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James F | 685 comments Goals basically the same as last year, 120 books, 20 not in English, 35,000 pages.


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 5

1. Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven [1987] 211 pages

Cliff's first novel, this is much better than the later prequel, Abeng, which I reviewed last week. It's a much more adult, more sophisticated and better written novel. The main character is again Clare Savage. The book begins and ends with her as part of a small armed group -- the politics is not particularly good, or even clear, and seems to be mostly a product of despair on the part of people who feel oppressed but have no understanding of political theory or effective action. I was reminded at the end of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, although Cliff is more sympathetic and the characters are not the spoiled children of that novel. The majority of the book however, told in flashbacks which are not strictly chronological, is about Clare's psychological development, the experiences she goes through in Jamaica, New York, and London with racism and the guilt she feels as a lighter-skinned Black who, while not actually trying to "pass", is generally considered "white", and her ambivalent feelings toward her lighter father and darker mother. These themes arise much more naturally out of the situations than in the prequel, and have a less artificial feel of illustrating a point. There are also some feminist themes and a major "trans" character. One episode concerns a disturbed Black Vietnam veteran named Bobby whom she falls in love with and who just disappears one afternoon. Meee and Bobbeee McGeeeeeeeeee sorry. After reading this, I understand the decisions Cliff made in writing the prequel even less -- the strange ending of that book with Miss Beatrice and her sister is never alluded to, and the childhood friend who plays such a key role in the later book is not mentioned even in the listing of people she remembers from her time at Miss Mattie's. While Cliff is not my favorite of the Jamaican writers I have been reading for the Goodreads group, the novel is worth reading and does give another perspective on the situation there.


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 7

2. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion [1927] 63 pages

It's hard to know what to make of this little book of Freud on religion. While his books on psychology can be difficult due to the specialized nature of the discussion and the technical terms of psychoanalysis, his more general books on civilization and religion, such as Totem and Taboo, which I read last month, this book, and Civilization and Its Discontents, which I finished between reading this one and writing the review, have a different sort of difficulty: they tend to wander from subject to subject, rely on analogies that are not really supported by any evidence within the books themselves (obviously they presuppose a familiarity with his more technical writings on psychology), seem to argue contradictory theses from time to time, and sometimes just seem too strange to take seriously (e.g. the killing of the primal father).

The Future of an Illusion begins with an introduction that seems to owe much to the conditions in Germany and Austria at the time it was written -- civilization (identified specifically as a minority of "leaders" who are necessary to force the lazy "masses" to overcome their disinclination to work -- i.e. with the capitalist system) is in crisis; most people (i.e. the working class) are "enemies of civilization" who are organizing to destroy it. (Remember that the mid-to-late twenties in the German-speaking countries were a time of strikes, demonstrations, and even (failed) insurrections.) He admits that most people have no interest in preserving a civilization in which a few people have most of the pleasures and the majority have most of the renunciation, but sees no hope that this could ever be changed. Renunciation of pleasure, that is of the natural instincts, is the essence of civilization -- this is the main thesis of both books. It has often been pointed out that Freud's view of humanity has much in common with the Christian idea of "original sin"; here especially he argues that our natural instincts are to kill and rape. He then asks what are the means by which civilization accomplishes this work of repressing the natural instincts, and identifies them as "illusions" by which he means a distorted view of reality in accordance with our wishes, and moves to a discussion of religion as the most effective of these illusions. Very little here is original; he suggests an analogy between religion and neurosis, and presents the idea that religion is mainly a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. He proceeds by a series of "dialogues" with a devil's advocate who disagrees with him and accuses him of contradictions and insists that while religion is an illusion Freud should not be pointing that out because it is necessary for people to believe it is true to preserve civilization and for people to be comforted in the necessary unhappiness of real life. Freud argues that his book is harmless because no one will believe it anyway, and then argues that religious belief is declining already and that while the illusions of religion were once the most effective support of civilization, by continuing to tie civilization and morality to religion there is a danger that when people realize that the religion is not true they will reject the morality which no longer has any basis; so it is necessary to find rational arguments to replace religion as supports of morality and the status quo which are less likely to be rejected. He also argues that the rigidity of religious dogma is patially responsible for the problem by making it impossible to make the reforms necessary to head off more radical change. So that in about fifty pages he moves from sounding like a proto-fascist to sounding like a liberal or even a reformist social democrat.

He then uses his analogy of the development of civilization to the development of the individual to argue that, just as adolescents (according to psychoanalytic theory) go through a "neurotic" stage in moving from their infantile condition of the pleasure principal to the adult condition of the reality principle, so religion represents the neurotic stage in civilization which will be superceded in the future by the mature conscious acceptance of the needs of subordinating the pleasure principle to the reality principle.


Jan. 9

3. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1929] 109 pages

I read this book when I started college (1970) for the required freshman "Contemporary Civilization" course; this is the first time I have reread it since. It is even more disjointed than The Future of an Illusion. It begins as a response to objections to that book, and it appears that it also will be a book about religion; it turns, as the former book does, to discussing the various ways in which people deal with their unhappiness ("discontent") within civilization, which is essentially just an amplification of what he said there, and he admits himself that there is little original; but then it moves to discussing the idea of guilt and the formation of the superego, which occupies most of the book. Religion is alluded to frequently but doesn't seem to occupy the foreground. He ends up with a summary of his ideas and the additional idea that religion represents a kind of collective or cultural superego analogous to the individual superego. In the last couple chapters he introduces the idea of a "death instinct" equal to and opposed to the erotic "libido"; this idea which doesn't really make sense to me (how would an organism evolve an instinct which would be directly opposed to its own survival and reproduction?), but it is his explanation of the aggressive tendencies which he saw around him (recall this was written in the period leading up to Hitler.) It actually doesn't occupy as much of the book as I thought -- it was basically the only thing I remembered from my first reading half a century ago.

While Freud's psychological writings (although I can't agree with the system as a whole) are full of important ideas and insights, these general books seem to me to be very much over-rated; but it is hard to deny that they were very influential.


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 15

4. Patricia Powell, The Pagoda [1998] 245 pages

The Pagoda is another novel about the complex racial composition of Jamaica; the main story begins in 1893, and deals with the condition of the Chinese immigrants who were imported to replace the former slaves after Emancipation. The protagonist, Mr. Lowe, has been a shopkeeper for some thirty years when his shop is burned down one night, apparently out of anti-Chinese hatred. The novel alternates between his life in the following months and his memories of earlier events, his life in China, the voyage, and his early exeriences in Jamaica. The historical background is interesting; so is the story of Mr. Lowe, although it is somewhat implausible. The novel deals with the themes of identity (racial, gender and indvidual) and disguise; everyone in the novel has secrets. One has to feel sorry for the protagonist, who is trying to free himself from other people's fantasies and become an individual, although it is impossible to really like Mr. Lowe, who has been clueless about everyone around him for decades and, even as he discovers that the people he lives with have stories and feelings of their own, continues to think only of himself, until almost the end of the novel. The book is fairly well-structured, although it spends too much time trying to gradually reveal details which are obvious from the beginning. The last few chapters are the best, but the book ends with many of the plot elements unresolved.

Unfortunately, the actual writing is awful. The book would be an English teacher's nighmare. There are whole pages -- almost whole chapters -- without a single grammatical sentence: there are sentence fragments (too long to be a stylistic device), long run-on sentences, sentences which change construction in the middle, lack of agreement between subject and verb, lack of parallelism between clauses, pronouns with no antecedents, words which do not actually mean what they should mean in context, clichéd phrases. . . I'm not talking about the occasional deliberate use of a sort of pidgin in the dialogue, but the actual narrative. The most annoying thing of all was that many sentences began with "Plus" (and this is supposed to be the speech and thought of a nineteenth century character). I had to check the back cover to verify that the book was indeed published by Harcourt and not CreateSpace, because it gave the impression of a self-published work with no copy-editing; apparently copy-editing, like careful proofreading, is now a dispensible luxury for commercial publishing houses. At many points I nearly gave up on this, usually when I came up on a "plus", but the storyline kept me reading. Three stars for the content, one star for the writing.


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 17

5. Jorge Luis Borges, Historia universal de la infamia [1935, augmented ed. 1954] 137 pages [in Spanish]

This volume of the Obras completas contains some earlier writings of Borges: the Historia universal de la infamia, eight short stories about notorious criminals; a novela, Hombre de la Esquina Rosada, a cowboy story which is written in the first person in dialect and very hard to understand; and some very short miscellaneous pieces added later in Borges' better known style of fantastic narrative.

Jan. 18

6. Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World [1986] 239 pages [Kindle]

Like the other two novels I have read of Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills and The Buried Giant, this is first and foremost a novel about recognizing and taking responsibility for past (mainly political) acts, and the contrary tendency to try and forget or "prettify" the past. The protagonist is an artist who played a role in the Japanese government before and during the Second World War; he is now retired, a grandfather who is trying to negotiate the marriage of his younger daughter. At first, he tries to forget that past, concentrating on a more distant time, and when it arises, tries to defend his actions; but the needs of his daughter's negotiations force him to remember and take responsibility. Ironically, after he does, his daughters try to rebury the past and pretend that his confession was an unnecessary and overscrupulous act which they didn't understand. The book procedes largely in flashback memories to different times in his life and career. The description of Japan after the war, the recriminations of the young against the older generation which led them to defeat, was very interesting; the same sort of thing happened in Germany with the "collective guilt" and later in the USSR with regard to Stalinism as described in Alexievich's book I read last year. The US of course as the victor in World War II never has had to come to any accounting of its own atrocities of that time (the killing of 80-100,000 civilians, mostly elderly, women, and children in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example), and while there was something similar to this among younger people during the Vietnam War the country very quickly returned to its self-satisfied feeling of moral superiority; we see the jingoism today, the President bragging about US nuclear power, making threats and calling poorer countries "shitholes". Of course the new generations in Japan and Germany are also prey to a new nationalist movement which has forgotten the lessons of the War. Ishiguro's novels are thus still very relevant to the present day.

In addition to this main theme, there is also a theme about art and authority, the relations between teachers and disciples, and about art as the pure representation of beauty and committed art, which is approached from a different angle than the usual arguments about "art for art's sake" vs. being "engagée" in that the "committed" art is in the service of Japanese militarism rather than being from a left-wing perspective.


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 25

7. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones [1956] 185 pages [in Spanish]

Borges' second collection of stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan was published in 1941; in 1944, he added a number of other stories under the title "Artificios" and published them together as Ficciones; in the present 1956 edition he added another three stories to the second part. This is the work which established his reputation, and these are arguably his best stories (although I haven't read his later books yet); they are definitely interesting and have had a great influence on other writers, in Latin America and elsewhere. I read this in translation long ago in college, but this was my first time reading it in Spanish.

The stories are mostly what could be called fantasy -- but the old kind of fantasy, when fantasy, and science fiction, were really "speculative fiction" and not just endless variations on The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. I used to read a lot of fantasy and especially science fiction but I rarely do anymore, because they are mostly so formulaic and genre today. C.S. Lewis wrote in 1961 that "unliterary" readers never read fantasy; certainly no one could argue that today, but fantasy was different then. There are still exceptions, such as Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, which actually make real points, but most are just entertainment for "Young Adults" -- I also dislike age-segregated literature, which is another thing that puts me off from recent fantasy books.

The stories in this collection are really illustrations of philosophical ideas -- in fact they frequently reference Plato, Bradley, Meinong, Russell and other philosophers. They also make important points about language and semiotics, which is why I am reading them now -- one or two of the stories are on the reading list of a friend of mine who is taking a course in literary theory and letting me vicariously take it with her, reading the readings and discussing with her. The first story, "Tlön, Uqbqar, Orbis Tertius" imagines a world which corresponds in a way to the idealist conception of Berkeley, and imagines the kind of language which would be congruent with that sort of world -- a language without substantives, where all nouns are either replaced by verb forms (instead of saying "the moon" one would say "it is mooning") or collections of adjectives ("the round shining bright"). The next story, "Pierre Menard, autor de Quijote" examines the idea that works of fiction mean different things in different historical context by imagining a modern French author who writes Don Quijote exactly in the words Cervantes did, but it has a totally different sense. The collection also contains the title story of the first part, which imagines a world similar to certain versions of quantum theory, and the famous story of "La biblioteca de Babel" where all knowledge is contained somewhere in a book -- because every possible combination of letters is in some book -- but there is no way to separate the books which are true from the false and the meaningless. He also has a story in the second part, Funes el Memorioso, where someone has a perfect memory and can't think well because thinking requires forgetting details to abstract. (A similar idea is in the last story of Historia universal de la infamia, his first book, where a complete perfect map is useless because it just duplicates what it is a map of.) This is just a sample, but all the stories are interesting in some way, and some of them are related to a frame story which reminded me of Umberto Eco -- although I would not call Borges a "postmodernist" nearly all of postmodernist fiction is influenced by his writings.


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 26

8. Staceyann Chin, The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir [2009] 292 pages [Kindle]

Another book for the Goodreads group which is reading Jamaican literature, this is the memoir of a Jamaican woman from the age of about four to her emigration to New York in her early twenties. Actually, I think that it is somewhat fictionalized, or at least "filled in", because I don't believe anyone could remember such details and conversations from when they were four years old. I can believe that the overall narrative is true, though. Staceyann Chin was abandonned by her mother shortly after she was born; the man she was told was her father denies his responsibility. She lived first with her grandmother, and then with a succession of increasingly abusive relatives, until she is thrown out and gets her own apartment at fifteen (which was probably the best thing that happened to her.) Despite her domestic problems, she does well in school, passes the exam to get into high school, and attends college with support from the man who denies being her father and from his brother who nevertheless considers her his niece. After coming out as a lesbian in college, she is ostracized and almost raped, and decides to emigrate. The book ends with her leaving the country, although there is a brief epilogue about her subsequent visits and what happened to her relatives. She is apparently now a successful poet and performance artist in New York.

Chin is half Chinese and lighter-skinned than most of her relatives and the students in her schools; this seems to be a common factor in many of the novels and other books for this group, and assuming that we are reading a fairly representative sample (and these are the books that I see on most of the Internet lists of Jamaican literature) it must be a tendency in Jamaican literature, perhaps because lighter-skinned Jamaicans have more opportunity for education and writing books. Unlike many of the novels, however, race, while always present in the background, plays a lesser role than poverty (at the beginning) and gender and orientation issues (toward the end.) Both positive and negative characters in the book are extremely religious and use religion as a way of controlling her; the chapter titles are nearly all quotations from the Bible.

Chin is a good writer and her life story is interesting and even inspiring. I may have to apologize for over-reacting (in a previous review) to Patricia Powell's use of "plus", because Chin uses it in several places (although not as often, and it's less jarring in a twentieth century teenager than in a nineteenth century adult character) so it may be a "Jamaicanism."


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James F | 685 comments Jan. 29

9. Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph [1949; augmented 1952] 212 pages

This is another major collection of Borges' stories; again, they are illustrations of ideas, although none of the stories really stood out to me as many of those in Ficciones did. I read the collection mainly for the story "El Zahir", which was on a reading list for a course a friend was taking. This particular story postulates that certain objects at a particular time function as objects of obsession, which in a sense contain or refer to everything else in the world. The fact that the particular "zahir" of the story was a coin (called a "zahir") invites an economic reading about obsession with money -- not in the sense of greed, but in the sense of fetishizing the means of exchange as really equivalent to everything it is exchanged for, as objectivized value. Whether this is what Borges actually intended by the story I don't know. The title story, "El Aleph", also deals with the idea of a single object which reflects everything else in the world. I was reminded of Leibniz' concept of the "pre-established harmony" in the monad, which I think was one of the influences on the story, and of its more contemporary version in Whitehead, which probably wasn't (although Borges elsewhere alludes to contemporary philosophers such as Russell, I don't remember any specific allusion to Whitehead).


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 2

10. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1968, tr. 1970] 186 pages

I wish I had read Pedagogy of the Oppressed long ago; it is an amazingly rich book. While the book is based on Freire's experiences teaching adult education and literacy courses in rural Brazil and in Chile, and its main concern is with education, he treats education in the context of liberation and has much to say on general aspects of revolutionary thought and action. His main thesis is the contrast between education in the service of the oppressors -- in the first instance, the landowners and capitalists, and foreign interests -- which treats the student as an object to be "educated" by inculcating a certain pre-determined content of practical training and of attitudes of subjection, with education in the interests of the oppressed themselves, which must treat them as subjects who determine their own self-education and problematize the conditions of their lives and the relations in which they are embedded, and be a way of liberating themselves from those conditions.

The first type he calls "banking education", using the metaphor of a bank in which one deposits certain contents to be retrieved later; in other works he develops the metaphor in another sense, that the deposit is an investment from which the depositors intend to derive an advantage to themselves. (I also read more or less simultaneously with this book an article by Louis Althusser which also treats the theme of education and is really complementary to Freire's book, in that it explains what the dominant classes get out of their form of education of the working classes.) To the extent that his banking metaphor suggests a method of education by simply teaching "facts" to be memorized without understanding or questioning (although this method was in fact common in Brazilian official education at the time) it may seem to be a straw man in relation to modern methods of education -- most schools today would agree that simply memorizing "facts" is not really enough to be really educated. If we take the idea of depositing more broadly, however, as indicating the teaching of a content predetermined by the "educator" and to be simply assimilated by the "student" it has much more relevance; perhaps the term "explication" as used by Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which was my previous favorite book on education, would be a more flexible concept (note that Rancière was a protegé of Althusser), but this is just a quibble. The opposition is real and the essential idea is treating the learner as a subject rather than an object of his or her own education. From my own experience in the official school system, both public and private, from kindergarten through college, and on the other hand with both attending and teaching courses in "political education" and other "unofficial" courses and tutoring in both academic and nonacademic subjects -- and I would also add certain book discussion groups in this, I can verify the contrast -- never in a discussion of curriculum or methods in "official" school education did it ever even occur to the "educators" to consult the students themselves in any way about what they were to be taught or how, and the distinction between the "teacher" and the "students" was clear and absolute; whereas in most of the unoffical courses I have taken and taught, we all decided ourselves together what we wanted to learn and what the readings should be, and the "teacher" and "students" were equal and all both taught and learned (i.e. the distinction was more one of who co-ordinated the classes and prepared the materials). It's always seemed to me that the most educated people I know, whatever their academic credentials, were basically autodidacts; and what Freire, like Rancière, is proposing is a kind of collective self-education.

Freire goes on to generalize this concept of education to revolutionary action -- and the revolutionary is above all an educator; he defines "sectarianism" -- the bane of every revolutionary movement -- as an imitation of the oppressor's method of education, as the presenting of the masses with a pre-determined program to which they must be "won over", as opposed to the real revolutionary method of dialogue in which the revolutionary organization develops the program in common with the masses themselves, supporting their own interests and praxis rather than trying to command them from a position of assumed intellectual superiority. He uses many examples from the Cuban revolution to illustrate his point. He objects to the idea that the "dialogal" method is impossible before the revolution takes power, and he points out that it is also indispensible after the taking of power, which is only one moment, although the most important, in the process of revolution. (The Althusser article I mentioned says that Lenin near the end of his life considered as one of his greatest failures that the Bolsheviks after the revolution had been unable to revolutionize educational methods sufficiently and that this constituted one of the major dangers to the revolution; I haven't verified this, but if so, it is something we should learn from -- and in fact, the Cubans, and even more the Sandanistas in their brief period in power, did emphasize adult literacy and collective self-education far more than the Russians did.)

Freire was a Christian (although he seems more Marxist than many "Marxists" I have read -- and worked with) and he applies the same contrast of methods to Christian missionary work -- interesting because one of my major problems in discussing anything with Christians (as with political sectarians) is that they are usually more interested in "converting" me to their predetermined doctrines than in dialogue. I believe Freire was an influence on the later developments of "liberation theology".

Even points he makes just in passing are worth reading; his pages on the "generosity" of the oppressors and manipulation explain the U.S. two-party system and especially the liberal Democrats so well it's hard to believe it was written with Latin America in mind.



Feb. 2

11. Denis Collins, Paulo Freire: His life, works & thought [1977] 94 pages

As a pendant to reading Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed I decided to read this short biography which I had on my bookshelves. It was interesting as background to the development of his thinking and of summarizing things which were in his other books. It was written by a Jesuit and published by the Catholic Church, so it has some limitations; the author particularly finds it objectionable that Freire justified armed revolution (but he doesn't deny the fact that he did, so I assume the book is trustworthy in its account of Freire despite its own value judgments, although it may emphasize certain ideas rather than others.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 7

12. Kerry Young, Pao [2011] 289 pages [Kindle]

The latest book for the Goodreads group reading Jamaican literature, Kerry Young's Pao narrates the life of a Chinese immigrant to Jamaica who rises to become the boss of the Chinatown underworld and later inherits a legitimate business empire from his wealthy father-in-law. The novel is obviously well-researched, and apparently based partly on the author's father who was also a figure in the Chinese underworld in Jamaica; like Pao's daughter Mui, Kerry Young went to London at the age of ten, so her knowledge of Jamaica is based on visits and reading (the novel contains a bibliography of sources -- including the 23rd edition of the Gleaner history which I reviewed a couple months ago!) The descriptions of Jamaican politics are knowledgeable and probably correct as far as they go -- mostly generalities about imperialism, neocolonialism and the need for unity among ethnic groups; although from a literary point of view it is somewhat disconcerting to find such political insight attributed to a character of that background and the political passages sometimes seem added on. The chapter titles are based on ideas from Sun Tzu's Art of War, which is also quoted frequently as a guide to the character's actions.

The book was well-written for a first novel, was relatively fast-paced and kept my interest. It begins with Pao's relationship to Gloria, an East Kingston prostitute, and his marriage to Fay Wong, the daughter of a rich merchant; his relationships to these two women and the children he has by both are a main thread throughout the book. It then turns back to his arrival in Jamaica and childhood, and traces his history forward until the first birthday of his and Gloria's granddaughter and the imminent return of his and Fay's daughter Mui from London. There are a large number of secondary characters, people that he helps or has conflicts with in his capacity as gang-boss and "protector" of Chinatown; while not always well-developed they are all easily distinguishable and generally seem realistic. His role in the community seems somewhat idealized for what he does.

I will next be reading her second novel Gloria, which is based on the character from this novel.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 6

13. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon [1941] 216 pages

Darkness at Noon has been on my reading list since I was in high school, but I could never find a reason for picking it up and reading it until it was the discussion book for one of my Goodreads groups. It is a very discouraging book to read. Stalinism was a crime against humanity, not only for what Stalin did in the USSR, but because it disoriented and virtually destroyed the revolutionary Marxist movement all around the world. Unfortunately, like most ex-Stalinists, Koestler wrote, not an anti-Stalinist book, but an anticommunist one -- because despite all the crimes of Stalin they could never break from the central dogma of Stalinism, the one that underlay all the others: Stalin was the logical heir to Marx and Lenin. Nowhere is that more evident than in this book. Throughout the novel, Rubashov, although supposedly an Old Bolshevik* and even an oppositionist of sorts (and the book among other things really slanders the opposition), considers Stalinism as the logical deduction from Marxism, as "consequent reasoning", when it was actually anything but. He presents the "old leaders" as differing from Stalin in their goals but not essentially in their methods (and I don't mean to deny that there were bureaucratic tendencies, "germs" of Stalinism, from the beginning, but they were not dominant until the rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy). While Stalinism was in its origins a distortion of Marxism, neither Rubashov, Ivanov nor Gletkin gives any evidence of having ever understood Marxism; their arguments are all rooted in bourgeois philosophy and religion, in abstract ideas about "means and ends", abstractions about "history" and so forth. There is no hint of dialectical reasoning, of praxis, but an almost religious epistemology that privileges the leader as somehow the only person who can perceive reality directly as it is. There is complete contempt for the party cadre, to say nothing of the working class and the peasantry. Perhaps this is fair enough as a description of the end-products of Stalinism, of decades of searching for justifications of a changing and counterrevolutionary "line", but it is not what someone like Rubashov or Ivanov would have originally believed. In the end, Rubashov/Koestler's "solution" is just mysticism and abandoning reason. Koestler's biography is "logical" and "consequent" with his book: he became an uncritical supporter of American imperialism and a creationist.

It is also difficult to read because there are no characters in the novel that a reader can even sympathize with -- Rubashov the self-described "oppositionist" was in fact nothing but a Stalinist of the worst kind, who enforced the whims of the bureaucracy against real revolutionists in Germany and elsewhere, betraying the world revolution as well as individual comrades; about the same can be said of Ivanov. Gletkin of course is a villain, even if -- or perhaps because -- he's portrayed as the symbol of reason. Arlova and Richard are essentially just victims, rather than real characters, and we pity them rather than actually respecting them. Basically, Koestler cannot have any positive characters because he sees Stalinism as logical continuity of the revolution rather than a betrayal of something essentially different, because he is rejecting the entire revolutionary enterprise since 1917 (or perhaps since 1793).

Is it, as some have claimed, a "well-written" book, worth reading as literature? It's hard to divorce form from content in a book this explicitly political; perhaps coming to it from a less political background I might have been impressed by the writing or felt some strong emotion in reading it, but as it was I kept looking for some insight into Stalinism and there was none. I wouldn't recommend this book -- unless maybe to a Marxist as a warning of what NOT to confuse with revolutionary thinking.

*Koestler uses the term "old guard", in keeping with his policy, which I don't understand, to avoid explicitly saying that this is the USSR and that "No. 1" is Stalin; who else could he be talking about? It is understandable when Orwell in 1984 -- a novel that is often, I think unfairly, paired with Darkness at Noon -- uses "Oceania" and "Big Brother" because he is not writing only about Stalinism but about the tendency he saw for Stalinism and capitalism to converge into the same kind of totalitarian statism -- not a position I think was correct, but one which had to be taken seriously at the time.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 14

14. Franz Kafka, Der Prozeß [written c. 1915, pub. 1925] 145 pages [in German, Kindle]

I read this for my friend's class, but it also fits into my recent tendency to re-read in the original books I read in translation in college. I read The Trial almost fifty years ago, and I don't remember what my impressions were then beyond a vague idea of "the Kafka-esque". The plot concerns the arrest and trial of a bank official.

Often, books are described as having a "nightmarish" quality, by which is meant simply that the events are too horrible to be believable, even though we know these or similar events are happening in the real world every day. Kafka's novel, written in Austria during the heyday of Freud, is a nightmare in a different and more literal sense; while the events are rather banal, the structure is that of a real dream or nightmare. The book begins with the protagonist waking up to find two "watchers" who restrain him from his normal activities. After some meaningless conversation it turns out that he is "under arrest". He is unable to find out who these people are, what sort of police agency they may represent, or why he has been arrested. There is a senseless obsession with what clothes he is supposed to put on. He is taken into his neighbor's appartment where he converses with an "overseer". At some point, he realizes that three persons in the background are actually coworkers of his from the bank, who of course would have nothing to do with any arrest, and he is suddenly released and allowed to go to work. These are of course all marks of a dream structure -- an event which is unconnected with anything preceeding or following, conversations which don't actually make sense, people appearing from other unconnected parts of the dreamer's life in different roles, and restraint and release. Then we find him living in the "real" normal world, doing his job, talking to his landlady and the neighbor; while they sort of confirm that the events occurred, they don't seem to put any emphasis on them; it is almost as if they don't remember anything about it.

The next chapter is about his first hearing. I remember I once had a recurring dream for a while in which I would be walking on streets I didn't recognize in a ghetto neighborhood, looking for a building which I didn't remember the address or appearance of; I randomly go into a building, and there are hundreds of numbered doorways and I have no idea which number I am looking for; I randomly open a door and I find myself in my own apartment (which is not any apartment I actually ever lived in) with several of my roomates from twenty years earlier (but who were never my roomates at the same time) and my room is still waiting for me as if I have only been away for a short time. This is just about the structure of the second chapter of the novel; K. (the protagonist) is in an unfamiliar poor neighborhood,looking for the place of his trial, but he has no idea where it is; he goes into a building which has many stories, knocking on doors and apparently looking for his landlady's nephew (who has no connection with his supposed trial), gets directed into a room full of people, which turns out to be the place of his trial. There are many spectators, who cheer and clap for him as he makes his speech; suddenly he "notices" that they have insignias on their collars and so aren't just spectators after all . . . And so forth throughout the novel.

Despite the dream structure, it doesn't appear that Kafka is doing anything as trivial as writing a book about someone having a series of bad dreams. There is obviously an allegory here; the nightmare is our real world. We are confronted with a society and authorities which are somehow vaguely hostile to us, but who cannot or will not justify the source of their authority; with processes which make no sense to us, but which everyone around us seems to accept as normal and legitimate. Events occur without any apparent cause or warning; people shift roles suddenly for just as little reason. This definitely has a resonance with the life of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially of those who are, like Josef K., relatively apolitical citizens who try to make sense of the world from the descriptions of the media. I admit I have felt a bit like Josef K. since the past election.

There may be -- it's Kafka, so there probably is -- some sort of religious application as well, but I'm not so well attuned to that. The priest in the next to last chapter seems to explain everything with a parable, but actually explains nothing, just like all the other characters -- the parable is as meaningless as the main story, which it reflects, just as actual religion only reflects the society it pretends to explain.

The novel was published posthumously; one chapter is apparently unfinished (in this novel, how could you tell?) but there is no lack of an ending -- but of course the ending just ends the novel, it explains nothing as well.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 15

15. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings [1962] 260 pages

Labyrinths is a selection of stories, essays, and short "parables" translated from the author's collections; it appeared about the same time as the other early translation of Borges, Fictions, which included only the stories from Ficciones. This translation includes stories selected from both Ficciones and El Aleph; since I had recently read both those collections in Spanish, I read this for the essays and other material. I won't duplicate here my reviews of the stories which are partly reviewed in my reviews of those two collections; I will concentrate on the essays.

"The Argentine Writer and Tradition" tries to explain what being an Argentine writer consists of, and denies that it means "local color" or following Argentine or Spanish traditions exclusively, but rather that any writer who approaches the world literary tradition from within Argentine culture is an Argentine writer. The second, "The Wall and the Books" -- this was written more than sixty years ago! -- notes that the Chinese Emperor Huang Ti was noted for two things, building the Great Wall and trying to burn all existing Chinese books, and asks what the psychological connection is between walling in your country and destroying its cultural traditions. A good question to ask today. The remaining essays are short discussions of various themes in intellectual and literary history, discussing Cervantes, Kafka, Valéry and Shaw among others. The last essay, "A New Refutation of Time" tries to show that idealist philosophy should have idealized time as well as space; a very interesting idea (which he doesn't actually argue for seriously.)

The parables are very short, one or two page mini-stories written after he became blind, which are similar to his stories in dealing with philosophical questions but even more condensed. The collection ends with a short poem called "Elegy".

The book is probably a good introduction to Borges for those who don't read Spanish; I read it just for the sake of completeness.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 17

16. Kerry Young, Gloria [2013] 381 pages

Gloria is the story of Gloria Campbell, who was introduced in Young's first novel, Pao, as Pao's mistress. The book begins with a bit of her history from when she was fourteen (although we don't learn all the details until the end of the book) and then describes her life in Kingston, her working as a prostitute, and her meeting with Pao. From that point on, the novel basically presents the same story as the first novel, but from the perspective of Gloria, and we realize how much Pao never knew (just as there are things in the first book Gloria doesn't know). It was an interesting idea, to present the same story from different sides in two novels (and apparently she plans a third book in the trilogy from another perspective; I presume Fay's, though there are other possibilities.) I've read some fantasy series that do this, but I don't remember another realistic novel series that does it.

This novel is as one would expect more concerned with feminism than Pao, but both books share a concern with the political situation in Jamaica. There is also an interesting episode where the author volunteers in Cuba with the literacy campaign. As a whole, this is a somewhat better novel, but it shares the same fault, perhaps to a lesser degree, that the political statements sometimes seem more like the author preaching than what the characters would actually say in the circumstances. There are also "surprise" twists that were obvious well in advance, but I find that to be the case with most novels that try to have "surprises". Basically, a good, interesting novel with better than average politics (which I know isn't saying much ...)


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 22

17. Safiya Sinclair, Cannibal [2016] 111 pages

Cannibal is a collection of poems by a Jamaican-American poet. Many of the novels I have read lately feature Jamaican women who go to America and become poets or playwrights talking about their experiences and I imagined the author as similar to these characters. The collection is inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, although I didn't find that obvious, despite the epigraphs from the play. The book is divided into sections; the first section is about her childhood in Jamaica, the second is about her college days at Bennington College and the University of Virginia Charlottesville, and the remaining parts seem to be a bit later in life. In many of the poems, especially in the Virginia section, she makes an effort to link her personal experiences with racial or colonial themes, and those were the ones I could relate to best, particularly the two series called "Notes on the State of Virginia" and "One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro, with Complete Proof."

Nevertheless, I did not enjoy this as much as some of the other Jamaican poetry I have read for the same Goodreads group this year (Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison). Sinclair writes in a very image-rich, non-conceptual style, which deliberately fragments her experience; this made it difficult to understand what she was actually talking about most of the time, especially in the more personal poems. The poetry reminded me in some ways of Aimé Césaire, the most famous Caribbean poet and playwright (whose play La tempête is quoted in one of the epigraphs), but where he was influenced by surrealism (and of course much more explicitly political), this poetry (despite the cover illustration) isn't really surrealist; it seems as if all the poems have a literal meaning but that meaning is occasionally just too private to grasp. I found myself thinking, this poem is about something specific that happened to her, some event in her life, but I don't have a clue what it was.

The interview podcast which was linked to in the Goodreads group made some of the poems more understandable and gave me a better idea of what she was trying to say, but poetry should not be dependent on interpretation outside the poems themselves. She also said that she was trying to "break" the colonial language which may account for some of the obscurity. Some of the poems talk about "diction", i.e. the question of Jamaican patois vs. "standard" English. The poems, or at least the images, are all in the same tone: bleak. Some of the imagery is good, and perhaps if I were more into modern poetry I would have liked the book more.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 24

18. David B. DaCosta, The Sun's Love Is Ours [2006] 170 pages

This was a read for the Jamaica group; I don't know why. It's a silly romance and about the most amateurishly written book I've ever read -- including my mother's creative writing group. Tower Isle Publishing doesn't have a website, so I assume this (free) e-book was self-published; the acknowledgements credit the author's siblings with the proofreading. Ordinarily, I'd say a self-published book like this needed an editor, but frankly I don't think an editor could have helped this one.


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James F | 685 comments Feb. 25

19. Roland Barthes, Mythologies [1957] 247 pages [in French]

Roland Barthes' Mythologies is a book I should have read long ago when I was college, if for no other reason than (as I recognized in reading it) that there are echoes of its ideas and terminology in so many other things I've read, especially in books or articles about literature. The book is divided into two parts; the first part is a collection of the author's articles, mainly from les Lettres Nouvelles, exposing various "myths" in everyday life and popular culture, while the second part is a theoretical explanation of his conception of what "modern myths" are and how they function.

The articles range from pro wrestling to criminal trials, child poets to detergent commercials. Some were too specific to France, or to the 1950s, to be entirely clear to me, or if they were clear, were no longer very relevant; I understand that recent English translations are annotated, but I read it in the original French paperback from 1957 so I was pretty much on my own. The article about the mythology of jet pilots, for example, would not apply today when commercial jet flights are totally routine, but it fit exactly with the mythology of the astronauts (who, as The Right Stuff shows, inherited their mythology from jet test pilots.) In reading it, I wished the author had published it a decade later, because I would like to have read his analysis of the space race as mythology.

The important part, of course, is the theoretical essay which makes up the last fifth of the book. Maybe it would have been better if that had been first, so I would have understood from the beginning what he meant in describing certain things as "myths", but on the other hand his examples in the first part probably made the essay easier to follow. He defines "mythology" in semiological terms, as a meta-linguistic phenomenon which begins from a "sign" (in the Saussurian meaning) in the object language, which he calls a "sense", and treats it as a "form" which is then a signifier for a "concept", creating a "significance". A myth is made up of repeated similar "significances". The definition, and the first example he gives (using a sentence in the object language as an example of a grammatical paradigm) makes his idea of mythology seem too general, but it soon becomes obvious that he is really talking about the mythology of bourgeois ideology.

One good point was his discussion of how the bourgeoisie is anonymous, that is how it never lets itself be named (I couldn't help but think of the passage in Fred Halstead's Out Now about the SDS demonstration at the beginning of the antiwar movement, where the speaker says he's going to call the people responsible for the war by their right name, and the older socialists (like Halstead) were disappointed that instead of saying "the capitalists" he said "the power elite"; and of the recent liberal euphemism, the "one percent", which always makes me want to reply, "call them capitalists, that's who they are".) The most important points, however, were that myths function to eliminate history and to "naturalize" artificial historically determined phenomena as if they were eternal natural facts, and that in doing so they "depoliticize" their objects. (It's just natural that in America there are just two parties, Democrats and Republicans, right?)

One point I would have to disagree with him on, is his contention that there are no important or "essential" leftist myths. I think he's correct that revolutionary thinking is necessarily historical and political, and hence excludes mythology, and that left myths are only possible when the "left" has ceased to be revolutionary -- his example is the myth of Stalin. I think he's mistaken when he says that leftist myths are only political and don't extend throughout society the way the rightist (bourgeois) myths do. Certainly Stalinist mythology extended throughout society in the USSR itself; the bureaucracy, like the bourgeoisie in the West, never let itself be named, and all the historically determined contradictions and privileges of the bureaucracy were naturalized. Perhaps he is implicitly limiting himself to left myths in the capitalist world, or perhaps (it was 1957) he had illusions in the Krushchev reforms (although he has a good footnote where he says that "Krushchevism" only devalued Stalinism, never explained it, and therefore never "re-politicized" Stalin.)


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James F | 685 comments March 1

20. Barry Reckord, For the Reckord: A Collection of Three Plays by Barry Reckord [2011] 280 pages [Kindle]

According to the introduction, Reckord was one of the first "modern" Caribbean playwrights to be produced in London. This collection includes three of his plays, Flesh to the Tiger, Skyvers, and The White Witch. Just reading the scripts, it is obvious how powerful these plays must have been on the stage.

Flesh to the Tiger was originally produced in 1954 under the title Della, and in the current form under the later title in 1958. (All these plays were altered several times and produced under different names.) Set in Kingston's Trench Town slum, it tells the story of a woman with a sick child torn between a religious cult with nationalist trappings and a white doctor, both of whom are exploitative.

Skyvers, first produced in 1963, is set in a London comprehensive school, and deals with the class bias of British education.

The White Witch, originally produced in 1978 as The White Witch of Rose Hall, is based on a well-known story from the period of slavery and has a strong theme of sexual liberation. (The next book the Jamaica group is reading, although I probably will skip it, is a ghost story with the same name about the same character as a ghost.)


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James F | 685 comments March 3

21. Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race [2016] 346 pages

This is the March reading for the Utah State Library book discussion group. The book tells the story of a group of Black women who worked at NACA's Langley facility in Virginia, which eventually became part of NASA. The author does a wonderful job of weaving together the personal lives of the women and their experiences of racial and gender discrimination in an area which was segregated when most of the women were hired, with the technical history of aviation and the space race. The material on the space program will bring in science oriented readers and educate them on the social issues, while the material on segregation will bring in socially oriented readers and give them information on the technological history, to the advantage of both.

I was impressed that the author went out of her way to point out the connection between the ideological needs of the cold war competition with the Soviet Union in the colonial world and the decision to begin dismantling legal Jim Crow in the South; this is not something that popular history books usually mention, preferring a "moral" (and pro-Democratic Party) interpretation of the movement for integration -- this is not a book for Democrats. It credits much of the rise of the Civil Rights movement to labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and his influence on the later generation figures like Martin Luther King, which was also not something I expected in a popular book on a particular topic. The book was also good in showing the various forms of discrimination; the Black women, the Black men and the white women were all discriminated against but in different ways.

The book seemed to me to be quite well-written, considering that it is the author's first book; there was some repetition and it took a while for the book to get started, but that was due largely to the nature of the material and I certainly never found it boring. I was surprised that a book on this subject has become such a best-seller; I suppose that is partly due to the movie, and I am planning to watch the video tonight.


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James F | 685 comments March 5

22. John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You [Revised and Updated 10th Anniversary edition, 2007] 309 pages

This book was recommended reading for work; they like us to read "management" books. It has no relation to anything I actually do in my job. I wasn't even going to review it, but it might be interesting as a study in how to write a series of best-selling "self-help" books that have according to the book jacket sold over thirteen million copies. There is only one positive thing I can say about this book: it doesn't mention mice or cheese.

The 21 "laws" could more accurately be called 21 truisms, but they are each given an important sounding title like "The Law of Process", "The Law of Connection" and so forth; they amount to saying that being a leader is good, a leader needs to have an instinct for leadership, people follow strong leaders, it takes time to become a leader, leaders attract other leaders, etc. There is nothing about how to do any of these things. This is the basic strategy: make totally empty propositions and the reader will fill them with their own meanings, and then assume that that's what the book was really saying and of course agree with it and consider it profound. None of the "laws" is based on any sort of study, although the author tries to give the appearance of quantification by saying things like, a 7 leader will attract 5s and 6s, and increasing from a 6 to a 7 will actually improve you by 600% (with a little graph based on a rectangle) and so on, but the numbers don't actually mean anything -- what is a 5, what is a 7, it's all just made up.

Each "law" is illustrated with some sort of anecdote which just asserts that the celebrity in question used the "law", which of course most of them would never have heard of in the first place. The subjects of the anecdotes are the ones you would expect to impress the kind of person who reads this kind of book: General Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Teddy Roosevelt, Billy Graham, Rudy Giuliani, a whole raft of football and basketball coaches, a few CEOs, naturally Southwestern Airlines and of course Steve Jobs -- can anyone write a book like this without Steve Jobs? Looking at the market shares of Apple and Microsoft, you might expect them to talk about Bill Gates, but it's always Steve Jobs.

The real message of the book is under the "Law of Process": "I believe that in about twenty years, you can be a great leader. I want to encourage you to make yourself a lifelong learner of leadership. Read books, listen to tapes regularly, and keep attending seminars." And conveniently, the author sells books, tapes, and seminars. . .

The author is a former "senior pastor" at a 3,500 member church. No comment.


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James F | 685 comments March 8

23. Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory [1994] 234 pages

Danticat is a Haitian-American novelist and the winner of the 2018 Neustadt Prize; I have previously read two of her books, The Farming of Bones, a novel about Trujillo's massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, and Krik? Krak!, a collection of short stories set in Haiti and the Haitian community in New York. Breath, Eyes, Memory was her first novel, and probably contains an element of autobiography; the protagonist, like the author, is a young girl who is raised by her aunt in Haiti and comes to the United States at the age of twelve to live with her mother. The novel is a powerful look at the relationships of mothers and daughters, also the subject of many of the stories in Krick? Krak!. It is less directly political than The Farming of Bones, and most of the Caribbean literature I have been reading over the past year, but the political -- the extreme poverty of Haiti and the violence of the Tontons macoutes -- is always just below the surface. The writing is simple and direct, as in the other two books; the author is also well-known for her YA novels.


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James F | 685 comments March 11

24. Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker [2004] 244 pages

The Dew Breaker could be considered a "novel in stories; the chapters were published separately as short stories in magazines, but they come together here as a powerful novel. It is her third novel, coming after The Farming of Bones which I read a few years back, and like that novel is very much about political violence. What she does here is something very difficult to do, showing the oppression and violence in Haiti not so much from the perspective of the victims, as most political novels do (and as she did in her previous novel), although that perspective is not absent, but from the perspective of the families of the oppressors themselves (or rather their agents, as the real oppressors are of course the American corporations.) She does this not only in the main group of stories, about the "dew breaker" of the title and his wife and daughter (a "dew breaker" in Haitian slang is an agent who breaks into houses in the early hours of the morning when the dew is still on the grass to kill, arrest or "disappear" opponents of the regime) but in almost all of the stories there are parents, children, or brothers and sisters of the tontons macoutes; this is a country where the repressive forces are so widespread that virtually everyone has relatives on both sides. It is a hard task to try to understand, without sympathizing with or condoning, the people who commit such awful crimes against their own people and often their own relatives, but it helps to understand that the real problem, not just in Haiti but everywhere, is not "evil" people but a broken system that causes people to do evil things. It is so easy -- and this is the stock and trade of liberalism -- to ignore the structural problems and pretend that everything will be solved if only "good" people get into power; but somehow the good people (so long as the system remains the same) never seem to do anything different from the ones they replace.


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James F | 685 comments March 15

25. Slavoj Žižek, ed., Mapping Ideology [2012] 353 pages [Kindle]

An anthology of writings on the theory of ideology, this book was one of the required readings for one of my friend's courses, although they only read the selection by Althusser, which is probably the one selection that would be understandable without quite a bit of background. The book consists of a rather obscure introduction by the editor -- who seems to always write obscurely, perhaps by choice -- and fourteen selections by various writers, some of which are classic texts by authors such as Theodor Adorno, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, etc. while others are highly polemical and assume a knowledge of the writers they are polemicizing against. This is definitely a book for specialists and not general readers; although I have a degree in Philosophy and a strong interest in Marxist theory, much of this polemic concerned writers I have not read and some I had never heard of. The introduction alone alluded without explanation to more than twenty authors, of whom I had read five and heard of about half.

The three selections I found the most useful were "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" by Althusser; "Ideology and its Vicissitudes in Western Marxism", an excerpt from Terry Eagleton's book Ideology, which traces the history of the concept and which I would suggest reading first, in place of the opaque introduction by Žižek; and "Postmodernism and the Market", an excerpt from Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. By the end of the book, and particularly after reading the selection by Eagleton, I had some idea who most of the writers the book was dealing with were, and some of the disputes were interesting, while others were less so.

Mainly what I came away with was a somewhat different priority for my future readings in the subject -- I now have more interest in reading more of Lukacs, Gramsci, and Jameson, and far less in reading more of Adorno and the Frankfurt School; I won't say anything of Lacan, Derrida and the postmodernists because I only read that tradition out of obligation to know something about them and not out of any sympathy for that school of thought.


message 24: by James (new)

James F | 685 comments March 18

26. Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I'm Dying [2007] 272 pages

Brother, I'm Dying is a memoir mainly about Danticat's father and uncle. It begins with her father "Mira" being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis the same day the author learned she was pregnant with her first daughter. It then goes back to her early life in Haiti where she and her brother Bob lived with her Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise, and continues with her arrival in Brooklyn to live with her parents and her younger siblings. At the end it comes back to the deaths of her father and uncle. Like her novels, but even more powerfully, because we know it is a true story, it treats the poverty and political violence of Haiti, the periodic US invasions (her grandfather was a guerilla fighting against the first US occupation), and the racism of the American government; the episode with the Immigration and Naturalization Service should be a reminder to those "liberals" who pretend to believe that the outrageous mistreatment of Black foreigners entering the United States (with legal visas) is something new with President Trump and ICE, that Trump's policies are a continuation of what has long been the case, if more hidden rather than openly boasted about. This book differs from her earlier works in that the emphasis is on the relationship with fathers and uncles rather than with mothers and aunts.


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James F | 685 comments March 23

27. Kwame Dawes, Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems [2013] 317 pages

Although the World Literature group on Goodreads still has three more Caribbean authors to go, the Jamaican-born but Trinidad-raised Nalo Hopkinson, the Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat, and the Dominica-born Jean Rhys, this is the last book which is strictly Jamaican, and appropriately enough, because it summarizes all the themes from the other authors which we have been reading for the last year: Jamaican history, the poverty and violence of current Jamaica, the conditions of Jamaican women, the positive and negative effects of religion, and the experience of emigration. The poems, though personal, are nearly all accessible; I couldn't help comparing him to the other great Caribbean poet, Aimé Césaire.

Duppy Conqueror is a sort of anthology of anthologies, containing selections from each of the author's previous fifteen poetry anthologies, as well as a generous selection of new poems. Although I am not a great reader of modern poetry, this is one of the books that will stick in my mind.


28. Edwige Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light [2013] 238 pages

Danticat's most recent novel, like The Dew Breaker originally published as separate stories, begins and ends with the seven-year-old Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin, the daughter of a fisherman, who disappears at the end of the first chapter after learning that she is to be given to a neighbor woman so her father can go abroad to look for work, a common theme in both Haitian and Jamaican literature. The intervening stories are flashbacks to her earlier life and the life of various people in the village. The stories are mainly personal; there is only one which contains violence, with gang warfare reminiscent of both Brother, I'm Dying and Marlon James' Brief History of Seven Killings.


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James F | 685 comments March 25

29. Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby [1839] 820 pages

Nicholas Nickleby was Dicken's third novel. It is this month's reading for the Classics section of one of my Goodreads groups. I really have never understood why Dickens is considered a classic (I know, I make this complaint every time I review one of his books). This book is a long, sprawling and not particularly well-written novel. It does tell an interesting story, or rather several interesting stories, which would have been better separated into three or four shorter and more focused novels. I realize that the episodic structure and the length can be blamed on the original serial form of publication, but it could have been tightened up for the book publication.

The book is humorous in places, but not enough to be a real comic novel, and rather than leave an ironic or sarcastic passage on its own, Dickens often tells us in the narrative at some length that it is ironic or sarcastic in case we don't get it. It has some social criticism, of "Yorkshire schools" and hard-hearted businessmen, but the humor makes the social criticism less effective; the characters are too caricatured and overdrawn to be credible, and my reaction at least was to think, "this must be very exaggerated", rather than "I never realized how terrible this was". Satire can be effective, but satire in my opinion is more about exposing ridiculous ideas and attitudes or presenting known things in a new context than about exposing presumably unknown facts. On the other hand, the social criticism and the long serious or oversentimental episodes make it hard to take it as simply a funny novel. If I could have ignored the serious parts and taken it just as a comic novel I might have enjoyed it more, but that just underscores that it is in essence just entertainment and not a classic dealing seriously with important themes.

There are also problems with the serious content as such. As with all Dickens' novels, everything is black and white, everyone is either unbelievably good or absolutely evil, with no intermediates; some good characters have foibles or eccentricities but there is no ambiguity, and there is also never any question about what the characters should do in any situation, and Dickens tells us explicitly in the author's own persona what is good and what is evil, in case we didn't get it from the story. Granted, like the dependence of the plot on implausible coincidences, this is a feature of the Romantic tradition in general, but Dickens is one of the worst examples of it. It's hard to realize that he wrote this three years before Stendhal died, and when Balzac was writing his greatest realist novels. I once made the mistake in a review of calling Dickens an "early Romantic", of course he was a very late one, but it doesn't seem like it.

Dickens is the ultimate liberal, and I don't mean that in a complimentary way. For him, everything is about individual morality. I said above there is some social criticism, but it really isn't; the criticism is all about evil people abusing the system, not about the system itself, or only in so far as it allows for abuses. The problem is that there are Ralph Nicklebys instead of Cheeryble brothers, that people are greedy instead of kind and altruistic. There is a lot of very obvious sympathy for the poor and downtrodden; but only insofar as they are objects for pity and compassion on the part of the liberal gentlemen and gentlewomen, it ends when they try to become subjects and liberate themselves rather than wait for the liberal gentlemen to do it for them -- this is more evident in later books such as A Tale of Two Cities where he sympathizes with the downtrodden peasants under the Old Regime but keeps his real hatred for the revolutionaries who dared to overthrow them, or in Hard Times where he acknowledges the horrible conditions of the workers but vents his real spleen against the "agitators". In this novel that's not so evident except in the negative sense, as there are no poor people who try to fight back at all -- the boys are all helpless and degraded and only the gentleman Nicholas could accomplish anything because of his compassion for them, they couldn't rise up themselves. Smike is the ideal, when after being liberated by the liberal gentleman he devotes his short life to servile gratitude to him.

Even more than with class, this is evident with regard to the "gender politics". While Kate is not quite so passive and fainting as Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities, there are no strong positive women characters; Madeline is presented as an angelic ideal because she devotes herself entirely to self-sacrifice for her unworthy father -- this is the type that Dickens' heroes always fall for, and the other "good" women are ineffective and dependent on men, while the strong women characters are all the villains, from Mrs. Squeers to Miss Knag. Again, compare this not with some modern feminist novel but with Stendhal (Lamiel!) or even some novels of Balzac.


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James F | 685 comments March 30

30. Edwige Danticat, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States [2001] 251 pages

Because this was in the English literature section at the library, I expected it to be a collection of short stories, but actually it is a collection of about thirty essays (with a few poems interspersed), all by different authors, about the experiences of Haitians living in exile in the United States (and a few in Canada). The essays are divided into five sections, reminiscences about their childhoods in Haiti, narratives about the actual immigration, narratives by children of immigrants, stories about returning for visits to the island, and one essay addressed to the future. The authors are almost all writers, students or academics, and the essays are uneven; one or two are very informative about conditions and immigration policies -- the best is about the US camp at Guantanamo Bay; others take up questions of racism, interracial relationships, the conditions of women immigrants, etc.; and one or two are mainly platitudes or misguided attempts at humor. At least none of them try to contrast the Republicans with the Democrats on immigration questions; Haitians have learned better. I'm not sure whether the spelling dyaspora is just a Haitian variant or whether it is a deliberate choice to differentiate the diaspora of Haitian refugees, from Haiti as itself part of the African diaspora.


March 31

31. Nalo Hopkinson, Falling in Love with Hominids [2015] 222 pages

Nalo Hopkinson is a perfect example of the diaspora; she was born in Kingston, Jamaica, grew up in Trinidad and Guyana, lived in Toronto from the time she was sixteen, and now lives and teaches in California. She is a writer mainly of fantasy and science fiction; this book is a collection of eighteen speculative fiction stories. The title is an allusion to a line in Cordwainer Smith's Ballad of Lost C'Mell, a classic of Golden Age science fiction, and some of the stories are variations on standard science fiction themes. The stories here are all very short, and all are enjoyable and imaginative. Although the characters are all Black and about a third of the stories are about gay or lesbian couples, there are no overtly poltical or philosophical themes. Some of the stories are inspired by Afro-Caribbean or Indian mythology. I'm interested in reading some of her longer fiction, such as her novel Brown Girl in the Ring.


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James F | 685 comments April 5

32. Ken Liu, ed., Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation [2016] 383 pages

Invisible Planets, as the subtitle indicates, is an anthology, translated by Ken Liu, of recent Chinese science/speculative fiction (from the People's Republic, not Taiwan or the Chinese diaspora). This anthology consists of thirteen stories by seven authors, and three very short essays at the end on Chinese science fiction.

I used to read (mainly American) science fiction in my teens and twenties, but I haven't read more than a handful of speculative fiction books since then, so I'm no longer much of an expert on the genre as it is today, and can't really say what is different about Chinese and American speculative fiction except in a sort of impressionistic way. One point of convergence seems to be that there is a blending of science fiction with fantasy in several of the stories, but only one or two that I would classify more as fantasy than science fiction. The essays at the end say that Chinese science fiction in the Maoist era was mainly for encouraging an interest in science in teenagers -- which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing; I remember reading some Soviet science fiction novels which had real equations (not just for show, but necessary to understand for the story), and they were good well-written stories which actually challenged the reader. The current trend, if this book is at all representative, and the essays are accurate, is more like the Western "new wave" tradition of literary science fiction with a skepticism of technology. The stories are almost all somewhat dystopian, although unlike American YA dystopias they are high-tech societies run by bureaucracies rather than low-tech post-Apocalyptic societies run by vampires and zombies, which are thankfully absent from all of these examples. (Although the two stories which are closest to fantasy are somewhat exceptions.) Perhaps the high-tech bureaucratic societies are a reflection of what China is becoming, just as the vampires and zombies are a reflection of modern America.

Nearly all of the stories are good, as you would expect in a very selective anthology which is made up mostly of award-winning stories; as in any anthology, I had my favorites. The two best, in my opinion, were Ma Boyong's "The City of Silence", a story explicitly based on Orwell's 1984 (which figures in the text), and Hao Jingfang's "Folding Beijing", both of which feature bureaucratic control through technology. The title story "Invisible Planets" is also by Hao Jingfang but is more like the parables in some of Stanislaw Lem's short stories; although not mentioned in any of the essays I think he may be an influence on some of the stories, but perhaps that's because he's one of the few authors I've read in the recent past.

(I read the book for a group on Goodreads; I'm about a month early because I requested it to be purchased by the library and I needed to check it out when it arrived. There is a second anthology by the same translator coming out this month, which the group will be reading in August, and I will request that after July 1 when we begin buying again in the new fiscal year.)


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James F | 685 comments April 8

33. Will Clower, Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight: New Science Proves You Should Eat Chocolate Every Day [2013] 274 pages

If you look at my statistics on Goodreads, you will notice that out of over 3000 books, there have up to now been no diet or fitness books and only two "self-help" type books altogether, both required reading for work. Of course, this is also for work. I should start with a few facts. Despite my having a college degree and specialized training as a cataloger, my pay (after a major raise last year) is less than half of the average for males my age, and slightly below the average for Hispanic males -- and we know what kind of jobs they get stuck with. You can probably guess I work in a public library. (Employment opportunity: if you're a teacher feeling guilty about being "overpaid", there is one white collar profession that pays less than teaching.) However, for the 20% of us at the library who are full time, there has been a compensation -- fully employer-paid medical, dental and vision insurance. Thinking about this, the city came up with an idea: we will still not pay premiums -- if we get twelve points a year in an arcane "wellness" system that no one really understands. If we don't get the twelve points, we pay premiums, but hey, it's our own fault and not a benefits reduction, right? So I'm at eleven points with a couple months to go, and I realize I can get that last point by reading a "wellness" book. As a bonus, I can also use it in place of a "management" book for one of my "career" goals -- another thing management insists on (which of course have nothing to do with my actual job, and there's no "career path" here anyway.) My first idea was to read a book on exercise -- I'll read all the exercise books they want, as long as I can read them sitting still in a comfortable chair. Then I noticed this diet book which tells me exactly what I want to believe: I can lose "up to" twenty pounds in eight weeks by eating more chocolate! And to make it even better, it will prevent or cure diabetes, improve dental health, lower my blood pressure, enhance my energy levels by "up to" 50%, moisturize my skin, and protect me from sunburn (if I ever decide to go outdoors)! This is all from the bullet list on the back cover.

So what happens when I open the book? He adds a few more claims for chocolate, like raising good cholesterol, lowering bad cholesterol, improving blood circulation, increasing cognitive ability, preventing cancer, and other good things. On the other hand, somehow the "up to" twenty pounds in eight weeks becomes an average of about seven pounds. Of course, he's talking about high cocoa (70% or above), high flavanol dark chocolate, without any sugar or caramel fillings, and he has a whole chapter on training yourself to like it, but that's fine because I prefer dark chocolate anyway. He says to drink coffee without sweeteners; I've been drinking plain black coffee since I was in high school. I've never been big on sweets, and that, combined with living in the driest state in the Union (not just in climate), makes it seem rather unfair that I should have gained any weight to begin with.

There's a story I read once about instant breakfast: it seems there was a company that marketed an instant breakfast product, and on the label there were great amounts of vitamins and nutrients for the instant breakfast powder in a glass of milk. Then someone noticed that those were the same figures as for a glass of milk. None of them came from the instant breakfast, which was mainly sugar. Now, the government requires two columns for the nutrient information, one for just the product itself, and the other with the glass of milk. This is the same problem I have with this book. In addition to eating a little more dark chocolate on a regular basis (four small pieces a day), he also talks about getting rid of most sugar and processed foods, and eating smaller proportions of everything else. The daily diet "suggestions" at the end have salads and veggie sandwiches for nearly every lunch. For "snacks" -- a cup of black coffee. He says that consistently eating chocolate will relieve stress --if you also meditate. He even mentions the e-word (which cost the book two stars.) In other words, the standard prescription plus eating chocolate. Well of course, if I switch to healthier foods, eat less, and start exercising regularly, I will lose weight. Is the chocolate just a placebo like the "healthy" instant breakfast powder? The book does contain a lot of medical jargon, and there are several pages of citations of nutritional and medical journals about research that shows benefits of chocolate (and I don't doubt that it has some). He also argues that eating chocolate will make people want to eat less, especially less sugar, and excercise more.

The book ends with a selection of recipes for chocolate meals - including chicken mole; I had forgotten chicken mole since I left San Antonio decades ago. Most of them won't work for me, because they have too many ingredients -- cooking for myself alone, I don't want to bother with ingredients -- or require equipment I don't have and don't have room for in my tiny kitchen (maybe I'll buy a blender some day.)

OK, I'll give it a shot. Whether it works or not I'll get my wellness point.


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James F | 685 comments April 11

34. Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea [1922] 526 pages

An account largely of the "Kula Ring", a complex and apparently non-utilitarian system of exchanges of shell armlets and necklaces among the islands of Melanesia, this book is a classic of ethnological literature. Using the kula as a focal point, the book discusses canoe-making and navigation, more purely economic trade, magic, mythology, and social organization in the region, particularly in the Trobriand Islands. Throughout the book there are discussions of ethnographic methods, as anthropology was entering into a period of empirical fieldwork to learn as much as possible about non-literate cultures before they were totally destroyed by colonial policies.

The book is extremely interesting although somewhat daunting, with dense passages of geographical names, native terms in several languages, and great detail about parts of canoes and so forth. There are many illustrations but unfortunately very grainy halftones in the edition I read (Dutton paperback).


message 31: by James (last edited Apr 17, 2018 03:26PM) (new)

James F | 685 comments April 15

35. Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion and other essays [1948] 274 pages

This is the second book in my reading of Malinowski. In Argonauts of the Western Pacific he was entirely descriptive, deliberately eschewing any speculation on origins; in the essays here he is more theoretical.

The title essay, "Magic, Science and Religion" (1925) attempts first to demarcate the domain of magic from science (by which he means loosely the knowledge and skills derived from observation and experience) and from religion. It has nothing about the origins of science, perhaps because he considers that straightforward and obvious; with regard to the origins of religion, his account is more interesting for his negative observations on previous theories than for his positive ideas. The focus of the article, however, is on magic. His description of magical practices is largely an abridged version of what he says in the two chapters devoted to that subject, and the other observations throughout the book, in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, with some comparisons to other cultures from the ethnographic literature. His theory of the origins of magic is that it begins with spontaneous emotional responses to stressful situations, the person who makes gestures of stabbing and strangling when thinking of someone he is angry about, for example, which then become standardized and are passed down as traditional magic. He also argues that magic is applied mainly where there is an element of chance or danger, where "science" does not suffice to guarantee success; for instance in the Trobriand Islands, there is a complex magic for canoe building and sailing, but none for the equally complicated but more routine and non-dangerous process of building houses, magic for growing yams but none for coconut palms, for shark fishing but not for ordinary fishing, and so forth. He discusses the role of mythology in validating magic, and sees magic on the other hand as the connection or "bridge" between the age in which the mythology is set and the present. The "bibliographic" essay at the end would make a good reading list for the history of anthropology from Tylor to the 1920s.

The second essay, "Myth in Primitive Psychology" [1926] argues that mythology is concerned not with "explaining" phenomena, whether natural of social, but with justifying or validating them. He points out that many myths tend to be justifications of social relationships, especially those which involve inequalities of wealth, privilege, or power; but in particular, he sees myths as justifying magical practices.

The third essay, "Baloma: The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands" [1916], written a decade earlier than the other two, is a description of beliefs about the spirits of the dead (baloma) and the afterlife in the Trobriand Islands, where he did most of his fieldwork. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Trobrianders divide the spirit of the dead person into more than one kind of being. They assign a particular island, Tuma (a real island with three villages) as the abode of the spirits of the dead. The spirits of the dead visit the living, particularly at various festivals, as frequently in many cultures. Here again, much of the interest is negative, in refuting earlier generalizations. The article also contains much discussion of magic in general.

As mentioned, all of Malinowski's fieldwork was in Melanesia, especially the Trobriand Islands, and this is both his strength and his weakness; his strength, in the iconoclastic passages, because the culture of the Trobrianders does not fit with many of the previous beliefs and generalizations of earlier writers, the weakness, in the positive passages, because his own generalizations are based on one particular set of data which does not necessarily correlate with other cultures.


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James F | 685 comments April 16

36. Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice [1968] 199 pages

I just noticed by accident that several of Stanislaw Lem's novels I hadn't read before are now available to borrow free from Kindle Unlimited, so I decided to download them for break-time reading. His Master's Voice is a very interesting novel. The premise is that a repeating signal is received from space, which is assumed to be of intelligent origin, and a secret project is set up to decipher it. Like many of Lem's books this one is a novel of ideas rather than of exciting action; the book comments on the sociology of modern science, the relationship of science to government in the period of the Cold War (and although the setting is in the United States, remember that Lem is writing from the other side of the divide), and many other topics in addition to the philosophical questions involved in trying to understand a completely alien culture's message. Lem is ahead of his time in bringing up the problems of information overload and junk information long before the invention of the internet. The narrator is a brilliant but paranoid mathematician, perhaps somewhat of a crank outside his field, and we are never quite sure how reliable his views of people and events are. Another good example of why Lem is one of my favorite writers of speculative fiction.


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James F | 685 comments April 17

37. Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy [rev. ed. 2012] 228 pages

I have now finished all the work-related "management" or "leadership" books I need to read for this year. Unlike the earlier books, this one might actually have been somewhat useful if I had any probability of becoming a manager. Although the situation was not one I could really sympathize with -- captaining a guided missle destroyer, the U.S.S. Benfold, in the Persian Gulf during the "operations" against Iraq -- it did lend itself to making very clear what his management techniques really consisted of in practice, which was the main lack in the other books where everything was vague and just seemed like platitudes. Here, those same platitudes -- respect your employees, empower them to make their own decisions, etc. are so at odds with military practice that they stood out, and the author gave detailed descriptions of exactly what he changed.


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James F | 685 comments April 20

38. Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress [1971] 160 pages

The Futurological Congress is the first book I have read about Lem's character Ijon Tichy. I am now going back to read the original 1957 story collection; I was mislead by the fact that it was expanded in 1971 into thinking that it was contemporary with this novel rather than much earlier. The novel has Tichy attending the Eighth World Futurological Congress in Costa Rica when the hotel is attacked by rebels against the government. The government uses "benignimizers" and other psychotropic substances as weapons, and Tichy with some others from the conference takes refuge in a sewer outside the hotel. He then begins a series of hallucinations in which he is repeatedly rescued only to find that he is back in the sewer. Eventually he wakes up in a hospital, apparently in the real world but still thinking that he is hallucinating (or is it really still a hallucination?), and is put into suspended animation for a long time. When he is revived, he finds himself in 2039, in a world in which everyday life is totally dependent on psychotropic drugs of various types. He becomes more and more uncomfortable with the new society, and makes various discoveries about it. I won't go any further than that to avoid spoilers, as there are a number of surprise turns.

The style of the book is exaggerated and satirical, but many of the themes resemble his more realistic novel Return from the Stars and foreshadow some aspects of the later subgenre of "cyberpunk". The humor here is occasionally outdated, especially at the beginning -- the future resembles the 1960s, with protesters and hippies confronting helmeted policemen and exhibitionistic (but entirely straight) sex. While the descriptions of "designer drugs" can be taken literally, and are even somewhat prophetic, the book can also be seen as a sort of allegory of the false reality constructed by ideology, mass media and advertising. This is not my favorite of Lem's many styles, but it is definitely a good novel.


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James F | 685 comments April 24

39. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day [1988] 245 pages

The fourth novel I have read by Ishiguro, this one is difficult to write a review of because it isn't really an explicit "thesis" sort of novel, although it does treat the same "theme" as the other two, namely memory of past (some private but mainly political) mistakes and our personal responsibilities. It consists in the first person reflections of a rather repressed English butler, Mr. Stevens, dedicated to a particular conception of his "profession", who finally takes a holiday and begins to consider his past life and the nature of the employer, Lord Darlington, to whose service he devoted most of his life. While much of his reflection is personal, concerned with his relationship with a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, the story is intertwined with the activities of Lord Darlington, an aristocrat of pro-German leanings who tried to influence opinion in favor of conciliation with the Hitler regime, and with Stevens' attempts to defend his character as various inconsistent memories keep surfacing. I think that Stevens' conception of his professional responsibility as a butler, of his duty of absolute loyalty to his employer, also serves as a sort of allegory to comment on the citizen's responsibilities of loyalty versus the duties of criticism, on democracy versus class hierarchy, and other aspects of political and personal ethics. The changed conditions under which the butler is now working in postwar Britain, with, significantly, an American employer, besides the historical reality it represents about the economic and political relationship of the United States and England, also serves to represent changing attitudes towards the balance of occupational and private life. The novel ends with the protagonist meditating on the best way to live out "the remains of the day", the evening of his lifetime; which had a certain resonance with me as I have been spending time this week with retirement counselors trying to plan for the "remains" of my own day. To sum up, a very complex novel which covers a lot of different aspects.


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James F | 685 comments April 27

40. Bronislaw Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society [1926] 132 pages

In this book, Malinowski uses the results of his studies of the Trobriand Islands to discuss the nature of "law" among preliterate peoples. His use of the term "law" might seem somewhat strange to anything we would actually consider law; he's actually asking what are the social drives and sanctions that ensure compliance with traditional norms of behavior. In fact, the book is largely a polemic against previous theories that interpreted preliterate cultures as having total domination of the individual by the group or clan, by some sort of instinctual unquestioning adherance to traditions and customs or fear of the supernatural. He is concerned to show that there is resistance to cultural norms, that recognition of duties and obligations results from notions of reciprocity and publicity, from the ambitions and vanity of the individual rather than from the individual not being able to imagine acting otherwise than they are supposed to.

He then turns to examples where there are conflicts between different interests or different domains of "law", such as the matrilineal law of descent and the natural sentiment of fathers to prefer their sons over their nephews and official heirs, and shows the compromises which occur in practice between the official "legal" structure and the personal interests and sentiments of individuals. He makes the point that while older travel writers and missionaries looked only at what people did, ignoring what their ideals were, and came up with the idea of the "lawless" savage, the early "hearsay" anthropologists questioning informants through interpreters tended to look only at what people said they did, and hence came up with the idea of the savage completely controlled by custom and taboo. He emphasizes that the ethnologist must live with the people he is studying and compare what they say -- the official norms of the culture -- with what they do in practice. He points out the reverse situation, when the Trobrianders, having been proselytized by the missions about Christian love and brotherhood, and forbidden to wage war, and taking all that the whites said at face value, found out about World War I, and realized that the whites were "great liars". The point being that "primitive" cultures no less than "advanced" ones have both ideal norms and practical hypocrisy, and the ethnologist needs to study both to have a real comprehension of their behavior. This book more than either of the others I have read shows the difference between early and modern anthropology in its methods and theories.


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James F | 685 comments April 29

41. Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Volume VIII: Bentham to Russell [1966] 577 pages

The eighth of the nine volumes of Father Copleston's history, this covers nineteenth and early twentieth century British philosophy, with an "epilogue" on Wittgenstein and the ordinary language philosophers to bring it up to the present of the book. (It actually ends with an "appendix" on John Henry Newman, which lets you know where the author is coming from.) The volume begins with Bentham and the Utilitarians, followed by a few empiricists such as Herbert Spencer, and ends with Peirce, James, Dewey, Moore and Russell, in each case with related philosophers of the same "movement". In between, however, about half the book covers very minor figures, the British idealists (e.g. T.H. Greene, F.H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, etc.), who have already been totally forgotten and whom even a philosophy major would probably have to google. Copleston himself, despite his affinity as a Catholic for idealist philosophy that takes religion seriously, admits their relative unimportance, and the treatment is somewhat perfunctory and repetitious; he says almost the same thing about many of them in more or less the same words, makes the same arguments for and against, and in general if this hadn't been written before the computer era I would say he used "copy" and "paste" a good deal. The result is probably the least interesting of all the volumes. Of course, this may also be because I knew more about the later philosophers, having taken a course in Peirce, James and Dewey and read a good deal of Russell, for example, and Copleston's treatment is not as insightful as when he is talking about mediaeval or early modern philosophy. This volume especially toward the end is also full of statements that begin, "the present writer does not intent to assert. . ." and distances himself from whatever he is arguing for or against in the philosophers he is writing about; perhaps his duties as a Jesuit priest weigh more heavily when he is talking about still current ideas. In short, not as good as his earlier volumes and certainly there are better treatments of the major figures, but I am glad I read the sections on the minor ones because these are not anyone I will ever actually read, even if my lifetime should be extended by a another century or so.


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James F | 685 comments May 4

42. Stanislaw Lem, The Star Diaries: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy [1957; expanded, tr. 1971] 286 pages

There is, perhaps appropriately, a certain confusion about the chronology of this book. The translator's afterword, which seems to be "straight", unlike the Introduction which is written from within the world of the book, says that it contains the original 1957 stories in addition to some written later in the 1960s and 1970. The stories are in the order of the numbered "voyages", which does not correspond to the order in which they were written. The translator lists the order in which they were written, and says that when read in that order there is a progression from early action stories through political and social satire to philosophical essays; but it seems to me that all the stories are a mix of action, satire and philosophy.

The book is ostensibly the Diary of Ijon Tichy, a freelance spacefarer who travels around the universe (and occasionally gets lost in time as well) in an unreliable spaceship and with erratic navigation skills, exploring strange worlds, trying to survive and occasionally save a civilization or combat evil creatures -- which reminds me of Doctor Who, although with less concern for plausibility and rather more obvious satire and philosophy, I'm tempted to say a cross between Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, although the original stories were written well before either. There is also a similarity to the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. In the end, discussion of analogies is irrelevant; this is pure Lem, although only one of his many styles. In reviewing The Futurological Congress, a later adventure of Ijon Tichy, I said it was not my favorite of his styles, but reading these it sort of grew on me.

This is definitely a good book if you are looking for something which is at the same time a light, entertaining book and one which is also thought-provoking and "intellectual"; and like nearly all Lem's books it is currently free on Kindle Unlimited.


message 39: by James (last edited May 06, 2018 10:09AM) (new)

James F | 685 comments 43. Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans [2000] 336 pages

With my usual tendency to relate things that don't go together, this novel reminded me of Antonioni's film, L'Avventura, which begins as what every viewer assumes is a classic (i.e. cliche) relationship movie, then suddenly becomes a mystery, then suddenly becomes another sort of love story, and in the end you're not sure what genre of movie you've just watched, only that it was a great one. When We Were Orphans is that kind of book; at the beginning you assume it is either a detective story with a love interest or a love story with a detective as protagonist; then the flashbacks to his childhood start and you assume it's a psychological drama with Ishiguro's usual concern with memory and political guilt; then a new mystery opens up within the childhood flashbacks, then it seems to become a drama of political intrigue and espionage, then a war story . . . and in the end, you're not sure what sort of novel you've been reading, but it was a great one.


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James F | 685 comments May 7

44. E.M. Forster, Maurice [1913; pub 1971] 252 pages

This novel is the story of a rather ordinary English boy, Maurice, formed into a mediocre, conventional young man by the British public [i.e. private] schools, who discovers at Cambridge that he is gay (or homosexual, as they said then) and has love affairs with two men, Clive, a student from a "higher" class, and later Alec, from a "lower" class. Maurice was written in 1913 -- set apparently in 1911/1912 -- but because of its open and sympathetic treatment of the theme was not published until after the author's death in 1970, by chance coinciding with the beginnings of the modern gay movement. It became something of an instant classic largely due to the timing, and Forster's previous literary reputation, although it is also a fairly well-written book.

The author admits in an epilogue written in 1960 that the novel was already rather "dated" and would be of mainly "historical" interest, and that would certainly be much more true today. It is difficult to judge to what extent the psychology was true to the time; some aspects of it (Clive's behavior especially) were hard to believe. Only the character of Maurice himself is anywhere near suffiently developed. On the other hand, now that the "scandalous" aspects have receded into the background, it is possible to see other themes in the novel as well; the discussion of conventionality and how it distorts all relationships, the way students are forced into mediocrity in the schools, and the class attitudes, which are themes of his other novels as well.


message 41: by James (last edited May 12, 2018 02:04PM) (new)

James F | 685 comments May 10

45. Stanislaw Lem, Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy [1971; tr. 2017] 153 pages

These are stories from the 1971 Polish expanded edition of the Ijon Tichy collection, which were not included in the English translation that year (The Star Diaries, which I read last week). Two of the stories in particular, "Professor A. Donda" and "The Twenty-fourth Voyage" are very good political satires; the first is about two neighboring African countries which seem a lot like Nigeria, although parts of it also reminded me of Trotsky's description of the formation of the Soviet bureaucracy, while the second is a send-up of "libertarianism", though the word is never used.


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James F | 685 comments May 18

46. John Dover Wilson, compiler, Life in Shakespeare's England: A Book of Elizabethan Prose [1911] 367 pages

Excerpts from Elizabethan writers, loosely organized around a thread of Shakespeare's life and with quotations from his works, to illustrate the life and customs of the time. Of unequal interest; lots of satire, and Puritan condemnations, which tell more about the Puritans than about the actual customs. Not much real context.


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James F | 685 comments May 19

47. Stanislaw Lem, Tales of Pirx the Pilot [1961] 216 pages

Five stories about the character of Pirx, a space pilot, beginning with his days as a cadet and ending with him as captain of a merchant ship. These are more straightforward and less philosophical than the Ijon Tichy stories; they mostly turn around his solving puzzles based on various equipment failures. The stories are entertaining but not as meaningful as the Ijon Tichy stories; they may be written for a younger (YA) audience, although that isn't explicit in the description.


message 44: by James (new)

James F | 685 comments May 21

48. Honoré de Balzac, La Rabouilleuse [1842] 443 pages [in French]

Judging by Balzac's novels, the main occupation of the French bourgeoisie of the early nineteenth century was cheating their relatives out of inheritances; this is another novel which is largely concerned with "succession". (Bearing in mind that the word "bourgeoisie" in Balzac does not have its modern post-Marx meaning of "the capitalist class" but rather is an ill-defined term for anyone who is neither noble nor poor, lives in a city or town rather than on a farm, and has a certain amount of property and "respectability" -- more or less equivalent to the even more meaningless American phrase "middle class".) The novel is in the division entitled "Scenes de la vie de province" and the subsection "Les Celibataires"; it was originally titled Une Ménage de Garçon.

Although written in 1842, La Rabouilleuse really resembles Balzac's earliest works in being (in my opinion) somewhat poorly constructed, beginning with fifty or more pages of rather unexciting background and description of the provincial city of Issoudun; the novel then really opens in Paris with the story of the two brothers, Joseph and Philippe Bridau (one of the English titles for the book is The Two Brothers). Joseph is the "good" brother, an artist who appears as a minor figure in several other novels of the Comédie Humaine; Philippe is an ex-dragoon, the "black sheep" of the family (the title of another English translation.) About two thirds of the way through, the story abandons the story of the two brothers for the story of the "Rabouilleuse" ("stirrer-up") Flore Brazier, and the Rouget family (the father and brother of Agathe, the mother of the two brothers). After another fifty pages, Joseph and his mother arrive in Issoudun (followed later by Philippe) and the real plot begins, which is about the struggle between the "Rabouilleuse" and her lover, Maxence Gilet, and the Bridaus for the grandfather's inheritance which is controlled by Agathe's brother Jean Jacques Roget. The ending then shifts back to Paris and focuses again on the Bridau brothers.

As the introduction to the Livre de Poche edition points out, the central character of the novel is neither Jean Jacques Rouget, the "garçon" of the original title, nor the "Rabouilleuse", but Philippe Bridau, in contrast with his brother, so the two English titles are more accurate to the content of the book. As with so many of Balzac's novels, it is a good story once it gets started, but the main purpose is to depict a particular "type", namely the young men who enlisted in the Empereur's "Grande Armée" at the end of the Napoleonic period and considered themselves "cheated" out of their careers by the Restoration.


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James F | 685 comments May 24

49. William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1 [1591?] 222 pages

As I have for the last several years, I will be going to the Utah Shakespeare Festival down in Cedar City at the beginning of July; it's a good entertaining event and about the only cultural activity I can get to from here without much traveling. The three Shakespeare plays I will be seeing this year are Henry VI, Part 1, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Othello. (They will also be putting on The Merchant of Venice, but I've already seen a USF production of that and I can't really afford to spend two nights.) As usual, I will be rereading the three plays I will be seeing and perhaps some secondary works.

I read Henry VI, Part 1 this time around in the Signet paperback edition, with an introduction by Lawrence V. Ryan and excerpts from Holinshed and Hall, two of the main sources, and from chapters of three books (perhaps because there aren't a lot of articles about this play, surprisingly for a Shakespeare play -- on Academic Search Premiere I found 18 fairly recent articles on The Merry Wives of Windsor and even more on Othello, but none on any of the three Henry VI plays.)

The play itself is one of Shakespeare's earliest, and some think (without much evidence) that it may have been written in collaboration or based on an earlier play by someone else. In any case, I would agree with Ryan and all three secondary works that it is probably better constructed than most earlier English plays but without the character development and fluent language of Shakespeare's mature plays. It's definitely not one of his best; although it seems to have been popular at the time it is seldom revived except when, as in the case of the USF, it is part of some sort of project (they are working their way through all the history plays in the order of the events, from Richard II to, I assume, eventually Richard III or maybe even Henry VIII. I won't attempt to give an analysis or critique of the play itself; it's theme is that domestic dissension in England (the Wars of the Roses) lost Henry V's conquests on the continent in the Hundred Years War, and it's hardly accurate as history.


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James F | 685 comments May 27

50. Stanislaw Lem, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot [1983] 228 pages [Kindle]

Five more stories of Pirx the Pilot, as a somewhat older man, including the often anthologized story "The Hunt"; the writing is more involved than the earlier stories, but still essentially in a straightforward narrative style and "hard" science fiction about technology.

51. Shirley C. Strum, Almost Human: A Journey Into the World of Baboons [1987] 294 pages

Strum in this book describes her experiences studying a troop of baboons in Gilgil, Kenya, for something over ten years. Her results contradicted the previous views about baboon behavior; she found no evidence of a clear dominance hierarchy among males, but a definite hierarchy among females; she found that agression plays less of a role than previously thought, and that social strategies play a much greater role. There is much interesting material here both about primate behavior and about the challenges of conservation even in a species which is far from being currently endangered (except in the sense that all wildlife is endangered by the human expansion into their habitat.)


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James F | 685 comments May 30

52. William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor [1597?] 188 pages

Another Shakespeare play I will be seeing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in July, another one I haven't seen performed before as far as I can remember, and again not one of his best. This play according to tradition was written on command of Queen Elizabeth in a very short period of time; it was apparently based on an Italian story or stories, although Shakespeare probably turned it around, making the would-be lover (Falstaff, although a rather different character than in Henry IV) rather than the husbands the dupe. A funny little farce and probably it will work better in performance than it does in print.


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James F | 685 comments May 31

53. Stanislaw Lem, Imaginary Magnitude [1973; tr. 1985] 264 pages [Kindle]

This is an English translation of two Polish books; the first is a collection of prefaces and introductions to imaginary books, supposedly written in the future, and the second, Golem IV was a kind of sequel which actually wrote parts of one of the books. The idea of writing prefaces, introductions and reviews of imaginary books of course was not original to Lem, and he was probably influenced by some short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, whom he sometimes resembles, but I think Lem is the first to use the idea in science fiction; this was not the first book he wrote in this fashion, although it is the first I have read (I'm not sure if the earlier ones are even translated.)

Golem IV (with the original prefaces and introduction to it from the first book) makes up the largest part of the book, and the most interesting -- essentially, it is a treatise on the philosophy of evolution from the viewpoint of an intelligent computer, which shows how relative philosophy is to our human frame and experience. Although I would have preferred that he consider other issues than he did, it was very thought provoking, which is the mark of a good book.


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James F | 685 comments June 4

54. Critical Articles on The Merry Wives of Windsor [1975-2012] 326 pages

Eighteen journal articles downloaded from Academic Search Premier, about a play I'm going to see performed next month (not sure if I've ever seen it before, but if so it was ages ago); of uneven value. I'm counting them together as a single "book" for purposes of my goals. Most of them try to make the play into a more significant one by some interpretation (usually in terms of present-day literary theories), and I think that's hopeless -- it's just not Shakespeare's best work, even if some in the eighteenth century thought it was one of his masterpieces. He did have some duds, bardolators to the contrary notwithstanding, and I tend to believe the tradition that it was written quickly and under some constraints. The articles do cast some light on patterns that are in the play -- which explains how it has its effects (it is good comic entertainment and will probably work well in performance), but has nothing to do with its aesthetic value. The same patterns, such as the pharmakon (scapegoat) and the alazon (miles gloriosus), can be found in his great plays -- and in Big Nate and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The question is what you do with the pattern. And okay, there may be some symbolic meanings, it is Shakespeare. . .

Joanne Addison Roberts, "The Merry Wives Q and F: The Vagaries of Progress" (Shakespeare Studies 8, 1974) 33 pages -- Roberts is frequently cited in the other articles and seems to be one of the experts on the play. This article, the longest of the ones I found, is a history of the theories on the relationship between the Quarto and Folio versions of the play, beginning with early critics who considered the Q to be an earlier draft revised in the F, to the contemporary consensus that it was a pirated version for playing in the sticks. She ends up with more or less the views of William Greene, and since he wrote the Introduction to the Signet edition I read the play in, it was basically what I already "knew", although it was interesting (mildly) to see how that view was arrived at.

William Carroll, ""A Received Belief": Imagination in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Studies in Philology, 74,2, Spring 1977) 30 pages -- A somewhat psychoanalytically inclined explanation of the play as a study of the influence of imagination on the characters' behaviors, for instance Ford's imagination that Falstaff is a threat, Falstaff's imagination that he is still a "lady-killer" and so forth; connected up with the allusions to the action as a play. Probably closer to what Shakespeare intended than some of the other articles, leaving out the Freudianism.

Robert F. Fleissner, "The Malleable Knight and the Unfettered Friar: The Merry Wives of Windsor and Bocaccio" (Shakespeare Studies 11, 1978) 17 pages -- Argues that the ultimate "source" of the plot is in the Decameron. Probably; but I wonder whether these "sources" aren't sometimes just things Shakespeare had read and gotten ideas from, rather than models he had consciously in mind when he was writing -- especially the analogues discussed in this article, where one or two devices were similar rather than a whole plot.

Barbara Freedman, "Falstaff's Punishment: Buffoonery as Defensive Posture in The Merry Wives of Windsor, (Shakespeare Studies 14, 1981) 12 pages -- pharmakon, alazon, and the psychoanalysis of "clowning"; the pattern is there, but so it is in most comedy. It was interesting to look at the pattern, though.

Jan Lawson Hinely, "Comic Scapegoats and the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Shakespeare Studies 15, 1982) 18 pages -- pharmakon and alazon again. Begins with the preferred modern date, circa 1597, and puts the play in the "context" of the other Shakespeare plays written probably about the same time, investigating the pattern in for example Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. Interesting ideas, but the author sees the play I think as using the pattern more consciously than it does. Undoubtedly Shakespeare had certain questions in mind at the time and they show up one way or another in whatever he wrote.

Anne Parten, "Falstaff's Horns: Masculine Inadequacy and Feminine Mirth in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Studies in Philology, 82, 2, 1985) 16 pages -- Discusses the meanings of the horns in the last scene in connection with the themes of the play as a whole; unlike most of the other articles it stays within the realm of Elizabethan ideas. Some interesting discussion of the "skimmington" ritual which I had never heard of before.

Frederick B. Jonasson, "The Meaning of Falstaff's Allusion to the Jack-a-Lent in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Studies in Philology, 88, 1, Win 1991) 23 pages -- Everything you ever wanted to know about the Jack-a-Lent but were afraid to ask. Literally, it's a puppet that boys throw stones at; but it's also an effigy carried in processions at the end of Lent and symbolizes the unpopular forced abstinences of the Lenten season; and it also has "Golden Bough"-type associations with vegetation spirits and so on. Falstaff's description of himself as a Jack-a-Lent can be taken as meaning that he's a scapegoat persecuted by the townspeople (young boys in the final scene), but can also be interpreted as his aging from Carnival to Lenten figure and in various other symbolic ways that may or may not have occurred to Shakespeare (who probably hadn't read Frazer's twentieth century book.) And here I thought it had something to do with jackalanterns. . .

Jeffrey Theis, "The 'ill-kill'd Deer: Poaching and Social Order in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 43, 1, Spr 2001) 28 pages -- Discusses first literal poaching in the context of the Elizabethan game laws, and then follows it through as a metaphor in the play.

Alexander Leggat, "Two Ways to Tell a Story" (Univ. of Toronto Quarterly, 74, 2, Spr 2005) 8 pages -- Contrasts Shakespeare's play with Verdi's opera Falstaff.

J. Drew Stephen, "Falstaff and the Culture of the Hunt" (Univ. of Toronto Quarterly, 74, 2, Spr 2005) 11 pages -- Rather trivial article about hunting in Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera.

Todd M. Lidh, "The Merry Wives of Windsor and Elizabeth I: The Welsh Connection" (Journal of the Wooden O Symposium, 6, 2006) 18 pages -- Argues that the character of Evans was not intended to be a buffoon; his "misunderstandings". for example of "louse" for "luce", were actually deliberately making fun of Shallow and Slender. This seemed obvious to me when I read the play, but apparently some critics don't get it. He points out that Queen Elizabeth was of Welsh ancestry (the House of Tudor) and that Shakespeare would not have insulted the Welsh in a play designed to be performed before the Queen.

Tom Flanagan, ""Can We Knew Them by the Songs They Sing?" Shakespeare's Use of Ballad and Psalm Allusions as a Characterization Tool in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Journal of the Wooden O Symposium, 6, 2006) 19 pages -- Points out references to contemporary ballads and psalms in the play and what they indicate about the characters who use them.

Kiersten Jonaker, "Ambiguous Alliances: Betrothal Confusion in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Journal of the Wooden O Symposium, 6, 2006) 13 pages -- Discusses the subplot of Mistress Anne and her three suitors in the light of Elizabethan laws concerning betrothal contracts.

Will Stockton, ""I am made an ass": Falstaff and the Scatology of Windsor's Polity" (Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 49, 4, 2007) 21 pages -- Claims to find some very far-fetched or impossible puns in the play and over-interprets them, with a good deal of postmodernist jargon.

Maurice Hunt, ""Gentleness" and Social Class in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Comparative Drama, 42, 4, Win 2008) 24 pages -- A somewhat confused attempt to discuss the class positions of the characters in the play. Annoying in its use of the (admittedly) anachronistic, and basically meaningless, term "middle class". It does have some interesting facts about how the Elizabethans defined social classes.

Jonathan Goldberg, "What Do Women Want? The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Criticism, 51, 3, Sum 2009) 17 pages -- A postmodernist article which is more concerned with other critics than the play itself; apparently other critics have interpreted it as a comedy about women defending their honor against mistrust and misogyny and unbelievably not seen that Shakespeare is actually a twenty-first century radical queer theorist critiquing compulsory heterosexual monogamy. It seems incredible, but nobody before Goldberg seems to have realized that every character in the play is gay or lesbian!

Graham Holderness, "Cleaning House: The courtly and the Popular in The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Critical Survey, 22, 1, 2010) 15 pages -- Discusses the nature of the play as Shakepeare's one contemporary domestic comedy. Basically a good article except for his constant use of the anachronistic, meaningless "middle class".

Colleen Marie Knowlton-Davis, "Horned Gods, Horny Men, Witches and Fairies: Pagan Remnants in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Journal of the Wooden O Symposium, 12, 2012) 12 pages -- Discusses the various beliefs and rituals of ultimately pagan origin which are alluded to in the play. Identifies Herne with the Celtic horned huntsman Cernunnos.


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James F | 685 comments June 6

55. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice [c. 1604; Signet Classic ed. by Alvin Kernan, 1963] 270 pages

June 8

56. Leonard F. Dean, ed., A Casebook on Othello [1961] 269 pages

Two editions of Othello, the third play I will be seeing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival next month, the first with some and the second with much added material. I won't attempt here to review Othello itself, beyond saying that I have a problem with the way it is compressed and tend toward the opinion of those early critics who considered that our extant version may be considerably "cut" (it's much shorter than Shakespeare's other tragedies written at the same period, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear).

The Signet edition, in addition to the text, contains a translation of the story the play was based on, from Cinthio's Hecatomithi, and four secondary works: excerpts from Rymer and Coleridge, a selection from Maynard Mack's The Jacobean Shakespeare and Robert B. Heilman's article "Wit and Witchcraft: An Approach to Othello".

The Casebook is obviously intended as a textbook, with questions at the end; in addition to the text, it contains 16 short articles or excerpts from secondary material: slightly different excerpts from Rymer and Coleridge; excerpts from books by Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, Bradley, Stoll, and T.S. Eliot; Leo Kirschbaum, "The Modern Othello", Winifred M. T. Nowottny, "Justice and Love in Othello, and Robert B. Heilman, "Othello: The Unheroic Tragic Hero"; four selections on particular actors or performances of the play; an excerpt from Aristotle's Poetics and an excerpt from Richard B. Sewall, The Tragic Form.

Given the age of both books, the criticism included is mainly of historical interest; the emphasis is on attacking or justifying the play as a whole and explaining the characters of Othello and Iago rather than more specific questions.


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