The first anthropology text I was required to read as an undergraduate was a delightful and instructive satire by Horace Miner, "Body Ritual among theThe first anthropology text I was required to read as an undergraduate was a delightful and instructive satire by Horace Miner, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema," which originally appeared in The American Anthropologist, vol. 58 (1956), pp. 503-507, and which has been reproduced many times since. The point was to warn aspiring anthropologists against the dangers of interpreting other cultures based on inadequate information or lack cultural understanding. It was both instructive and humorous. When I was in my first year of graduate school, my adviser shared with me a cartoon with two panels. On the left was depicted a nondescript shard of pottery labeled "Archaeological Find." On the right was a drawing of a triumphal procession of chariots down a street lined with elaborate columns surmounted with intricate friezes in bas-relief while trumpets blared and crowds in elaborate costumes cheered. It was labeled "Archaeologist's Reconstruction." Motel of the Mysteries is an illustrated and humorous look at the excavation and (mis)interpretation of a twentieth-century North American motel, "TOOT 'N' C'MON," and its associated artifacts by a forty-first century archaeologist, bow-tie-wearing Howard Carson. And if you don't get the angle Macaulay is going for, just consider that the discovery happens in 4022, 2100 years after another famous discovery by an archaeologist working in Egypt with the financial backing of Lord Carnarvon. Carson's faithful assistant, Harriet, wears some of the recovered artifacts in a sly reference to Sophia Schliemann, who was fond of wearing ancient jewelry discovered at Hisarlik. The book also skewers museums and their gift shops and reenactments of ancient cultures. It is cleverly executed, even if it is a bit of a one-trick pony. ...more
If a student in a creative writing class were to turn in this piece of improbable and poorly written prose, he or she would (it is to be fervently hopIf a student in a creative writing class were to turn in this piece of improbable and poorly written prose, he or she would (it is to be fervently hoped) receive a polite note from the instructor advising the exploration of careers as far removed from writing as possible. Lack of talent is not a condition that can be remedied, and this novel is a clear and perfect demonstration that the author needs to seek another vocation. The writing is so bad that I felt compelled to keep reading in the hopes that it might get better -- it didn't. There is a place in the ninth circle of Dante's hell for the editor who approved this dreck for publication, for it is nothing less than treason to readers to represent as a work of art the efforts of an incompetent scribbler. "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate."...more
This is an ambitious, challenging, experimental novel that is better in conception than in execution. The theme of time and how to represent its complThis is an ambitious, challenging, experimental novel that is better in conception than in execution. The theme of time and how to represent its complexity in linear narrative is overshadowed rather than illuminated by the bipartite structure of the novel, which ends up seeming like a marketing strategy gone wrong. The novel's two parts are switched in various iterations of the print edition and duplicated in the electronic version. I read parts in both formats. The electronic version is more confusing, because when one has finished the book, it appears that one is only 50% of the way through it, since the text appears again in mirror image at the 50% point. The author's idea was that the reader could decide which of the two halves of the story to read first, "Eye" or "Camera." "Eye" (which I read first) is ostensibly the story told from the point of view of the disembodied spirit of the fifteenth century Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, who thinks he/she is in purgatory bearing witness to the strange behavior of a modern adolescent girl named Georgia who is called George. "Camera" is the story told from George's perspective. Theoretically, one could read the story starting with either part and then reread them in a different order in order to compare the perception. In fact, having read the parts in one sequence will forever alter one's perception, like those visual illusions (http://mathworld.wolfram.com/YoungGir...) in which one's initial perception tends to dominate, although one can switch between images with a little effort. The question of time and narrative is worth exploring, and How to be Both could certainly fit in a curriculum exploring that concept with Proust, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, but that part of the experiment was perhaps less than successful in Ali Smith's book. There are other themes, including the nature of art, the meaning of gender, and the reality of losing one's identity through death that Smith explores, but I would assert that the primary purpose of a novel is to entertain. That it may also educate, inspire, change one's worldview, or simply allow one to appreciate well-written prose is a given. But if the philosophical structure is more than the narrative can sustain, the novel must be judged less than successful. I would argue that that is the case here. I'm glad that I read it, because I learned new things and it made me think about important issues in ways I might not have otherwise done, but I was not entertained by it. Had the prose been stronger, I might have had a more positive impression despite the structural flaws, but the author has little hope of being recognized as a prose stylist. If only novels had covers like music -- I can't help but wonder what John Banville would have done with this concept....more
What a wonderful depiction of the joys and hardships of fieldwork! The novel is loosely based on the relationships in the field among Margaret Mead, hWhat a wonderful depiction of the joys and hardships of fieldwork! The novel is loosely based on the relationships in the field among Margaret Mead, her first husband, Reo Fortune, and her second husband to be, Gregory Bateson. It also alludes to the intellectual and sexual relationship she shared with Ruth Benedict, who was a teaching assistant to Franz Boas at Columbia when Mead began her studies in anthropology there. I had the great good fortune to meet Margaret Mead in the early seventies at an international anthropological congress in Chicago. She came into the hotel bar with her great walking stick, sat down beside me, bought me a drink and inquired with real and intense interest about my work. She died a few years later, but I have never forgotten our conversation or the power of her presence. Though the names of the characters are changed in the novel, their true identities will be apparent to anyone familiar with the beginnings of American anthropology. Those who have engaged in fieldwork will recognize many of the experiences depicted with such deft strokes in this fine work, including that wonderful but misleading euphoria that possesses one when one "understands" the culture being studied. That euphoria is, of course, soon followed by the sobering realization that one has only scratched the surface. King has written a nuanced and intellectually stimulating novel that is rich in emotion and full of insights into the lives of the characters. Reading it has made me remember those intense conversations lasting into the early morning hours at graduate school when the real people and their writings on which the novel is based were discussed with seriousness and fervor. The work also brings back a longing for my own days in the field when the whole world seemed new, and understanding the "nature of man" was only a matter of time and good, solid work. ...more
Bacigalupi's award-winning book of speculative fiction presents a frightening vision of a world gone wrong in a future shaped by anthropogenic mishapsBacigalupi's award-winning book of speculative fiction presents a frightening vision of a world gone wrong in a future shaped by anthropogenic mishaps. The most frightening aspect of the vision is the realization that all we have to do to make it (or a close approximation of it} real is to keep doing what we are currently doing. In a Bangkok of the future, climate change, genetic modification, resource depletion, globalization, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, political scheming, corporate greed, and corruption at all levels of society threaten to destroy one of the last refuges of humanity. The author's talent lies in his ability to create a compelling story with interesting characters set in an exotic but believable future and to have that story function as a warning of the dangers of life in the Anthropocene epoch without letting the message overshadow the narrative. By allowing the reader to discover the world of the novel through the interactions of the characters with their environment and with each other rather than through explanatory descriptions, the author engages the reader in a way that makes the world both more real and more frightening. Bacigalupi explores issues of transhumanism with its posthuman "products" and has his characters engage in interesting but chilling speculation on just who does and who doesn't possess a soul. One almost expects Descartes to make a guest appearance. Lovers of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," perhaps his best treatise on the soul, will find much to delight them in the novel, from an unreformed Prospero as renegade genetic engineer to a most engaging amalgam of Caliban and Ariel in the "person" of the titular character. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein provides excellent context for reading The Windup Girl.
Miranda: O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world That has such people in't!
Prospero: 'Tis new to thee. The Tempest Act 5, scene 1, 181–184
This was not what I was expecting -- it was far better. Harari has produced a well-reasoned, well-researched extended essay on the human condition thaThis was not what I was expecting -- it was far better. Harari has produced a well-reasoned, well-researched extended essay on the human condition that raises a number of significant ethical issues about our species and its development. Not content merely to describe our evolution and historical development, he explores issues such as happiness, the meaning of life, and our responsibility for our non-human shipmates on spaceship Earth. He also muses about the future of our species and the extent to which it will be affected by genetic manipulation, cyborgian technology, and the development of artificial intelligence. He presents a very cogent critique of capitalism, consumerism, and the hand-in-glove collaborations of science, government, religion, and capital in the shaping of our modern world with the resulting amelioration of some of the worst ills of our species at the same time that heretofore unknown ills have been visited upon us. It is a thought-provoking book of the finest order and highly recommended, despite the annoying and confusing exclusive use of the feminine third person singular pronoun in a misguided attempt at gender affirmative action. But then language, like our species, continues to change. ...more
This is a model to which all gardening books and nature guides should aspire. The color photographs are well done, useful, and integrated with the texThis is a model to which all gardening books and nature guides should aspire. The color photographs are well done, useful, and integrated with the text in a pleasing manner. The maps and charts are clear and easy to use. The book focuses on the interactions between North American native plants and the insects that pollinate them, use them as larval food sources, or as nectar sources. In addition to information on identifying and growing native plants in a variety of environments, the book also contains information on identifying and attracting their pollinators, including information on nesting sites. It is well designed, well written, beautiful, and extraordinarily useful. Highly recommended for anyone interested in restoring habitat for native species or enjoying the incredibly intricate dance of insects and flowers in the landscape....more
Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to co
Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.
In 1975 or 1976, as I wandered through the desert near the Arg-e Bam in Iran looking for camera angles, I encountered a group of soldiers dressed in 19th century uniforms engaged in wrestling a cannon across the sand and gravel. They were speaking Italian. When I asked what they were doing, they replied that they were making a film, "Il deserto dei Tartari". At the time I had never heard of Dino Buzzati's novel of the same title on which the film was based, and more than thirty-five years passed before I saw the excellent film directed by Valerio Zurlini and released in October of 1976. Buzzati's novel was published in 1940, just two years before The Stranger appeared in its original French (L’Étranger). Both are excellent exemplars of absurdist fiction.
My first encounter with Camus was reading The Myth of Sisyphus as an undergraduate. It was many decades later that I read The Plague. Ross Gay, a very talented poet and good friend, recently commented that The Stranger had been the only non-assigned book he had read in high school, so, having enjoyed The Plague, I thought I should read it as well. I'm glad I did. Just as in The Tartar Steppe, so also in The Stranger is the protagonist a kind of flaneur, observing those about him but emotionally disengaged from the life that flows on without them. For Drogo in The Tartar Steppe, his days are spent guarding the Bastiani Fortress against the Tartar attack that may or may not happen while life goes on in his hometown without him. In The Stranger [Perhaps better, "The Outsider"], Meursault is AWOL from the life he is supposed to be living. His alienation achieves a resolution only in the moment when no more meaningless decisions are left for him to make:
As if that blind rage had washed me clean , rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world . Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.
Camus was a wonderful writer. I felt the hot sun of North Africa, the headaches brought on by drinking too much wine in the heat, and the absurdity of life for Meursault. There is an atmosphere of unrelieved bleakness in a life lived without purpose by one who has little or no interest or understanding of the situations in which he finds himself, the expectations of those around him, or the events which toss him like a beachball in the surf. Meursault, lamed by his feeling of Geworfenheit is unable to create meaning where he sees none. Consequently, he pays the price. In Buzzati's novel, Drogo does what he perceives to be his duty and only in the end realizes that his life was meaningless. Land-Surveyor K. will never get through to the Castle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (clueless as ever) will deliver their "Uriah letter," and Vladimir and Estragon are still waiting. And what about those actors pushing a cannon through the Iranian desert? That scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
Camus has defined the philosophy of the absurd through his works, and, as if that weren't enough, he died in a road accident (1960) three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature (1957). In his pocket was an unused train ticket he had intended to use for the trip he ended up taking by car. In the wreckage, the manuscript of the semi-autobiographical novel he was writing was found and later published as The First Man (1995).
What an honor and a privilege to be given access to the mind of one of the most original thinkers in the history of literature! In the 1967-1968 CharlWhat an honor and a privilege to be given access to the mind of one of the most original thinkers in the history of literature! In the 1967-1968 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard University, Borges spoke extemporaneously and without notes (he was blind by this time) about his life in literature and the craft of poetry. I read this slim volume (published in 2000) containing his six lectures and the afterword by the editor, Cătlin-Andrei Mihăilescu, and closed it to find my eyes filled with tears. They were the tears of loss that such a brilliant mind has gone out of the world but also tears of gratitude that one such as he had come to be and that he has shared with us his love of reading and his insight into the magical world of words. From our father Homer through Vergil through Borges, the chain continues, and I have at hand the latest volume of Alberto Manguel who keeps alive the light of truth passed down from heart to heart of those who love the music of the words. Once as a young man while orange blossoms drifted down, I sat with my hands on the tomb of Saadi and wished for understanding. In Borges I have found that wish fulfilled by learning that the seeking is the treasure and that joining the company of seekers is the highest aspiration. Borges imagined Paradise to be a kind of magnificent library, and I cannot help but picture him there, his sight restored, climbing a ladder to reach a cherished volume shelved among the eternal stars. ...more
To begin at the end, Mavis Gallant wrote an Afterword to this volume of short stories selected and introduced by Michael Ondaatje, which is, in effectTo begin at the end, Mavis Gallant wrote an Afterword to this volume of short stories selected and introduced by Michael Ondaatje, which is, in effect, an autobiography of her life as a writer from her childhood in Canada through her decisive move to her expatriate home in Paris. I begin with the Afterword because it sheds light on the writer's mind, the stories, and the craft of writing; because it might better be read as a Foreword; but most of all because it is as well written as the stories themselves. Every sentence that Gallant published was crafted to serve the whole of which it formed a part. In the stories (filled with oblique narration, sly humor, intricate description, personality/culture clashes, and segues that depend heavily upon the reader paying attention and participating in the telling of the tale) one finds hints in the characters, the situations, and the tone of narration that allow one to surmise what might have gone on before and that invite speculation on what might be yet to come. These stories are not suggested for reading in airports between flights or in hospital waiting rooms. These stories require a library with lots of rich, dark wood, polished brass, soft and aromatic leather upholstery, heavy fabrics in the colors of malachite, with only the whisper of turning pages for background noise. A decanter of malmsey or a pot of Jungpana Darjeeling is optional. The point is that attention must be paid. These stories create worlds that the reader must inhabit in order to appreciate their art, so distractions must be minimized. And now we come to the rub -- as wonderfully written as they are, as evocative of the human condition as they may be, these stories are not fun. Gallant must have been a keen observer of the world around her and a good listener not only to what was said directly to her but also to conversations overheard. She must have been a marvelous writer to weave her gleanings from chance encounters into such magical narrative yarns of entire and believable lives of characters conjured out of air and woven together on the page to await the insights of her readers. But together they create an atmosphere that is the opposite of hope -- think lowering clouds and shutters closed against the sunlight. Gallant recommends reading one story and then closing the book to do or read something else before returning for another. That's good advice both in order to give the reader time to thoroughly digest what has been read and also to guard against the onset of depression (particularly a danger for expatriate readers, I would think). As Gallant observed, Paris Stories are not all set in Paris, but they were all written there. Nevertheless, in the City of Lights, she managed to find some dark shadows. Of many of her characters, one might well say with Vergil, "Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram." ...more
A surreal post-apocalyptic novel filled with hallucinatory and mirage-like imagery, The Drought (1965) is an expanded version of The Burning World pubA surreal post-apocalyptic novel filled with hallucinatory and mirage-like imagery, The Drought (1965) is an expanded version of The Burning World published in 1964. Something about the novel reminds me more of the "Lost World" novels of H. Rider Haggard than of more contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps better in conception than in realization, the novel presents the effects of a multi-decadal drought on the environment and inhabitants of a lacustrine/riverine community near an unidentified seacoast. Written soon after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and in a time of growing environmental awareness, it attributes the drought to anthropogenic causes, but that is not really the focus. The focus is on how different people respond to the ecological catastrophe and the collapse of civilization. Perhaps the dark vision of the novel owes more to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fear of the results of a global thermonuclear war than to concerns about the fragility of the environment. The author seems more interested in the frangible lives of his characters than in the causes of the environmental devastation. "Mistah Kurtz -- he dead," but take away our water and we are all hollow men falling ever deeper into the heart of darkness, even in a sun-drenched wasteland of salt and sand. ...more
Mary McAuliffe has produced a well-researched, well-organized, and delightfully readable book that covers the cultural history of Paris from the CommuMary McAuliffe has produced a well-researched, well-organized, and delightfully readable book that covers the cultural history of Paris from the Commune to the death of Zola. In this period that saw the rise of Impressionism and Symbolism; the musical beginnings of Debussy, Ravel, and Satie; the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty; the opening of the Ritz paired with the innovative cuisine of Escoffier; the dominating stage presence of Bernhardt; the beginning of the political career of Clemenceau; and the playing out of the Dreyfus Affair, the author finds time to note the lesser-known history as well. The lives of Berthe Morisot and her daughter Julie Manet, the complicated family life of Monet, the roles of Le Chat Noir and Cabaret Au Lapin Agile in the artistic life of the city, the agon of Rodin, and Misia Natanson's role as muse, all find attention and meaningful connection with the evolution of Paris in this remarkable work. It must be read by any with an interest in the fabled Belle Epoque and a love for the City of Light. ...more
Sitting in a small rocking chair in front of an enormous console radio, I first heard these enchanting stories read when I was about five years of ageSitting in a small rocking chair in front of an enormous console radio, I first heard these enchanting stories read when I was about five years of age. They must have made a great impression, since I have revisited them often over the years. This reading, however, has convinced me of their value not only as children's literature but as a literary classic for all and for all time. Can one feel nostalgia for a place and time that one has never personally experienced? I think so. Just as we can yearn with Odysseus for the island home of Ithaca and with wandering Hobbits for the comforts of the Shire, so also can we wish to be messing about in boats with Ratty and Mole or sitting down to a satisfying meal at Badger's place in the Wild Wood. The England of 1908 is no more, changed forever by the winds of war and the transformation of the world into a global village. But in the prose of Kenneth Grahame, there will always be an England of the imagination for which we can be nostalgic even in the midst of our busy and distracted lives. So put on some music (Vaughan Williams, Ketèlbey, or whatever puts you in the proper mood) and imagine yourself on a boat on a river with a nicely packed picnic basket. Then open The Wind in the Willows and let the current take you where it will. Sighs of nostalgia or contentment are both permitted and encouraged....more