Your final book, Purity and Danger, is considered a key text for social anthropology students. Why?
It’s regarded as quite old-fashioned now and the author Mary Douglas, who died recently, somewhat recanted on many of the things that she said. But, for me and still for many of my students, it’s a book that really opened my eyes. It showed me that you could theorize about things that you had always taken for granted and thought didn’t need explaining. Douglas set out to defamiliarize our own culture. One of her favourite party pieces is she goes through all the dietary prohibitions in Leviticus. She said, look at these carefully and you will see there’s a logic to them. What’s being prohibited in terms of eating is very often those animals or foodstuffs which don’t fit into a set category. For example, pigs don’t fall into any particular category because of their feet. In order to make sense of society, cultures like to group things. When objects fall outside those groups they are either reviled or revered.
The great thing for me is that I could take her theory back to the ancient world and use it in my studies. And the very first piece of work I had published was actually applying those kinds of ideas to the famous Vestal Virgins, priestesses of Rome who, I tried to argue (I’m not sure I believe this any more), were seen to be holy because they were made to fall between the different categories of gender. They were dressed partly as married women but they were made to be virgins. So, whether it was right or not it was reading Mary Douglas which made me think you could do something like that in the ancient world. It was really exciting....more
The editor of this collection stopped by our reading group to say, "You guys really should read this… I would love to hear your thoughts."
When someoneThe editor of this collection stopped by our reading group to say, "You guys really should read this… I would love to hear your thoughts."
When someone asked why the table of contents was so unbalanced (only 1 female author out of 20), the editor started attacking straw men instead of responding to comments, culminating in an exchange that looked like this:
Our group member: "Why do you assume that including a woman's work in your collection would force you into accepting "substandard" work? Do you seriously think that women do not write spec fic as well as men, or that there aren't just as many women writing excellent work as men? SERIOUSLY?"
The editor: "In my experience, yes. What is your experience in editing spec fic anthologies or magazines? Zero?
As I thought..."
Which I thought was an interesting way to respond to people whose thoughts you specifically requested. I guess he forgot to specify he wouldn't accept anything but positive thoughts!...more
"The story of the War on Alcohol has never needed to be told more urgently—because its grandchild, the War on Drugs, shares the same DNA. Okrent alludes to the parallel only briefly, on his final page, but it hangs over the book like old booze-fumes — and proves yet again Mark Twain's dictum: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
With the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1921, the dysfunctions of Prohibition began. When you ban a popular drug that millions of people want, it doesn't disappear. Instead, it is transferred from the legal economy into the hands of armed criminal gangs. Across America, gangsters rejoiced that they had just been handed one of the biggest markets in the country, and unleashed an armada of freighters, steamers, and even submarines to bring booze back. Nobody who wanted a drink went without. As the journalist Malcolm Bingay wrote, "It was absolutely impossible to get a drink, unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar."
So if it didn't stop alcoholism, what did it achieve? The same as prohibition does today—a massive unleashing of criminality and violence. Gang wars broke out, with the members torturing and murdering one another first to gain control of and then to retain their patches. Thousands of ordinary citizens were caught in the crossfire. The icon of the new criminal class was Al Capone, a figure so fixed in our minds as the scar-faced King of Charismatic Crime, pursued by the rugged federal agent Eliot Ness, that Okrent's biographical details seem oddly puncturing. Capone was only 25 when he tortured his way to running Chicago's underworld. He was gone from the city by the age of 30 and a syphilitic corpse by 40. But he was an eloquent exponent of his own case, saying simply, "I give to the public what the public wants. I never had to send out high pressure salesmen. Why, I could never meet the demand.""...more
T. Coraghessan Boyle’s new When the Killing’s Done falls in nicely with the mood of Margaret Atwood’s vatic sci-fi tales or Jonathan Franzen’s recent, naturalistic Freedom with its impassioned defense of birds. Though he’s been writing for a long time about America’s problems, Boyle usually does so more covertly, in a comic voice with comedy’s concealed agenda. Here, though, there’s the note of the preacher in despair that has surfaced sometimes in past novels, notably The Tortilla Curtain (1995), his admired book about illegal Hispanic immigrants in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon.
It’s an exciting narrative, incorporating tragedy, anger, and a satisfying amount of natural history, with the entangled moral complexities so difficult to unravel that the reader may find himself saying, “just tell me what to think.” Boyle doesn’t, but one can feel his pleasure in dramatizing the inherent paradoxes of issues that do finally seem insoluble. If along the way he sometimes renders Dave LaJoy’s indignant moral reflections more convincingly, at least to this reader, than Alma’s descriptions of succulent lamb stews or reasoned defense of birds’ eggs, perhaps this is a misreading. Boyle is adroit at avoiding black and white; but the emotional impact seems weighted against the killing by the fact that he’s writing about it. As in others of his works, absolute notions of right and wrong demand sacrifice and exact a heavy price, as poor Dave LaJoy discovers.
In Boyle’s hands, however, his range of topical subjects and his wittiness turn polemics into his particular domain, with a body of entertaining and absorbing novels that seem, over a period of thirty years, to document and mirror the slow morph of the counterculture into the mainstream almost better than anybody’s. He began in the vein of Vonnegut or Swift, wryly determined to épater le bourgeois. By now, it’s much harder to distinguish who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s cool, and he’s no longer so sure either. Who is the villain of When the Killing’s Done? In the end, Boyle’s scorn is for the irredeemable, and for him that includes a lot of mankind....more
I started off the week talking about allegory and Ralph Ellison, so it's only right that IOff this review:
Forgotten Histories Feb 21 2010, 4:30 PM ET
I started off the week talking about allegory and Ralph Ellison, so it's only right that I spend a little time talking about a work that got pegged as a successor to Invisible Man. Written by David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident hit bookshelves in 1981. At least one review compared it favorably to Ellison's signature work and the two of them share a feverish quality that comes from wrestling with the long-term historical effects of racism.
The book focuses on historian/college professor John Washington coming to grips with the way his family's lineage intertwines with the rural Pennsylvania town where he grew up. Coming back to tend to Old Jack Crawley, his father's ailing best friend and the man who raised him, he finds out just how much legacy he's run away from. In Old Jack's deathbed stories, John learns that his father Moses is something of a mythical trickster: a skilled woodsman, distiller of the best moonshine for miles and ladies' man extraordinaire.
Bradley shows us that the memories are always there, lying in wait for us, only waiting for us to listen for them on the wind, or to actively go hunting for them. In different time periods, John and Moses literally take off hunting after those memories, and they both come to tragic ends because of it. In the end, neither John's icy academic rigor or Moses' trickster qualities can stave off the chilling eventualities that await them. The book's unsparing in its portrayal of racial violence and shows how the behaviors we commonly associate with the Deep South weren't confined to the Mason/Dixon line.
Chaneysville channels the necromantic power of unrecovered history. It's something that Ta-Nehisi's been touching on a lot as he writes about slavery, the Civil War and the way the conflicts were remembered. It's not just the fact that the history we don't know can hurt us; there's the added danger of how we learn it and who we learn it from. The irony here is that Chaneysville's been out of print for more about 20 years and has become itself to a lost record of how black people have understood themselves....more
One of the best anthologies of recent vintage is Jetse de Vries' "Shine." Its virtues are easy to enumerate. It offers a clear-eyed tOff this review:
One of the best anthologies of recent vintage is Jetse de Vries' "Shine." Its virtues are easy to enumerate. It offers a clear-eyed theme and unique remit: optimistic, near-future SF. It features a wide range of voices and styles. Its editor is young, knowledgeable, energetic and hip (the anthology was assembled with heavy reliance on social media sites). On all counts, it's a rousing success, the very model of a modern project, and points the way toward a healthy future for SF short stories. All that remains is for the book to rack up some deservedly healthy sales.
Not every story in the volume achieves unqualified greatness: A number favor earnestness over entertainment. They work so seriously to illustrate that there is hope for humanity that they seem to forget that the reader has to want to imagine herself enjoying life in the future, even while facing challenges. That was always the secret of Heinlein-era SF. This joie de vivre deficit becomes apparent only when you come to a contrary story such as Gord Sellar's knockout "Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)." Its high-octane characters and language and devil-may-care attitude cloak serious issues just as vital as those embedded elsewhere in the book. But it's also a slavering whirlwind of manic energy, in the mode of the Looney Tunes cartoon Tasmanian Devil. Others in this admirable vein include Eva Maria Chapman's "Russian Roulette 2020" and Kay Kenyon's "Castoff World."...more
Off this review: It’s very interesting to me as a writer because it’s an extremely acute dissection of the way women's artistic output is either belittOff this review: It’s very interesting to me as a writer because it’s an extremely acute dissection of the way women's artistic output is either belittled and written out of history, or analysed in a specifically misogynist way. There are two examples: one of an 18th-century painting whose creatorship was left anonymous – the painting was lauded, shown in all the major galleries, analysed by experts, praised, shown to art students as a model for their own technique and auctioned at extremely high prices.
When the painting was discovered to have been by a woman, an extraordinary thing happened: auction prices immediately dropped, and the critical appreciation of it turned 180 degrees. Suddenly the painting was flawed, minor, petty, the kind of thing only a woman – a flawed, minor, petty creature – could make. With amazing transparency the critics, who at the time were all men, could not see beyond their own misogynistic ideas about what a woman is.
That is terribly depressing. I always find it odd that ‘chick lit’ automatically means lightweight and is openly denigrated when the male equivalent, the Nick Hornby-ish ‘bloke lit’ is taken very seriously as amusing social observation.
Exactly. Moi’s second example is of a Scandinavian woman poet who happened to have an androgynous name (like Claude in French or some such). When her collection was published it was deemed to have been by a man, and praised to the skies for its rugged depiction of landscape, grand emotions, human destiny and so forth. When the error was corrected and Claude Whoever pointed out her femaleness, the reviews changed. They were just as positive, but the language about them was different. The same poems were now praised for their small epiphanies, their domestic interiors, their private emotions – the language literally became belittling, diminished... Claude was made into a minor poet, simply because of her sex. Moi quotes the critics Thorne and Henley: ‘In short, the significance of gestures changes when they are used by men or women; no matter what women do, their behaviour may be taken to symbolise inferiority.’ ...more
Women all over America - if they were a certain type - could take comfort in the fact that even if they were poor, uneducated and stupid, there was one person more homely than they were. Eleanor was the proverbial mud fence, and because she believed in good causes, social justice and the essential humanity of Negroes, she also got to be the national pill. Put another way, in their 40-year marriage, Franklin Roosevelt was the hipster, Eleanor the square.
Her research, both meticulous and extensive, does not bloat the book into a doorstop. "Franklin and Eleanor" is less about history than about relationships, and it reads like a wonderful novel at times, giving us a vision of what parts of American life were like then. No matter how rich you were, life was hard.
A blend of characteristics - Franklin's flamboyant confidence, Eleanor's passion for social justice - generated the exceptional energy it took for the pair to change the world. Their ability, so well captured in these pages, to gather friends and followers into a coherent and powerful community and their willingness to exchange affection until the very end remain awesome. This is much more than a book about politics. ...more
Can you describe what your first book, The Greeks and the Irrational, is about?
This is one of the books that made me decide that Classics was worth spending a lifetime on. It starts with this extraordinary anecdote which is very meaningful for many readers. Dodds was at an exhibition of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and he got talking to a schoolboy. The boy told him: “I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but I don’t really like this stuff – it’s all so rational.” Well, that got Dodds thinking about this common idea that the Ancient Greeks were all very cerebral, gliding about in white gowns. But was Greek culture so fantastically rational? So Dodds wrote the book to explore that idea.
But why should it matter to us if it is rational or not?
It mattered to me because in order to understand about us, we have to understand what was at stake in the past. What is interesting is that you can take one of the most formative intellectual cultures and show that just underneath that sparkling surface is a seething heart of irrationality that results in madness and murder. Dodds wrote this book just after the Second World War and I think one of the questions in his mind was, not just that nice encounter in the British Museum, but how could European Society have gone so mad that it did what it did. I wouldn’t say there are direct links between Hitler’s Germany and Ancient Greece but there are indirect links about where the non-rational elements are in any culture, and how they work, how you can understand them and what difference that makes....more
Seeking a way out of the desperate poverty her family lives in, young Lyddie gets a job at one of the newly opened mills. A really fanOff Wealhtheow:
Seeking a way out of the desperate poverty her family lives in, young Lyddie gets a job at one of the newly opened mills. A really fantastic way to get children to understand labor laws, unions, and the industrial revolution....more
Well, there are many distinctive and interesting things going on in America, many things that make it religious. It’s certainly not jOff this review:
Well, there are many distinctive and interesting things going on in America, many things that make it religious. It’s certainly not just the relatively low life expectancy and so on. It’s other things too. And these other things are discussed quite a lot in the last book on my list—a book by two British journalists, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, called "God is Back: How the Global Revival in Faith is Changing the World". It came out a couple of weeks ago, the title is fairly self-explanatory, and what they argue is that religion is back, or that it certainly isn’t in decline. The book’s quite careful and subtle, and there are various strains in it, but the main thrust is that modernity brings not necessarily secularism but rather pluralism—in other words a lot of freedom to adopt and adapt the religion of your choice. And what makes this book valuable is that it has up to date research from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa where there are all sorts of unexpected religious developments. The huge growth of Pentecostalism, for example, in Latin America; the rise of Christianity in Africa; the coming battles between Christianity and Islam in Africa. God is certainly back in the headlines, 9/11 and Islamic fundamentalism saw to that. But that’s not all. Religion is for various reasons in the headlines. One of the other reasons is mobility. Immigration brings clashes of separate cultures, including religious cultures. When you get a lot of immigrants practicing their own religion, the natives tend to practice their religion even more vehemently. So there’s a lot of religious activity going on.
So is God back?
In a limited sense, perhaps. He’s in the headlines, as I said. And he’s certainly bouncing back in formerly communist countries. So it is probably true that there are fewer unbelievers now than there were when communism had not yet begun to collapse. But the secularism thesis, I think, still holds true, and the long-term trend is against religion: in the course of the 20th century, unbelief (though it is still globally very much a minority position) has grown much faster than any religion....more
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution By Richard Dawkins (Free Press) After sparking global controversy even among atheOff this review:
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution By Richard Dawkins (Free Press) After sparking global controversy even among atheists with The God Delusion, Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins takes a more emollient and fact-based approach in dismantling his latest foe, creationist-fostered opposition to modern evolutionary theory. Dawkins clearly hopes that the burden of evidence (he culls from an astounding number of sources) will change minds, eloquently and carefully walking readers through the facts. However, with more than 40 percent of Americans rejecting evolution, the book may best serve to strengthen the position of the already converted. ...more
Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation By Tim Brown (HarperBusiness) Design is not justOff this review:
Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation By Tim Brown (HarperBusiness) Design is not just about making things. It’s a tool for building better organizations, communities, and governments. It’s an approach, unbound to a specific discipline—a way to organize information; to problem-solve; to synthesize new ideas. This is the crux of design thinking, a concept introduced by IDEO’s Tim Brown in Change by Design. In this “blueprint for creative leaders,” Brown is clear, persuasive, and often funny, writing with an authority presumably honed by his years of advising Fortune 500 companies and high-level government officials. But even for those of us without our own sovereign nation or blue-chip corporation, design thinking offers a guide for rethinking and organizing our everyday creative processes....more
Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics By Fulvio Melia (University of Chicago Press) Einstein’s theoOff this review:
Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics By Fulvio Melia (University of Chicago Press) Einstein’s theory of general relativity was around for decades before it was possible for astrophysicists to study it. And when they finally cracked the code, they simultaneously discovered black holes. In this gripping intellectual history of the Golden Age of General Relativity, Melia, an astrophysicist, introduces a cast of driven, thoughtful young scientists who dedicated their careers to divining the physical manifestations of Einstein’s theories. The book, studded with candid photographs of everyone from Roger Penrose to Vitaly Ginzburg, follows mathematician Roy Kerr as he strives to develop the first exact solution to the Einstein equations, forever altering physics. ...more
Fara has not one birthplace for science, but three. The book is almost unique among popular surveys of the history of science in devoting substantial attention to the Chinese natural philosophical heritage. Almost as ancient as the Babylonian tradition, this is certainly the oldest continuous one, and Fara draws from recent scholarship to flesh out an interesting picture. But this attention peters out fairly early, as the book shifts to the more canonical origin for science.
That would be Europe. For all the attention that Fara devotes to debunking heroic narratives supposedly perpetrated by most historians of science—Isaac Newton draws her particular ire—from Babylon and China she goes on to replicate much of the standard narrative: first Greece, next a light touch on Rome (mostly Galen), the Christian West through to the early modern era, and then a slower pace from the 18th century to the present (with a heavy, some might say excessive, attention to developments in Britain). We only glimpse China once or twice more and never really see Latin America or Africa except from shipboard. (On the other hand, her account of science and medieval Islam is spot on.)...more
From Publishers Weekly Kasai's strikingly original but uneven debut posits a world where DNA has gone wild, producing Traders with amazing abilities anFrom Publishers Weekly Kasai's strikingly original but uneven debut posits a world where DNA has gone wild, producing Traders with amazing abilities and somatics with a mix of animal and human genes. Sorykah Minuit, a gender-switching Trader, arrives in the dirty, dangerous polar town of Ostara to meet her twin children and their nursemaid. She encounters an octopus-woman who tells her the children have been abducted by the Trader-torturing Collector. Passages of stunning imagery veer abruptly into purple prose as Sorykah heads into the perilous, icy wilderness, only to pause her maternal quest for an extended romp at an isolated pleasure-house. After a brush with death, she abruptly becomes a man with no memory of female life. Kasai's imaginative reach exceeds her grasp, and she squeezes in numerous intriguing ideas that languish only partially explored. (May) ...more
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recountOff Clay Shirky:
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.
What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “What was the revolution itself like?”
Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify. ...more