tisdag 31 december 2013

What have I done?, 2013 edition

Well, not as much as I wanted. I probably took on a bit too much work this year, but I do have a new house to pay for. Anyway, here's this year's book list, unfortunately only about two-thirds of what it should have been at a minimum – I hope to rectify that in 2014, but we'll see.

Eva-Lis Bjurman: Barnen på gatan ("The children on the street") 
Been a while since I read this one. Basically, IIRC, in the 1800s-early 1900s, workers'  kids not getting sufficiently civilized by culture etc was seen as a problem by the finer strata of society, and efforts were made to socialize them into a more proper, bourgeois model of how children should be, and the book depicts the debate and methods for this. (IIRC, that is.)

Peter Olausson: Tredje rikets myter ("The myths of the Third Reich")
As you're probably well aware, the Nazis built quite the mythology to underpin their rule – myths about various sorts of "untermenschen", and a whole mythology about the so-called Aryans and their background and glorious future, etc. This book is about those sorts of myths, including Holocaust denial. I remember it as worth the read; it was an easy-going, pretty fast read.

Sara Arrhenius: En riktig kvinna. Om biologism och könsskillnad ("A real woman. About biologism and gender differences")
A feminist who isn't happy with the theories of gender differences coming from evolutionary psychology and such, attacking theses about gender differences in our society being based on actual biological differences between the sexes.

Anne Banér: Uppkäftiga ungar och oförargliga barn. Barn i svensk skämtpress 1894-1924 ("Sassy kids and well-behaved children. Children in Swedish humor magazines 1894-1924")
A look at how children were depicted in Swedish humor magazines at the turn of the century. Worth the read, partly to get a look at the cartoons by some excellent artists, partly for the cultural history aspect.

Bruce Grenvill et al: Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art 
This is an exhibition catalog, and as such laboring under certain constraints. First, the pictures are going to have primacy, and not all of them deserve that primacy IMO. Second, the text isn't (usually) going to be allowed the space needed for real depth and breadth on the subject. IIRC, it's three examples of each art form along with introductory texts. I thought it was kind of interesting to see examples of stuff I don't usually get in contact with, and peer into what goes on in art forms I don't usually get into. Still, I prefer more traditional books on subjects I want to learn more about; for an exhibition I want works that'll keep my attention longer than the usual comics etc fare – in other words, while I certainly think comics, for example, deserve to be put on display in exhibits, like traditional art, they need to be pretty damn well-crafted to keep my attention, and most comics just aren't that well done, art-wise.

Matthew M. Hurley, Dnaiel C. Dennett & Reginald B. Adams, Jr.: Inside Jokes. Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind
Heavy on the philosophical and speculative side. A tough slough language-wise if you're not used to that sort of reading, not really offering enough insight to be worth the effort unless you're quite interested in the subject.

Niklas Zetterling & Anders Frankson: Hitlers första nederlag. Anfallet mot Moskva ("Hitler's first defeat. The attack on Moscow")
How the Nazi onslaught ground to a halt in without reaching Moscow (although they came way too close for comfort). Pretty (high-)standard military history, well done and well worth the read.

John Steinberg: Humanistiskt ledarskap lönar sig ("Humanistic leadership pays") 
Steinberg argues that if you treat the people working for and with you decently and care about what they want to get out of life and work, you'll have a better-functioning workplace, which'll not only be a better place to work in, bt ultimately a more efficient one as well. Pretty standard management (self-help-ish) handbook; not bad. Worth the read.

Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: a Leadership Fable ("Fem felfunktioner i en grupp och hur man skapar en fungerande arbetsgemenskap")
See Steinberg above, pretty much.

Sulo Huovinen, red.: Finland i det svenska riket ("Finland in the Swedish state") 
Finland basically wasn't a "part" of Sweden until we lost it to Russia through utterly stupid "statesmanship" from a couple of kings (notably Gustav III and Gustav IV); Finland and Sweden were one nation. This book explores some of the historical ties between Finland and Sweden – I think; it's a collection of historical essays and a bit on the dry side, so it didn't leave a huge impression on my memory.

Goodin, Headey, Muffels & Dirven: The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism
Compares the United States free-market liberalism-driven system, the German corporate and the Netherlands social democratic (sor social liberal) models by looking at statistics for the countries over a ten-year period of time. They compare reams of data to evaluate which welfare model is the best. For equality, that seems to be the social democratic model; for social integration, the corporatist regime seems to hold the upper hand. However, the social democratic model seems to be better at not just promoting equality but also at reducing poverty, and it does pretty much as well as the corporatist model at promoting stability and social integration, so it is declared the winner.
I have no truck with that; being a social liberal myself, that is pretty much the model I prefer myself – however, unlike people to the left of me, I think we need to adjust that model to avoid curbing initiative and work force participation, because without a sufficiently hard-working and enterprising population, the social democratic welfare state will collapse under costs it cannot afford in the long run. (Basically, that is at the core of the current Swedish political debate on these issues, even though that is frequently hidden underneath over-the-top rhetoric. Anyway and conveniently enough, you can read the book for yourself here. 

Peter Santesson: Reformpolitikens strategier ("Strategies of reform politics")
IIRC, this one would have been more honestly titled "Strategies for implementing neo-liberalist policies", but I'm a bit hazy on it. I remember it as having a clear ideological tendency, but nevertheless delivering a worthwhile overview of the tools available for effecting policy change – basically negotiation, persuasion and coercion, according to one review.

Francis Spufford: Red Plenty. Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream
Excellent history of the failure of the Soviet economical model, written as a decades-spanning novel. Well written, captivating and highly recommended.

Kalle Holmqvist & Anders Roth (ed): Kuba på riktigt ("Cuba for real")
A (kinda thin) collection of essays and articles by Swedish leftists who've visited Cuba and believe themselves to have seen the "true" Cuba. Basically, they're all making various excuses for the Castro dictatorship, showing themselves to be dictator-huggers with little concern for oppressed people as long as the oppressor professes to be a socialist. Pretty disgusting.

Thomas Gustafsson: Kuba ("Cuba")
The opposite of the above. A thick book giving a highly readable history and analysis of Cuba. Gustafsson is highly knowledgeable and doesn't believe that being a tourist in Cuba for not-quite a week makes one an expert; instead, hes spent a considerable part of his adult life reporting from and learning about the country, and it shows. Highly readable, with depth. He doesn't excuse the dictatorship, notes the comparatively high standard of social and medical services – for a long time paid for with extensive economic support from the Soviet Union – the inefficient economy, the lack of freedom, and the stupidity of the U.S. economic boycott. Highly recommended.

Robert Service: Lenin. A Biography
Basically, there seems to have been something wrong with Lenin. Seriously. 
This book goes deep into details, which makes it a bit less-than-readable. OTOH, it possibly helped the readability of the two other Lenin bios I read this summer that I'd already gotten so much biographical info about him from this one. Anyway, not the Lenin bio to start with, I'd have to say.

Andrew Taylor: Books That Changed the World ("Böcker som förändrade världen. De 50 viktigaste böckerna genom tiderna")
Taylor lists the 50 most important books in history in his opinion – and you can make many such lists, of course. This one is well-argued and gives brief overviews of the books and their importance. Worth the read.

Tom DeFalco: Comics Creators On Fantastic Four
Tom DeFalco: Comics Creators On Spider-Man
I thought DeFalco was a terrible comics writer, doing shallow, formulaic stuff, and overall Marvel quality took a dive under his editorial hand. However, he turns out to be a really good interviewer, so this is well worth reading. However, I can't agree with the self-congratulatory tone of some of the people he interviews. (Like for example Ralph Macchio, who was very much a part of the declining editorial standards of Marvel in those days.) 
Amusing observation: Stan Lee is among the people interviewed, and of course he wouldn't be Stan Lee if he didn't spend part of the interview doing the hard sell for a book he's newly written… Anyway, recommended.

Madeleine von Heland: Gudar, makt och massmedia – en odyssé med Pinocchio till Superman ("Gods, power and mass media – an odyssey with Pinocchio to Superman")
Over-interprets certain movies (like Pinocchio) to make them fit a thesis. Not worth the read, really.

Johan Hakelius: Döda vita män ("Dead white men")
Johan Hakelius is sort of the lazy neo-liberal; he gave up on trying to change Swedish politics and settled for making a comfortable living writing columns and books; for this book he seems to have gotten a stipend for writing some sort of analytical book, and instead read up on a bunch of British eccentrics and made a book out of a huge number of anecdotes about them.
It works, but it's kind of light fare.

Dmitri Volkogonov: Trotsky. The Eternal Revolutionary
Volkogonov is the loyal official Red Army historian who got access to the archives, read what the Communist leaders and founders of the Soviet Union actually did, and became an anti-communist. That is, if you believe him; if you're a left-winger who wants to keep his faith in Lenin, Trotsky et al, you can always claim that he just adjusted his opinions to fit the new Russian leaders (like Boris Jeltsin). Me, I tend to not trust the judgement of people who actually think Lenin et al were on to something good, since the result of their efforts was a totalitarian, murderous and soul-crushing dictatorship, but what do I know?
Anyway, recommended. Like Lenin, there seems to have been something wrong with Trotsky as well.

Louisiana Revy, 49. årgång nr. 2, oktober 2008: MANGA! Japanske billeder 
Another exhibit catalog; not really worth your time. Read a couple of proper introductory handbooks instead; it'll take longer but ultimately be more rewarding.

Jessica Abel & Matt Madden: Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. A Definitive Course from Concept to Comic in 15 Lessons
How to do comics. Not bad, though not quite the "definite" course, I'd say.

Tom Holland: Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of Christendom ("Tusenårsstriden. Hur kristendomen segrade i Västeuropa")
Well, Tom Holland knows his craft, which is to make old history readable to the modern reader. This period is a bit messy, but Holland makes an effort to create a readable narrative out of it. To quote from the Telegraph review: "Holland's broad sweep takes in all the major wars and political upheavals over a 200-year period, starting with the great shift of power from Carolingians to Saxon 'Ottonians' in the early 10th century, and ending with the Norman conquest of Sicily in the late 11th century and the astonishing capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099."
One power struggle Holland concentrates on is that between the German-Roman emperor and the Pope, but ultimately, he bites off more than he can chew – or rather, make a functioning narrative of. The book is still interesting, because there's so much that is happening during this time and it's well worth your time to learn about it, but Millennium isn't quite the book it should have been to help the reader understand these events. I'll go with those reviewers who've recommended reading Holland's Rubicon instead.

Rickard Berghorn & Annika Johansson: Mörkrets mästare. Skräcklitteraturen genom tiderna ("Masters of darkness. Horror literature through the ages")
Now this is how you write about so-called subculture. You start out by being very knowledgeable about the subject, give a historical overview highlighting import ant developments, and finish it off by offering the reader a bunch biographical essays presenting important creators and their works in more detail. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

Hélène Carrère d'Encausse: Lenin
An excellent, highly readable biography of somebody who doesn't quite seem to have been quite right in the head, but who nevertheless managed to impose his view of what society should be on a great nation, creating a great f***ing disaster.
Recommended. My choice if you only have time to read one of the three Lenin bios I read this summer.

Tim Pilcher & Brad Brooks: The Essential Guide to World Comics
If you only have 300 or so pages to present all the world's comics, you're going to have to keep a pretty brisk tempo (especially if you waste some of that space on full-page illustrations that possibly, at least some of them, didn't quite warrant that kind of exposure). Still, you get a pretty decent overview of several countries and regions for the space the writers had to work with. A good interest-whetter; recommended.

Kristian Gerner: Ryssland. En europeisk civilisationshistoria ("Russia. History of a European civilization")
Gerner is a historian who knows Russia well, and feels that the Communist disaster din't have to happen to a great country and its people. Nevertheless, it did, and it had consequences. Worth reading; Gerner knows his stuff. Recommended.

Scott Adams: God's Debris. A Thought Experiment ("Tankeexperimentet eller Den Gamle och De Stora Frågorna")
Well, I like Dilbert. This seems to be a book written by Adams to get people thinking about various things, but it has too little in the way of an actual author's viewpoint to agree or disagree with to be worth it to me.

Amid Amidi: Cartoon Modern. Style and Design in Fifties Animation
An excellent history of the stylized animation produced during, well, mainly the fifties – Gerald McBoing-Boing, or Jules Feiffer's absolutely brilliant Munro, for example. Amidi is unnecessarily haughty towards the classical animation of Disney and others, but apart from that, this is very good stuff, giving the reader an overview of the animation studios producing the new-style films as well as important creators – animators, designers, directors. Highly recommended.

Susanne Pettersson & Göran Persson: Dra åt samma håll! ("Pull in the same direction!")
Another "humanistic management" book; apart from the annoying format – it's supposedly told by an employee learning how to create a good, creative and productive working-place environment from his new boss, much like Lencioni's book – it contains decent advice.

Dmitri Volkogonov: Stalin. Triumph and Tragedy
Stalin's rise to power, and what he did with it. 
Not. Right. In. The. Head.

Gus Martin: Understanding Terrorism. Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues
A basic introductory text for university courses, I'm guessing. A bit too basic for my tastes, but if you want an introduction, it can work. A bit too much "summarizing complex issues in 4-5 bullet points" for my tastes, though.

Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin. A New Biography
Volkogonov seems to really despise Lenin, in the manner one might expect from someone who's trusted somebody and then been heavily betrayed by him, but it sometimes gets in the way of the narrative about Lenin's actual deeds. A lot of stuff from the archives about how Lenin actually ruled. Basically, Volkogonov's thesis is that while Stalin took the communist dictatorship to the next level, most of the levers of power and oppression he used had already been installed under Lenin. Recommended.

Richard Stoneman: Legends of Alexander the Great
See, Alexander the Great met strange people in his travels. Some of them were kind of hippies, living in peace on a basic level, taking what they needed from nature and not aspiring to wordily power over others, and they either a) taught him how useless it was to try and gain the world but lose one's soul, or b) showed by contrast how accomplished he was. Which lesson these legends were trying to impose on the listener/reader seems to have depended on who told them (and where Christianity was in its historical development; contemplative or, well, not-so-contemplative). Worth reading half of it; the legends get a bit repetitive and predictable after a while.

Lillian S. Robinson: Wonder Women. Feminisms and Superheroes
Cultural studies and feminism takes on superheroes. Superheroes lose, ideology wins. Plus inordinate amounts of commas and subclauses Robinson's sentences. Has some worthwhile observations, but isn't overall worth the effort.

Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level ("Jämlikhetsanden. Därför är mer jämlika samhällen nästan alltid bättre samhällen")
Reading this, it seemed to me that Wilkinson and Pickett were sort of cherry-picking their statistics to enhance their thesis and to expand its applicability. Turns out that's a very common and strong criticism against the book. (I thought it was very odd that they only did bivariate analyses, for example, instead of trying to tease out what the really important factors in various issues are. Also, they seem to sometimes exclude or include certain countries from their analyses as it befits their thesis.)
As could be predicted, various leftists writing for Swedish newspapers' cultural pages happily latched on to the book's conclusion: that by eradicating inequality, society is basically going to solve most of its ills (that's in fact only a very small exaggeration on my part), instead of looking critically at how it reaches that conclusion (well, practically that conclusion).
If Wilkinson and Pickett had instead concentrated on showing the negative consequences of high levels of inequality instead of offering equality as the cure-all for society's ills, this would have been a book to recommend. As it is, it isn't.

Anu Mai Kõll (ed.): Kommunismens ansikten ("The faces of communism")
Some very good history and analysis of the consequences of communism; it's academic rather than polemic, which makes it far mrs interesting than it would otherwise have been. Recommended.

Stefan Olsson: Handbok i konservatism ("Manual for conservatism")
An apologia for conservatism that isn't uninteresting, but which ultimately glosses over too many of its problems to be convincing.

Hanna Miodrag: Comics and Language. Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form
Too combative against those views the author disagrees with; it gets a bit repetitive after a while and that becomes more problematic than it would have been in a book not so heavily-invested in big-words academic language – it's already not an easy read if you're not into that sort of writing, so you don't want to spend time rehashing basically the same attacks as you read in the last chapter. That said, Miodrag's own views, that comics can't be analyzed as an overall language, but instead you have to read each comic in its own context and interpret it from that viewpoint, is very much valid (and mirrors my own).
Worth reading, could have been more worth reading.

Ella Odstedt: Varulven i svensk folktradition ("The werewolf in Swedish folk tradition")
Odstedt collected a lot of folklore in the first half of the 1900s. This is the standard book about Swedish werewolf folklore: how pregnant women's magical rituals for ensuring pain-free childbirth would entail the child becoming a werewolf, how magically-skilled Finns or Samis could turn themselves  "regular" people into werewolves or werebears – as evidenced by the dead bear having a belt with a knife in it under its fur when you skinned it – and how pregnant women needed to be escorted by a male, even a boy, when moving about outside the safe confines of the home to avoid being attacked by a werewolf who wanted to tear out the fetus from her womb and eat it in order to be cured from his werewolf affliction.
Excellent stuff. Some modern essays commenting on the issues are also included, and they are not up to the quality of Odstedt's stuff. For example, a feminist writer jumps on the obvious interpretations of the above, telling us how it's obviously an attempt to constrain women that they needed to be accompanied by a male everywhere and how targeting their magical rituals for pain-free childbirth as creating a werewolf out of the child makes them nothing more than vehicles for child production. She doesn't make the effort to actually problematize the issue, looking at alternative interpretations – for example, a pregnant woman might need help and assistance in other ways than warding off werewolves, and obliging somebody to accompany her might also be seen as giving her support; also, the Church's attempts to eradicate old-fashioned folk magic (or: superstition) cannot IMO be so easily brushed off as simply trying to control women – after all, the Church certainly looked quite askance at "magic" used by males as well. In my view, you should put in commenting essays in a book like this to offer depth and complicate or explain things, not just to offer ideological boilerplate.

Johnny Ambrius: Sällsamheter i Södra Sverige
Well, I recently reviewed this one, so you can jolly well go back and read the review.

Christian Peters: 100 mästare och deras bästa verk. 10 tio-i-top-listor i odödlig litteratur ("100 masters and their best works. 10 top ten lists of immortal literature")
The author comes of as somewhat officious, but basically, the works and authors he presents are well worth canonical status.

Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction. Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy ("Den reaktionära retoriken. Konsten att argumentera mot alla samhällsförändringar")

Hirschman looks at how all reforms have been met with the same kind of arguments from people defending the status quo: "It'll just have the opposite effect", It won't change anything", "It risks to hurt what we've already accomplished", regardless of their applicability on the actual situation.
I've met the same kind of argumentation from (mainly) right-wing reactionaries, something that has gradually strengthened my conviction that you always have to demand that people offer more constructive criticism than this sort of – again – boilerplate. Recommended.

Bengt Nilsson: Sveriges afrikanska krig ("Sweden's African wars")
Nilsson is (rightly, IMO) furious that Sweden's international aid to a way-too-large extent has been spent propping up undemocratically regimes. The book's title alludes to aid money often can either be used directly for war purposes, or to replace money for social welfare and actual infrastructure development in a country's budget, leaving the rulers free tu use all the more money to enrich themselves and to fight wars against other countries or parts of their own population instead.

Blake W. Mobley: Terrorism and Counterintelligence: How Terrorist Groups Elude Detection
Scroll up a bit to read the actual review of this one.

Well, that's it. I was going to do a similar post about the comics I've read this year as well, but this was exhausting enough that I'll probably forego that. I'll try to use the energy saved to post more reviews next year instead.

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