Books of the Year 2022

Another year where I have to preface this list with the observation that I didn’t read much literary fiction this year. To be sure, the last year has been rough, but even so I’ve more and more had the adage that “old men don’t read new fiction” brought to my attention. I do still spend a lot of time with the classics, and even more time with non-fiction. But outside of science fiction, a regular beat, I haven’t kept up with new novels and short story collections. And at this point I’m not sure I see that changing. Oh well.

Best fiction: As noted, I don’t have a lot of titles in this category to pick among. Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (and emphatically not its companion volume Stella Maris) was pretty good though. It’s written in his signature late style, which I find overdone, but that said, he’s one of the few really distinctive literary voices out there working at this level.

 

 

 

Best non-fiction: I was really impressed with Richard Overy’s Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931–1945 (which came out in 2021 in the U.K. but in 2022 over here). You wouldn’t think a single-volume history of the Second World War would be so thorough and include so much fresh thinking. Some subjects are just so large I’m sure we’ll never hear the last word on them.

 

 

 

Best SF: There was a lot of strong competition in this category again this year. I liked Dave Eggers’s The Every as a dark sequel to the already dark-enough The Circle, but for my pick of the year I’ll take Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker for the way it handled a number of complicated ideas in a deft, intelligent, and playful way.

Happy 200th to me!

Taking aim.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve just posted my 200th movie image quiz. It’s a follow-up to my 100th quiz and has lots of pictures of people pointing guns at you. Get down! Find cover!

To date, none of the quizzes has been completed, so there’s still lots of work in the archives to do if you want to test yourself. I’ll be taking a break from posting quizzes so this is all there’s going to be for a while.

Laying down the law

It’s OK when he says it.

I was just following a news report about some of the more ridiculous messages that went out on Twitter at the time of the January 6 riots when I saw one by a Republican congressman from South Carolina named Ralph Norman hysterically calling for Donald Trump to invoke “Marshall Law.”

I don’t want to play gotcha! with someone’s spelling on Twitter, but I was a little surprised that the commentator I was listening to admitted that they had to check to make sure “Marshall Law” was, in fact, wrong. Though I suppose it is an easy enough mistake to make. Just last month I reviewed Caroline Moorehead’s Mussolini’s Daughter, where the Badoglio government that came in after ousting Mussolini is said to have proclaimed “marshal law.” Even I had to wonder if this was a slip or intentional. Technically, Badoglio had held the rank of marshal in the Italian army before becoming prime minister. So did Moorehead make a mistake, or was saying marshal law a joke? I’m still not sure, but I think it was a slip that the editors didn’t catch.

There was also a comic book character named Marshal Law, created in the 1980s by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. I don’t know if it’s still going. And in 1996 there was a TV movie called Marshal Law about a tough U.S. Marshal played by Jimmy Smits. This kind of thing probably confuses people.

Just to be clear though: it’s martial law.

Maigret: Maigret and the Wine Merchant

These English translations of the Maigret corpus are very much English translations, meaning that they take certain British terms and usages for granted. Like the first floor being what Americans call the second floor. Or having meals like skate and black butter being served with beverages like grog. Or calling the island between the lanes of a roadway a “reservation.” I’d never heard of this meaning of “reservation” before, but found it defined in the O.E.D. as “A strip of land between the carriageways of a dual carriageway.” This made me wonder if people in the U.K. still call roads carriageways.

One particular Britishism that gets a workout in this book is “rise.” What this refers to is what on this side of the Atlantic we call a “raise.” That is, a bump in pay at work. I think I first heard “rise” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album in the song “Money.”

Money, so they say,
Is the root of all evil today.
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away.

Just putting those lyrics in this post, “rise” came up as a grammar error. Whenever I listened to that song as a kid I always thought Roger Waters was just pronouncing “raise” in a funny British accent. But it’s actually spelled “rise” over there.

Well, the translator of Maigret and the Wine Merchant is Ros Schwartz, who has done more than a dozen of these Maigret books for Penguin, and she’s a Brit so it’s all fair. I sometimes wonder about translations of certain expressions though. Maigret often tells his inspectors to search a crime scene “with a fine-tooth comb.” Is that expression the same in French? I don’t know. (It is called a “fine toothcomb” in the next book, Maigret’s Madwoman, but I’m sure that must be a typo.)

I spent my time making notes on things like this because there’s no mystery at all to be solved in this book. The titular wine merchant is shot dead outside a Paris bordello, and it turns out that he’s a guy who everybody hated. The killer eventually gives himself up. That’s it. Maigret is under the weather throughout, grumpy and woolly-headed, but Madame Maigret is there to fetch his pipe, turn down his bed, and cook and serve his meals, like the aforementioned skate and black butter (which sounds disgusting) and braised calf’s liver à la bourgeoise (one of Maigret’s favourites).

Once again, our hero is looking into the lives of the morally degenerate upper class, which makes him uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the killer is a downwardly mobile (rapidly downwardly mobile) loser who might be a sort of class avenger but for the fact that he’s so pathetic. Even the wise and understanding Maigret can’t wait to see the last of him.

Is the killer a bit like a squirrel Maigret encountered once while on holiday? That’s the analogy that’s made. But it’s a strange one.

One day, in Meung-sur-Loire, when Maigret had been lounging in a deckchair, a squirrel had come down from the plane tree at the bottom of the garden.

At first, it had kept perfectly still and he could see its heart pounding beneath the silky fur on its chest. Then it crept a few centimetres closer and froze again.

While Maigret hardly dared breathe, the little red animal stared at him fixedly, seemingly fascinated by him, but its entire body remained taut, ready to flee.

It all unfolded as if in slow motion, step by step. The squirrel grew bolder, reducing the distance between them by a good metre. This cautious approach had gone on for more than ten minutes, and the squirrel had ended up barely fifty metres from Maigret’s dangling hand.

Did it want to be stroked?

Now this really did make me think that there’d been some mistake in the translation. I had to go back and re-read it several times to make sure I was getting it right. Barely fifty metres? I’d have trouble even identifying a squirrel at fifty metres, much less see its heart beating beneath the silky fur on its chest. In my daily walks squirrels often come up to within a couple of feet of me (that is, a single metre or less). I thought England was on the metric system, so there shouldn’t have been a problem there. Or is it just that squirrels, and French squirrels in particular, were more standoffish fifty years ago?

Maigret index

They paved paradise

“Surrounded Islands” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (1983).

From Moderan (1971) by David R. Bunch:

It was May. Everything was up; everything was out; Central Seasons had handed that big iron switch to ON to send old winter reeling once again. The plastic snow sheets had turned over and under as wheels spun deep in the ground, and the spring yard sheets had come up and over on the drums in that fair and equal exchange that makes seasons switch no problem in our great Moderan. How Nature used to struggle to bloom those blooms up! Everything in conflict, fighting for a toe hold, beating the frost down or being beaten down . . . petty struggle . . . to nothing . . . and all so unnecessary. Now we have it all on giant drums with yard sheets, divided into four – winter part, spring part, summer part and fall – and turning a season up in plastic is just play now where once old Nature struggled . . . hard.

From The Dust Bowl (2012) by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns:

Though it originated on the northern Plains, they referred to it all as “Kansas dust.” And many of them quickly had ideas about how to stop it from blowing across the continent. A Chicago business believed covering the Plains with its waterproof paper might do the job, while a steel company in Pittsburgh thought its wire netting would work better. The Barber Asphalt Company of New Jersey estimated it could spread an “asphalt emulsion” over the land for $5 an acre. A woman from North Carolina suggested that shipping junk autos west would simultaneously beautify her state while stopping the wind erosion on the Plains.

Other ideas included building wind deflectors 250 feet high, or planting Jerusalem artichokes, or using rocks from the Rocky Mountains, or spreading leaves and garbage from eastern cities. Someone else proposed using concrete, with holes carefully placed for planting seeds. None of the suggestions seemed to take into consideration that the area in question was 100 million acres.

Maigret: Maigret and the Killer

I’ve been reading most of these Maigret books in order, but I jumped way ahead by mistake and read this one immediately after finishing Maigret’s Holiday. This led to a bit of whiplash, as Maigret’s Holiday had been published in 1947 and Maigret and the Killer came out in 1969. I’d been jerked, along with the technophobic Maigret, from the France of peasants and horse-drawn carts (or at least la France profonde) into the swinging world of Paris chic and the murder of a young man with disturbingly long hair who might be David Hemmings from Blow-Up (1966), only armed with a tape recorder instead of a camera.

“A political matter?” the reporters ask. “A love affair?” No, just madness. In other words, a modern, ironic crime, without any explanatory narrative: one where evidence means nothing and Maigret does less work than usual in waiting for the solution to come to him in the form of a guilt-bound, pathetic Raskolnikov. A crime more of our own time then, for not signifying much of anything. Welcome to random days.

Maigret index

Stupid rich people

Would you buy crypto from this guy?

A few years ago I did a post that asked the question Why do we think rich people must be smart? It was in response to a couple of embarrassing scandals then in the news involving billionaires: Robert Kraft getting caught in a massage parlour and Jeff Bezos sending dick pics to a girlfriend. Sure these guys were rich (Bezos was the richest person in the world at the time), but they obviously had more money than common sense. Still, I think most people tend to excuse bad behaviour of this sort, seeing it as just boys being boys and basically unrelated to the more serious business of acquiring ever more wealth.

But what then should we think of more recent headlines?

Item One: Elon Musk, who supplanted Bezos as the richest man in the world (at least for a time), bought Twitter. It’s not clear if he really wanted to buy Twitter, or if he sort of stumbled, in a very stupid way, into having to buy it. In any event, most expert opinion I’ve read says that he paid at least twice what the company was worth, and maybe as much as four times as much. That’s not smart. But what’s an extra $20 billion to Elon? And, as he said, he was just doing it for the LOLZ anyway.

The immense wealth of Musk, as has been widely reported, was built out of a lot of hot air and government money, which should have given Twitter boosters pause. And to be fair, a lot of business and tech types were pretty sure Musk didn’t know what he was getting into by buying Twitter. I don’t think any of them were forecasting the disaster that’s been unfolding thus far though. Musk doesn’t know what he’s doing, a fact that even he might slowly be becoming aware of. Meanwhile, was there nobody in his court to tell him just how stupid he was being? Evidence suggests not. Indeed, his courtiers were egging him on. As Charlie Warzel observed in The Atlantic: “the seed of Musk’s Twitter purchase was planted by sycophants deferential to the billionaire who will never give him hard, truthful advice, because they wish to stay close to him.” Yes, it’s our old friend the bubble of privilege again.

Item Two:

Samuel Bankman-Fried, the CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange platform FTX experienced a rapid fall from grace when the company went bust. Indeed, the collapse of his personal fortune is thought to have set some kind of record. Reading his Wikipedia entry is good for a laugh:

Bankman-Fried’s net worth peaked at $26 billion. In October 2022, he had an estimated net worth of $10.5 billion. However, on November 8, 2022, amid FTX’s solvency crisis, his net worth was estimated to have dropped 94% in a day to $991.5 million, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the largest one-day drop in the index’s history. By November 11, 2022, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index considered Bankman-Fried to have no material wealth.

In fact, some reports say that his personal assets may now be below zero. Like I say, funny stuff. Unless, of course, you invested in FTX (which I’d previously warned against). But sticking with the point of this post, doesn’t this reveal that SBF was a Crypto Emperor (as the New York Times dubbed him) with no clothes? That he wasn’t some rebel financial genius, but in fact a moron?

John J. Ray III, the person appointed as CEO of FTX to guide it through bankruptcy, had some choice words for describing the corporate culture he found when he opened the books: “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here.” This from the guy who wound up Enron.

In both these cases we have billionaires not behaving badly in their downtime but demonstrating that they’re practically clueless when it comes to running a company (that is, doing their job). But both Musk and Bankman-Fried were beneficiaries of the deep-set myth of meritocracy in America. For more on this you can read my reviews of Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes and The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel. Suffice it to say here that great wealth has to justify itself somehow, and most often this is by using wealth as a proxy for intelligence, talent, a hard work ethic, etc. Because if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

More often, however, great wealth is the result of luck, primarily through the accident of birth but also through happening to be in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.

The poster boy, idol even, of the collapse of such notions as money = brains is Donald Trump. But by now other examples are ubiquitous. Jeffrey Epstein was another supposed billionaire (actually he fell quite a bit short, but he was still very rich) whose wealth no one could explain. One longtime friend even dismissed Epstein’s intelligence by simply saying “He never knew nothing about anything.”

Now one thing that does stand out about a lot of these people is that they tend to be good at math. And being good at math, or being the product of a STEM education, is often seen as being a proxy for intelligence these days. But, again just looking at examples like Musk, Bankman-Fried, and Epstein, one has to wonder. Intelligence takes many different forms, and being good with numbers, while it may be a lucrative skill, is no sure sign of super-intelligence. If just means you’re good with numbers.

As Stephen Jay Gould once remarked, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” I think everyone understands this on some level, so why do we keep equating vast wealth with genius-level intelligence, especially given the weight of evidence to the contrary? I’m sure Elon Musk and Samuel Bankman-Fried are both reasonably bright guys, but that’s about it. They are also idiots. And, weirdly, I think that it’s by being idiots that they got so rich.

Persuasion

Sunflowers and soup. (Juststopoil.org)

Recent demonstrations, or protests, or acts of vandalism, have been getting lots of media attention, particularly in the U.K. Activists have been throwing soup on famous paintings (which are behind glass and so remain undamaged) and gluing themselves to highways, shutting down traffic.

There have been various groups doing this in recent year, with names like Extinction Rebellion and Last Generation. The latest round has come courtesy of Just Stop Oil. As you’d guess, the broader cause has to do with saving the environment and fighting climate change.

I agree with the point being made. The environment is an important issue for me, and I try to live in such a way that reflects my concern for what’s happening. But I wonder about the value of these stunts.

I’m not questioning the point that’s most often made: that acting out like this only alienates the people one is hoping to persuade. Instead, I question whether the basic premise behind such activism is valid.

That premise is that what’s needed is more attention and publicity given to environmental issues. This is the whole point behind throwing soup at a painting or blocking traffic: getting the media to notice. We live in an attention economy, and it’s felt that the environment is being ignored. If people only knew the nature of the crisis we face they’d act differently.

I don’t think any of that is true. In the first place, there’s a certain segment of the population — not a majority, but a significant number — who have made up their minds and will never believe the lying fake media or the consensus of a scientific elite no matter how loud the warning. Demonstrations will have no effect on them whatsoever.

A much larger cohort are already aware of the problem but don’t think there’s much they can do about it, or care enough to bother trying. George Monbiot starts off his column defending the protestors like this: “What does it take? How far must we go to alert other people to the scale of the crisis we face?” Again: I don’t see being alert to the scale of the crisis as the problem. We know there’s a problem. The media does report on it. It’s not an issue of attention and publicity, attracting eyeballs and getting clicks, but of persuading people to make changes to the way they live.

As I said twelve years ago in a review of Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff:

To say that Leonard is right in pointing out the dangers of not doing anything, of just continuing to live the way we live now, is almost beside the point. We know smoking is bad for you – a major cause of cancer and heart disease – but people still smoke. We know fast food will kill you, but that hasn’t stopped billions of people from eating it.

And these are examples where the ill effects of our behaviour are personally and (relatively speaking) immediately felt! The fact of the matter is that we are not a rational species, and we’re even worse when it comes to planning for the future.

Look: Unless they’re hiding their heads in the sand, everyone knows about climate change and global warming. They know the basics of how it works and they have a general idea of the steps that have to be taken to stop it. They just don’t want to take those steps and make the sacrifices that will be necessary.

Maigret: Maigret’s Childhood Friend

He’s not really Maigret’s “friend.” Though it’s interesting that everyone calls him that, assuming that he is. In fact, as Maigret constantly has to correct them, Léon Florentin was only a classmate, and one he looks on now with a mix of pity and resentment.

Given that weak personal connection, I was left a bit confused as to why Florentin would come to Maigret in the first place to get him to investigate a murder that he had some involvement in. This was much the way Maigret’s Pickpocket kicked off too, and I didn’t really understand it there either. Just laziness on Simenon’s part? I have to ask given the way the novel starts, with Maigret working at his desk with the window of his office open. He notices a fly buzzing about before “all of a sudden, as if it had had enough, it took flight and passed through the open window before losing itself in the warm air outside.” Maigret returns to annotating his reports when Florentin’s visit is announced and we’re told that he had “forgotten the fly, which, perhaps offended, must have flown out the window.” Well of course it flew out the window! We were just told so on the previous page! That’s lazy.

I’ve remarked before (in my notes on Maigret’s Patience) how often the character of the concierge in these novels is presented as a negative presence, though never an out-and-out villain. That’s the case again here, with a really ugly concierge who turns out to be the key that reveals the killer. She’s obese and scheming and resentful, possessed only of a sense of low cunning that Maigret has to work around in order to get at the truth. Were there any nice concierges in Paris or were they all this bad?

Maigret finds the whole thing so exasperating he breaks a pipe stem in his teeth at one point. This made me wonder how common an occurrence this is. Are pipe stems easily broken? I’d ask somebody, but I don’t know anyone who smokes a pipe. They seem to be very much a niche these days.

Not a great Maigret story, but it has some dramatic interest. Especially the way Maigret gathers all the deceased’s clients together so he can observe them interact. That was a nice bit of Poirot business. Though at one point Maigret’s philosophy on crimes of passion is expressed, and I think it’s a bit different than that held by Poirot:

He nearly told them that there are no such things as crimes of passion. And yet that was more or less what he believed. He had learned in the course of his career that the spurned lover or the abandoned wife will kill less out of love than out of a wounded pride.

Of course, wounded pride might lead to a crime of passion. It depends how sticky we’re going to be with definitions. Love and pride live next door to each other anyway.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret in Vichy

I don’t know if it’s because Simenon liked writing about them or because I like reading about them more, but his Maigret novels with wicked women as the villains are my favourites. It works (for me) again here as Maigret and his wife are on vacation taking the waters at Vichy, which is where a mysterious woman he had noticed as always dressed in lilac is found strangled one morning.

The heavies are the dangerously independent, and “self-satisfied,” Lange sisters. What a pair of schemers they are! We feel it’s only right that the elder Lange is killed, and Maigret even hopes the guy who did her in is acquitted. I can hear him muttering “What a bitch!” as he did at the end of Signed, Picpus.

It’s not much of a mystery, as there’s only one suspect and Maigret is led to him quickly through some rather random deductions. For example, that the phone caller needs time to arrange a meet-up is attributed immediately to the fact that he “must be married,” which isn’t an obvious connection to make. The back story is interesting though, playing like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for grifters, and it moves along in a tight, suspenseful manner. On the copyright page it says it was first published serially (in Le Figaro), which I don’t think was usual up to this point. At least I didn’t see any notes to that effect in the other books I checked. Given that there were two or three Maigret novels being published every year, serial publication wasn’t really necessary.

Perhaps a week at the spa was just what the doctor ordered in more ways than one, as this was the first really good Maigret story in a while, and I think stands as one of the better in the series. Bad women really brought out the best in our man.

Maigret index