I don't often pick up a book after seeing a movie, much less a movie trailer, but in this case I am glad I did. Victoria Bynum presents a detailed hisI don't often pick up a book after seeing a movie, much less a movie trailer, but in this case I am glad I did. Victoria Bynum presents a detailed history of a rebellion of small farmers, deserters from the Confederate Army, and escaped slaves against the Confederate slave holding aristocracy. Loyal to the Union, Captain Newton Knight successfully fought off repeated Confederate cavalry raids from 1863 to the end of the Civil War, and was notorious throughout the next century not only for his successful resistance to the "Lost Cause," but also for his extended mixed race family. Knight has been alternately lauded for his daring and initiative in fighting off the Confederate Army and sustaining the people of a poor county in Mississippi and vilified for his defiance of the South's increasingly draconian segregation. Despite Professor Bynum's measured academic tone, the moving story of a gallant band who stood fast against the dark tide of secession and segregation shines forth. I highly recommend this book not only as an antidote to racist Southern mythology but also to the caricature of the South as uniformly illiterate and bigoted. Careful in its analysis, this story is also refreshing and inspirational in its humanity. One place where interested readers can continue the conversation is Professor Bynum's blog, Renegade South....more
Reviewers of Gretchen Rubin's books tend to fall into one of two categories: those who like her and those who don't. Given her mania for categorizatioReviewers of Gretchen Rubin's books tend to fall into one of two categories: those who like her and those who don't. Given her mania for categorization, this is a distinction that Rubin herself might appreciate. However, it seems all too often that evaluation of the book never progresses beyond a visceral reaction to the author's personality. Personally, I find her self-assured epigrammatic style rather engaging, although others sometimes view her as a condescending know-it-all.
Perhaps, therefore, it is no accident that Ms. Rubin's favorite author is Samuel Johnson, the biggest know-it-all in the English language. Johnson is saved from being completely insufferable by wit and insight, and one might well say the same of Ms. Rubin. Her behavioral categorizations — criticized by some with a sniff as "unscientific" — are nevertheless a useful heuristic for separating different kinds of personalities. And Ms. Rubin's observation that when it comes to habits, one size does not fit all is a refreshing change from the singlemindedness of many "self help" books. Ms. Rubin is surely right when she observes that we can learn a great deal from people who are different from ourselves, and this is nowhere more evident in this quirky analysis of habits and how people form them....more
Since the advent of the last decade, we have been awash in an ocean of data, but we have only just begun to chart the wind and tides, much less plumbSince the advent of the last decade, we have been awash in an ocean of data, but we have only just begun to chart the wind and tides, much less plumb the depths.
Christian Rudder's Dataclysm offers a few sharp insights into the power of Big Data both to analyse us in the aggregate and profile us on a personal level. Rudder's focus, mercifully for us, is on the aggregate, but whether we are gay or straight, pregnant or not, sexually active or celibate, or in the market for anything at al, we cannot hide our digitized identity.
The main focus of Rudder's book, however, is on what Big Data can tell about ourselves as a people not ourselves as persons, whether it's age preferences of men and women looking for dates, racial biases in the evaluation of attraction, disease trends, or pharmaceutical dangers. Even as Rudder celebrates the power of data to reveal truths about us hitherto inaccessible to the most sophisticated pollster, an undercurrent of anxiety about the manipulative power of large organizations in a world without privacy runs through the book. But now that we are all at sea, we must navigate as best we can....more
An Artist of the Floating World evokes a lost world of artists' lives in the pre-War Japanese demi-monde against the rise of strident propaganda leadiAn Artist of the Floating World evokes a lost world of artists' lives in the pre-War Japanese demi-monde against the rise of strident propaganda leading up to the catastrophe of the War. At one point, the narrator, Mr. Ono, a painter, describes his masters' geisha paintings as updating a classic 'Utamoro tradition' in order to "evoke a certain melancholy around his women, and throughout the years I studied with him, he experimented extensively with colours in an attempt to capture the feel of lantern light." Even as Ono turns his back on this "floating world" to create a "new Japan," the war consumes his old pleasure district, leaving only ashes, fertile ground for Japan's new Americanized business culture.
Against this backdrop, an Artist of the Floating World is a novel of guilt and remembrance, perception of self and perception of others, a brief journey in which Mr. Ono must confront the legacy of destruction he helped create and the passing away of the fragile aesthetic he once cherished....more
John Brown's raid struck a nerve on the eve of the Civil War because it evoked the white South's deepest fear: that having been the masters they wouldJohn Brown's raid struck a nerve on the eve of the Civil War because it evoked the white South's deepest fear: that having been the masters they would become the slaves, and that the cruelties they had visited on their "property" would be visited upon them in their turn. This has been the deepest fear of "white" America since both before and after the Civil War, and it explains a great deal about the violence of American policy domestic and foreign. It is reflected to this day in the virulent racism of the white underclass that flocks to the banner of Donald Trump.
To keep our privileged position in the world, we must suppress those of whom we have taken advantage, generally defined as "non-white": whether African American, Asian, African, or Arab. We live with the comment misattributed to George Orwell that "We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us." And in doing so, we project our own violence onto them. If we live in fear of Muslim Arab terror, it is nothing to the hundredfold terror we have visited upon the Muslims and the Arabs. A friend of mine likes to say that people in the Middle East have no respect for human life, and yet the minimum count of the civilians murdered in the Iraq War is 120,000. It shows itself in the internment of Japanese Americans and the ruthlessness and racism of the War in the Pacific. It is manifested in the winning of the West and the ethic cleansing of the Native American. Of course, the phenomenon is not limited to America, witness the German genocide of the Jews. This insight, although expressed in slightly different terms, lies at the heart of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me.
The fragility of the "black body" permeates Coates' work; he posits that African Americans have a unique appreciation of the violence that is visited upon them, whether by Baltimore gangs or the Prince George's County's police. This is the violence that preserves untroubled white America's dream of peaceful suburbs and two cars in the garage, built on the suffering of the people it excludes. It is reflected in our gated communities, the fear of my neighbours in suburban Detroit even to enter the city, inhabited by alien beings quite forthrightly described as n*****s. It is reflected in our reflexive attribution of criminality to African Americans, the readiness of the police to shoot and the ease with which we excuse the shootings. It is reflected in our segregated neighbourhoods and our segregated schools. Coates talks about how from the days of his childhood to his present life in New York as a well-known writer, a third of his brain has always been devoted to self-preservation, whether in be fear of violence in the 'hood or fear of arrest in upscale New York.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Like it or not, the ruthless pace of demographics is eroding the privileged position of "white America," no longer a majority in "their country." There will not be peace at home or abroad until people who consider themselves white are willing to renounce their Dream of supremacy and the violence that attends it. And yet the reality is that white America simply lives in denial of the fragility of their own bodies, a denial that is enabled by the violence out of sight at the margins of their society, for our houses are built on sand, and we can only hope that the violence we have meted out to others will not be repaid upon us. We are not ready for Lincoln's prophecy that the war shall continue "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." It has not been paid yet....more
There is a certain questionable premise to any self-help book, best encapsulated by Garrison Keillor when he talked about Lake Wobegon as a place wherThere is a certain questionable premise to any self-help book, best encapsulated by Garrison Keillor when he talked about Lake Wobegon as a place where "all the children are above average." The premise here that anyone can earn a lot of money if they simply follow the steps outlined in this book is perhaps, as usual, a little too good to be true.
Nevertheless, I enjoy the occasional self-help book, and this one stands out for a couple of reasons because it is a book explicitly directed at women. It is reasonable to believe that as they recover from centuries of discrimination, women generally have greater untapped earning power than men. Moreover, particularly as an employment lawyer, I found it very interesting how this author suggested that women manage what is still a very challenging workplace environment; it nothing else, it is a strong rallying cry for women to take their fortunes into their own hands and assert their power and independence.
Finally, however, it is probably unfair to characterize this book as simply another get-rich-quick manual. The expectations -- a six-figure income -- are high but not outrageous. More importantly, however, the book encourages what might be called prudent risk-taking, good stewardship, and personal responsibility. While the emphasis is on encouraging women to seize control of their destiny and live to their full potential, the precepts in this little book are good advice for anybody....more
Ari Shavit's history of Israel is more like chatty, long-form journalism than a traditional history, but it is thoughtful and well-informed. Shavit isAri Shavit's history of Israel is more like chatty, long-form journalism than a traditional history, but it is thoughtful and well-informed. Shavit is both a devoted patriot and a thoughtful critic, an exponent of a middle ground -- albeit from a distinctly Israeli point of view -- which is quite refreshing after the usual shrill rhetoric on both sides of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Shavit is mindful of how the dispossessed became the dispossessors, how Israel's fragile military superiority potentially fuels a regional arms race, and how Israel's origins and its occupation have corroded the Zionist enterprise both practically and morally. At the same time, he paints a vivid picture of a dynamic society with a rich culture that has succeed in creating an improbable nation against implacable odds. Shavit's subtitle is "triumph and tragedy," and he seems keenly aware that Israel's triumph may yet turn to another Jewish tragedy if it cannot resolve contradictions both internal and external. Shavit sees Israel as surrounded by concentric circles of threats -- external, primarily in the form of Iran; closer to home in the brutal struggle to maintain an unjust occupation among a population uprooted for more than half a century, and internal as the political scene is fractured among a multiplicity of parties of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Devoted as he is to his country, Shavit projects an agonized concern over its future. The book is a nuanced perspective on an Israeli point of view too often caricatured by both the right wing hawks and religious fundamentalists in America on the one hand and the left wing critics who see the country only through the lens of the occupation to the exclusion of the country's desperate struggle to survive in a hostile environment. In the end, however, Shavit seems deeply pessimistic about the ability of his country to wean itself from the self-destructive occupation and come to terms with the dark side of its success....more
One of the more delightful aspects of Brian Edwards’ writing, both in his latest book After the American Century and his previous work Morocco Bound One of the more delightful aspects of Brian Edwards’ writing, both in his latest book After the American Century and his previous work Morocco Bound is the open ended play of multiple meanings in both his language and his analysis. In a book that discusses the interaction between globalized American culture and local reimagination and appropriation of that culture, this is perhaps most evident in Edwards’ invocation of the phrase “the ends of circulation.” The multiple meanings of this phrase certainly include dual senses of “ends” as purpose or intention and “ends” as a stopping point at which circulation ceases. Perhaps this is not surprising in a writer who seems to be as deeply grounded in post-structuralist critical analysis as he is in Middle Eastern language and culture. It is apparent from the beginning that Edwards’ slim volume is a distillation of years of field work in the Middle East and North Africa – beginning and ending in Morocco – filtered through a fabric densely woven from an intimate knowledge of literature, cinema, and critical theory over years of study. Like Edwards’ previous work, the book is self-consciously academic from the beginning and yet accessible to an intelligent and attentive layman.
One premise of the book is that American culture’s ever accelerated distribution with the advent of digital technology has permeated global culture, but concomitantly with the waning of American political and economic hegemony, American culture abroad has become increasingly deracinated. As Americans, we think we know what American culture stands for, and we tend to interpret it in generally positive ways for its association with freedom and prosperity, without reflecting on the ways in which America’s standing abroad has soured since September 11, 2001. We fail to see the ways in which other cultures reinterpret it on their own terms, whether by dubbing the donkey in Shrek with subversive songs in Moroccan darija (dialect), subtly transposing meanings in Persian translations of American cinema, or reinventing the graphic novel in Egypt on the eve of the uprising in Tahrir Square in Egypt. In each of the instances, Americans looking in from the outside naively assume that they can explain events in these cultures from the perspective of the export of American values, when a more thoughtful, insightful, and experienced analysis would suggest that the manipulation of American forms and symbols is turned to local purposes in a manner that is often completely opaque to Americans unfamiliar with the country’s cultural nuances. Thus we naively congratulate ourselves on America’s export of Facebook to purportedly exotic and chaotic foreign lands as though it conveyed American sensibilities; this is a convenient narrative into which we can shoehorn the politics of other cultures. In doing so, we fail to see the ways in which these countries have developed their own narratives under the impact of globalization in ways quite apart from our easy assumptions about how the world is constituted. By seizing on the facile and accessible “Facebook narrative,” we overlook the complex literary culture in Egypt that had a far more central role in building opposition to the brutal Mubarak regime so enthusiastically supported by the United States foreign policy establishment. Ironically, the very centrality of that tradition to Egyptian culture – the fact that American forms have been steeped in Egyptian culture and reinterpreted in ways easily apparent only to Egyptians – tends to wall off an understanding of such cultural end products from reverse assimilation by Americans.
In perhaps the same sense of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe “This is not a pipe” or the Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi’s film “This is not a film,” which Edwards discusses, After the American Century could have been aptly subtitled “This is not a book about American culture.” Certainly, the center of gravity of the book is the ways in which the cultures of Egypt, Iran, and Morocco have assimilated artifacts of American culture for their own ends (that word again!). Perhaps most surprisingly in his description of the complexities of contemporary Iranian culture – where he observes that everything is forbidden and everything is permitted – Edwards strips bare the facile assumptions of American Orientalism. This is not to suggest that the Revolutionary government is not harsh or repressive, but it is to suggest that there is more to Iran than political conflict with the United States, and that even that conflict is not one-sided. Quite apart from the political history of American intervention in Iranian affairs, Edwards illustrates this complexity in his analysis of Iran’s ambivalence over the reception in Europe toward the sophisticated Iranian cinematic tradition – simultaneous pride in the acclaim and suspicion of the politicization of films that – in part by necessity – are not intrinsically political.
American understanding of a region in which it has become increasingly and ever more brutally involved will never mature so long as the circulation and consumption of cultural production is largely unidirectional. This cultural sclerosis has multiple consequences: it blinds us to how the world understands us, and it inhibits us from coming to a better understanding of the world. As we move beyond the “American century” into an increasingly fractured world, our dependence on outdated cultural assumptions and our unwillingness or inability to come to grips with the originality of other cultures can only work to our detriment. Edwards’ work – thoughtfully considered – is perhaps the beginning of a corrective. ...more
Although the naïveté of the narrator is a little hard to swallow, this delectable romp across the high seas -- set against the rather more sobering baAlthough the naïveté of the narrator is a little hard to swallow, this delectable romp across the high seas -- set against the rather more sobering background of the British slave and opium trade -- will please the palate of anyone with a taste for light romance spiced with a witty inversion of gender stereotypes. Just desserts for any twenty-first century reader who feasted on Treasure Island as a kid, served with an understated moral undertone that is pleasingly presented....more
One might compare Brian Edwards’ Morocco Bound to a Moroccan bisteeya (pigeon pie) – crisp, piquant, and sweet on the outside, rich and savory on the One might compare Brian Edwards’ Morocco Bound to a Moroccan bisteeya (pigeon pie) – crisp, piquant, and sweet on the outside, rich and savory on the inside; burning to the touch and yet delicious to the taste; layered throughout, and deeply satisfying. It should be required reading for Americans interested in Morocco, and for Moroccans interested in how Americans think about Morocco. The prose is light and fluid and yet deeply informative; think of the basic text for a compelling university course on Moroccan culture through the lens of contemporary American literature and history; rewarding to the scholar and the layman alike.
Informed but not overwhelmed by Edward Said’s post-structuralist analysis of orientalism – fictions through which Western culture seeks to understand the Arab world – the book is intensely conscious of its own textual nature as it seeks to interpret literary texts that seek to “read” Moroccan culture. Its central theme is one of disruption and difference – the gap between the signifier and the signified if one will – which is perhaps most sensitively explored in an explication of Jane Bowles’ writer’s block as she struggled to occupy the space between things and one’s knowledge of them.
And yet to suggest that this is an esoteric, academic text would be to do it a grave injustice, since overlaying the technical literary analysis is a lively description of American popular culture – the dispatches of Ernie Pyle, Casablanca, Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, the abyss of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and the music of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, not to mention the novels of Paul Bowles (one of which became a “major motion picture”) that are de rigeur for American visitors.
Edwards has a distinct sense of how American popular culture stereotypes and marginalizes Morocco and Moroccans – whether it is Patton’s romanticization of the country as a scene from the “Arabian Nights,” Casablanca and Hitchcock’s account filtered through the French protectorate, Burroughs’ heroin-induced nightmare at the fringes of Moroccan society in Tangier’s International Zone, hippie self-absorption, or the more recent anthropological scholarship that generalizes from a nostalgic view of traditional, rural Moroccan society without coming to grips with the regime’s pervasive authoritarianism (particularly during the “Years of Lead” under King Hassan II), the romanticization of poverty in Morocco, and the reality of modern, urban politics among Moroccan youth, which are perhaps much closer to our own understanding than our mythologized view of Moroccan culture might suggest. The book implies that in order to have a more genuine understanding of Morocco, we must put Moroccans at the center of our understanding rather marginalizing them through fantasies of the frontier and the exotic orient.
If we are ever to see clearly, we must first confront our own blinders; Edwards’ important book is an excellent first step. ...more