Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Madness and Civilization (1964) by Michel Foucault

Book Review
Madness and Civilization (1964)
by Michel Foucault

  I had the idea that Michel Foucault would be a good author for the Audiobook format, since I find his prose dense at the best of the times and incomprehensible at worst.  I was RIGHT- I'm not sure when, if ever, I would have gotten around to reading Foucault's classic Madness and Civilization, but it was pretty easy to digest driving back and forth on the freeways of Southern California.  Foucault writes like he is giving a lecture to a group of graduate groups. 

  I think the best way to appreciate Foucault and his message of cultural relativism- here developed by the different responses to French society to the "problem" of madness over time- is to just think about how different Foucault's views were from the mainstream of cultural-political thought at the time, and how mainstream they've become a half century later.  Today, any university educated student in any number of Western countries is steeped in Foucault, and taught by people who take his work as a given.

  Foucault holds up best as a theorist- his approach to evidence and statistics is less than minimal. and I think you could say that one of the end results of this book is the homeless situation in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. In that regard, I can see the outlines of a conservative counter argument that says, "Yeah, but if people are substance abusers and mentally ill and they won't agree to medication to help them with at least being a substance abuser, maybe they should be locked up against their will."  I'm not saying that it is a valid argument, but it's an argument.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Celestial Bodies (2019) by Jokha Alharthi

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Omani author Jokha Alharthi, this year's winner of the Booker International Prize

Book Review
Celestial Bodies (2019)
by Jokha Alharthi

  Jokha Alharthi made waves this year as the first Arabic-language winner of the Booker International Prize (which is admittedly only a couple years old in the present incarnation of awarding a book instead of an author).  Celestial Bodies is also, according to what I'm assuming is press release language, the first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English.  However, you don't need to be a compulsive reader of literary fiction to recognize the rarity of a novel from the Arabian peninsula.

 I couldn't name a single novelist- male or female, from any of the Gulf states.  It's hard to write anything about Celestial Bodies without observing that Oman was among the last (the last?) nations in the world to outlaw slavery- which happened in 1970-  meaning that the legacy of slavery is very much a live issue in Oman.

   Celestial Bodies takes the familiar form of a multi-generational family drama- three sisters- their parents and children and husbands.   Alharthi eschews the kind of langorous prose style you might expect from a "first" novel from Oman- her manner is more like Sally Rooney then Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  I listened to the Audiobook- a decision I regret- the narrator has an English accent, which I guess makes sense for some of the wealthy characters, but generally I would have liked to have different voices for at least the three sisters at the center of the narrative.

Cataract (1976)by Mykhaylo Osadchy

Book Review
Cataract (1976)
by Mykhaylo Osadchy

Replaces:  Yes by Thomas Bernhard

   This Soviet era prisoner memoir by Mykhaylo Osadchy, a Ukrainian poet is hard to figure as an addition to the 2008 edition of the 1001 Books list except as a diversity pick- Ukraine and all the other ex-Soviet Republics being sorely absent from the original 1001 Books list.  Of all the nations subject to the 20th century Soviet embrace, only Czechoslovakia and Poland had any success getting the attention of Western readers of literary fiction.  In recent years, that's changed- Svetlana Alexievch, the Belarussian Nobel Prize winner in 2015, and Olga Tokarczuk, the co-winner this year, have introduced two potential representatives that are Ukraine adjacent.

  Honestly, with those two writers in mind, it is hard to make a case for Cataract, which is pretty much your standard Soviet era prison memoir.  The minor twist is that Osadchy is from a post-World War II generation that was actually raised to believe the promises of the Soviet Union, and much of Cataract has the tenor of late 20th century American teen who goes off to an elite college and learns that capitalism is bad, man.  Only here, Osadchy gets a two year prison sentence.  If you know anything about the Soviet prison memoir you know that two years is basically a slap on the wrist.

  Cataract replaces yet another Thomas Bernhard title- I feel like that is maybe four of the last five 2008 additions to the 1001 Books list- that they've replaced Bernhard titles. 

Monday, December 02, 2019

The Beggar Maid (1978) by Alice Munro

Book Review
The Beggar Maid (1978)
by Alice Munro

   Replaces: A Maggot by John Fowles

  Canadian short-story specialist Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in 2013, five years after the first revision of the 1001 Books list, where she was included (2 books) for the first time.  Her omission from the original edition is a minor embarrassment- especially when you look at the over representation of other recent Nobel winners like J.M. Coetzee.    Munro was awarded her Nobel for being a "contemporary master of the short story," but The Beggar Maid is as close as she gets to a Novel.  Indeed, a reader could be forgiven for thinking (as I did while listening to the Audiobook) that The Beggar Maid is a novel, since every story is about the same woman- Rose, and the episodes proceed in largely chronological order over the course of her lifetime.

  Like many of Munro's protagonists, Rose is a woman from a disadvantaged socio-economic background in rural Canada who transcends her origins but faces difficult choices along the way.  The Beggar Maid replaces A Maggot by John Fowles- a post-modernist metahistorical fiction  that confuses as much as it entertains, and Fowles himself is a marginally canonical figure if you look at 21st literary trends.  He scores a fat zero for diversity purposes, and his literary reputation is less secure then his (strong) sales record and continued presence in international book stores.

The Power of the Dog (2005) by Don Winslow

Book Review
The Power of the Dog (2005)
by Don Winslow

   As a criminal defense lawyer who frequently works in federal court, I've had a decades long interest in the "drug war" of the United States.  Federal defense attorneys are frequently paid by the Court itself i.e. the United States government, so I'm maybe not as critical of drug war mainstays like mandatory minimums and the millions and millions they spend on prosecuting low level drug mules caught with loads of drugs at the border as I might otherwise be as a liberal-ish type.

  As a reader, I would think there would be more great novels about the drug war and its consequences.  No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is pretty great.   No Country for Old Men was also published in 2005.  The Power of the Dog was a huge best-selling hit.  It spawned two sequels in addition to topping 500 pages.  Don Winslow doesn't have a literary reputation- being more on a par with your basic best-selling writer of genre detective fiction (which he is, also, see the Neal Carey mysteries) than a "serious" writer of literary fiction.  I've been avoiding reading The Power of the Dog almost since it was published out of what you might call professionally spawned aversion, but the lure of a free Audiobook proved too strong. 

   First of all, the narration is terrible, Ray Porter- I mean- Porter is obviously a pro, and he matches the style of the writing, but that style is tough-guy crime-detective fiction, and the portions, for example, where he narrates graphic sex from the perspective of a female character are off the chart cringe-inducing.  Cringe inducing also describes much of the writing, although Winslow has his moments.  Mostly those moments are the action scenes, the scenes where the major characters interact.

  Still, it is hard NOT to appreciate the research.  The Power of the Dog is obviously fiction, but the events depicted- specifically the relationship between anti-communist paramilitary forces in central and south American and the American drug trade and the American government at the highest levels (George Bush Senior instigated many of the policies as head of the CIA and then became President while said policies- arming right wing militants through the Mexican cartel- allegedly- took place.   Because it is still ongoing, the War on Drugs is a history perhaps best told through fiction.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Gods of the Upper Air (2019) by Charles King

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Young Margaret Mead
Book Review
Gods of the Upper Air:  How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (2019
by Charles King

 It's no exaggeration to call "cultural relativism" the border of the liberal/conservative divide in the west.  On the one side, you've got people- both religious (Christian) or not religious (Market Capitalists) who think that the west is the best, and the rest of the world needs to get with the program.  On the other side you've got people who actively disagree with the first group, and generally argue that diversity needs to be embraced, elevated, etc.  The first group- conservatives, if you will, hate cultural relativism and for the other group- liberals- cultural relativism is the starting point. 

  The basic tenet of cultural relativism is that different groups of people can handle their issue in different ways, and one way is not superior to the other.  In this viewpoint, there is no inherent advantage to being a sophisticated westerner over an uncontacted Amazonian tribesman.  To the extent that the former exceeds the later in objective measurements of physical or mental wellbeing, it can be ascribed to the exercise of "privilege" not the objective superiority of one way of life over the other.

  Gods of the Upper Air is a survey of the evolution of cultural relativism by American based academics.  The story starts with Franz Boas, a German from the non-differentiated 19th century German academic tradition.  He emigrated to the United States and became the founding father of American anthropology.   Boas spent most of his professional career at Columbia University, where he nurtured a second generation of largely female students, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria.    King alternates between mini-biographies of the main actors and chapters that situate the growth of cultural relativism within the consciousness of the larger American public.

  Margaret Mead proves to be the star of Gods of the Upper Air, with a biography that would make for a great multi-part quality television/streaming series:  Early marriage to a clergyman, liberation in the academic atmosphere of New York, lesbian affairs, field work in the farthest reaches of the Pacific islands, best-selling books that introduced the very idea of cultural relativism to the non-academic reading public, divorce, remarriage, divorce.   Any reader will quickly see the connection between Mead's desire to escape the sexual mores of 20th century American society and the direction of her fieldwork.

 These findings directly inspired the 1960's counter-culture, and cultural relativism continues to be a vital argument in global thought: widely accepted in many places, and also widely rejected.  I subscribe to a mild ideology of culture relativism that recognizes value in diversity for its own sake, and rejects the idea that there is some kind of global human perfection that can be achieved.  Gods of the Upper Air did nothing to convince of the need to adopt a more radical ethos of cultural relativism- in her lesser moments Mead in particular can appear ridiculous, but it supports the idea that before cultural relativism, the public didn't see a value in preserving non-western culture, and that afterwards, it did.


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