Reading Gist: February 2021

To get through 2021, I read a lot. 97 books to be exact. I believe that it takes time to digest everything you read and that something you loved or hated in the moment can become a gem or a pile of shit with a few months’ distance. So here’s some little reviews of the books I read in February 2021.

Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara: Yeah, Che Guevara wrote books. A lot of them, in fact. I’m surprised he had the time. I found this slim volume at a thrift store. It started an interest in military strategy that I nurtured through most of the winter of 2021 (when I was feeling that America was inching closer to civil war). Che’s style is a bit dry and technical and sometimes overwritten like some of Trotsky’s speeches. His opinion on female guerrillas is sexist and definitely has been proven wrong by the Rojavan Revolution. The U.S.-backed soldiers who tracked down Che in Bolivia used his own manual against him. From a few essays and podcasts about Che’s foco theory (which according to The Encyclopedia Brittanica is  “predicated on three main tenets: 1) guerrilla forces are capable of defeating the army; 2) all the conditions for making a revolution do not have to be in place to begin a revolution, because the rebellion itself can bring them about; and 3) the countryside of underdeveloped Latin America is suited for armed combat”) that I’ve consumed, it seems like it failed everywhere except Cuba, though I have to read more about The Sandinistas to determine the influence it had on them. The section that has stuck with me is the one where Che mentions how the guerrilla has lots of downtime and should bring books along.

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard: Bernhard’s Woodcutters is one of those novels that I disliked at first and now is one of my favorites. His style, a single block paragraph with lots of repetition of phrases and purposefully annoying punctuation, is the perfect means for his irritated narrators to shit on the world around them. It’s like Notes from Underground, but less kooky. The Loser is a good novel that I wish I had a better understanding of classical music to fully comprehend. I’m beginning to notice that a lot of great writing is based on music: The Kreutzer Sonata, The Autumn of the Patriarch, etc. Bernhard’s narrator’s total dissatisfaction with the world is cathartic. It’s not so much “Wow, I’m glad I’m not that guy” and more “I’m so glad someone’s saying this.” I’ve had trouble tracking down his novels beyond this one, but I might try to read all of his work one day.

On Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong: Mao, for all his many many many faults, was a good writer. He wrote for the peasants. While I didn’t understand all the place names in this little pamphlet, his military advice was fascinating and well argued. His views on women were shockingly open-minded compared with Che’s written thirty years later. I’m not a Maoist, though that tendency is in vogue nowadays among left wing podcasters, but with Mao’s clear style and history bestowing victory upon his revolution, I can understand why some people adopt it.

The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara: I only found out after reading this fantastic diary that Che’s widow edited out his sexual escapades from it. While I don’t exactly care too much about his young adult sex life, it does make you wonder what else was edited out. (From Roberto Bolaño’s novel Amulet: “And what was Che Guevara like in bed, was the first thing I wanted to know…Normal, said Lillian, staring at the creased surface of her folder.”) Che is a fantastic narrator and I highly recommend the audiobook version. He had a great sense of humor and a deep sense of caring that many of his critics ignore when writing about his “coldness.” A lot of the schemes him and his copilot got up to to afford the trip are hysterical. When you finish the book, you’ll understand why he became a revolutionary. I haven’t seen the movie, but I hear it’s good.

The Socialist Awakening by John B. Judis: I originally liked this book. It was the only socialist audiobook on Libby that wasn’t anti-socialist. It’s a short read and does an extremely truncated overview of the various stages of socialism and then dives into the modern resurgence in socialist theory via the “democratic socialism” of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Judis holds the ridiculous idea, probably gleamed from reading more about American and British “socialist” organizations than actually speaking with members, that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Jacobin are run by “evil orthodox Marxists”, which, if you’re even minorly engaged with American radical politics, you know is a joke. Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin, is something of a Neo-Kautskyite and his quarterly is more of a ditch which everything from liberal to social-democratic to unionist to socialist articles get tossed into. The DSA is similarly so big tent that they can’t even move forward and regularly campaign for capitalist politicians. Yes, it would be interesting to formulate a new kind of socialism that learned from the victories and failures of Russia, China, etc, but not enough people have a basic understanding of socialist theory to even attempt this reform. I intend to read Piketty’s tomes this year and am curious to see what his “new” idea is.

Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War by George Orwell: I was never a big rereader until recently. I felt like books were cigarettes: smoke ’em and then they’re gone. But I decided to reread this memoir and was amazed how much I missed when I read it four years ago. Orwell is not only funny but also manages to clarify an intensely complicated war and add a deep human element to it. The essay addended to it is a great reflection and a reminder that you have to stand up for what’s right if you want anything to change and sometimes that means putting yourself in harm’s way. It also is a fascinating essay about how to tell the story of a war and how to deal with “fake news.” We live in a very coddled age. I don’t mean that we need to return to the rough and tumble days of the nineteenth or twentieth century like some paleo-conservatives (or as I like to think of them, Jurassic Park Resurrectionists) argue, but I do think we need to get off our asses more often. To quote Orwell, “We have become too civilized to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases. The fact that such a platitude is worth writing down shows what the years of rentier capitalism have done to us.”

Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla by Carlos Marighella: Another guerrilla warfare manual. While Mao and Che’s were more focused on a rural struggle that ends up surrounding the city, this one focuses on the urban struggle. It’s clearly organized and well written. Marighella was murdered by the Brazilian military dictatorship before he lived to see his pamphlet published. It was first published in Berkeley, California, of all places. Kinda hard to track down a physical copy of it.

The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayet: There are some novels that feel like the author is just fucking with you. This is one of them. If you have figured out what happens in this surreal novel, please get in touch with me. The characters are amorphous blobs, the settings drift away in the wind. The narrator/protagonist is almost certainly insane, dreams and memories swirl together into a nightmare. It’s the first Iranian novel I’ve ever read and hopefully not the last. The publication and translation history of this book are more interesting to the translator than to me.

Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life by Natasha Lennard: I picked this one up during an online sale at Verso Books, which always seem to be happening, much to my bank account’s chagrin. Lennard is a decent essayist. A lot of her non-reportage essays follow a similar format: raising of issue, quote from a philosopher, discussion. The essays on the pipeline legal defense and the OG antifa groups were great. Not sure of her exact political affiliation, but it’s probably somewhere on the libertarian/anarchist left. The book wasn’t a waste of time, but I haven’t thought much of it since I read it.

The Solider’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian: A forgettable romance novel. Okay sense of humor. The passion is limited to the later half.

When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain: History’s Unknown Chapters by Giles Milton: We too often forget that History has a sense of humor. Most history books, being written by people covered in dust, are dry and dull. This book compiles some funny, intriguing, and disturbing stories from the last hundred or so years. I enjoyed it and find myself thinking about the Stalinist doctors quixotically dissecting Lenin’s brain to figure out why he was so smart and the Japanese serial killer who stored her victim’s genitals in jars, every so often. I want to read the follow-up, When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: So I’ve never read Jane Eyre. Well, I read the first fifty or so pages, enjoyed what I read, and then stopped reading it for some reason. I don’t think you need to know the plot of Jane Eyre to enjoy this prequel. But I didn’t like this book. Lots of people love this book and it’s a “classic” according to its publisher and some blurbs on the back cover. Experimental novels have to justify their experimentation. Usually the story or prose is so good that you can overlook the nontraditional structure. The characters in this novel never get planted firmly enough for me to understand what was going on. I could see what the writer was trying to do by making the woman’s POV more ethereal and the man’s POV more rigid and direct, but it didn’t land for me. I’d reread whole sections and wonder whether I missed something. Maybe I need to reread it at a later date because everyone I know loves it. The racial dynamics were intriguing.

The Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin: I have deep sympathy for the anarchist cause and this is definitely one of its greatest texts. It’s structured a bit like a manual for how to run an anarchist society scientifically after overthrowing a government. One of the best lessons you can take from it is to assess the post-overthrow conditions immediately and see what needs to be done first to guarantee food. Most governments are toppled by people with empty stomachs and any new experiment will be toppled by the same people, if they don’t secure sustenance. I learned recently that Kropotkin took the side of France during World War 1, instead of opposing the bloodbath. He gets shit-talked a lot in Lenin, but I still think his books are worth reading. The last thing this world needs is more orthodox leftists sneering at each other.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Going to private school, you don’t read the same books as the public school kids. You also spend a lot of time learning about the chronicles of Jesus and his homeboys. Achebe’s novel had been on my list for a long time. Its clear style and well-defined characters keep me entertained even when it seemed like the plot points were repeating themselves. I’m curious about his book on Biafra.