This, Mantel’s first book on Cromwell is, you are not surprised to hear, brilliant. The writing is so clear you can see through it to Henry’s court. I woke up early in the morning to read this over coffee while the wife and kids slept.

Not a critique but more of a warning. Mantel assumes a lot of the reader. The book has a very helpful dramatis persona, I needed more background on the players to really understand what was going on. Wikipedia was my friend here. All in all an absolute cracker of a read. Cromwell remains in many ways mysterious through the book, his motives a bit obscure, yet as Mantel I am sure intended, I ended up rooting for him.


Review: Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Huruki Murakami

Why did it take me so long to read this delightful little book? Perhaps because while I admire Murakami’s fiction, I don’t really like it. This book has a certain oddness to it, it is so straight forward, filled with such short, careful, deliberative, sentences that it puts one into almost a dream state. It’s wonderful and, perhaps better than any other book I’ve read represents the solace that is to be found in a regular running practice.

Murakami reflects on his entry into running, his racing successes, and failures, and his drive to continue to try to do just a little bit better (keeping in mind that “better” changes as we age).  

I started this about two months into the pandemic, when I was running everyday, and Murakami’s ups and downs, injuries and triumphs, and consistent, consistent, mileage resonated with the daily run existence I was living. Somehow, I need to get back there.  


Review: Barry’s The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

John Barry

Started this book right in the heart of it. Mid-April, New York City. Only leaving the apartment late at night to run around an empty Prospect Park.

This is an incredible work, both a detail history of the greatest modern pandemic before covid and a book about the development of modern medicine in America.

I, like most people, in early 2020 knew next to nothing about the 1918 pandemic. I didn’t know that it started (most likely) in America, and not Spain. I didn’t know that they didn’t even know it was the flu for an incredibly long time. I didn’t know that (like today) the response was badly bungled by the federal government, and I didn’t know (like today) that the death toll was disproportionately among the poor.  Reading it was in some ways like reading our own future, though I hope our outcome is better. They never really got control of the flu then, it kind of just petered out on it’s own after leaving millions dead.

Perhaps the thing about this book and the 1918 pandemic that struck me hardest was the 1918 produced no great works of art. No profound novels, no mournful operas, no harrowing paintings. In our cultural landscape, it was all but forgotten, living on only in punk rock record covers of folks in masks. I wonder, will our pandemic turn out the same?

Highly recommended.