My colleague Andrew Stewart has started writing a new semi-regular column called “Why Hollywood Sucks,” which I’ll be authoring from time to time as well. Andrew is mostly interested in profound, philosophical — yet interesting — reflections on why Hollywood sucks, as seen in his first column.
I, on the other hand, am more interested in superficial slash-and-burn takes that mock Hollywood. I’m not much interested in knowing why new movies suck, I just want to ridicule them — like “Moonlight” and “La La Land,” the appalling duo that co-shared this year’s Academy Award for best picture. I’ll have more to say about those films soon.
But for now I want to introduce my new column, “Why Literature Sucks,” which Andrew, or almost anyone, could write from time to time. As with the Hollywood column, i’m not really interested in reflection and illumination; I just want to trash new-ish books and marvel at the fact that there are so many of them.
Today, though, I want to talk about a great book I’m reading right now and which I highly recommend: “October,” by China Mieville (Verso, 2017), which is an astonishing history of the Russian Revolution.
What’s really amazing about “October,” in addition to the spectacular storytelling, is how so much of it sounds like it could be taking place today, in the United States. That’s the funny thing about history. I always thought it was just a dumb class to skip and put very little time into it as a high school student. I distinctly recall writing an essay about Thanksgiving, which I knew nothing about, so I had to stuff it with recipes for pumpkin pie, stuffing, and turkey. This was before they started grading on a curve; I’m pretty sure I flunked that class.
Anyway back to “October,” the book. It’s funny, if I can digress for just a second, but I my taste in literature usually runs to Nazi novels and nonfiction, which can be kind of depressing. So it’s really exciting to read an uplifting book for a change. Sure, there are some pogroms and other setbacks but overall it’s a happy tale. And as I mentioned, what’s interesting about reading history is that it can absolutely serve as a guide to the present and the future. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, as they like to say.
There’s a marvelous little section of the introduction to October, and this is sort of related, where the author writes, “Such strange lights is not only Russia’s. This was Russia’s revolution, certainly, but it belonged and belongs to others, too. It could be ours. If its sentences are still unfinished, it’s up to us to finish them.”
Let me quickly mention a few other things that caught my eye in this book, and why it frequently made me remember our current time. For example, in 1905 Tsar Nicholas II is deeply unpopular and opposition to his regime is mounting. “We need,” says his prime minister, “a little victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.” As Millville comments, “What better foil in this jingoistic epic then a “lesser race” such as the Japanese, whom Tsar Nicholas calls ‘monkeys’?”
That’s how the 1904 Russo-Japanese war began, but it didn’t end well for Russia, whose troops were poorly led and trained, and who the Japanese decimated.
One of my favorite parts of “October” takes place on page 18. It describes how liberals, who had supported the war when it began but put up “timorous” opposition when it became clear it would be a disaster, began to “organize a ‘banquet campaign,’ large, lavish suppers that culminate in pointed toasts to reform. Political activism through passive-aggressive dinner parties.”
Wow. That remind you of anything? Here’s a hint: #TheResistance!
OK, that’s it for now. I’ll probably be writing more about October after I get past the first 25 pages but it’s truly a wonderful book. Meanwhile, in my next column for “Why Literature Sucks” I’ll be writing about a truly terrible book, “The Imperfectionists,” by Tom Rachman, a former Associated Press reporter in Rome.
This is one of those shitty books that gets well reviewed early by the New York Times (as I recall; the book was published in 2010) and so everybody feels obliged to talk about what a brilliant work of art it is. In reality, it’s a complete piece of shit and what’s really offensive about it is Rachman’s book is completely misanthropic and, unmistakably, misogynistic.
It’s absolutely disgusting that Rachman got paid to write such offensive drivel and, even worse, that he launched a career with it. He’s written a number of books since, including one recent one, but I’m not even going to deign to mention them further.
Rachman reminds me, in this way, of the dimwitted Morgan Spurlock, who in 2004 made the absolutely dreadful movie “Super Size Me,” and milked its bizarre success into a career as a celebrity. He’s dumber and less interesting than his colleague in empty fame, Paris Hilton. I have a feeling I’ll be writing more about Spurlock soon in “Why Hollywood Sucks.”