The Books of My Numberless Dreams

London Review of Books, Dec. 14th issue

Posted on: December 16, 2006

I am pleased to note that the London Review of Books has its own editorial style—it is not another TLS or NYRB. The average article length seems longer and every book reviewed gets a fair shake; nothing is shuttled off to any “Brief Round-up” or “Paperback Row”. It is more cosmopolitan than the TLS. This issue alone took me to three continents including South America, and the last had that excellent one on the Darfur talks. The TLS mainly deals with Europe and the USA. Like the NYRB non-fiction soundly whips fiction for review space yet I am strangely not bothered. Or it is not so strange: NYRB does predictable, political non-fiction coverage on America and the Middle-East (i.e. Iraq, Israel and Iran). Yawn. (So is Harper and about a million others.)

I looked most forward to Ian Hacking’s review of Lesley Sharpe’s Strange Harvest because it was about organ transplants. The Economist recently covered the topic, supporting the legal trade of organs in order to meet the demand and discourage use of the inefficient, dangerous black market. Hacking’s article had that excessively personal tone I hate—you know the one, it’s as if he is writing in his journal telling you where he was when he was reading the book, how he got it, “I thought organs were spare parts!” blah blah blah. To be fair each personal titbit served as a segue to a new thought or facet of his piece. But the style annoyed me and, for a coverage of a medical topic, increased my scepticism towards the writer’s analysis.

Which wasn’t very good. On the virtues of presumed vs informed consent to address England’s donor shortage he asserts that looking to presumed consent as a solution is “completely mistaken”. The USA is strict about informed consent and they have twice as many donors! Gee, I wonder if having twice the population has anything to do with it. But look Greece has presumed consent but only half as many as the UK. Gee, maybe that’s because they have about half the population? Come on. His claim that Spain’s presumed consent law is not staunchly practised as victim’s relatives are consulted is more persuasive but he cites no sources. (He writes that Strange Harvest is “almost entirely American in scope”.)

He is somewhat better at addressing the ethical concerns surrounding brain-stem vs heart death due to the use of anaesthesia. If the person is dead why is it needed? Some acknowledged that the anaesthesia may help to ease any pain the not quite dead person may feel, which raised a red flag. But his other evidence that was clearly meant to widen our eyes in dismay, the body parts may twitch when a nerve was pinched, was laughably insignificant. (It is disturbing to see!) Sharpe’s weak analogy of transplant conferences to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings—the transplant recipient has to stay on a cocktail of medication too, ya know…for err…the rest of his life in order to survive—and Hacking’s waxing on about the soul, where he thinks it resides and what it has to do with the legitimacy of brain death had me shaking my head at the dubious value of *journalists writing about science.

Peter Mair’s critique of Ian Buruma’s book on Theo Van Gogh’s death, another assessment of which I posted on previously, came off a bit better. Not for his analysis on anyone involved in the controversy surrounding the death but for his political and social perspective on Amsterdam. He provided clarity on why Fortuyn was as popular as he was and that Dutch society’s idea of multiculturalism consisted of separate societies going to their own schools and churches and watching their own channels. Indeed it was only lately that learning of the language was even encouraged, as English was an adequate medium.

His take on Van Gogh was less impressive. Mair is determined to present him as an essentially good, accepting man with a controversial tv persona. See, he was filming a love story about an interracial relationship before he died—he loves everyone. Also he used to be in this club that Van Gogh was in, and everyone would drink and talk, he was a capital fellow. Yet later on he prints the several racist epithets Van Gogh had for Muslims, mentioning that he had more for Jews and Christians. Mair clearly feels that the evident contradiction needs no attention or explanation. (Or that dramatics for the big screen trump dramatics for the small.)

Other articles I enjoyed were Gary Indiana’s commentary on Kathy Acker, an experimental feminist writer from the NY underground scene and Helen Cooper’s on John Skelton (horrid audio warning), a poet of whom I had never heard of before. Apparently he was as experimental and impenetrable as Acker but for far different and eventually more intelligible reasons as the body of criticism about him grows. Oh and a poem by Tom Lowenstein, ‘Conversation with Murasaki’, took up practically an entire page. I literally gasped with astonishment and pleasure when I saw it and, of course, had to give it my attention.

All in all it was a good time. The Nov. 2 issue is just out of reach and contains an article by my favourite literary critic Colin Burrow. (I bought Penguin Classics’ Metaphysical Poetry collection partly because he wrote the introduction.)

*As it turns out Hacking sits on a chair for philosophy for a Parisian college, which in many ways is just as bad (the philosophy bit not Parisian).

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