Nov 22 2009

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

This novel was BRILLIANT. I laughed out loud all the way through it. Celine is part Vonnegut and part Bukowski, a French genius of both tragedy and comedy.

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Oct 27 2009

Rory the Tory?

File under “Who knew?” The Guardian reports that Rory Stewart has been selected as a candidate for the UK’s parliament from a safe (10,000 majority) Conservative seat. In one of those moves that makes me think that parliamentary systems are odd sometimes, one of his first actions will be to move so that he actually lives in the district he will represent. “I will be straight on to the estate agent in the morning,” the Guardian quotes him as saying. “I’m very much looking forward to living in the constituency and getting to know everybody.”

(Stewart’s been a soldier, a diplomat, a wanderer, a provincial governor in Iraq, a professor at Harvard and is currently a director of a significant charity helping part of Afghanistan, yet the Guardian web edition’s headline writer chooses to identify him as “Former royal tutor Rory Stewart.” What does that say about Britain? Or the Guardian? Or perhaps the Guardian’s perceptions of its audience?)

I would not have pegged the author of The Places In Between as a Tory, though on closer consideration I think he’s too much of a loose cannon an independent thinker to be much of a back-bencher at all. Anyone who drops everything to walk across Asia and spends the winter of 2001 walking across central Afghanistan is not likely to be fazed by a party whip. I haven’t yet read The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, which probably gives a better sense of how he’ll do in constituent service. Maybe he’ll turn out splendidly. Still, he’s had a decade of changing jobs every year or two, is he likely to settle down to work in Westminster? (On the other hand, I asked the same question about Bobby Jindal, with whom I have a passing acquaintance, and he’s still on the job.)

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Oct 22 2009

Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevara

I admit that I am one of those spoiled, privileged, affluent Western punks who idolize and romanticize Che Guevara. I admire his courage, his charisma, his dedication, and his manhood. That said, I am not blind to his less sanguine attributes and the wrongheadedness of his ideology, which this book expresses in great detail. He agrees with Mao that guerilla insurgents fighting in rural territory must have the support of the peasantry to succeed. This is where he reveals his nasty side. Peasants who cooperate, he says, must be supported and defended, while peasants who do not cooperate…well, if you want to make an omelette, you gotta break some eggs. Further on he discusses collecting “taxes” from the peasantry to support the insurgency. Included at the end is his chilling manifesto against United States “imperialism,” in which he states that revolutionaries all around the world should make up for their inferior weaponry with the intensity of their hatred. A hero? Not a saint.

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Oct 20 2009

Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey

I read this a while back, but reading it again was an entirely new experience. The book purports to deal with the issue of why God is often so disappointing to us, but the biblical exposition actually deals more with why we are so disappointing to God. This book actually helped me to see myself and the world from God’s perspective, and for that I owe the author a debt of thanks.

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Sep 16 2009

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

The premise of this story is simple and intriguing: what would a man do if no one could see him doing it? Wells’ answer is rather disturbing. For a man of science, Wells seems to have had a rather pessimistic view of the consequences of scientific progress, but this story is told with Wells’ usual imagination and plain directness.

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Sep 12 2009

Femininity by Susan Brownmiller

Like most works of feminist literature–and I have read quite a few–I can find little to argue with in this book. Brownmiller’s arguments make sense to me…but that is because I am a man, and as a man I can readily agree that functionality is superior to ornamentality, that reason is superior to emotion, that intelligence is superior to beauty, that strength is superior to weakness. She’s preaching to the choir. The only criticism I have to make is that feminists like Brownmiller, who clearly resent the feminine roles they feel have been forced on women, are not, from what I can see, representative of the vast majority of women I seen in the world around me. Most women I am in contact with are not content to be second-class citizens, but at the same time they seem thoroughly comfortable in their own skins and comfortable with being feminine. For good or for ill, femininity shows no sign of disappearing.

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Aug 25 2009

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

This is Keegan’s best work. In most of his works he analyzes the science of warfare; in this book he also analyzes the psychology and culture of warfare. He takes exception from the beginning with Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means, and shows with ample evidence from history that war often is destructive of the political orders that it is supposed to preserve. The scope of his survey of warfare is impressive, ranging from prehistoric primitive warfare to the nuclear age. He is clearly an admirer of the warrior class and the warrior ethic, but he is no idealist or romantic when it comes to war, and he ends the book with the hope that man’s warmaking days will soon be over. Alas, I do not share his optimism, but I do share his love of good historical writing, of which this book is a shining example.

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Aug 22 2009

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett

This book is a fascinating study of emerging infectious diseases throughout the world. Like most such books, it is a bit alarmist in tone, and it is full of attacks on (mostly Republican) politicians for not taking effective policy measures to prevent and combat new epidemics. Apart from its somewhat shrill alarm-sounding, however, it provides an intriguing history of most of the investigative research done on infectious diseases in the last century, much of which was carried out by intrepid and adventurous field researchers in far-off countries. A highly engaging and deliberately unsettling work by a thorough and meticulous author.

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Jul 18 2009

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Freud doesn’t get a lot of respect these days, but I found this book for the most part lucid and rational, if not exactly scientific. Part of Freud’s thesis borrows from Rousseau in arguing that civilization represents a compromise with the individual for the sake of preserving security, but for Freud this is problematic, because he sees civilized society as repressing the natural instincts of man and thereby causing unhappiness and neurosis. For Freud the conscience, or the “super-ego,” is merely the internalization of society’s condemnation of man’s natural but at times antisocial desires, and as such it is a source of constant anxiety, as these desires are for the most part impossible to eliminate. Freud does not seem to have made his mind up whether civilization is a good thing or a bad thing, but as a psychoanalyst he sees a clear and unfortunate conflict between civilization and the individual pyche. An interesting discussion, if a bit ponderous.

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Jul 14 2009

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

This was not a long book, but I took my time reading it because the writing was so eloquent. I have never seen such hatred and fury channeled into such eloquent discourse. There isn’t enough space allowed here for me to get into the problems of post-colonialism, but what impresses me most about this work is the way in which Fanon can see beyond the immediate problem of colonial oppression and into the future of post-colonial independence. He foresaw that the intellectuals and petty bourgeoisie among the native population would become the new ruling elite and would become rife with greed and corruption once independence was obtained. Yet he remained optimistic that those oppressed by colonialism would forge a new way ahead, a way that would ultimately be more progressive than anything Europe or the United States could imagine. Knowing what we know now about post-independence Africa, we may smile on this optimism, but perhaps there is still time for his vision to be fulfilled.

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