Archive for July, 2011

July 22, 2011

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Author: Arundhati Roy
Published: 2004
Website: Amazon Page

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is a collection of essays addressing power and injustice in the American-dominated modern age. Roy, an Indian novelist and political activist, is unabashedly critical of what she calls the American Empire, the far-reaching, wealth- and greed-driven system which undermines local rule, self-determination and spreads death and destruction for the purposes of maintaining power. Her writing is clear and forceful, drawing a picture of a vast, dominating, out-of-control superpower which causes more harm than good and is more committed to advancing the neo-liberal, capitalism-at-all-costs, media-supported agenda than actually spreading justice or true democracy. Written in the time that the US was invading Iraq, it incisively brings to the fore the weaknesses and harm of preemptive war, oil obsession and dismissal of the poor and marginalized.

The problem is that essays of this nature of almost universally geared towards those who are already in the camp. I read once that a good rationalist strategy for getting excited about something is to rationally assess what the best side or course of action is, then read propaganda or other emotionally evocative media to get your emotions in line with your decision. If you have already decided that Bush was a fool and America is evil, then this is a book that will galvanize and inspire. I don’t mean to be flippant; her analysis is hardly so crude, and she acknowledges the vast injustices that are taking place all around the world that America has ostensibly fought while still stating strongly that in her experience and research, there is little evidence for an actually benevolent West, given the wreckage left in their wake. Nonetheless, there is little acknowledgement of other positions (for example, an interventionist leftist approach) or alternative solutions to global problems. Also, the subjects of analysis change rapidly, from America’s domestic injustices (a racist prison system and death penalty) to India’s disconnect between their title as the world’s largest democracy and the truth (government-sanctioned mass murder of Muslims, killing and displacement of native peoples, systemic hunger and malnutrition) to the destructiveness of Western foreign policy (supporting Saddam Hussein, then using American-funded and armed atrocities to justify war against him, for example) which limits its effectiveness.

Roy brings to light facts about America, the West and India and their effects on the world that cannot be ignored. However, her preference for description rather than proof and narrative rather than analysis, combined with a  tendentious approach to history severely limits the effectiveness of her writing.

Advertisements
July 16, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Author: Philip K. Dick
Published: 1968
Website: Amazon Page

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the book on which the well-known movie Blade Runner was based. Blade Runner was produced with an alternate ending: one which left the reader feeling warm and fuzzy instead of depressed. Thankfully, Philip Dick’s novel does not break from the descent into madness of its protagonist which perfectly mirrors the downward progression of Dick’s meticulously constructed gray and radioactive society. Blade Runner was a wonderful movie, but the android-hunter given to the viewers was too much a beacon in a dull world. The main character of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Rick Deckard, is a city employee who rediscovers the hopeless world he lives in, and in doing so creates the novel’s tension and deceit as he struggles with the moral quandary inherent in killing robots that are indistinguishable from himself both physically and emotionally.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is depressing, sad, grim, and hopefully not foreshadowing; but Dick takes the reader through a created Earth which, while terrifying, deals with persecution, war, depression, and health in a fresh and unconventional way. Machines which regulate moods, a societal standard of owning an animal (whether it be real or electric), and a culture based on emigrating to space colonies combine to build an environment perfect for analyzing these complex issues. But in the end, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is just a remarkable and well-written book which everyone should read.

July 16, 2011

Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism

Author: Tova Hartman
Published: 2007
Website: Amazon Page

Feminism is of deep importance to me, and Judaism has become increasingly so. As such, I approached this book, given to me by a feminist Jewish supervisor with some level of skepticism. For all the work being done in this intersection, it is quite easy to go awry in the analysis, either erring too far on the side of Orthodoxy, maintaining the ability of the spiritual power of Judaism to overcome oppression and second class status, or on the side of feminism, declaring that the entire system is a patriarchal waste of time. Both of these (well, not so much the former) may in fact be valid responses to the difficulty faced by modern people engaged with an ancient tradition, but that should not be the goal of a book targeted in the way this one was. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Far from it. This book blew me away. It is a sweeping, sophisticated, nuanced, thoughtful analysis of feminism, Judaism, various spaces in which these worldviews have crashed and possible responses and ways forward. Hartman essentially leaves no room for disagreement. She carefully and understandingly giving the “throw it all away” side with entirely believable sympathy while admitting without adornment that that is simply not a viable option for her or other religious/traditionally-minded women while at the same time laying out a possible reaction that feels neither capitulatory nor weak, but instead engages with the strengths of feminism, Judaism and humanity. She is at her best when she essentially asks of Judaism that it be the best it can be, pointing out ways in which it has changed in the past, for the spiritual needs of humans, as a result of historical and social flux and in response to a modernizing secular world.

The book’s commitment to spiritual empowerment combined with its rigorous treatment of halacha and Jewish history were enlightening as well as invigorating, showing clearly that there is a space for people who have had enough of unnecessary patriarchy without wanting to give up something that is so deeply meaningful to them. At the same time, the strident (I use this word as a compliment) critiques of rabbinic antifeminism and accounts given by traditional women of ways in which Judaism has oppressed them* were horrifying and enraging, and made me want to tear my hair out. So obviously, there is more work to do.

*Point of clarification: there were many many accounts, and indeed an entire section devoted to the stories of traditional women who do not feel oppressed or disadvantaged and the ways in which these stories are sometimes ignored by liberal feminist analysis

July 14, 2011

The Tipping Point

Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Published: 2000
Website: Amazon Page

The Tipping Point is, like Blink, another collection of Malcolm Gladwell’s anecdotes. But unlike Blink, The Tipping Point felt cohesive. Gladwell entrancingly maneuvered interviews with successful salesman, reports on current academic research, and stories from individuals convicted of a wide range of crimes into a themed tale of three types of people: connectors, maven, and salesmen, and how they change the world. From financial planners who can sell anything to people who have spent their lives connecting their friends to each other, Gladwell examines relationships and connectedness.

But The Tipping Point is more than just interesting; although it was published in 2000, its investigation of society remains relevant today. In the chapter I found the most interesting, Gladwell reports on a study which claimed that every person has a circle of at most 150 people with whom they interact and share emotions. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, this statistic becomes even more interesting in the examination of circles of online friends. And sure enough, a quick Google search revealed that a researcher by the name of Robin Dunbar (the number 150 in the social context is referred to as Dunbar’s numbers) has found evidence of similar results on Facebook. That is, people with hundreds of ‘friends’ only actually interact with about 150 of them. The Tipping Point felt much more relevant than Blink because the internet takes up more and more of my time and I feel like I am getting less and less from it; yet I cannot help but wonder if the same effect that is described in The Tipping Point applies to people’s consumption of books, news articles, and general information. After reading this book, I formed the perhaps not-that-startling thought that maybe my consumption of information on the internet does not necessarily translate into knowledge.

July 14, 2011

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Author: Richard Bach
Published: 1970
Website: Wikipedia Page

Jonathon Livingston Seagull is a short story of about a hundred pages, with many pictures, and yet, it is about everything. It’s said that there are seven narratives which all, or almost all storylines follow, and yet I would be hard pressed to pick one that fits Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s about an eponymous seagull who learns how to fly for the sheer love of it, not just to eat, making him an Outcast from his flock. On his own for many years, he eventually runs into denizens from another world, who show him a community of seagulls just like him, all working to learn. Here he begins to understand the metaphysics of seagull nature, the Great Gull and the essence of ideas underlying the physical world. He becomes a teacher in his own right, and then leaves to teach outcasts like himself. With this band of rebels, he goes back to the Flock, and with care, civil disobedience and a little showing off, the Flock comes to see his work as incredibly important. Their psychological response, however, is to switch from seeing him as a demon to seeing him as a god which Jonathan, in his last plea to his friend and acolyte Fletcher Seagull, begs him not to let them do.

This is a rushed summary, and it doesn’t do the book justice, but it’s necessary so I can give the following response: this book is actually about everything. It is beautifully written, with photographs of seagulls wonderfully punctuating a story which is full to bursting with ideas and allegory. It speaks to imagination and the pushing of boundaries, of acceptance of difference and of pursuit of excellence. It is about Aristotle and the essential nature of things and beings and how they are inexorably pulled to them. It is about social dynamics and a bit of religion and a lot of self-idolization. It calls for being the best, and teaching that to others, of using knowledge to better the experiences of those around, and of treating the world not as a set of physical limitations but as an immeasurable set of possibilities. It’s a strange piece, not least because it is about seagulls and half-obsolete philosophies, but it is uplifting and beautiful and asks us all to fly high.

July 13, 2011

The Silkie

Author: A. E. Van Vogt
Published: 1969
Website: Amazon Page

I have not picked up a science fiction novel in a while, so The Silkie, with its 1969 used-book and yellow-paged feel was a perfect choice. Van Vogt is perhaps best known for Slan: a wonderful classic of the 1940s focusing on racism, genetic mutations, and mob mentality. Similarly, The Silkie explores the relations between humans and a shape-changing race (or alien form of life), whose origins underlie much of the tension between the two societal groups. But even though its message is purposeful, Van Vogt superbly applies his message to the more fun (and sometimes pointless) fighting sequences in The Silkie which occur with stupendous regularity.

What differentiates Van Vogt from similar science fiction mainstays like Heinlein is how Van Vogt manages to make the plot and not his characters the anchor of his story. Although not necessarily a good thing, the reader is drawn to the broader story about the silkies and the humans as well as the  tale of a government which brings them together. Van Vogt’s main character becomes, without a wink or a nudge, the most powerful being in the universe; but the reader does not care because he is more interested in reflecting on The Most Powerful Being in the Universe’s interaction with aliens who are almost as powerful as he is and who happen to create and collapse galaxies by manipulating the molecular structure of the things around them. The Silkie, in the span of 250 pages, takes a simple character and deifies him, but I kept rooting for him because the deification is done with such elegance as our favorite alien (or human) wanders through the universe destroying things.

July 13, 2011

Post-Capitalist Society

Author: Peter Drucker
Published: 1993
Website: Amazon Page

Post-Capitalist Society is a strange sort of book, reminiscent of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and those sorts of productivity-increasing, framework-changing books that are published every so often in an attempt to be visionary. Despite my initial skepticism at this type of piece, I found it contained some really interesting ideas about a capitalism of knowledge and the rise of regionalism and transnationalism into the future. However, it was clearly at its best when discussing the history of political and economic systems, and how changes in the past were caused by changes in the economic and political environments. The other parts of the book (a suspicious amount of overly vitriolic criticism of Marxism, which the author gives more credit for being a world force [an Age of Socialism], seemingly profound descriptions of the core of organizational structures, etc.) were much weaker.

The book is very much like a transcript of a talk Drucker might give in the sense that it is impassioned, full of seemingly common-sensical assertions and troublingly lacking in evidence. Despite all of the history and political science Drucker claims to be giving the reader, the only footnotes available are book recommendations (not page numbers of data citations), many his own. His predictions about a knowledge-based economy, a social sector in addition to the private and public ones, the failures of some aspects of post WWII nation-state policies and how they might be improved upon are all of vital importance if true. Unfortunately, the book relies on framework formation, narrative construction and trajectory guessing rather than rigorous analysis of evidence.

Clearly, the world is changing. Information is becoming more and more important, capitalism is shifting to accommodate new types of goods and terrorism and the environment are global threats. For a store of ideas for the future put forth by a clearly intelligent person, Post-Capitalist Society is a good read. For a more definite set of plans about what the world might look like and why, it might be best to look elsewhere.

July 12, 2011

The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections: Second Edition

Author: James E. Campbell
Published: 1997
Website: Amazon Page

In light of the recent debates and hullabaloo over the republican presidential primaries and the 2010 midterm elections, I decided to pick up The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. And although the book was, as expected, pretty dry, it was extremely thorough in its approach to analyzing the affect that a president has on his party’s chances in the next midterm and presidential elections. Without going into too much summary, Campbell proposes a revised theory of “surge and decline”: an idea which made perfect sense to me after following the 2010 midterm elections. It revolves around the notion that the two types of elections (presidential and midterm) each have their own socioeconomically and politically unique voting groups whose median viewpoint about issues changes in predictable ways from the presidential election to the following midterm election. What I found most fascinating was the idea that people’s probability of regretting their vote for president could be modeled quite accurately and that the model implied that if a president won by a large amount, the added buffer of voters whose votes he received who do not normally vote for his party would be more prone to regret; and consequentially be more likely to vote against his party in the midterm election.

This book, unlike the others I have read in the past month, did not have a plot, characters, or a friendly narrator to guide me through the tension of unproved propositions and narrowly stated conclusions. Or to put it another way, it is an academic book which I probably should not have read in one day. But because I approached it as I would a novel, I will hesitantly admit that although dry, The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections was extremely interesting, quite persuasive, and well worth reading in advance of what is bound to be an interesting year of politicking.

July 12, 2011

Frankenstein

Author: Mary Shelley
Published: 1818
Website: Wikipedia Page

Frankenstein, described by some as the first work of science fiction, is surprisingly novel-like. Similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which of course came significantly later), the science aspect of the narrative takes a secondary role and acts mainly as a vehicle for the rest of the story. In fact, the science which animates the monster who has captured the imagination of several generations of literary critics and Halloween costume designers is intentionally left out in Frankenstein’s recounting of his miserable life, ostensibly to protect Walton, the scientist cum shipman who rescues him from the Arctic tundra. Thus, the main thrust of the story takes place in a more traditional format, which some interesting twists. The overarching story is that of Walton, who writes letters to his sister about his journey north and happens upon a sick man leading a sled pack through glaciers and eventually comes to hear his story, which is told in classic first person narrative and includes the story of his monster, who himself tells his life in first-person. While this may seem confusing, the stories are distinct and engaging enough that the unorthodox layering actually adds important elements to the story, making each character sympathetic in turn.

When a story is fundamentally about conflict, as Frankenstein is (between personal hurt and public harm, between creator and created, between god and man, between human and non-human), it is the more comfortable option to give the reader a hero to back throughout, but Shelley refuses to take this route. Instead, she forces the reader to consider every character’s hardships and motivations in making the often terrible decisions they make. There is room for disagreement, but at least the underlying reasons are understood, which makes the shared humanity of the humans and monsters (and it’s not always apparent which is which) all the more clear.

July 11, 2011

Atonement

Authors: Ian McEwan
Published: 2001
Website: Wikipedia Page

Atonement is set in World War II Britain, and the war is the dividing line between two very different sections of the book. The first half of Atonement is a description of a family made up of brooding adults and a group of children. It focuses almost entirely on the younger group’s machinations (a word which, with its ominous underpinnings describes the children’s thoughts and plots perfectly). The next half of the novel describes the result of the innocent narrative in the first section which quickly became tragic. To say anything else would give away Atonement’s twist, but the story pivots on the contrast between the two halves of the novel; and McEwan excels at highlighting that contrast while connecting the two time-disconnected sections through character development.

After reading McEwan’s Amsterdam a few days ago, I decided to pick up Atonement, and I somewhat understand why Amsterdam won the Booker Prize and Atonement did not. Both books were full of McEwan’s wonderful, dreamy, and thorough description, but while Amsterdam was concise and its characters memorable, Atonement’s characters felt slightly fake, and the changes they go through in the transition from the first section to the second felt too perfect. Amsterdam was subtle even though its high-reaching tale of incriminating photographs, politics, and newspapers was not at all understated, but many scenes in Atonement felt destined to happen, and the ending was not all that surprising.