Freaky Deaky – Elmore Leonard

This has everything you’d expect from a Leonard book – cool and ludicrously readable dialogue (of course), a string of morally ambiguous characters, murder and drugs and plotting and theft – plus, in this book, bombs and 60s radicals gone bad, taking a dose of nihilism and bomb making skills with them.

It’s the story of once-radicals Robin and stoner-slash-bomb maker Skip, who put together a plan to use bombs and deceit to dupe super rich Woody and Mark Ricks out of a few million. It’s complicated by Woody’s assistant Donnell who also wants to benefit from their wealth, and by explosives cop Chris and Greta, a wanna-be actress. As you’d expect, the plot twists and turns satisfyingly, and the good-ish guys kind of win out, though there’s certainly no moral to be taken from this tale.

I was, though, particularly aware of Leonard’s treatment of women in this novel. Greta says early on that she has been raped by Woody. It’s unclear whether this is true or not, and at times Leonard seems to be saying she led him on, especially as Woody is an obese semi-comatose alcoholic. It’s never dealt with or clarified, and Greta seems untroubled by it. I guess it’s indicative of his treatment of female characters. Some of them anyway are little more than objects of playthings for men, and have little depth to them. Obviously this isn’t always true – Robin in Freaky Deaky is the brains and probably the most interesting character in the book – but in the case of Greta it certainly is.

This doesn’t make it a bad book – it’s a fun, gripping and character-packed read, but you do need a certain detachment I think, so you don’t think that the treatment of Greta as a character is ok.

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National Populism – Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin

Though it makes for uncomfortable reading this book is a powerful corrective to the left-liberal narrative around issues like immigration, the EU and national populism.

Eatwell and Goodwin take an evidence-based, considered but emphatically sympathetic look at the reasons why national populism is on the rise in the form of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and elsewhere across Europe. Their view throughout is that voters for national populists have legitimate reasons for doing so that left-liberals moralise about and so not only misunderstand but also fuel. Specifically, they argue that there are four underlying causes for the rise:

Distrust. A political elite and wider business and cultural elite has become so far removed from the wider public, and especially manual workers and those without degrees, that they appear to forward their own values and interests, meaning people have little trust in them to do what they think is right for them or the county. Eatwell and Goodwin argue that people aren’t necessarily turning against democracy but actually national populism is offering a deeper, participative form of democracy precisely because the representative version has failed.

Destruction. In probably the most controversial chapter, Eatwell and Goodwin argue that the last few decades has seen the destruction of national cultures by successive waves of immigration that threaten the sense of national identity and culture. They make the point that many national populist voters aren’t necessarily racist, nor are they motivated by the self-interested fear of losing resources to immigrants, rather they value the national culture and it’s the destruction of that culture they fear.

Deprivation. Also over the last few decades, they argue, inequality and globalisation have together created a feeling of relative inequality especially among less educated and blue collar workers. This has not only fuelled anti-immigrant feeling but also led to those people supporting parties which promise more protectionist policies and public spending that will benefit them.

De-alignment. Amidst all of this change, there has also been a massive move away from the traditional party loyalties of the post war era. Many blue collar voters in particular have moved from social democratic parties to the right, especially to anti-immigrant protectionist parties, while the liberal left has fragmented somewhat, meaning national populists are able to poll better than they would have a couple of decades ago. Nothing is set, they say, as mainstream parties start to use the language and policy direction of populists, but today the trend remains de-alignment and volatility.

This book is well-written, packed full of data and evidence, and I think it’s a book that lefties and liberals ought to read to understand what’s going on among large numbers of voters. Eatwell and Goodwin are willing to talk seriously about the issues many people feel are important but cannot speak about for fear of being labelled racist, and that’s refreshing and important.

I think at times they go too far – are too generous to voters, giving them a consistent ideology when it might not really be there, and especially to national populist leaders like Farage or Trump or Le Pen who do stoke the flames of nationalism and division, making claims about immigration and the economy that they surely know will have a detrimental impact on many individuals and the country as a whole – and they do it as much for electoral gain as ideological belief.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

Wow. This is a brilliant book – complex, thought-provoking, gripping, surprising and, I think, covering some of the big historical moments of the twentieth century from the perspective of women who are forced to compensate for their powerlessness with determination and wit.

Written in the first person by Iris Chase-Griffin, it tells the story of her and her sister Laura – who had driven herself off a bridge fifty years earlier.

Beginning in rural Canada in the early twentieth century, Iris and Laura are well-off children of a family which had made its fortune in button manufacturing. As the Depression kicks in, though, their fortunes change, their father turns to drink, as the economy collapses and the business folds, leading to unemployment in the town, circling by capitalist Richard Griffin and eventually the death of their father.

Iris ends up marrying Richard Griffin, to endure their family get financial support as the business closes down, and the narrative from Iris covers all these years – from the pair as young children to just after Laura has driven off the bridge.

Iris is an excellent character – until the end of the book her steeliness and resourcefulness are hidden to the reader and, importantly, to her husband Richard. She is treated at times horrifically and at others like a child by him and his scheming sister, and it’s only at the end of the book that Iris reveals what she’d really being doing all those years.

Laura is an intriguing character, highly moral and obsessed with God in most ways but rebellious and clear-sighted in others. We learn of her apparent relationship with Alex, a communist sympathiser who burnt down one of her father’s factories, and after Iris is married to Richard, how she is treated like a lunatic by Richard. In fact, none of this is quite as it seems and it transpires that in fact Richard and Laura had a very different relationship, as did Iris and Alex.

An apparently posthumously published book by Laura has led to her becoming an acclaimed literary celebrity – and chapters from the book, called the Blind Assassin, punctuate the book, telling a story that we assume until the end is a semi-autobiographical account of her relationship with Alex – a shocking, pulp-style tale of a well-off women carrying out a secret affair with a hard drinking, itinerant writer.

This is such a good novel – characters, the style, the complexity, the cagy narrator – but more than anything it’s like a take on the Great American Novel that tries to highlight the role of women in the great themes of history, economics and politics. Iris, Laura and even Richard’s sister have no power in the patriarchal world in which they live and so are forced to use ingenuity and determination to find ways to live with meaning and purpose and a future – ways that ultimately affect their lives, and those of their female children, detrimentally.