The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

I am too depressed this morning to attempt any light hearted or serious posts on literature. Some may think it’s none of my business to be so worried about American affairs except that a great deal of my family is there (including my mother and closest aunts and cousins) and who is left in Jamaica is mostly anxious to get there, except my grandfather who has no interests in leaving his plot of land. This makes me obliged to at least have to visit there except that current and upcoming US legislation is making this an increasingly unattractive venture, where even being a green card holder does not mean much. (All that wonderful fingerprinting and general hustle.) This should make me anxious to become a citizen except that, well, that’s not coming to mean much either as far as benefits and protections go.

Treating the Constitution as a Doormat – Scott Horton

If things proceed on the course now set by the Bush Administration and its shortsighted collaborators, and the national surveillance state is achieved in short order, then future generations looking back and tracing the destruction of the grand design of our Constitution may settle on yesterday, February 12, 2008, as the date of the decisive breach. It hardly got a mention in the media, obsessed as it was with reports on the primary elections, the use of drugs in sporting events, and that unfailing topic, the weather. Yesterday the Senate voted down the resolution offered by Senator Dodd to block retroactive immunity for the telecoms and it voted for a measure which guts the Constitution’s ban on warrantless searches by extending blanket authority to the Executive to snoop on the nation’s citizens in a wide variety of circumstances, subject to no independent checks. On the key vote, the Republicans in the Senate continued to function in lock-step, as they have on almost all significant issues for the last seven years, while the Democrats fragmented. Their vote summed up everything that’s wrong with Washington politics today. Fear and hard campaign cash rule the roost, and the Constitution is regarded as a meaningless scrap of parchment, indeed, a nuisance.

The issue in focus was a retroactive grant of immunity to telecommunications giants which violated the rights of millions of Americans by facilitating warrantless surveillance by the Bush Administration. With the exception of Qwest, they were knowingly complicit in criminal acts. And in a touch worthy of a totalitarian state, Qwest quickly found its CEO under criminal investigation and prosecuted. In fact the White House’s own arguments smack of the mentality of totalitarianism. Here’s the leading argument that the White House offers up in favor of the legislation:

“Companies should not be held responsible for verifying the government’s determination that requested assistance was necessary and lawful — and such an impossible requirement would hurt our ability to keep the Nation safe.”

But as Dan Froomkin notes at the Washington Post, “Isn’t that the very definition of a police state: that companies should do whatever the government asks, even if they know it’s illegal?” Indeed it is.

Senator John McCain voted against the amendments to remove the retroactive immunity clause. Clinton was absent. According to the New York Times report, Obama did not vote either contrary to other media reports, he “did oppose immunity on a key earlier motion to end debate”.

I ordered some French books today and will look in to how I can get some French lessons. I think I’ve decided, now, that my life belongs in Canada.

Here’s a few links to keep you busy while I rustle up another Paradise Lost post.

Dorothy pointed me to a Guardian article in which a Booker judge always writes about the judging process. I cannot overemphasize my horror at what experienced, sophisticated, educated, well-learned readers actually considered as a judging model.

It may seem banal to relate the story of these stages, much of which will be familiar to seasoned Booker observers. I want to stress that everything was always up for grabs – right to the end. Everything was contingent. Even the method by which the books were to be assessed. A few days before the shortlist meeting we had gathered in a restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, to discuss this issue. Some judges wanted to apply comparative principles across the range of books; others wanted to voice their subjective preferences novel by novel.

The comparative principles, out of which it might be hoped measures of objectivity could be drawn, were not very sophisticated. It was just a simple taxonomy including the following: plot and structure; theme; language, tone and style; characterisation; impact and readability. But even these basic foundations to judging a novel could not be adequately established.

I know they didn’t use it, thank goodness, but I’m not sure how on earth it could have occurred to any of them as a good idea at the time. That it could have even been suggested. It’s a bloody literary prize for adults not an ‘O’ level exam. Aren’t you supposed to be looking for exciting, bowl me over, when has this been done before books? How can you even bring that attitude in the first place when you have to consult your Flesch-Kincaide Readability manual? If I were at that table I think I would have grabbed my coffee and run away in horror. I assume that if Mulligan Stew by Sorrentino could qualify, and they read maybe one or three pages, they would have stabbed it with a Morgul Blade of mediocrity. (I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings.)

American readers, were you aware of middle-grade fiction as a distinct “genre” from children’s literature and young adult? Besides reading levels maybe. Niall of Torque Control posted last week about the reactions to a review by Paul Kincaide: he is accused of not knowing the audience of the book, nor being familiar with the area of “middle-grade” fiction because he’s British, “middle-grade” being an American grade system. Keep in mind that the reviewer asserts that he reads his YA and knows his stuff but, well, YA isn’t “middle-grade” so it doesn’t count, he’s missing context. All of which sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me, but what do I know? The line between children’s literature and young adult is blurry enough as it is, and now we’re being told that reading enough of the latter isn’t enough to properly review books aimed at kids aged 8-12 ( I guess)? If anyone’s willing to let me know how this is at all comparable to a realist fan tackling a fantasy book let me have it in comments.

After you get that off your chest you can sample an exhibition of France’s moral superiority to the USA here, first seen at Laila Lalami who makes another pertinent point:

One thing Kimmelman could have pointed out is that the French name for the center is: Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, which, in a very literal translation, means simply “National City of the History of Immigration,” and so the word cité is meant to suggest republican notions of unity, and of a single, indivisible, unhyphenated French identity. But cité is also the colloquial word in French for the suburbs around the big cities where immigrants live. This is a bit like building a museum for Mexican-Americans and calling it the “barrio museum.” And the worst part of it is: I don’t even think French officials realize the ambiguity.

Then you may partake in more of Western Europe’s self-delusion here.

And this should bring back a smile on your face. When I first read it took me a while to realise what they were referring to. What? “Alternative literature?” I thought to myself. Like Coldplay and top 40 stations or–oh, like gay lit? But why should Amazon cordon them off that way, what about all the other minor–OOOOH, you mean indie writers and stuff. Pass. (What can I say, I’m slow? I first saw this announcement on a blog of indeterminate nature, so I saw no immediate “underground” writerly clues.)

Edit: I’m not sure what kind of mood I’m in today but I discovered that the acclaimed New York Review of Books reviewed the latest Alice Sebold book in the comments of Dan Green’s aggrieved post on newspaper book pages, and am still laughing 3 minutes later.

AWEsome.

 Update: Karl Rove resigns? AWEsome.

Let’s get the lame stuff out of the way. For some reason this issue has a bajillion page story by Alan Bennett complete with prominent ads for his books and play (last showing! last showing!). I’m not sure how Bennett hijacked the LRB but I’d like for another to take up the burden of peddling his wares. First we get his diary, now this? (Is he a god in England? I am lacking context.)

The great news is that there were actually five, count it, five women listed in the table of contents–and only two were poetry contributors! (Band plays.) And they weren’t covering cooking or floral arrangements either. Keep it up LRB, I (and I hope others) do notice things like this.

I’ve already posted about the provocative Mumdani article which everyone should read. Another excellent one directly related to Africa and major urban areas worldwide was Jeremy Harding’s review of Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, It Migrates to Them. Davis wrote on the explosion of populations in urban areas in ways similar to the effects of the 19th century Industrial revolution: poor housing, poor infrastructure, generally sub-standard living conditions. In certain countries like Japan the rural dwellers did not even have to move closer to the city; the development came to them with highways cutting off their routes to the sea and the pollution killing the fish stock.

One of the major problems Davis identifies is that the populations far outnumber the economic opportunities offered in the cities; he disagrees with the idea that creating property rights will spur any development; and that too many people in these areas are forced to work in the same kind of jobs: “the informal sector…generates jobs not by elaborating new divisions of labour, but by fragmenting existing work, and thus subdividing incomes.” The IMF and the World Bank are implicated in sometimes causing and aggravating this problem in developing nations, along with the corruption of national governments.

The photographer Jonas Bendiksen took photographs of Kibera, an example of one of these slums, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya for the Paris Review Winter 2006. (The piece is in PDF format.)

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by the same author is also reviewed, the link formed by Davis intention to “focus on ‘slum-based resistance to global capitalism’”. Buda’s Wagon is an indirect way of addressing this (he plans a sequel to Planet Slums that will more thoroughly address the matter). For now he writes on this weapon that’s used by insurgents and secret services alike. Harding asserts that the “unwitting” overall picture Davis creates is the links between the outsider violent groups who use the car bombs and other tactics as weapons and the “state agencies” that taught them.

Peter Barnham’s review of the new translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, Rubbing Shoulders with Unreason, was really cool and interesting but at least 50% flew right over my head. I was clearly expected to have an idea of the concept of what “unreason” different from “madness” but I had not a fucking clue. It read real pretty though so once I actually, you know, find out what Barham was writing about I’m sure I’ll realise that I learned a lot.

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been making the rounds in journals and newspapers. Frank Kermode reviews it here, as well as Bernard O’Donoghue’s in Who has the gall? O’Donoghue takes his modern approach further than Armitage, abandoning the alliterative Middle English poetic style, but both don’t balk at throwing in the jolty contemporary phrase. “Armitage enjoys taking liberties. The knight’s dreadful weapon becomes ‘the mother of all axes,/a cruel piece of kit I kid you not’”.

Kermode occasionally compares both translations to the “authoritative” Tolkien’s and finds good and bad in all. Of the two he leans towards Armitage, observing that while he may “kick up his heels” ever so often he does “much justice” to the extraordinary work. O’Donoghue’s effort is “less sparky”. Frankly all the “modern” made me desperately yearn for the Tolkien translation, although if I had to I’d go for the Armitage as well, based on this review.

Julie Elkner was the only woman to pen a major piece this issue. She reviewed Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Tear off Masks! Identity and Imposture in 20th-century Russia.

Fitzpatrick has a long-standing interest in the ways in which ordinary Russians negotiated everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. Tear off the Masks! brings together a number of her studies from the past fifteen years, on a series of loosely connected themes falling under the broad rubric of ‘identity’ and its ambiguities, with notions of ‘masking’ and ‘unmasking’ as key motifs.

Elkner feels that Fitzpatrick can be too focused on deflating the idea of the omniscient, omnipotent Soviet bureaucracy, but he work on the different images people presented in their everyday lives, and the elaborate theatrics and mirrors devised by the secret service were lucidly described. I wanted to get my hands on it right away but some evil person did a term loan.

For the shorter pieces Uri Avnery wrote on the Israeli government’s dependence on the Arab world’s refusal of every ‘road map’ or ‘peace agreement’ and how Hamas agreement to the 1967 borders and the king of Saudi Arabia’s effort to unite the Palestinian government fills them with horror rather than joy. Peter Campbell covered the Turner’s Rigi exhibit (now ended) at the Tate Britain, stating the need for the three watercolours to remain together. (The threatened ‘Blue Rigi’ was saved.) Deborah Friedell connected Edith Wharton’s novels and the Herminoe Lee biography to her own experiences.

We roll back for the LRB February 22nd issue. The political pieces made the deepest impressions but there was a dash of the literary, historical and even the mathematical.

Fittingly enough the cover of this editions is given entirely to Other lives, M.F. Burnyeat’s review of two books on Pythagoras: Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence by Christoph Riedweg (translated by Steven Rendall) and Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History by Charles Kahn. Pythagoras is a figure smothered in erroneous myths so Burnyeat deflates them methodically and then judges the latest books primarily on how well the authors have managed to accept the revisions.

Walter Burkert was the historian who combed through numerous obscure ancient sources, many of which were unfamiliar even to experts, to produce Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon or Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, the revised English version published in 1972. Did he discover the Pythagoras theorem? Nope. What about pondering the “harmony of the spheres”? Nope. What about “his most famous accomplishment, analysing the mathematical ratios that structure musical concordances”? Eh, if you want to stretch it. According to Burnyeat very little supports the claim that he first discovered it and even less to swallow the idea that what led him to the discovery was the sound of blacksmiths hammering.

So what is left for historians on Pythagoras to write about? Most of Burnyeat’s approval lay on Kahn’s text as he showed a “cool” acceptance of Burkert’s colossal text, shifted his attention to the late fourth century as the period to learn of Pythagoras’ true life and accomplishments. Riedweg’s, in comparison, exhibited his confusion on what parts of the myth to reject and what to retain, never buying into the fabulous tales of the man predicting earthquakes, but encouraging readers to marvel, which seemed to have encouraged him to accept “indefensible” versions of Pythagoras’ accomplishments, asserting that he created the word ‘philosophy’ and started the ‘world-order’ definition of ‘cosmos’.

But Burnyeat finds one or two things wrong with Kahn’s interpretation of historical sources as well, and he expounds upon that and Greeks who actually made significant mathematical achievements, including Thales of Miletus, Hippocrates of Chios and Pythagoreans like Hippasus of Metapontum. It was a great read, even if you don’t know or care a fig about Math.

Peter Hallward interviewed former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is still in South African, living in exile. Hallward enquires about Aristide’s rise to power, controversial decisions he made while in power, alleged alliances he had with criminal elements and what really went on Feb. 28, 2004 when he was finally thrown over in a second coup. Aristide is careful to couch many of the actions he made while in power as ones that came about as “group” decisions, but he does freely admit to having had to make compromises, and points to the growing body of evidence that the picture of Haiti and him publicised and the reality were often dissonant.

The other major political article was R.W. Johnson’s report on the dire political and social situation in Zimbabwe. I can’t say that I appreciated the unqualified “thanks” he gave for the “colonial law, order and medicine” brought to the country–especially after a casual “well yes white’s stole land from the blacks but they only took one third!” (paraphrase)–but there is no doubt that Mugabe is an absolute disaster and needs to be seriously dealt with. The widespread violent intimidation, the incredibly high estimated death toll from famine and disease–anywhere from two million to six million, revealing how uncertain and fragile things are–, the critical deterioration of the social structure paints a picture of abject misery. It is the African countries who have any real influence, but the criminally stubborn Mbeki stands by him, working his “quiet diplomacy” (whatever the fuck that is) while Mugabe apes Mengistu Haile-Mariam “forced removals”, which the former Ethiopian dictator did during the Red Terror (1977-78), successfully killing more of his citizens. (Haili-Mariam is currently living exile in Zimbabwe and Mugabe refuses to give him up to face charges.)

Things have changed, perhaps drastically since this report with Mugabe’s loyalists turning against him, and the opposition getting bolder. Somehow Mugabe will spin this as the “white man’s” conspiracy.

Shifting to education of the medieval variety, in “I lerne song” Tom Shippey reviews Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme. Shippey is sceptical of Orme’s claim that ‘medieval education was not a precursor of modern education, but the same thing in different circumstances’ but ultimately finds the book another excellent and accessible “capstone” to Orme’s long, and exemplary study “devoted to the history of education”. He chartered the post-Roman form of education which was closely linked to monastic, in which all education was centred around church traditions: children had to sing responses in church, learn to read so they could understand the liturgy, and learn Latin, “the language of the Church” and the Bible.

One learns not only of the difficulty of Latin, but the way the medieval curriculum appeared to make it even more difficult. A theme Shippey detects in Orme’s work is, oddly enough, how the rod was an enduring staple in the Latin classroom.

In Aelfric Bata’s Colloquy 28 the wretched child being thrashed cries out that he’s dying, only to be told grimly by the thrasher: ‘Non es mortuus aduc’ (‘You’re not dead yet’). Four hundred years later the bishop of Norwich forbade classes to be held in churches, because the screams of the children interrupted services. When Cambridge appointed a master of ‘glom-eryre’, or grammar, he had to demonstrate his fitness for the post by birching a boy in public, though we are told it was a selected ‘shrewed’, or naughty boy, and he was paid fourpence for his ‘labour’.

Eeeeeeee.

The major question Orme wrestled with is at what point did the present manifestation of primary and secondary school (in the UK) develop from the “ecclesiastical-vocational purpose” to the educational? One possible answer may be found in the churches themselves: the secular ones like Salisbury who ran different schools for choristers and the general public compared to the monastic ones like Canterbury whose schools were run by headed by persons who were not and could never be monks, a situation in which the school’s focus “drifted towards becoming schools for the city rather than the cathedral.” The effects of this could be detected from around the 14th century.

Shippey mentions the upsets in the monastic orders as friars challenged the Benedictine’s prominent position, as well as how schools and teachers were financially supported. There is also a bit the Reformation’s effect on education, and how “professional” teachers actually were considered in light of the fact that children as a group are currently enjoying a period of high societal regard.

Last, but not last, for me was “In Bloody Orkney” Robert Crawford’s review of Maggie Fergusson’s biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life and The Collected Poems of George MacKay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray. It’s a good mix of close reading of Brown’s poetry and a very positive critique of Fergusson’s writing on Brown’s life. She was careful not to be judgemental and gave significant attention to Stella Cartwright, once Brown’s fiance and “a sacrifice to the culture of male-bonding, heavy drinking and poebiz showing off which constituted the Rose street milieu of 1950′s Edinburgh.” Brown certainly comes off as classic Freudian figure, so enamoured and dependent on his mother that he was unable to form any healthy relationships with other women. Whatever his personal problems, some of the poetry is out-of-control excellent. Some of that excellence I’d show you write now if wordpress allowed me to format poems the way they should be, with all the requisite spaces, but it doesn’t. So you’ll have to take my word for it. :p

Oh poop, I forgot to mention Michael Wood’s nifty little review of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, my favourite! Mifune is a god.

At the New Republic blog, Open University, Jeffrey Herf sends out a flare for a weekly review of books (via Literary Saloon). The closest periodical that comes even close to the beauty of Times Literary Supplement (subscribe, subscribe, subscribe) is New York Review of Books and we all know how I feel about it. (Yuck & Yawn.) I’ve been pleased to see, as the link has made the rounds, so many bloggers expressing their love of TLS and London Review of Books. It’s a real shame that we have to look to England for such book coverage. This made me think of poor Literary Review of Canada which, from one skim I gave it several months ago, aimed to be a lesser NYRB. I’ll flip through a new issue to see if that’s changed.

Herf boasts that TNR’s book coverage is second to none in the USA, by his standards. Has anyone read it and do you agree?

Chris Abani is profiled in the L.A. Times for the release of his latest novel Virgin of Flames (via Confessions). As usual there is too much on him and too little on the book, but it was interesting to read about his experiences when he moved to Los Angeles and Colin Channer’s thoughts on Abani’s writing.

Abani himself, though, has grown tired of conforming to expectations: He sees himself as an Igbo writer, a British writer, a black writer and a Los Angeles writer. “GraceLand,” said Channer, was “Chris rebelling against the idea of what an African writer should write about. The industry of postcolonial studies imposes on writers the obligation to write about being formerly colonized…. When you venture from that, I’m not sure a lot of critics or academics know quite what to do with you.”

Yes! Yes, yes, yes. I’m fairly sure that Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus was criticised for not being political enough, or too “middle-class”–because you know her characters weren’t all in tribal dress, dancing around a fire or with stomachs distended with flies buzzing around their eyes like on tv. This is why that “postcolonial” term often makes me edgy. The word “memoir” makes me shudder, “postcolonial” gives me an eye tic.

I can’t help but roll my eyes and sigh at renewed calls at some Jamaican politicians renewed calls for reparation from the British government, coinciding with this the 200th year anniversary commemorating the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. I sigh and roll my eyes because Jamaica has a corrupt government, with short-sighted, selfish leaders, many of whom are in cahoots with the criminal element that continues to transform my Jamaica beyond recognition. I don’t see this money, if we even get it, funding anything much beyond new SUV’s, gunmen and vacation allowance.

Being sick on Wednesday disturbed my reading routine for the litjournals. I had not recovered enough to make the 30 minutes trek on foot to Starbucks today and my typically dependable campus library proved disappointing. The latest issue of the TLS on display is two weeks old and the latest LRB was not even seen as fit enough to display. (Chapters would you stock the damn periodical already?) My posts on the TLS will be slightly out of whack for a while. Anyway I had fun with the LRB even if this issue only had a single female contributor.

It starts out with Alan Bennett’s dairy-like observations chronologically arranged by month…for the whole of 2006. My first reaction to this was, “Why the fuck should I care what some random tallywhacker did every month of the year? Good lord.” Then I got pulled into it, somehow. Some of the entries were actually bookish, noting his experience working at libraries and the interesting characters he met, thoughts on a memoir he was reading by some chap named Duff Cooper who screwed around. He went to an opening of a play in New York. (The History Boys–ever heard of it?) His smirk-inducing remarks on Blair were entertaining and saddening: “After the murder of Mr de Menezes Tony Blair claimed that he ‘entirely understood’ the feelings of the young man’s parents. Today it is the 80, 000 people who, following the government’s urgings, subscribed to their employers’ private pension schemes. When the firms went bust or were unable to pay, their workers unsurprisingly turned to the government to make good their lost annuities, except that now the government claims it’s not its responsibility…Mr. Blair reassures…them that he entirely understands their indignation. Is there any limit, one wonders, to the entire understanding of Mr. Blair? Heaped naked in a pile on the floor of an Iraqi prison it must be comforting to know that you have the entire understanding of Mr. Blair.” But my attention wandered after he professed horror at some terrible faux pas people made when renovating houses. I googled to see who on earth this man was in an attempt to boost my interest with the exact opposite occurring.

“Oh. He’s an actor.”

The distinguised pedigree, the accompanying tinge of charming artistic poverty of the descriptive “theatre” could not weaken my shameful prejudice. Maybe if he were reading it to me I could have bothered to finish the rest (Wikipedia notes his “sonorous Yorkshire accent”).

There is what could very well be an agreeable article on the Getty and how it is spending its inheritance, but a NYRB article late last year consumed all my interest in Getty-related matters for about 6 months. Ruth Padel’s poetry was given the 5/8-of-a-page treatment but, alas, it was not the magic 3/4 that poetry in the LRB needs to retain my attention. That honour was given to the arresting works of August Kleinzahler. The first was “Retard Spoilage”, a poem filled with this strange mix of archaic, esoteric biological and sophisticated literary words that composed this curiously thrilling image of slow decay and rotting of the food in the fridge, extending it into a metaphor to connect it with people. I didn’t know a good deal of the words but from the context I had a general idea of what he was saying. And the obscurity of the words made it all the more arresting. It’s funny how what he describes is quite repulsive on its own but in the poem he makes the metaphor work in such a way as to encourage concentration and reflection not disgust. Not overwhelming disgust at any rate.

Good, patient Leeuwenhoek of Delft,
having ‘partook of hot smoked beef, that was a bit fat,
or ham’, of which he was most fond,

suffered a grave ruction below
and so put to work his celebrated lens
that he might better examine his troubled stool

and found there an animalcule, nay many,
but one especially in the figure of an eel
that ‘bent its body serpent-wise’,

‘a-moving prettily’, he made thorough note
in a letter to his estimable coequal, Robert Hooke,
and ‘as quick as a pike through water’.

Sleep, my angel, sleep,
though everywhere out there they are among us,
within, as well, wriggling deep,

they prosper into our dark complement, and by us dwell
in perfect equipoise: your inviolate sweetness
amids that which is vile&writhing&smells.

(Don’t you love how the lack of space between the last three words seems to reinforce the meaning of those words, as if you could smell and see those icky creatures moving around in your ‘dark complement’ right now? It’s brilliant, he uses it to similar effect in the first stanza.)

It seems as if LRB only reserves two of its full-length pieces for fiction which should bother me a lot more than it does, considering its my main source of contention with NYRB (along with the dearth of female contributors). I guess it does not because its scope of non-fiction coverage is far more diverse. The only time the NYRB deigns to look beyond the US and Europe is for Iraq–which almost doesn’t count for me because the focus is rooted in self-interest i.e. the American war there–or if one of their coterie has published a book that focuses on somewhere else. Anyway the two fiction novels reviewed were Pynchon’s and Amis’ latest: two authors I’ve never read and only the former holding any possible interest.

Corey Robin reviewed three Arendt books: Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings ed. by Jerome Kohn & Ron Feldman, and Eichmann in Jersualem by Arendt herself. Robin criticises Young-Bruehl and a Samantha Power, who wrote the introduction to a 2004 Schocken reissue of The Origins of Totalitarianism, for committing the apparently common error of making Arendt’s totalitarian writings, rather than those on anti-Semitism and imperialism, the focus of their scholarship, when the relevant historians had long deemed it the “least instructive”. Robin also considered that section the least representative of the book. He went on to show how Arendt’s essentially psychological analysis of totalitarianism ignored the political and economic aspects of the societies in which the ideology developed. Young-Bruehl’s application of that analysis on to the current problems with Islamist radicals and the Bush adminitation’s reactive strategies threw this problem into stark relief, Robin argues. He then elaborated at greater length on how her writings on Zionism, imperialism and careerism are of greater currency. I found his piece a fascinating read: I haven’t read any of Arendt’s work, though of course I mean to, and his provocative idea that careerism acts as a good or better an agent for fanaticism as it is commonly thought to do for capitalism, the “efficient…source of freedom” is intriguing.

The next article is an even better example of why I like the sort of reviews usually printed in lit journals–the author writes at length on a subject related to the book before even mentioning the reason for it, appearing in smaller type below his or her name. Tariq Ali, before getting to Pervez’s Musharraf’s memoir–for which Musharraf did some heavy publicity in the West, even appearing on The Daily Show (which startled a “wtf?” from me)–wrote a detailed overview on the history of Pakistan under military rulers. One gets everything from the (part) origins of Bangladesh before it became Bangladesh, to the Soviet’s Union botched invasion of Afghanistan when the US was afraid of the Communist bogeyman. None of this is wasted at all as it perfectly sets up the context for Musharraf’s memoir: we can more readily assess his actions as he presents them in light of the knowledge one has gained about the general history and current political and diplomatic circumstances of not only Pakistan but Iran, India, Afghanistan and even Saudi Arabia. Probably the most worrying piece of information I left with was Ali’s assessment of Afghanistan:

Despite the fake optimism of Blair and his Nato colleagues everyone is aware that it is a total mess. A revived Taliban is winning popularity by resisting the occupation. Nato helicopters and soldiers are killing hundreds of civilians and describing them as ‘Taliban fighters’. Hamid Karzai, the man with the nice shawls (ouch–ed.), is seen as a hopeless puppet, totally dependent on Nato troops. He has antagonised both the Pashtuns, who are turning to the Taliban once again in large numbers, and the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who openly denounce him and suggest it’s time he was sent back to the States. In western Afghanistan, it is only the Iranian (!!! -ed.) influence that has preserved a degree of stability. If Ahmedinejad was provoked into withdrawing his support, Karzai would not last more than a week. Islamabad waits and watches. Military strategies are convinced that the US has lost interest and Nato will soon leave. If that happens Pakistan is unlikely to permit the Northern Alliance to tae Kabul. Its army will move in again.

Those ungrateful Afghanis. The Americans, Canadians and (to a far lesser extent) Europeans gave them a gift and they’re throwing it back in their faces. Why don’t the citizens rise up and take this gift of democracy which the West has, in their wisdom, given to them? Afghanis, Iraqis, they all look alike.

The last really great article was Adam Phillips review of two Paul Muldoon books: The End of the Poem: Oxford lectures on Poetry and Horse Latitudes, his latest poetry collection. I engaged far more with Phillips’ descriptions of Muldoons poems than the bits that he quoted, but I should probably get a proper look at them. Muldoon’s lectures sounded attractive because he explores his ideas on writing, the mechanics and motivations of it, and the role of the reader in all of this, which was a welcome addition to the Zadie Smith’s frequently linked piece. As Phillips represents it

For Muldoon both reading and writing involve ‘speculation on what’s going on, consciously or unconsciously, in the writer’s mind’; the reader of a poem is what he calls a ‘stunt-writer’, and ‘the person through whom the poem was written a ‘stunt-reader’, each determining the impact of ‘those words and those lines’. Writing works at all only because readers and writers are so similar, ‘foreshadowing’ each other, both interested in ‘finding likenesses between unlike things’, and both attentive to links where you least expect them.

I like that. Too bad someone already checked it out of the library. (Boo!)

Curiously the LRB has Denis Feeney, who admits that he helped (in a limited way he claims) Robert Fagles in his Aeneid translation and is mentioned “with characteristic over-generousity” in the acknowledgements, review the bloody book. Isn’t that rather questionable? It’s a good thing I’m already familiar with Fagles boring, lifeless, pedestrian, simplistic translations. (Which are, inevitably, greeted with a chorus of hosannahs. Wtf people?)

The letters had a lot of contributors from previous issues battling out with readers who claimed to have cited egregious errors or faulty reasoning. Unlike the TLS and NYRB, the LRB pairs the reader’s letter with the contributor’s response rather than waiting for the next issue to print the latter.

Joy! I opened last week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement with anticipation. I had found the year-end double issue a disappointment. The only article really worth attention was Patrick McGuiness’ Commentary on Bruges and Symbolism, primarily in literature. The first for January boasted Longfellow’s glorious return from the critical grave. Christopher Benfey’s supporting article was a bit more hopeful and less triumphant than the exclamation on the cover but he gives a decent account of Longfellow’s largely precarious, much mocked position in the canon and cites recent scholarship that signal a turn for the better. I am not a fan of Longfellow’s poetry but I like to imagine closet Longfellow fan’s the world over jumping in glee and moving aside the Lustra to make way for the well-thumbed Selected Poems.

Most of the primary reviews covered history and cultural studies books. The two I liked were on early modern history. Chris Given-Wilson’s review of SamuelCohn Jr.’s Lust for Liberty, titled “Insurrections”, was particularly entertaining because of all the statistical info. Cohn Jr. studied the revolts that occurred in medieval Europe between the 13th to early 15th century and concluded that most of them were of a political nature rather than economic, taking place in towns and not the countryside. He asserts that there were about 1, 112 in all and uses a single chronicle, I believe, as his primary source. The lack of qualifications accompanying the generous offering of percentages and decimal points aroused some wonder in both Given-Wilson and myself. Who knew that such dependable records were available back then to give us such a clear picture? Given-Wilson also criticises Cohn Jr.’s downplaying of the economic factors behind the revolts, arguing that issues of taxes and abuses of power played a part as well. In summation though he recommends it as a well-written, clearly researched text that challenges the current orthodoxy and will become course material.

David Abulafia reviewed Stefanie B. Siegmund’s The Medici State and the Ghetto of Florence, which covered a particular instance of Jews being segregated in 16th century Italy. Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (1570-1) ordered all the Jews in Florence to be resettled in their own walled community, located in the aromatic, less savoury part of town and came with the lovely incentive of a perky yellow hat which had to be worn; prostitues had earlier made this the height of fashion. Unlike prostitutes the Jews operated as a self-governing body, adjudicating their religious affairs, and only going to the Italian authorities for important legal issues, making them more similar to groups of alien merchants or convents. Abulafia finds Siegmund’s efforts competent enough, agreeing with her that study in this area is great for understand state-building in the 16th century. He does find her scope too narrow, a general complaint in this area of scholarship he says, lacking any wider context in Italy or even Europe and finds her argument for the idea that the walled community was “feminised” during the day when the “strapping” young men went out for work rather silly.

If you are interested in a rigorous book on homosexual culture, one that avoids the casual, lazy scholarship that typically comes out of queer studiesdepts look no further. Robert Aldrich has edited the impressive Gay Life & Culture: a World History and is among the few that match the excellent quality of Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, written a few decades ago. So says Richard Daven-port Hines in “The throne trembles”. The writing may be a bit dry but the views and analyses make up for it. One gets sensible rather than hysterical essays onpederastry in ancient Greek, Islamic and Japanese society; a wider idea of sexuality that runs throughout avoiding the hetero-normative concept of gay or straight; and essays on little considered tribal societies in New Guinea. Even better these are accompanied with a beautiful and relevant selection of photographs, provided by a loved employee of the British library (unfortunately I’ve forgotten her name) who was accidentally killed last year.

Last of all was the Commentary on Patrick White. The first thing I gratefully noticed was that Commentary was back to two full pages, rather than the splitting in two bits or a simply briefer offering, squashed into the top of the page by a university press ad or something. (Keep it up TLS!) David Malouf’s Castle Hill Lear: Patrick White reappraised accomplished the unexpected: it persuaded me to give Patrick White a go. (Reading list and wallet groans.) The Literary Saloon holds much admiration for White and makes a point of highlighting any article about him, accompanied by exhortations to read him, read him, read him! I didn’t listen. I cannot say why: name was a bit too boring? Australian writer not exciting enough? Nobel Prize (which tends to elicit a yawn as often as interest, depending on the moon phase)? No matter as Malouf’s cogent take, free from hyperbolic language, convinced me that White’s books deserve a peek or two at the very least. (Aha! I see NYRB has his Riders in Chariots available. Love the cover.)

Oh and don’t forget the letters. People are still battling it out on whether Hardy’s wife really had syphyllis. So far everyone is against the poor doctor who did a bit of poetry analysis and came up with the belated diagnosis.

In the current NYRB the editors have taken the holiday spirit to heart and are making it Christmas the whole year through. For there are not one, not two, not three but *five* female contributors. (Out of 20 but everyone knows percentages are for losers.) Five! I thought this day would never come. I can’t say I was very interested in any of the articles, penned by male or female, but there did seem to be a less uneven balance between the politics and the fiction coverage. (Christmas every month indeed!) I tried to read Messud’s review of Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land but she spent half of the first page giving me plot lines of all Ford’s books and I lost interest. The usual spate of Iraq articles were there, one of which was actually a bit unconventional. Christian Carlyle’s article actually focuses on the Iraqi citizens in What About the Iraqis? (Freely available on NYRB as it deserves to be.) The books reviewed are either by Iraqi citizens (a collection of blog posts by Riverbend ) or are in-dept interviews done over a period of time with them, where the authors allow the citizens voices to be as dominant as possible. All of them seem to be a worthwhile purchase and I urge everyone to read the article. Also, do check out letters to see the continuing argument about the benefits of the current way foreign aid is dispersed in African and the idealogical assumptions behind the different positions.

(I flipped through Quill & Quire and decided lit magazines were not my sort of thing . Lots of stuff about author’s successes (who cares?) and reports on YA fiction–”Are there too many kids series?” My word!–and the “Hottest Spring titles!” Bleh.)

What We Wanted to Tell You About Iran – New York Times

HERE is the redacted version of a draft Op-Ed article we wrote for The Times, as blacked out by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Publication Review Board after the White House intervened in the normal prepublication review process and demanded substantial deletions. Agency officials told us that they had concluded on their own that the original draft included no classified material, but that they had to bow to the White House.

Indeed, the deleted portions of the original draft reveal no classified material. These passages go into aspects of American-Iranian relations during the Bush administration’s first term that have been publicly discussed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; a former State Department policy planning director, Richard Haass; and a former special envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins.

These aspects have been extensively reported in the news media, and one of us, Mr. Leverett, has written about them in The Times and other publications with the explicit permission of the review board. We provided the following citations to the board to demonstrate that all of the material the White House objected to is already in the public domain. Unfortunately, to make sense of much of our Op-Ed article, readers will have to read the citations for themselves.

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Is it too late to cancel my Green Card application? (Frankly, my mother wouldn’t let me.) For the past five years my interest in living in the USA has dwindled and has now reaced zero. Zilch. Nill. And this is not the worst part. The worst part is that the majority of American citizens will sigh and do nothing. Nothing.

Aziz Huq reviews two books that address, from different perspectives, the divide in continental Europe between self-identified Muslim minorities and the various national majorities (via Laila Lalami). This passage struck me in particular because I always get the impression that some feel that if you try to understand and explain the reasons people resort to violence you are justifying it. The brazen aversion to thought of that position never fails to make me breathless.

To understand that alienation, racism, and the deprivation of opportunity is the soil in which violent radicalism might grow is not the same as justifying or condoning violence. People who are wronged can, and often do, commit even greater wrongs in their misguided efforts at revenge. Indeed, perceived incidents of anti-Muslim bias in Europe often trigger reactions among Muslims that are far more hateful, bigoted and stupid than the initial incident.

This understanding, nevertheless, is important if European governments are to stall the growth of oppositional ideologies among Muslim minorities.


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