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Five things to read this month

This article is over 1 years, 1 months old
Dave Gilchrist picks his literary choices to get stuck into in July

Books at bookmarks bookshopCulture Is Bad For You by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brian and Mark Taylor. 

The provocative title of this book takes us on a journey to examine the role of culture and “the culture industry” in contemporary society.

Starting from the viewpoint that culture is a central part of being human, the book examines exactly the reality of how its structures affect us in our everyday lives. The authors understand that culture is closely related to inequality in our society. The general mood music of the culture industries and government departments—that culture brings total benefits—needs closer examination.

The book looks at who makes culture and who consumes culture. Both, it points out, are dominated by structural inequalities.

This extends to the very definitions of what culture is. The difference between “high” culture and “low” culture reflects historical struggles for legitimation by different classes in society.

The book provides us with personal testimony as to how inequality operates both from culture makers and audiences. It also contains a great deal of fine grained data as to how this inequality in culture operates across society. Refreshingly it examines this seriously in terms of class, even if you could contest the sociological categories used to define class divisions. It also contains excellent detail on how culture operates in unequal ways between ethnicities, sex and gender divisions.

The book also shows the strong commitment that cultural workers have to culture itself and to positive social change. Even those at the top profess that they are in favour of change. It is noted however that they do little to bring it about and often do not recognise inequality in their own institutions.

Making inequality visible is the professed central aim of the book. In doing so the authors are seeking to effect change. They have a strong view of the interrelation of structural inequality that is reflected inside culture itself.

The authors ask for what they call a “new theory of value” that is, of the value of culture and the value of persons.

They write, “Many more changes will be needed to sever the long standing link between elite dominance of cultural production and consumption and social inequality.”

  • Culture Is Bad For You, Orian Brook, Dave O’Brian and Mark Taylor. Manchester University Press  £11.99

Terminal Boredom, Izumi Suzuki. Verso, £10.99

This is the first English-language publication of the work of Izumi Suzuki, a legend of Japanese science fiction and a countercultural icon.

The stories in this book prefigure much of the works of recent science fiction such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer or the Handmaid’s Tale. If you enjoy the work of sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin, you will love these stories too. Witty and full of struggle, the social dimension is never lost in their futurism.

In the title story, the tyranny of enforced screen-time and the mechanisation of labour foster a cold-hearted and ultimately tragic disaffection among the youth of Tokyo.

The innovative author was one of the first to break from American style Science Fiction and create an authentic Japanese voice known as the Sci Fi of Manners. Suzuki married the avant-garde saxophonist Kaoru Abe and their turbulent relationship was the subject of Endless Waltz, a 1992 novel by Mayumi Inaba.

  • Terminal Boredom, Izumi Suzuki. Verso, £10.99

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk 

I read Nobel laureate Tokarczuk’s previous book Flights during the first lockdown. That novel’s affinity with the existential questioning of French philosopher Jean-Paul Satre had a profound impact on me in the strange early days of covid-19.

Drive Your Plough over the Bones Of The Dead has the same effect, but magnified.

The book caused uproar in Tokarczuk’s native Poland on its release. In a country moving rapidly to the right this is a radical book. It champions women’s rights and animal rights, and questions the traditional ways of the countryside and of religion. It was said by one right wing critic to be “deeply anti-Christian”.

For some of us this is a near perfect book. It is on one level a dark crime novel, with all the flair of the genre. But underneath this existentialist work probes deeply into the question of free will versus authoritarianism.

This is a dark tale full of anger and fury, and focuses on the justified fury of the downtrodden taking their revenge at justice denied. But it is also a funny book, it’s humour based in that same dark anger.

It’s nihilistic narrator is a sixty year old woman who loves the poetry of William Blake. When her two dogs go missing, despite her reclusiveness she is drawn into the investigation.

The translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones deserves mention. This is a deeply poetic book and her work does it justice.

  • Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, Olga Tokarczuk. Fitzcarraldo Editions £8.99

The Good Germans: Resisting The Nazis, 1933-1945  by Cathrine Clay

This is the most infuriating book! It brings to life many of the characters involved in fighting the Nazis and provides great detail about incidents and questions arising in their stories. On the other hand, it has a seriously dubious model of what fighting the Nazis really means.

It takes six individuals and their families and looks at how they resisted. The picture that emerges is often very valuable.

Clay’s account of Rudolf Ditzen, who gained fame as the author Hans Fallada, is not one that is easily available elsewhere in English. Ditzen chose to stay in Germany after the Nazis took power. He walked a fine line between complying with the requirements of the regime, and writing stories that showed the spirit of resistance to them. His work was often censored and he usually changed conclusions to comply. His works nevertheless remained widely read and it’s not difficult to read between the lines. He is probably best known for Alone In Berlin. It tells the story of a mother and a father who, after their son is murdered, resist by writing postcards and leaving them on staircases in buildings throughout Berlin. It gives a heartbreaking flavour of the extreme atomisation of the Nazi regime, with people unable to trust anyone or show any public face of protest.

Another resister was Bernt Engelmann. From a social democratic background, Englemann was involved in the practical resistance, helping Jews and leftists escape and participating in sabotage acts. This is the story of the sort of people who risked their lives by taking part in small clandestine activities to contribute what they could to a resistance movement. Importantly this is a good counter to those that think that all Germans simply went along with the regime or turned a blind eye.

Clay also tells the story of Julius Leber. He was a leading Social Democrat and a deputy to the Reichstag. A leader of the workers movement in Lübeck, the Nazis once jeered “two hours after our victory, Dr Leber will be hanging from a lamppost in the market square.” He was in fact imprisoned and sent to a Sachsenhausen concentration camp until 1937. Leber was in contact in 1940 with army generals, and got to know von Stauffenberg who led the Valkyrie attempt on Hitler’s life. For this Leber was murdered in Plötzensee Prison in Berlin.

The book also focuses on Irma Thälmann, daughter of the leader of the German Communist Party. It is here that I started to get serious doubts about the book. Ernst Thälmann was the last man standing after the Stalinist purges of the German Communist Party (KPD). He was the man trusted by Stalin to bring the party behind the Moscow line. In response to the elevation of Hitler as the idol of the right, the KPD tried to promote Thälmann as the left alternative. This led to the kind of idol-making that surrounded Stalin himself. Clay’s account of Thalmann is a strange echo of this. Ernst is handsome, Ernst is brave, Ernst is wise, Ernst is the undisputed leader of the Hamburg working class. The disastrous policy of the KPD regarding working class unity is merely unfortunate according to Clay. Thälmann was nevertheless murdered by the Nazis.

The book also tells the story of Fritz-Dietlof Von Der Schulenburg. Count Schulenburg was a member of the aristocracy and a leading Nazi. He became disillusioned and joined the Beck group which participated in the July plot against Hitler.

So this book tells the stories of those who bravely fought Nazism with those who participated in some of its atrocities. And all of them were, as the title suggests, “Good Germans.”  Whilst the history is thoroughly researched, the political underpinnings are seriously awry.

So should we bother with the book? I think that if read critically there is a wealth of detail uncovered. It is accessible written and goes a long way to counter the myth of Germans as Hitler’s willing executioners.

  • The Good Germans: Resisting The Nazis, 1933-1945, Cathrine Clay. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £20.00

Black Butler by Yana Toboso

This is the first of the Black Butler, or Kuroshitsuji, series of Japanese graphic books known as Manga. There are currently 30 million copies of the Black Butler series in circulation.

Black Butler focuses on the activities of Sebastian Michaelis. He is the Butler to whizz kid Ciel Phantomhive, a 13 year old bo and head of the Phantomhive household. The book is set in Victorian England, and Phantomhive is in charge of solving crimes in London’s underworld. All is not what it seems however. Sebastian is in fact a demon who in return for providing protection for Ciel, will be able finally to consume his soul.

For English readers the book is a wonderful chance to see a fictionalised England through Japanese eyes. Many stereotypes are present, perhaps borrowed  from Sherlock Holmes. But there are other supposed English quirks that are in fact entirely Japanese creations. This is overlaid with the unique Japanese character world of the Magna.

Yana Toboso is one of the relatively few women Manga illustrators, but one of the most successful. Her work is elegant and subtle but firmly in the classic style.

Black Butler is in the tradition of Manga characters that may be demons, former samurai or yakuza gangsters that use their powers or skills in ordinary jobs. They turn expectations and stereotypes on their heads often to comic effect. The most well-known of these is probably The Way Of The Househusband, currently showing on Netflix as an illustrated series.

  • Black Butler, Yana Toboso. Yen Press. £9.99


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