For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Perhaps it is verbose and pedantic in its style and treatment, but this brief book is a staggering eye-opener for those who find themselves enmeshed in and confused by contemporary political airs. It makes a case for appropriating the word “Populism” within the Leftist spectrum, in accordance with core ideals and foundational values of democracy. Chantal also asserts that the relative “otherness” of Right-wingers must neither be completely erased or stifled, nor be ignored. Rather, Leftists should recognize these divisions as being fundamental to the democratic process and view the Right as adversaries, not enemies.

The author also highlights the unintended consequences of a post-political world where true democratic ideals have perished under the weight of mercenary callings, hyper-individualism and corporatism. Gradual erosion of liberal democracy is not only owed to the rise of the Right-wing but also to duplicitous misgivings by Liberals and Leftists – those who ceded ideas of equality and popular sovereignty in lieu of second-hand power and construction of an abstract enemy.

This is a dense read, especially for a novice. But the author’s stance is worthy of further deliberation, even if the reader disagrees. And that is the essence of intelligent discourse.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Definitions

  • Anti-essentialist theoretical approach that asserts that society is always divided and discursively constructed through hegemonic practice
  • Laclau defines populism as a discursive strategy of constructing a political frontier dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’.
  • Neoliberalism is the term currently used to refer to this new hegemonic formation which, far from being limited to the economic domain, also connotes a whole conception of society and of the individual grounded on a philosophy of possessive individualism.
  • The ‘populist moment’, therefore, is the expression of a variety of resistances to the political and economic transformations seen during the years of neoliberal hegemony.
  • ‘Post-democracy’, first proposed by Colin Crouch, signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalization.

Demise of Democratic Values and Post Politics

  • According to this perspective, that we called ‘class essentialism’, political identities were the expression of the position of the social agents in the relations of production and their interests were defined by this position. It was no surprise that such a perspective was unable to understand demands that were not based on ‘class’.
  • Multiple struggles for emancipation are founded on the plurality of social agents and of their struggles.
  • By claiming that the adversarial model of politics and the left/right opposition had become obsolete, and by celebrating the ‘consensus at the centre’ between centre-right and centre-left, the so-called ‘radical centre’ promoted a technocratic form of politics according to which politics was not a partisan confrontation but the neutral management of public affairs.
  • On the one hand, the tradition of political liberalism: the rule of law, the separation of powers and the defence of individual freedom; on the other hand, the democratic tradition, whose central ideas are equality and popular sovereignty.
  • With the demise of the democratic values of equality and popular sovereignty, the agonistic spaces where different projects of society could confront each other have disappeared and citizens have been deprived of the possibility of exercising their democratic rights.
  • As a result the role of parliaments and institutions that allow citizens to influence political decisions has been drastically reduced. Elections no longer offer any opportunity to decide on real alternatives through the traditional ‘parties of government’. The only thing that post-politics allows is a bipartisan alternation of power between centre-right and centre-left parties. All those who oppose the ‘consensus in the centre’ and the dogma that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization are presented as ‘extremists’ or disqualified as ‘populists’. Politics therefore has become a mere issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts, and popular sovereignty has been declared obsolete.
  • By drawing a frontier between the ‘people’ and the ‘political establishment’, they were able to translate into a nationalistic vocabulary the demands of the popular sectors who felt excluded from the dominant consensus.
  • Although such protest movements have certainly played a role in the transformation of political consciousness, it is only when they have been followed by structured political movements, ready to engage with political institutions, that significant results have been achieved.
  • They cannot recognize that many of the demands articulated by right-wing populist parties are democratic demands, to which a progressive answer must be given.

To stop the rise of right-wing populist parties

“It is necessary to design a properly political answer through a left populist movement that will federate all the democratic struggles against post-democracy. Instead of excluding a priori the voters of right-wing populist parties as necessarily moved by atavistic passions, condemning them to remain prisoners of those passions forever, it is necessary to recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands. A left populist approach should try to provide a different vocabulary in order to orientate those demands towards more egalitarian objectives. This does not mean condoning the politics of right-wing populist parties, but refusing to attribute to their voters the responsibility for the way their demands are articulated.”

Right-wing populism vs. Left populism

  • Right-wing populism claims that it will bring back popular sovereignty and restore democracy, but this sovereignty is understood as ‘national sovereignty’ and reserved for those deemed to be true ‘nationals’. Right-wing populists do not address the demand for equality and they construct a ‘people’ that excludes numerous categories, usually immigrants, seen as a threat to the identity and the prosperity of the nation.
  • Left populism on the contrary wants to recover democracy to deepen and extend it. A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a ‘we’, a ‘people’ confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy.
  • We are living through a ‘populist moment’. This is the expression of resistances against the post-democratic condition brought about by thirty years of neoliberal hegemony. This hegemony has now entered into crisis and this is creating the opportunity for the establishment of a new hegemonic formation. This new hegemonic formation could be either more authoritarian or more democratic, depending on how those resistances are going to be articulated and the type of politics through which neoliberalism will be challenged.

On Economic Liberty & Democracy

  • To apprehend the nature of the Keynesian welfare state as a hegemonic formation, it is necessary to acknowledge that, although it played a crucial role in subordinating the reproduction of the labour force to the needs of capital, it also laid the conditions for the emergence of a new type of social rights and profoundly transformed democratic common sense, giving legitimacy to a set of demands for economic equality. In several countries, the strength of the trade unions allowed the consolidation of social rights.
  • In his report to the Trilateral Commission in 1975, Samuel Huntington declared that the struggles in the 60s for greater equality and participation had produced a ‘democratic surge’ that had made society ‘ungovernable’. He concluded that ‘the strength of the democratic ideal poses a problem for the governability of democracy.’
  • According to Hayek, the idea of democracy is secondary to the idea of individual liberty, so that a defence of economic liberty and private property replaces a defence of equality as the privileged value in a liberal society.

Gramsci’s Influence

  • Gramsci calls ‘hegemony through neutralization’ or ‘passive revolution’. By that, he refers to a situation where demands that challenge the hegemonic order are recuperated by the existing system, satisfying them in a way that neutralizes their subversive potential.
  • Indeed, Gramsci suggested such a path when he asserted that it was ‘not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life, but of renovating and making “critical” an already existing activity’.
  • To abandon the productivist model and to implement the necessary ecological transition will require a truly Gramscian ‘intellectual and moral reform’.

Strategy and Objectives of Left Populism

  • The strategy of left populism seeks the establishment of a new hegemonic order within the constitutional liberal-democratic framework and it does not aim at a radical break with pluralist liberal democracy and the foundation of a totally new political order. Its objective is the construction of a collective will, a ‘people’ apt to bring about a new hegemonic formation that will reestablish the articulation between liberalism and democracy that has been disavowed by neoliberalism, putting democratic values in the leading role.
  • In democratic societies, further crucial democratic advances could be carried out through a critical engagement with the existing institutions.
  • Clearly articulating democracy with equal rights, social appropriation of the means of production and popular sovereignty will command a very different politics and inform different socioeconomic practices than when democracy was articulated with the free market, private property and unfettered individualism.
  • In our post-political times the difference between left and right is usually envisaged in terms of a ‘cleavage’–that is, as a type of division which is not structured by an antagonism but signals a mere difference of position. Understood in that way, the left/right distinction is not suited to a project of radicalization of democracy. It is only when it is envisaged in terms of frontier, indicating the existence of an antagonism between the respective positions and the impossibility of a ‘centre position’, that this difference is formulated in a properly political way. I believe that this ‘frontier effect’ is more difficult to convey with notions like ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ populism and that ‘left’ populism brings more clearly to the fore the existence of an antagonism between the people and the oligarchy without which a hegemonic strategy cannot be formulated.

On Leadership

  • ‘Leadership’ must be constantly subordinated to the multitude, deployed and dismissed as occasion dictates. If leaders are still necessary and possible in this context, it is only because they serve the productive multitude. This is not an elimination of leadership, then, but an inversion of the political relationship that constitutes it.
  • The leader can be conceived of as a primus inter pares (a first among equals) and it is perfectly possible to establish a different type of relation, less vertical between the leader and the people.

On Agonistic Confrontation – Adversary not Enemy

  • The main problem with existing representative institutions is that they do not allow for the agonistic confrontation between different projects of society which is the very condition of a vibrant democracy. It is this lack of an agonistic confrontation, not the fact of representation, which deprives the citizens of a voice. The remedy does not lie in abolishing representation but in making our institutions more representative. This is indeed the objective of a left populist strategy.
  • What is important is that conflict when it arises does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries). The agonistic confrontation is different from the antagonistic one, not because it allows for a possible consensus, but because the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate.

On the Construction of a People

  • A relation of equivalence is not one in which all differences collapse into identity but in which differences are still active. If such differences were eliminated, that would not be equivalence but a simple identity.
  • To partake in a ‘we’ of radical democratic citizens does not preclude participation in a variety of other ‘we’s’.
  • Once we acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’, we begin to realize that one of the main challenges for pluralist liberal-democratic politics consists in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations so as to make human coexistence possible. Indeed, the fundamental question is not how to arrive at a consensus reached without exclusion, because this would require the construction of a ‘we’ that would not have a corresponding ‘they’. This is impossible because the very condition for the constitution of a ‘we’ is the demarcation of a ‘they’.

Three kinds of politics within the Left

  1. ‘Pure Reformism’ that accepts both the principles of legitimacy of liberal democracy and the existing neoliberal hegemonic social formation.
  2. ‘Radical Reformism’ that accepts the principles of legitimacy but attempts to implement a different hegemonic formation.
  3. ‘Revolutionary Politics’ seeks a total rupture with the existing sociopolitical order.

Point of divergence on “State” between the different forms of ‘Left’ politics

  • Reformist view envisages the state as a neutral institution whose role is to reconcile the interests of the various social groups and the revolutionary one sees it as an oppressive institution that has to be abolished
  • Radical reformist perspective addresses the question of the state in a different way. Taking its bearings from Gramsci, it conceives the state as a crystallization of the relations of forces and as a terrain of struggle. It is not a homogeneous medium but an uneven set of branches and functions, only relatively integrated by the hegemonic practices that take place within it.

No relationship between Political and Economic Liberalism

  • Despite the claim of many liberal theorists that political liberalism necessarily entails economic liberalism and that a democratic society requires a capitalist economy, it is clear that there is no necessary relationship between capitalism and liberal democracy. It is unfortunate that Marxism has contributed to this confusion by presenting liberal democracy as the superstructure of capitalism.
  • The process of radicalizing democracy necessarily includes an anti-capitalist dimension as many of the forms of subordination that will need to be challenged are the consequences of capitalist relations of production.
  • People do not fight against ‘capitalism’ as an abstract entity because they believe in a ‘law of history’ leading to socialism. It is always on the basis of concrete situations that they are moved to act. If they struggle for equality it is because their resistances to various forms of domination are informed by democratic values and it is around those values, addressing their actual aspirations and subjectivities, and not in the name of anti-capitalism, that people can be mobilized.
Advertisement

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Points to Contemplate

  • The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.—NDT
  • The laws of physics prescribing the formation of these spectral signatures on the Sun were the same laws operating on Earth, ninety-three million miles away.
  • Science thrives not only on the universality of physical laws but also on the existence and persistence of physical constants.
  • In Germany before World War II, laboratory-based physics far outranked theoretical physics in the minds of most Aryan scientists. Jewish physicists were all relegated to the lowly theorists’ sandbox and left to fend for themselves.
  • Invoking the military edict “trust but verify,” the U.S. deployed a new series of satellites, the Velas, to scan for gamma ray bursts that would result from Soviet nuclear tests. The satellites indeed found bursts of gamma rays, almost daily. But Russia wasn’t to blame. These came from deep space—and were later shown to be the calling card of intermittent, distant, titanic stellar explosions across the universe, signaling the birth of gamma ray astrophysics, a new branch of study in my field.
  • These findings tell us it’s conceivable that life began on Mars and later seeded life on Earth, a process known as panspermia. So all Earthlings might—just might—be descendants of Martians.
  • The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their “low contracted prejudices.” And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment—until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace, rather than fear, the cosmic perspective.

Fascinating Stellar Space

  • One of the most distant (known) objects in the universe is not a quasar but an ordinary galaxy, whose feeble light has been magnified significantly by the action of an intervening gravitational lens. We may henceforth need to rely upon these “intergalactic” telescopes to peer where (and when) ordinary telescopes cannot reach, and thus reveal the future holders of the cosmic distance record.
  • If omega is less than one, the actual mass-energy falls below the critical value, and the universe expands forever in every direction for all of time, taking on the shape of a saddle, in which initially parallel lines diverge. If omega equals one, the universe expands forever, but only barely so. In that case the shape is flat, preserving all the geometric rules we learned in high school about parallel lines. If omega exceeds one, parallel lines converge, and the universe curves back on itself, ultimately recollapsing into the fireball whence it came.
  • There is no distance where the force of gravity reaches zero.
  • And if a planet is teeming with flora and fauna, its atmosphere will be rich with biomarkers—spectral evidence of life. Whether biogenic (produced by any or all life-forms), anthropogenic (produced by the widespread species Homo sapiens), or technogenic (produced only by technology), such rampant evidence will be hard to conceal.

Scientific Nuggets

  • If all mass has gravity, does all gravity have mass? We don’t know.
  • Einstein’s general theory of relativity, put forth in 1916, gives us our modern understanding of gravity, in which the presence of matter and energy curves the fabric of space and time surrounding it.
  • Later still, the electroweak force split into the electromagnetic and the “weak nuclear” forces, laying bare the four distinct forces we have come to know and love: with the weak force controlling radioactive decay, the strong force binding the atomic nucleus, the electromagnetic force binding molecules, and gravity binding bulk matter.
  • And you’ll never catch a quark all by itself; it will always be clutching other quarks nearby. In fact, the force that keeps two (or more) of them together actually grows stronger the more you separate them—as if they were attached by some sort of subnuclear rubber band. Separate the quarks enough, the rubber band snaps and the stored energy summons E = mc2 to create a new quark at each end, leaving you back where you started.
  • Today, we’ve settled on the moniker “dark matter,” which makes no assertion that anything is missing, yet nonetheless implies that some new kind of matter must exist, waiting to be discovered.
  • “Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”
  • This means something quite simple: if you split iron atoms via fission, they will absorb energy. And if you combine iron atoms via fusion, they will also absorb energy.
  • The planet Jupiter, with its mighty gravitational field, bats out of harm’s way many comets that would otherwise wreak havoc on the inner solar system. Jupiter acts as a gravitational shield for Earth, a burly big brother, allowing long (hundred-million-year) stretches of relative peace and quiet on Earth. Without Jupiter’s protection, complex life would have a hard time becoming interestingly complex, always living at risk of extinction from a devastating impact.

Absolutism – the very phenomenon which Scientists oft rage against

  • after the laws of physics, everything else is opinion.
  • The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist. It belongs to everyone. The cosmic perspective is humble. The cosmic perspective is spiritual—even redemptive—but not religious. The cosmic perspective enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small. The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we’re told. The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another. The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote. But it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have. The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae, but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them. The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate. The cosmic perspective reminds us that in space, where there is no air, a flag will not wave—an indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix. The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • But in the beginning, during the Planck era, the large was small, and we suspect there must have been a kind of shotgun wedding between the two. Alas, the vows exchanged during that ceremony continue to elude us, and so no (known) laws of physics describe with any confidence the behavior of the universe over that time.
  • What we know is that the matter we have come to love in the universe—the stuff of stars, planets, and life—is only a light frosting on the cosmic cake, modest buoys afloat in a vast cosmic ocean of something that looks like nothing.
  • Not only is the solar system scarred by the flotsam of its formation, but nearby interplanetary space also contains rocks of all sizes that were jettisoned from Mars, the Moon, and Earth by the ground’s recoil from high-speed impacts.
  • Jupiter’s moon Europa has enough H2O that its heating mechanism—the same one at work on Io—has melted the subsurface ice, leaving a warmed ocean below. If ever there was a next-best place to look for life, it’s here. (An artist coworker of mine once asked whether alien life forms from Europa would be called Europeans. The absence of any other plausible answer forced me to say yes.)
  • When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets, each one a pirouetting dancer in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity, sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land, with consequences that our children and our children’s children will witness and pay for with their health and well-being.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Calpurnia’s Insightful Observations

  • “There’s nothing creepy about it. It’s scientific interest. Backy Medlin looks kind of decrepit to me. How old is he, do you reckon?”
  • Backy’s name came from his prodigious use of chewing tobacco and his poor aim at the spittoon. He spat frequently, randomly, mightily. A constant foul brown rain pattered down on the dust around him, and you had to keep a sharp lookout.
  • There was one strange thing about her that I found fascinating: She always had a delicate mist of perspiration across the bridge of her nose, winter or summer. It was barely enough to moisten a fingertip, but when you wiped it away, it immediately reappeared. This sounds unattractive, but it was entertaining rather than off-putting. As a small child, I would stand there and dab it away and watch it return for as long as she would let me. There seemed to be no explanation for it.
  • My next job was to keep an eye on the two dozen or so babies who played in the yard between the house and the outside kitchen while their mothers worked the fields, and to make sure they didn’t get pecked by the busy, officious hens who were aggrieved by this invasion of their normal habitat. I was not happy with this unpaid duty, either, especially when I had to watch Sam Houston and Lamar prance off to the gin and come home with money.
  • Now, fainting. There’s a subject I’d always wondered about. The heroines in books seemed to faint a lot, swaying genteelly onto a handy padded couch or into the convenient arms of some concerned suitor. These heroines were always willowy and managed to land in graceful postures of repose, and were revived with the merest passing of a decorated flagon of smelling salts under their noses. I, on the other hand, apparently went over like a felled ox and was lucky to land on the grass and avoid cracking my head open.
  • Ahead of me lay perfection. Could I stand it? Could I bear to mar it with my presence? I could. I had to have this gift of the moment—this great gift of the new century—to myself for one more minute, a few more precious seconds, before the bustle and shouts and tracks of the others shattered it forever.

On Family

  • Mother disliked Petey’s presence but tolerated him because he would eventually turn into something beautiful. Mother yearned for Beauty in her life
  • My mother had got one girl out of seven tries at it. I guess I wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind, a dainty daughter to help her bail against the rising tide of the rough-and-tumble boyish energy that always threatened to engulf the house. It hadn’t occurred to me that she’d been hoping for an ally and then didn’t get one.
  • But my mother’s life was a never-ending round of maintenance. Not one single thing did she ever achieve but that it had to be done all over again, one day or one week or one season later. Oh, the monotony.

On Nature & Science

  • It would have been an ordeal to push my way through it except that the regular river patrons—dogs, deer, brothers—kept a narrow path beaten down through the treacherous sticker burrs that rose as high as my head and snatched at my hair and pinafore as I folded myself narrow to slide by.
  • What if it had gotten out? Had I tightened the lid on the jar after opening it the last time? What if it was flying loose around the room? Then I caught myself. Calpurnia Virginia Tate. You’re being ridiculous. Are you a Scientist or aren’t you? Come on, now. It’s. Only. A. Moth.

Wise Gems

  • And when something is all you know, it’s easy to stand it.
  • I didn’t feel like sharing, and I didn’t feel like explaining. They had their own lives. And now I have mine, I thought, exulting as I ran.
  • It is better to travel with hope in one’s heart than to arrive in safety.
  • It was more important to understand something than to like it. Liking wasn’t necessary for understanding. Liking didn’t enter into it.
  • “Plato said all science begins with astonishment.”

To Contemplate

  • If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaff life of only womanly things. I was depressed right into the ground.
  • Why waste time “playing,” as I’d been ordered, when I could spend some valuable time with Granddaddy? He didn’t find me dangerous when I wondered about something. In fact, he encouraged it.
  • Where had all the abounding life gone? The lack of living things made the landscape both beautiful and menacing.
  • Sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day, or at least take off some of the shine.

Marvellous World Building

  • The little boys actually managed to sleep at midday, sometimes even piled atop one another like damp, steaming puppies. The men who came in from the fields and my father, back from his office at the cotton gin, slept too, first dousing themselves with tin buckets of tepid well water on the sleeping porch before falling down on their rope beds as if poleaxed.
  • They had banded together to fill in the bare spots on the globe and to pull the country out of the morass of superstition and backward thinking in which it floundered after the War Between the States. All of this was heady news of a world far removed from hankies and thimbles, patiently delivered to me under a tree amidst the drowsing bees and nodding wildflowers.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Petey, with a mighty effort, launched himself into the air and in that split second was transformed from an ungainly land-bound dweller into something else, a creature of the wind, a citizen of the air.
  • I leaned against the wall and stood there, empty, for a long time. Empty of everything. I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.
  • Travis had driven us, and the fair organizers, mad with his obsessive checking and rechecking that Bunny was entered in the rabbit/fur competition and not the rabbit/meat competition.
  • I contemplated my chances and fanned a dim ember of hope in my heart as I sat in the sun, reeking like a giant match.
  • My thoughts scattered in all directions like undisciplined troops facing their first fire, and it took me a moment to marshal them.
  • Finally, just when I thought I would pass out, I shoved my way through the last ring of spectators and there it was, in all its dazzling glory, something never seen before: a carriage without a horse. How to describe it? It looked like speed incarnate, its every line carved by the wind. There were the shining brass appointments, the gracefully curved mudflap, the tufted black leather seat.
  • Great fatigue washed over me like a tidal wave, drowning my anger. I was too tired to fight anymore. I did the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. I reached down into the depths of my being, and I dredged up the beginnings of a watery smile.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

The Penderwick sisters, along with their dog Hound, are on vacations in Arundel. Their mischiefs and well-intentioned albeit poorly thought-out plans carve their summers, all in the shadow of the terrifying Mrs. Tifton and her lovely but somewhat estranged boy Jeffrey whom the sisters befriend.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • But this was Skye. She only thought, I need a way through the hedge, and here it is. And then she plunged.
  • “Besides, Cagney says the bull’s more dumb than mean. It’s not right to shoot someone because they’re not intelligent,” said Jeffrey.
  • Poor bull. He had simply wanted to quietly munch daisies in the sunshine, and now his private paradise was full of active and extremely noisy creatures. He hadn’t the wits for it.
  • She knew that hearing bad things about yourself is one of the punishments for eavesdropping. Her father had taught her that a long time ago. Her wonderful father.
  • “People sometimes make unexpected choices when they’re lonely,”
  • This is what made a book great, she thought, that you could read it over and over and never get tired of it.
  • “Good-bye, white bedroom,” said Skye. “Good-bye, secret passage in the closet,” said Batty. “Good-bye, dearest Jeffrey and Churchie and summer and magic and adventure and all that’s wonderful in life,” said Jane.
  • “Are you all right?” she asked. “No.” “Endings are sad, aren’t they?” “Yes.”

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

This was probably one of the worst reads of this year. Excessive and unnecessary details clogged the world-building. The entire book, plot aside, was chock-full of irrelevant information which was forced upon the reader. To make matters worse, these nuggets had to be recalled time and time again in order to move ahead with the story. It seemed like I was reading the author’s personal notes instead of a fantasy novel.

Yellowjackets, Nightglasses, Midnighters, Tablecloths, Table-legs, Teabags, Moonshiners, Chair-leggers, Palace of Patience, Manor of Regret-for-starting-this-forsaken-book, Elderglass, Youngglass, Tweencrystal – the author relentlessly concocted names and labels for every little group of people, event, notable chieftains, houses and families and what not, including Camorr’s drainage systems and ports and shady corners.

Beside this deluge of information, the author also failed to elicit empathy for the characters. Almost halfway through I had simply stopped caring about Locke Lamora and his friends. Their mischiefs weren’t enthralling, let alone amusing to read. Multiple, convoluted sub-plots paired with myriad of minor characters, self-indulgent details and lengthy tirades on Camorr made this an exhausting read. I had to skim through the last few pages in order to release myself from torture.

There’s magic, alchemy, thievery, secrets, fantastical history, looming war threats, doctors and gods, enmity and comradeship, blood, gore and sports – but the smorgasbord is not appealing. The alliteration in the title alone can give you a headache.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

World Building

  • “Everything you asked me to look for after I sold you Calo and Galdo. Everything you liked so much about Sabetha! He’s Camorri, but a mongrel. Therin and Vadran blood with neither dominant. He’s got larceny in his heart, sure as the sea’s full of fish piss. And I can even let you have him at a…a discount.”
  • Eighty-eight thousand souls generated a certain steady volume of waste; this waste included a constant trickle of lost, useless, and abandoned children.
  • When Falselight died and true night fell, the glow never seemed to simply fade so much as recede, as though it were being drawn back within the glass, a loan reclaimed by a jealous creditor. Shadows widened and blackened until finally the whole park was swallowed by them from below.
  • It is said in Camorr that the difference between honest and dishonest commerce is that when an honest man or woman of business ruins someone, they don’t have the courtesy to cut their throat to finish the affair.

To Contemplate

  • First, always ensure that the subject is nicely distracted.
  • Second, minimize—and I damn well mean minimize—contact with the subject even when they are distracted.
  • Lastly, once you’ve done your business, clear the vicinity even if the subject is as dumb as a box of hammers.
  • Undeserved good fortune always conceals a snare.
  • Let’s be frank; the succession rites of the Kingdom of the Marrows always involve armies and blood before they involve blessings and banquets.
  • “Enlightenment! When it comes, it comes like a brick to the head, doesn’t it?”
  • The world is full of conundrums that will tax your skills. Do you presume that you will always get to choose the ones that best suit your strengths?
  • “The threat of an empty stomach soon rekindles wisdom.”
  • Age has a way of exaggerating the physical traits of those who live to feel its strains; the round tend to grow rounder, and the slim tend to waste away.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • In rare moments of vain reflection, the Thiefmaker thought of himself as an artist. A sculptor, to be precise, with orphans as his clay and the old graveyard on Shades’ Hill as his studio.
  • “You’re one-third bad intentions, one-third pure avarice, and one-eighth sawdust. What’s left, I’ll credit, must be brains.”
  • Such audacity could never be faked—Locke had to feel it, summon it from somewhere inside, cloak himself in arrogance as though it were an old familiar garment.
  • Every seam and wrinkle on his face seemed to be steadily sliding toward the ground, as though he’d been shaped by a slightly drunk god who’d pressed the mortal clay just a little too far down.
  • For a moment Gathis was too bewildered to cry out; then the pain broke through to his dulled senses and he roared.