This book was a gift from my mother. She and I both loathed Nafisi's first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran; we agreed that it was whiny and trite, tryi...moreThis book was a gift from my mother. She and I both loathed Nafisi's first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran; we agreed that it was whiny and trite, trying too hard to turn Nabokov into a metonym for Nafisi's own life.
This book is simpler and more honest. It's not really about Nafisi at all, but about her parents, a political couple in 1960s, '70s and '80s Iran. In particular, it looks at the interplay between their political and marital problems, and the way this toxic mix affected their children. As such, it's a powerful account of how political turmoil really works, how it infiltrates individual lives, and a powerful antidote to the blanket stereotypes of troubled nations, like Iran, that we encounter in much of our press.
Nafisi offers adept analysis of her parents' motives and actions, often 'reading' them in the way you might expect her, as a professional literary critic, to read a text. She is sometimes piercing, sometimes mocking, sometimes empathetic, the way good scholars are towards their subjects, and it works.
Unfortunately this balance between heartstring-tugging and speaking-at-a-remove collapses when Nafisi starts to narrate her own adult life. The last section of the book sounds just like Reading Lolita. It's strident, shrill and repetitive, and works far too hard to make metaphorical mountains out of Nafisi's personal molehills.
Without the last 80 pages, this book might have had one more star. That said, I'm still glad I read it, and think the first three sections offer a compelling blueprint for any aspiring memoirists.(less)
This is billed as a history of the contemporary Supreme Court, but that's underselling what this book has to offer. It's really a history of the rise...moreThis is billed as a history of the contemporary Supreme Court, but that's underselling what this book has to offer. It's really a history of the rise and fall of Reaganite conservatism, and the development of the Bushian conservatism that replaced it.
By grounding THAT story in the battles in, and over, the Supreme Court, Toobin is making the (liberal) argument that the Court is and always will be a political institution, no better and no worse than the other branches, and that therefore Conservatives should stop whining about constructionism.
That argument, in and of itself, isn't really bold or original. It's the kind of knee-jerk punditry that earns Toobin his keep on CNN. But the means by which he advances his case--through the history of conservative ideas and individuals--is unique and compelling, and reflects Toobin's other job, as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Toobin's NYer pieces always meld biography and character study into cultural history and that's what he's done, to great effect, with each of the justices: their jogging habits or romantic choices mesh with the zeitgeist to reveal something about their ideology.
What I like best about this approach is that it allows Toobin to be damning of their ideas when he wants to be without making it feel ad hominem, since he's given sympathetic portraits of each justice, even as he uses those personal characterizations to explain the ideas. It's impressively cunning. Even more impressive, when one takes into account the depth of reporting involved in crafting such personal looks at such highly guarded statesmen (and -women).
It does get a bit repetitive towards the end, and it feels as though the CNN pundit is taking over for the NYer writer in the last section of the book (From the 2004 election forward). It seemed to me that Toobin's stridency there was compensating for a lack of reporting depth--he simply hadn't had as much time with new justices like Alito as he had with O'Connor or Souter.
For his portraits of these older justices, though, this book is recommended.(less)
This was my second time through Infinite Jest and I have to say, I was underwhelmed. When i first read it, in high school, I thought all the rhetorica...moreThis was my second time through Infinite Jest and I have to say, I was underwhelmed. When i first read it, in high school, I thought all the rhetorical and narrative flourishes were bold and avant-garde; this time I found them contrived.
There were a few aha! moments, where he'd unpack or explain something really mundane and I'd think "oh yes, that's happened to me," much the way one does when hearing a good standup comedian.
But that's my biggest grievance with 20th century stream-of-consciousness writing; at its best, it articulates in new ways things we already knew about ourselves. I suppose what I want is to learn something I didn't know already, preferably about other people or society at large. That leaves me, for the most part, reading c19 social novels and contemporary nonfiction and avoiding Wallace's era/genre altogether. Which means you should probably take my review with several pinches of salt.(less)
I REALLY wanted to like this, having met Peer a few times on the NYC journo/policy circuit. I get, sort of, what he's trying to do here, to give us an...moreI REALLY wanted to like this, having met Peer a few times on the NYC journo/policy circuit. I get, sort of, what he's trying to do here, to give us an image of Kashmiris as basically a nation without a state, stuck within the nation-state of India and to take the religious nature of the conflict between Pakistan and India OVER Kashmir off the table. As a journalist, he does a good job being fair in advancing this view, giving us nuanced and diverse pictures of all the parties involved in the Kashmir-India conflict HE'S narrating and he has a few powerful turns of phrase. But structurally, the book doesn't have a narrative arc; it's almost too journalistic, anecdote piled upon anecdote with the occasional pull back to restate the thesis, which itself doesn't build or grow from beginning to end. That's fine in a 500 word news piece; in a memoir, there needs to be some growth. Suffice to say, it's not Train to Pakistan, but certainly, it's good enough that if Peer writes a sequel, I'll read it.(less)
I studied under Gregory, so take this with several pinches of salt, but this book is stunning. It leaves just about every preceding account of First W...moreI studied under Gregory, so take this with several pinches of salt, but this book is stunning. It leaves just about every preceding account of First World War Britain--Ferguson, Sheffield, Winter, Hynes, Marwick, even Todman--in the dust.
Gregory's thesis has clear roots in his earlier work on interwar Britain. The Cliffs Notes version is that far from being "alienated" from their indifferent families and friends on the home front, the way the mythology of the war suggests, soldiers became the bedrock of identity for all British civilians during this period, and the soldier's sacrifice (meaning his life) the way everyone else came to measure their relative virtue. Britons found innovative ways--through religion, public policy and economic incentive--to believe that military service was personal salvation. Moreover, they found ways to believe that everyone could achieve something equivalent in civilian life, overcoming, for a time, the resentment that stems from the UNEQUAL way that war deaths were distributed across the country. In other words, they created a myth of social salvation too.
The book is structured thematically, addressing civilian reaction to the outbreak, the role of propaganda, military recruitment, military fundraising, the role of religion, the role of unions, the treatment of widows and veterans and the way the myth of sacrifice/salvation played out in the post-war memorials (Gregory has a separate book, Silence of Memory, that is all about this last theme).
The genius of the book is that this broad thematic take on wartime Britain allows Gregory to more or less encompass the arguments made by all his predecessors without truly "choosing" a school. Everyone else who has written on the war has one factor, from religion to class to culture, they deem paramount as an explanatory tool; Gregory's organizing tool of sacrifice/salvation can be applied to each of those factors. That is not to say that Gregory doesn't take on, and disagree forcefully, with his peers and predecessors. Rather, he earns the credibility to call someone's argument rubbish by taking them on within a multi-faceted argument--he cannot be dismissed as having a one-track mind or one axe to grind of his own. That is perhaps a mark of his maturity. Gregory has worked on this subject and this period for several decades and this book is the culmination of that lifelong research.
Gregory's academic temperament also helps: in each chapter, he takes on the prevailing arguments about that factor or theme, and uses sacrifice/salvation to either corroborate, complicate or debunk it. In almost all cases, he comes down somewhere in the middle, finding merits and flaws in everyone's approach. His language is cautious and hesitant, always "we should not be too quick to generalize from X data." This too increases the weight of his words when in some chapters he lashes out unequivocally against one particular myth. It is refreshing to see this tone in academia, which seems so often polarized between people who have too much agenda and those who have no real ideas at all.
There are bones to pick, to be sure, mostly that despite what appear to be the author's best efforts, the books sometimes falls into certain knee-jerk British patriotic cliches. But these moments are far outweighed by passages that astound with their analytic honesty.
You may think this book is not for everyone since it's serious academic writing, not general interest nonfiction (and does require some background). But to be frank, it often reads easier than much modern fiction. That's because Gregory brings alive the characters of individuals--men, and loads of women--on the street through lengthy quotations from letters, diaries, court and press records. Gregory puts it best himself: he sees social history as "collective biography," an approach that, whatever its academic implications, works as a narrative style.
If you know even a smidge about the First World War or British history and society, this is worth a read.(less)
My least favorite kind of fiction: the journey into the self without any intention of emerging with a broader message. Perhaps it's because I'm still...moreMy least favorite kind of fiction: the journey into the self without any intention of emerging with a broader message. Perhaps it's because I'm still married to the Victorian novels that are massive social critiques couched in domestic narratives, but I find this kind of psychological, post-Proust fiction deeply unsatisfying. Especially since Coetzee [remember Barbarians and Disgrace?:] has it in him to do more, to take this portrait of a young student and make it "about" something: options in this story would be South Africa, about the postcolonial reverse immigration, or about the monotony of corporate work. As it is, it's just 300 pages of polished, but pointless, prose acrobatics.(less)
Re-read this as part of my August project to go back through old favorites and also as a refresher before tackling Wright's new book. But, having re-r...moreRe-read this as part of my August project to go back through old favorites and also as a refresher before tackling Wright's new book. But, having re-read Nonzero, I'm now not sure I want to tackle the new book (Evolution of God) at all (I bought it and skimmed the opening bits).
Wright's basic thesis, which he's been hammering over several books and many articles for years, is a combination of evolutionary psychology and the economics of game theory. Evolution leads us to do whatever is in our self-interest re: survival. Game theory shows that sometimes incentives are set up that make one man's win another man's loss (zero sum) and at other times both parties have to win or they both lose (non zero sum).
Wright posits that the sociological outcome of evolution--more complexity in human life and relationships--leads to more nonzero than zero sum situations and therefore to less brutal competition and more collaboration. In other words, he's trying to inject some moral value and purpose into the trajectory of evolution, building a bridge between science and religion, and taking the debate away from the Hobbesian nature state vision advanced by Richard Dawkins and other New Atheist types. This is where his new book fits in: it's all about how religion is a way we justify/explain to ourselves whatever evolution makes us do, but since evolution makes us more collaborative, not more outright competitive over time, religion must become more tolerant/less doctrinaire. That means it's his version of evolution not the New Atheist version that best explains the dwindling influence of fundamentalist religion in highly complex/developed societies.
When I first read Wright, as a college undergrad trying to work through my own religious beliefs while engaged in studies of critical reasoning, this was the piece I found most compelling--the links he was making between rationality and spirituality.
Now, however, that I'm primarily concerned with current events, what I find most compelling is the piece of his argument that gives liberals--and Wright is one--a place within the modern, globalized, market economy, by connecting self-interest to communal/cooperative gain. Not by mimicking the Friedman-esque rhetoric that everyone gains when we compete. Rather, Wright suggests that we gain as individuals from expanding global systems of interconnectivity (ex: the G20, the WTO). I'd like to see a progressive politics built on that idea, though I've no idea where or whom it would come from.
In short, though I did take off a star for the cheesiness of Wright's prose, this is one of those great books whose wisdom actually expands each time you read it. (less)
I know I was supposed to love this book, being as it won the '08 Pulitzer and all, but honestly, I just found it sloppy.
Here's the summary--Ubergeek...moreI know I was supposed to love this book, being as it won the '08 Pulitzer and all, but honestly, I just found it sloppy.
Here's the summary--Ubergeek grows up in 1980s Jersey, with his Dominican single-mom and tomboy sister. Is depressed and lonely all his life, including at college, where his roommate is an Alpha male jock, who narrates the story for us in flashback mode. Ubergeek dies young [won't tell you how:], depressed and still lonely. Second set of flashbacks inform us that his mother had a lousy life in the DR before coming to the States, much of which has to do with the brutalities of the nation's mid-century dictator, Trujillo, but also with her own loneliness/sexual desperation.
Here's the problem: there are three books competing for page space here and they don't mesh together. There's a Stephen King style story about the psyche of the disgruntled adolescent male, replete with references to SciFi greats like Tolkien. There's a Jamaica Kincaid style story about the confused immigrant, mostly centered on the tension between Ubergeek's mother and sister. And there's an Isabel Allende style story about the spiritual starvation that totalitarianism inflicted upon Latin America.
Our narrator, a cussing, clumsy man in his early middle age whose one regret is that he never married Ubergeek's sister, is surprisingly adept at addressing each of these, but he can't move between them because he addresses each one with such a different voice. It's a problem that pervades immigrant literature these days, actually. Like another of my favorite punching bags, Jhumpa Lahiri, Diaz started out as a short story writer. And I wonder if this wouldn't have worked better as a collection of stories than as a novel.
Secondly, I'm uncomfortable with the way sex seems to work as a symbol for EVERYTHING in this book. There are good cases to be made for mapping all these various social tensions onto people's bodies, but the book never really makes that case, and a lot of the sexual content just comes across as gratuitous.
That said, in its favor, I finished in about 3 hours, so it must have done something right.(less)
Another gem from Julian Barnes, perhaps best characterized as a memoir in essay form.
By which I mean, it doesn't have a narrative arc or set out to t...moreAnother gem from Julian Barnes, perhaps best characterized as a memoir in essay form.
By which I mean, it doesn't have a narrative arc or set out to take us through Barnes' life or any particular chronological section of it. In fact, it leaves lots out--his marriage and his professional life are noticeably absent.
Instead, it begins the way a magazine essay on mortality might, with some musings about how we cope with death in a post-religious society (keep in mind, this is England, not evangelical America). Like a magazine essay, it then proceeeds through a series of collected wisdoms about mortality and religion from various philosophers and literary giants, interspersed with conversations with contemporary writers, or Barnes' brother (a philosophy prof.)
Only Barnes could take those musings, which might carry on moving tangentially from one philosopher to the next for 2000 words, and sustain our interest over 200 pages. He does so by getting the best elements of memoir into the essay format: memoir, at its core, is not biography, nor is it journal entries. It's targeted, specific elements of the past that are relevant to an understanding of the present. And in between the philosophizing there are short bits and pieces of Barnes' past--specifically his childhood and family life, the deaths of relatives, his irreligious upbringing--that are relevant to his present perspective on what MATTERS in human life and what thus should be chronicled in his writing.
But those personal stories are inserted as asides in a long philosophical tract, NOT as a core narrative meat. Which is why this is a memoir in essay form, rather than a lyrical or essay-like memoir. A petty distinction you may say, but if you're choosing your next read, this matters. If you want a story, don't pick this one up. If you want a brain-wrestle with the likes of Zola and Montaigne, with commercial breaks of Barnes family life, than this is your kind of book.(less)
It's a classic for a reason: when Bowles describes the Maghreb landscape, he's dead on, and the prose is as rich and exotic as any travel novel could...moreIt's a classic for a reason: when Bowles describes the Maghreb landscape, he's dead on, and the prose is as rich and exotic as any travel novel could be. His characters are properly eccentric and artfully portrayed, but the conflicts between them and don't get the depth of treatment they deserve. Neither do the many political questions raised by a narrative of post-colonial journey. Bowles, like so many writers, brushes aside the hard questions with a tragic ending that conveniently consumes all the characters and their viewpoints with them.
Mostly, then, it's a novel that raises your expectations then leaves them hanging there. Too bad--with lines like "She was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze," you'd think Bowles could do more. (less)
Mediocre and certainly not worth the hype. Stewart aces the important part of journalistic nonfiction--he has some unique and pointed things to say ab...moreMediocre and certainly not worth the hype. Stewart aces the important part of journalistic nonfiction--he has some unique and pointed things to say about the US/UK war effort in Afghanistan and about the cruelties of tribal politics--but the weight of his critique is undermined by the shoddiness of his prose and his lack of self-awareness. For example, he knows he's tracing the same path taken by Mughal Emperor Babur in the early modern period and of course, also by countless colonial powers in between. He references Babur often for romantic historical tangents, but conveniently brushes over the colonialists, trying to overlook the fact that he too is trafficking in that trope: he's protected on his trip by government officials because he's a former employee of the British state. Not that he shouldn't have the right to travel and write on these places, but that he earns the right by being honest about the political circumstances that allow him to do so.(less)