Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) by Alice Walker

Book Review
Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)
by Alice Walker

  If you are uninformed about the wide spread reality of female genital mutilation or FGM, this is the book to get you up to speed.  FGM is widespread throughout Africa and the world of Islam, and is very common in parts of Africa without an Islamic presence.  FGM is sometimes (used to be?) called female circumcision, but, speaking as a circumcised male- there is no comparison.  FGM is more like cutting off a man's penis then cutting off his foreskin.

 Walker's tale is set among the fictional Olinka people- who also appear in the Color Purple.  Possessing the Secret of Joy is not a sequel to The Color Purple, but it is part of the same fictional universe with overlapping characters.  The Olinka are a fictional people, but in The Color People said they were located four days from the capital of Liberia, in West Africa, so that, at least, is where Possessing the Secret of Joy is set, a fictional West African nation.  

  Posseesing the Secret of Joy engages in the familiar modernist style of switching back and forth in time and between different characters.  There is a gradual unveiling of the plot with a murder at the center, but those considerations are actively outweighed by the gruesome horror reality of female genital mutilation.   I wasn't in any way ignorant of the horrors of FGM, except for thinking it was somehow largely a problem of Islam.  Trust, is not simply that.  FGM is a part of many non Islamic African cultures.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Book Review: Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)by Ann M. Blair

A Note Taking cabinet from the late Middle Ages.   Several of these were created for scholars to keep track of information- none remain.  The note taking cabinet is a pre-modern example of the intersection of information and "technology."  Here, the technology is the cabinet.
Book Review
Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)
by Ann M. Blair
Yale University Press

  Here are some of the problems with reading academic subjects like history or philosophy:

1.  Much of it is written for specialists, by specialists, and published in journals which are hard to get, even in the internet era.
2.   Published books are likely to lag a year or two behind the current discussion between specialists because it exists outside of the conference/journal specialist circuit.
3.   When those books are published, they are like to be more expensive than a work of fiction because usually they are printed by specialist, academic publishing houses who make fewer books.

 So, identifying the right book in an academic subject is tough- you want something that isn't just for specialist, or of interest to specialist, and on the other hand, you don't want crap. So much non-fiction- I'm thinking of genres like self-help or business tips, is just unadulterated garbage with nary a pretense towards merit.  You want an other with a light touch, one confident enough in the subject matter to write a book for general readers without sacrificing the accuracy inherent in academic non-fiction.

 The best way to judge is the publishing house- for subjects like history or philosophy, for example. Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard, Yale and then the second tier US Publishers- University of California, John Hopkins, Princeton, etc. Commercial publishers can be counted on to publish readable books, but whether they are well written and annotated is unpredictable.

  So, the first thing to note about Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is that is a hit, written by a tenured Professor of History at Harvard University- like right now- as I write this.  The best academic non-fiction writing is a kind of alchemy of knowledge- authors gather a million sources that you will never read and create a compelling 300-500 page book that totally revises your opinion about the subject.  Here, the opinion that she seeks to revise is the truism that a consequence of the information age is to feel overwhelmed by something called "information overload."

  This hypothesis, which is so much a part of conventional wisdom that I doubt you could find anyone to disagree with it if you were trying, is that we are currently overwhelmed by "too much information," typically with a reference to the sheer amount of some information related product- books, television shows, movies.   The idea is that only NOW can we "not keep up."

  This, Blair persuasively argues, is not, and never has been the case. In fact, the idea of "too much information" is as old as the book itself- and actually have been an opinion that came in to existence the same time as WRITING itself.   Blair coins (I think) a term, "info lust" to describe the attitude of certain groups towards the acquisition of knowledge.  Info lust is hardly a modern affliction.  Like the idea of information overload, Blair shows that as soon as there were manuscripts to acquire, people were greedy to possess them.

  In Blair's opinion, the advent of the printing press, while important, did not create any new attitudes towards information, information management and information acquisition, it merely amplified trends that were already present among the audience for printed matter.   Much of the meat of Blair's argument concerns the extensive steps that scholars and priests took in the high middle ages to organize the information that they needed.  This organization- the most common sort is alphabetical- is not something that simply "always was" - rather it was developed by scholars over time.

  A thousand years before people were searching on the internet, they were literally deciding that organizing information by alphabet and subject matter would be useful for readers.  Like all first rate scholars, Blair does not elaborate into what she thinks all this means, except for the major thesis that in no way is "information overload" something specific to the internet era.    I'm sure it's the kind of book that one would refer to over decades.

History of Bengali Literature (1960) by Sukumar Sen

Image result for bengal people map
The area of the Bengali people is in present day Bengladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

History of Bengali Literature (1960)
by Sukumar Sen
Published by Sahitya Akademi

   What do you know about the Bengali people?  Did you know they are the third largest ethnic group in the world (300 million) behind the Han Chinese and the Arabs?  They speak Bengali, the Eastern most Indo-European language.  They've produced one Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1911- for poetry- but still.   In Classical times, Bengal was the center of a Hindu/Buddhist Empire, in the Middle Ages they were conquered by Turkish-Persian Muslims and spent centuries as the "Bengali sultanate" during which time many converted to Islam,

  Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, was also the head of the British Raj.  After independence, half of Bengal ended up as the Indian state of West Bengal, where they promptly elected Communists to run the government for half a century.  The Eastern Half- the Muslim portion- became first, East Pakistan and later declared independence, fought a brief war and became the independent nation of Bengladesh.  

    The Bengali people are unusual in terms of their relatively positive experience with being the victims of conquest and foreign invaders.  Their Muslim rulers were largely Sufis- the most tolerant of Islamic faiths, the British put their headquarters inside Bengal, and were instrumental in "de Persian-fying" the Bengali language after centuries of being forced to use Persian as the language of government.  The language of Bengali was historically viewed as a vernacular in comparison to Sanskrit, the literary language of India.  The comparison is similar to the relationship between Latin and English/French/German.

  The literature of Bengal can be broken into two major parts- what came before the British, and what came after.  The literature before the coming of the British is basically religious poetry and puppet shows. Bengal was the center of the "tantra" movement, but the tantrics weren't much for leaving written material around for posterity.   The poetry revolves around the mythological themes that are common to the Indian subcontinent, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

    In terms of literature as we know it, i.e. the novel, it came with the British Empire.  Calcutta quickly developed an educated middle and landowning class- families that had served the Sultanate and were largely pleased with the Justice obsessed British Empire.  The novel and contemporary literature developed alongside the nascent Nationalism movement.  The Tagore family- who produced the Nobel Prize winner- played an important role both in developing Nationalism and Bengali literature.

  By the early 20th century, Bengali literature was drifting in the more familiar currents of world literature, the last chapter describes a surfeit of early 20th century "realist" fiction concerned with the lives of everyday Bengali's and Sen also brieflly discusses a Bengali "modernist" movement.  My sense though is that little, if any of this literature has made it to the United States- to the point where the books listed simply had Bengali titles- no English translations (this book is written in English.)

  I can now rest easier knowing that I haven't missed anything the whole world knows about, unless you count Tagore's Nobel Prize Winning verse, and I don't.

The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

Image result for the english patient ralph fiennes
Ray Fiennes was the title character in the successful movie version of The English Patient by Michale Ondaatje
Book Review
The English Patient (1992)
by Michael Ondaatje

  The English Patient is another potential canon selection which arrives as part of the very popular 90's literary genre "International Best-Seller," preferably with an Oscar Nominated (or Winning, in this case) film version and a prestigious international literary award (Booker Prize, 1992).   Ondaatje is a poster-child for an Author writing in this period: Lives in Canada, from Sri Lanka, writes in English, writes historical fiction with twists set in exotic or semi-exoctic locales.   The English Patient check all the boxes to the point where one it could call it either the best of this crop of would-be canon titles or a tedious, cynical exercise in commerce.

  The case for canonical status is aided by the huge success of the movie.  Who could doubt, circa 1992, that the difference between a good and bad movie version can be the difference between a book obtaining or not obtaining canonical status.  My hypothesis is that a successful movie version creates a kind of  psychic place holder in the mind of the public audience, ensuring that book versions stay on book shelves and in private collections.

  The elements of The English Patient are not particularly ground breaking: A man without a past, a Sikh sapper (Mine de-fuser), a nurse and a secret agent, all living in the same falling-down villa in the immediate aftermath of the Italian campaign of World War II.  Like many other works of literature which straddle critical and popular acclaim there is an element of surprise and intrigue that makes detailed discussion of the plot impossible.

  I guess now I can finally go see the movie version.the 

Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss

Cover of the original Hothouse hard back, written by Brian Aldiss.
Book Review
Hothouse (1962)
by Brian Aldiss

  I get a decent amount of book recommendations from the Sunday New York Times obituary. It's a great place to hear about well known authors, recently deceased, who may be due for a critical reappraisal.  Since "death" is one of those rare events that triggers critical re-appraisals, a New York Times obituary tells me that this may be the time to read up on an Author I'd never heard of.   English sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss died last week, and he is a good example of a genre author who is canon within their specific genre but not outside it.  I'd often seen Aldiss' books. Particularly I remember that he was well represented in the science fiction portion of the public library in the Northern California suburb where I grew up.

  Hothouse is one of his hits, a Hugo Award Winner when it was published in 1962, it was most recently reprinted in 2015 as part of an Aldiss retrospective.  Hothouse is set in the far future- in the dying days of the Sun.  Plants have taken over the Earth, and humans have evolved into tiny, green, tree inhabiting creatures- something like a fairy or sprite from Celtic mythology.  Plants have evolved to replace most Animal types, and they all hate humans.  Originally published as a loosely connected series of novellas in pulp sci-fi magazines, Hothouse loosely follows one band of humans, veering out of the group half way through to follow one particular human who has formed a symbiotic relationship with a sentient morel.

  Like most sci fi books, the prose style is passable at best, instead, the reader is drawn in by the ideas expressed.  Here, the ideas are well considered, evoking H.G. Wells The Time Machine, Wyndham's the Day of the Triffid's and 1960's J.G. Ballard, while not quite surpassing any of them.

The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture (2002) by T.C.W. Blanning

Book Review
The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture (2002)
by T.C.W. Blanning

   T.C.W. Blanning was a Professor Modern European History at the University of Cambridge, which is just about as good as it gets.  Much of his writing focuses on the early part of the Modern period- starting in the 18th century, and stretching both back and forward a century in each direction.  His scholarship is informed by the important work of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.  In fact, The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture is essentially a historical elaboration of Habrermas' philosophical concept known as the "public sphere."  Habermas theorized that it was the development of this public sphere that is the seminal accomplishment of modernity, and that so long as the public sphere remains unfinished, modernity has not been completed as a project.   Habermas came out of the "cultural Marxism" Frankfurt School, and his public sphere followed in the steps of Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which introduced the concept of the "culture industry" into the international philosophical lexicon.

  The adoption of Habermas' Public Sphere has been hampered by the difficulty of Habermas' writing style- difficult even in the original German, let alone in translation.  Blanning constructs the argument that there was shift in the 18th century from Representational Culture, epitomized in this book by Louis XIV and the Palace at Versailles to the rise of the Public Sphere, embodied by the creation, for the first time, of a a literate "public" for the consumption of art and cultural projects, notably books and music.

  Habermas uses the well known stories of artists and writers to illustrate this shift- neatly sidestepping the dead end of the Annales school emphasis on the lives of "normal people."   Artists were the "canary in the coal mine" for the rise of the Public Sphere. Throughout the 18th century, the pre-conditions for this shift spread throughout Western Europe- which in this book means England/Great Britain, France and greater "Germany," followed by actual Revolutions- the French Revolution, and the rise of Prussia in the East- both directly linked to the rise of the public sphere.

  It is a compelling explanation of the macro-political-cultural-historical events of the 18th century in Western Europe- a world where the USA was on the fringe, but an experience that none the less directly influenced events here in the United States.

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