It should be noted at the outset that The Footloose American is an un-madcap, not-gonzo, anti-romp through South America. I think this should be estabIt should be noted at the outset that The Footloose American is an un-madcap, not-gonzo, anti-romp through South America. I think this should be established clearly, up-front. The book is, instead, the clear-headed, balanced reflection of a youngish American journalist, comfortably past the granola/Guevara-worshipping phase of middle-class wanderlust. Brian Kevin is out there gathering intel that - I like to think - all Americans would value - a fact finding mission that isn't simply designed to support preconceived notions or romanticize a "simpler" way of life still being lived a short distance from North American shores.
Like another reviewer, I am not keen on giving the book's tone or content away. But I need to point out something interesting about the author's gradual conclusion. It isn't surprising that Kevin eventually grows a callus against the aforementioned granola/backpacking/hostel crawling subspecies of middle-class Western bohemian types. It's more unexpected when he begins to react negatively - even viscerally - to many of the locals he encounters. For some reason, American gen-Xers and millennials tend to excuse all manner of bad behavior from other cultures, even foreign governments. However, my personal observation is that city people exhibit common behaviors, universally shared independent of cultural signifiers. So do country people. When the author imbedded with medical aid workers in Paraguay and met willfully ignorant hicks, he reacted the way any rational person would - with exasperation. Two things were happening, actually. It is only natural to pass judgment on a husband who will give his pregnant wife a black eye (or the wife who tries to cover for the husband). It's only natural to express frustration over the rural family who refuses medical care for their dying child because of the irrational perception that merely admitting the child is in need is somehow a sign of weakness or shame. It's also only natural to feel beaten down by protracted exposure to hopelessness.
Though I have not read Hunter Thompson's dispatches from South America - the pre-gonzo stage of his career to which the book is dedicated - it seems Kevin and Thompson each confronted the same grinding despair after so many weeks through so many thousands of miles of South American hinterland. Both men came away with as much material about (US) American identity as the South American experience. Bookstores and cable television are each saturated with exotic travelogues which perpetuate so many common errors. The establishment pablum of, say, Anthony Bourdain doesn't serve any purpose except to inspire late night cravings for spicy food and Asian beer. Books like The Footloose American, on the other hand, actually serve to elevate the conversation. A totally worthwhile read....more
With the unusually high ticket price and hysterically esoteric subject matter, Lifted is one of those books one picks up, not on impulse, but with anWith the unusually high ticket price and hysterically esoteric subject matter, Lifted is one of those books one picks up, not on impulse, but with an incredulous, what the heck is going on here? curiosity. One just has to see what this is about. The cultural history of the elevator: indeed!
And, dang, if Lifted isn't a fine little book, full of genuine insights into the transformation of the urban environment and ourselves (from two Independent vantage points: Western Europe and North America), viewed through the novel lens of the passenger elevator....more
True to it's title, E. E. Cummings: A Life shows the life of America's first modernist in all its banality. Readers gravitate toward biography partlyTrue to it's title, E. E. Cummings: A Life shows the life of America's first modernist in all its banality. Readers gravitate toward biography partly for this precise reason: it reassures us that our lives are not so different than those of our favorite personalities by demonstrating how their lives were not so different from our own. In many ways, Cummings needs this kind of treatment, because he was not only the first American modernist, he was - arguably - the only American modernist. His apparent descent from outer space and fleeting time on the scene creates an enigma that isn't explained by the two or three poems we're treated to as undergrads. Understanding his pseudo-Brahmin roots (replete with childhood melodrama) and romantic failures only serve to enhance our understanding of Cummings's poetry.
Of course, between those two existential bookends comes the e. e. cummings we all know and love. Cummings had a notoriously Good Time as an itinerant ambulance driver in Paris during the first World War. But while he could be lumped in with other Americans of his approximate generation who enjoyed themselves immensely in Europe (Dos Passos, Hemingway, etc.), this only represented a time for Cummings. And unlike so many bohemian/academic junketeers who went to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Cummings evaded the seduction of the pink siren of utopianism.
And like so many others of his approximate generation, Cummings practiced free love. But here his biographer makes her first in a series of salient observations. Unlike the libertines, Cummings understood relationships to be an emotional contract freely entered into by consenting parties. He did not (with a few occasional exceptions, of course - Cummings did, after all, have some riotous Good Times under the influence of alcohol and comely companionship) undertake sex casually. He was not a creature of one night stands. He believed that his partners - by virtue of the consent that consummated the relationship - were free to go as soon as they wished. But this was more like a standard prenuptial agreement Cummings carried with him than the abandon of "free love." And it means that when Cummings's partners tired of him - especially if they tired of him before he tired of them - Cummings was deeply wounded.
This, along with the moving chapter on Cummings's eventual reunification with his only daughter, could tempt more licentious biographers to psychoanalyze the man. Cummings's poems are - after all - virtual invitations to speculate on the artist's id. I admire Cheever's bold choice to ignore this path. It would have undoubtedly led A Life into a cul-de-sac.
But back to the original sentence. Cummings was America's only modernist. Why? The answer cannot be that the times were not ripe for modernists. Europe produced them like a factory (Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein (albeit a little later), the Italian futurists) - and many of them came to America! Why, then, did America not produce her own? And why did Cummings, being the prototype, fail to thrive? The answer lies in the fact that America itself was the problem. Cummings was beloved within certain circles. Clearly, liberal arts colleges were his stock-in-trade. But Cummings ran afoul of his Greenwich Village neighbors with his conservative politics and anti-semitism. And during the Depression and post-war years, America didn't seem to want Cummings at his most candid. (It wanted him at his most statuesque.) The author puts it well toward the end of the book:
"Cummings's (book) sales are a barometer of the national mood. In confident times his poems are beloved. Their questioning, their humor, and their rule-breaking formalism seem to gibe with a democracy ready to ask hard questions and make fun of itself. In precarious times, readers seem to want an older, more assured poet, someone who speaks with authority rather than scoffs at it."
I believe we still live in that America. It has changed since Cummings's time. Modern students easily confuse cummings's syntax and meter as informalities, rather than the dense, experimental forms they are. This mistake is made because the lowercase "i" is no longer a character, but a manifestation of the new communication (which is a mixture of knee-jerk (ABC Family-fied) civil disobedience and dangerous contempt for intellectualism). Modern students are in danger of misunderstanding modernism for anarchy. Cheever's biography clearly shows how Cummings was anything other than undisciplined and casual. The irony is that the people who read it aren't the ones in need of the demonstration....more
"Napalm" as a word is practically as disgusting as a deforming medical abnormality or repellent skin conditon/sexually transmitted disease. Neverthele"Napalm" as a word is practically as disgusting as a deforming medical abnormality or repellent skin conditon/sexually transmitted disease. Nevertheless, the author gives readers a fair and sophisticated view of one of the post-war years' ultimate pariahs.
The utility of fire as a weapon is investigated from its classical-heroic history in ancient and medieval times through the engineering problems it solves. (An incendiary device is economical, especially for purposes of delivery. Since incendiary bombs start fires, using their targets for fuel, they do not have to bring their fuel with them. This keeps weight and cost down and makes assembly and storage simple. Hydrocarbon gelled incendiary bombs use contents that stay a liquid, even for a short time after impact. This allows the contents to bounce off walls, splash around corners, and run into cracks and penetrate sub levels. As grim as the subject is, incendiary gelled bombs are an engineering triumph, allowing remote strikes to be made into spaces it might otherwise require a squad of vulnerable soldiers to penetrate.)
During the course of the narrative, Napalm takes us down unexpected anecdotal avenues (an army plan to use bats (yes, bats) to be fitted with delayed detonation suicide vests as a way to deliver incendiaries across wide areas in remote locations. (Fire bombs work great in densely populated areas and industrial targets; not so well in farm country. The bat bomb sought to fill in the tactical gap.)).
Naturally the weapons' use in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are given detailed histories.
But where Napalm really succeeds is explaining the protest movement's logic, the counter argument by the defense industry, and the legal basis and challenges under various non-use protocols. The legal basis provides some of the most thought provoking material to be found in the book - bordering on a review of ethics - perhaps the most refreshing discussion of the law of war I've ever come across in a neatly packed presentation written in plain language.
Professional reviews stress the non-political tone the author maintains throughout the book. While our knee-jerk presumption that napalm is bad isn't challenged much, the author's impartiality and genuine quest to understand his subject spins off a lot of fun koans to consider. Neer shows how - like everything, really - things are never as straight-forward as they might seem....more
The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is short enough to read every few years. I've read two translations (and bogged down in the original 16th century Spa
The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is short enough to read every few years. I've read two translations (and bogged down in the original 16th century Spanish original) and now believe it's a good idea to read a couple of different scholars' take on connotation and nuance.
Though on the surface the narrative seems to be a thrilling survival story (a la raft of the Medusa, Endurance), the real point of interest is how Cabeza de Vaca interpreted his perceived ability to perform miracles, on cue, in God's name. Cabeza de Vaca believes he raised the dead. Before this, he was a mid level bureaucrat.
Cabeza de Vaca's translators (and at least one biographer I've read) put his head in different places on this. Some would have him be a delusional manic depressive with a messiah complex. Others would have him merely be a dutiful instrument for God.
The fun is comparing a couple of versions and trying to get to know him. It's a little harder than it would seem, though. The narrative wasn't written with an aim to be widely published. It was written as a report to the Spanish king. There's no plausible assumption that Cabeza de Vaca is reliable - he was writing partly to save his own hide. So it's really a lot like a puzzle. One that can be worked different ways. ...more
I've had a question for a long time. When social conservatives oppose something, like - say - gay marriage, it is often on the premise that expandingI've had a question for a long time. When social conservatives oppose something, like - say - gay marriage, it is often on the premise that expanding liberty will somehow take something away from those currently entitled to those liberties. There isn't a clear explanation behind the complaint that the traditional institution of marriage will collapse if we allow people of the same sex to marry, but the "argument" persists.
The answer, of course, is that social issues - ranging from the culture wars to the bill of rights - are seldom zero sum affairs. Expanding marriage will not destroy marriage any more than expanding the voting franchise (to include women, poor people, teenagers, and non-whites) ended the republic. The resistance to such expansion is likewise identical. To characterize it as fear or xenophobia is to simplify it. It is better characterized as jealousy.
But jealousy, in many ways, comes across as more petty than fear, so the actual underlyers get convoluted in their perception. Since we're talking about something that's basically emptional, psychology - more than political science - comes into play. So where am I going with this? More specifically, how has W. Scott Poole helped me answer this question?
Two thirds of the way through Monsters In America, Poole talks about Vietnam prisoners of war returning to an America that has dramatically changed since their own dramatic departure. Comparing the experience to Rip Van Winkle's, the young men in question left an America that was still fundamentally fifties-ish in its holographic absorption of consumerism, conservatism, and the status quo and returned to find Brown v. Board of Education enforced, Roe v. Wade in the works, and a slate of equivalent social transformations roiling and burning and growling and reveling at every angle of American life. The white political patriarch - long held as the conservator of the republic - had not only lost market share (as women, minorities, and youth made gains in the political/economic franchise), but literally lost a physical war against a supposedly "backwards" enemy (a banana republic on one hand, the "inferior" communist system on the other). The challenge to the accepted wisdom of the preceeding 200 years must have been enormous.
The psychological fallout of the confrontation with such catastrophic hubris continues to wreak aftershocks today. The 70s saw race riots, the Southern exodus from the Democratic party, women's control of both their domestic environment and their own bodies, gay culture, youth culture, and the threat of mutually assured destruction - and there was nothing the demagogues could do about it. To those empowered by some of these changes, life was improving. The ones who were satisfied with the status quo (or jealous of its powers) faced confusion (even rage). Without a clear way to enunciate their apprehension, diverse manifestations emerged. The religious right sprang out of Goldwater conservatism.
This isn't ostensibly what W. Scott Poole was supposed to be telling us about in Monsters in America. But it is. He contextualizes this, and many other, points by collating it with the way the psycho sprang from the creature feature. The creature (created by an atomic accident or international communism) stood in for cold war apprehension. The psycho came to personify some people's dread over the changing social landscape - more specifically the loss of patriarchal control over the family. As women and children gained more autonomy within the family unit, the fear was that the ensuing dysfunction would literally produce psychos - or monsters.
If this sounds suspiciously like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky dipping their toes into film criticism, it is. But it's also pretty amazing. We've always known there was something bigger about the film and literary monster than the immediate, visceral thrill it delivers. W. Scott Poole does a masterful job of collating many of those layers of meaning with the American historical narrative. He skips around a lot and doesn't attempt a comprehensive, linear history. Had he done so, Monsters in America might have been tedious - counter-intuitive treatment of a subject designed to titillate. No, Poole strikes the perfect tone and holds up a frank mirror to America through the lens of our nightmare creatures. I would recommend this to just about everyone....more
A journalist trying to pen an unauthorized biography or chronicle his search for the creator of Calvin and Hobbes must, at some point, argue the positA journalist trying to pen an unauthorized biography or chronicle his search for the creator of Calvin and Hobbes must, at some point, argue the position of those who want it to come back. But anyone committed to an appreciation of rock and roll or film franchises knows only bad things happen when good things come back after running their natural courses. The only thing about Bill Watterson I respect more than his decision to move on is his reasons for doing so - a combination of artistic and proprietary integrity. Well, that and the comic he made, of course.
It was my cosmic good fortune to be between the ages of 8 and 18 when Calvin and Hobbes was syndicated. One could not have placed a graphic medium in a better ten year window. Those in my general age bracket are the most direct beneficiaries of Calvin and Hobbes. The so-called "Bullwinkle effect" (funny at 5, funnier at 15, hilarious at 25) applies, but it isn't nearly as simple as that. Calvin was the kind of individual a lot of us aspire to be - able to experience and articulate cynicism at the material world while still reveling in the gratuitous wash of pop culture, a paradox all self-righteous elitists must reconcile on their path to self-realization.
Six year olds don't use words like weltanschauung or oeurve and they don't compose bombastic verse worthy of Kipling and they don't actively battle with cognitive dissonance on a daily basis. In this regard, Calvin requires suspension of disbelief. And, like Hal Incandenza, his knowledge of the esoteric corresponds to an inability to fit in (though for different reasons), making him a bad role model, even if we allow for the disciplinary problems and low academic performance. But we want to be like Calvin - even though it means the impossible (returning to an idyllic childhood none of us ever had to engage in internal dialog we lack the present maturity to conduct). Something about him spoke to us all.
The single most effective thing about Looking for Calvin and Hobbes was the author's dependence on others to supply the insight into his subject. Since Watterson himself was famously aloof (not granting so much as a response - let alone an interview - to the author's inquiries), Nevin Martell had to balance the record (restricted in one way) with the amorphous attitude of the effect (uncontrolled in the other way). Looking for Calvin and Hobbes opens the floor for a lot of introspection into what makes Calvin and Hobbes so poignant to the reader. Soliciting thoughts from subjects as diverse as Brad Bird and Jonathan Lethem is as profound a way of teasing out wisdom as asking Michael McKean to talk about They Might Be Giants (or, to a lesser extent, asking Bono to talk about the Pixies).
If the author had his way, he certainly would have been granted unlimited access into Watterson's mind. If he had been, his process might have been easier and the results as vapid as I imagine his other work (on the Dave Matthews Band and Beck) must be. By not being able to so much as reproduce Calvin or Hobbes, even for the cover of this book, required the reader to recall the strip for themselves - remembering the way the tyrannosaurs and poplar trees looked in the mind's eye (or dragging out the collections). Active participation in the biography of a pop icon is pretty uncommon, for what I can tell from a glancing experience with the genre. Looking for Calvin and Hobbes was a surprisingly worthwhile read - fast and a good start to a new year (it would also make a good beach or trans-oceanic flight selection)....more
The President is a Sick Man is the perfect beach read. The subject is a perfect balance of quirk, period, and philosophy (quirky because an obscure 19The President is a Sick Man is the perfect beach read. The subject is a perfect balance of quirk, period, and philosophy (quirky because an obscure 19th century president had a secret surgery on a boat, a period piece because the gilded age is full of color, and philosophical because questions about the public's right to know what's going on with their president and the White House's relationship with the press have tremendous possible implications beyond the triviality of a single episode). It's been a long time since I read a book in a single day.
The other elusive balance Matthew Algeo managed to strike is the one between general nonfiction and historical scholarship. Algeo breezes over serious, divisive historical issues (bi-metallism, labor issues) without misstating anything in the process. Though the author doesn't explain the full implication of the gold standard versus bimetallism, he also doesn't make any incorrect generalizations. He also manages to comment on the period without apparent partisanship (though it's notoriously hard to definitively say who most resembles the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties in the 1890s). In short, despite a brisk and breezy tempo, there are no casualties in Algeo's narrative.
The reader doesn't walk away from The President is a Sick Man with a changed mind about anything. But it isn't a complete waste of time. Very gently, Matthew Algeo encourages his readers to ask themselves questions about American politics, journalism, and (to a lesser degree) the benefit of living in an era of reliable medicine. That gentleness and tempo make The President is a Sick Man one of the most overwhelmingly enjoyable books I've read in months....more
John Dos Passos astutely wrote that Americans are two people: those capable of contextualizing what they read and hear with their republican values anJohn Dos Passos astutely wrote that Americans are two people: those capable of contextualizing what they read and hear with their republican values and those hopelessly distracted by base prejudice at the expense of good citizenship. Dos Passos's quote is repeated two or three times in Sacco and Vanzetti and is the base of the book itself.
I find it interesting that one could also say about Bruce Watson's monograph that Sacco and Vanzetti is two books: one that contextualizes the trial with American values and the times and one that gets bogged down in detail.
The 1920s is a fascinating and under-served period in American history. If for no other reason than we became the people we are today in the 1920s, since...
"Nearly every amusement that would dominate the twentieth century - radio, TV, sporting spectacles, pop psychology, home appliances, youth culture, crazy fads, 'talking pictures,' Madison Avenue, Mickey Mouse - got its start during this frantic decade."
Much more than the 50s or 60s, the 20s gave us the features we identify ourselves by today. While it may have been Fenno's Gazette of the United States (at the earliest) or Hearst's New York Journal (more likely) that started the shrieking, manic, panicky news cycle, it wasn't until the 20s that polemic causes celibrés ignited international markets with the antics of a certain sample of an unusually reactionary American public.
The first part of the book doesn't say as much, but I got a real vibe from Watson that he considers Islamophobia and the right's too cool for brains posture a continuation of the lessons we failed to learn eighty years ago. In the 1920s, some Americans believed that all Italian and Italian-American Catholics were depraved bomb-throwers in a number that approximately corresponds to the number of Americans who believe all Muslims are suicide bombers. Or all African-Americans are lascivious sub-humans with loose morals... Or that all Japanese-Americans are Tojo's spies... Pick your year; it's sort of the same. The pathological defect in the national character believes a small number of loosely related crimes is justification for wholesale racism and bigotry. Not that terrorism is often justified, but America has to re-learn the lesson that further antagonizing the terrorists by abusing the innocent is the wrong way to quell terror. Watson doesn't say it, but the reason Italians, leftists, and the international proletariat stopped planting bombs when Italian-Americans and Catholics were eventually admitted into the American franchise on a more-or-less equal basis with WASPs and the vicious red-baiting of the early 20th century yielded to the Bill of Rights. It didn't stop because our legal and political system really stuck it to the reds.
I digress. Someone else wrote a review complaining that Watson seems to believe in Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence because of a personal, liberal agenda. Not really. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti is routinely taught in American classrooms as an example of government corruption in the age of the Harding and Coolidge heydays. The perception of a "frame-up" and political persecution is the standard academic interpretation. So if Watson is speculating on the context of corruption and prejudice in the 1920s, the reader is not out of line finding parallels in the intervening years. That's all I'm saying. And with that, Watson has a pretty good book, here.
But the author doesn't rest on sound historiography. He goes into detail of the minutes of the trial and rounds of appeals that is, frankly, grueling. While Watson isn't uncommonly long-winded, he doggedly documents each move in a grim dance involving judicial incompetence, judicial indiscretion, and judicial gridlock. Redundant points aren't consolidated together for maximum effect. Instead, they're cited separately, in chronological order. It makes reading a breezy work of non-fiction a little bit like reading actual court transcripts (which I have to do occasionally, and while it may thrill some it definitely isn't for everyone). This approach is thorough, and cannot be fairly called bad scholarship. But it slows down the tempo and makes a good book suddenly, decidedly. much less fun. That's a shame, because I think Watson has written a book that will be the go-to for undergrads, history enthusiasts, and general interest on the subject for years to come. It's a shame that it doesn't hold the reader as rapt as its subject deserves....more
"We the willing, led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so muchOne of Paul Clemens's subjects put it this way:
"We the willing, led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much with so little for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing."
That pretty much sums up the pathos and resignation captured in the author's snapshot of our industrial heritage in tatters. Personally, I have no idea why Clemens wrote this book. I get the feeling he doesn't either. It's observations are variegated and lacking in any unified focus. It recriminates expansive tracts of a system without offering any positive advice. The thesis may be that no economic system works. If so, the American system must be the most perverse - in that someone can earn money by writing nothing at all. And people will pay good money to gain no valuable insights other than creeping despair. Creeping despair, after all, is reality - but why do you want to make a recreation of bringing it home?
Perhaps I'm being a philistine. Obviously the absense of judgment and dedication to a true depiction of the subject is Punching Out's purpose. Art for art's sake. But I like to think I understand the concept of "art for art's sake." So why do I feel like my grandmother considering an Ad Reinhardt black painting? ...more
It's been nearly ten years since I took a class in ethics/morality. I probably won't ever take another. So it's important to read a book on the subjecIt's been nearly ten years since I took a class in ethics/morality. I probably won't ever take another. So it's important to read a book on the subject every once in a while to prevent the old moral compass from breaking down.
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat supports the subject of ethics regarding animals from a scientific angle. The science is very light, however, taking a backseat to philosophy. In it, the author scrolls through the standard curriculum of topics like: Is animal research unetheical? Is it okay to eat meat? Cockfights are wrong, right? Standard animal rights fare. I was pleased to find the author also included questions about whether pet ownership makes you a better person or improves your health. What does participating in animal interests (from ASPCA to animal liberation cells) say about its devotees?
The question on my mind going in was whether Some We Love would be preachy or not.
It's not. At all.
While parts of the book will make the reader lie awake in bed for a while (and turn the reader off chicken - possibly for a long time), Some We Love spares the reader from the grisly pictures and lurid details of the activist wing animal rights lobby. Keeping in mind that most of us are not scientists, Hal Herzog avoids scientific jargon and stays on philosophy - keeping the topic in the big frame. If we don't need to comprehend issues at the neurological or genetic level to follow the argument, the author doesn't go there. Graciously, if our visceral reaction to a fine point is at risk of distracting the reader, it is skipped. Example:
"According to the [South Korean] Ministry of Agriculture, South Koreans ate about 12,000 tons of dogmeat in 1997. In 2002, the National Dog Meat Restaurant Association was organized to promote the consumption of dogmeat and related products. These include dogmeat bread, dogmeat cookies, dogmeat mayonaise, dogmeat ketchup, dogmeat vinegar, and dogmeat hamburger. You can also buy packs of 'digested dogmeat.' (I am not sure what this is.) A medicinal tonic called gaesoju that is said to be good for rheumatism is also produced from dogs. You don't want to know how it's made." (186)
The bold type is the author's words, emphasis mine. The point is to illustrate the humor present throughout the book. Another quote reads, "[The philospher Rob Bass] believes that if you correctly apply formal deductive logic to premises that are true, you will always end up with a correct conclusion. In theory, he may be right." Is it just me, or was that a joke?
What makes Some We Love really good – as opposed to just sort of good – is its synthesis of the generic and clichéd arguments adults picked up as younger people – as college students or Propagandhi fans. A little living dulls the reactionary element. I don’t know the statistics, but I presume I’m less likely to go vegan at 35 than I was at 19. This temperance clears the space for a lucid consideration of the issues. Furthermore, living contributes a lot to the process.
Do I think animals should be harvested for human medicine? Yes. Following surgery, my newborn son received a blood thinner derived from the intestinal mucous of farmed pigs. Do the intestines of pigs presumably raised and slaughtered for a variety of uses (primarily meat) have a greater need to exist than my child? What about right? My answer is probably different than the one I would have given at 19. If not, it is certainly more automatic.
I may be projecting, but I really believe this book was written with people like me in mind – people with prior exposure to the radical sides of the arguments and some life experience going in. Perhaps those without such prerequisites may find less to enjoy in Some We Love, but I thought it was great. It stimulated my thought, gave me the fantods, and reminded me that the unconsidered life is a waste. ...more
I'm left with these closing thoughts upon completion of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
1. The book's title is suggestive of places the author didn't really go. A more descriptive title might be Latitude, Food, and Non-Food Specialists: A Hyperbole Free Explanation of Why the Modern Era Looks the Way It Does. Of course, that lacks the oomph of "Guns! Steel!" and would probably stay on bookshelves.
It isn't that Diamond doesn't include guns and steel into his monograph. It's just that, of all the variables he details, guns and steel define the narrowest band of history and then only make nominal modifications to the status quo (well, maybe not to the people displaced by change - but certainly in the long view).
A vanquishing wave of 16th century Spaniards ultimately changed the human condition of the Andes less than agriculture and the political state did before it. The differential between the Inca and the original hunter-gatherers is greater than between the Inca and the Spanish.
Since the interview at Cajamarca is Diamond's centerpiece and all other dynamic clashes (except perhaps the Maori v. Moriori collision) receive only glancing treatment, the reader must note how much more of the book is dedicated to the profound changes brought about by less dramatic developments. I concluded (and I think Diamond believes) ecological and geographic features are ultimately more important than the details of sudden societal interaction.
2. Professor Diamond has developed a deep affinity for New Guinea, through his various biological studies prior to writing Pulitizer Prize winning anthropology. It is safe to say he has "gone bamboo" over New Guinea, the way Gauguin swooned for Tahiti or Brando fell for Fiji. However, the things the average westerner knows about New Guinea may not fill an index card.
New Guinea serves as Guns, Germs, and Steel's hub. Diamond is able to launch most of his theses from New Guinea (i.e. how do languages diffuse in general using New Guinea as an example?, how do geological features insulate some conservative cultures using New Guinea as an example?, etc.). Certainly, I see its utility as an island - especially a big one with a convenient amount of ecological variety. But New Guinea quickly became either a motif or a character of sorts. There were times when I wondered if the elaborate thesis of the book wasn't an excuse for Diamond to write about New Guinea. Or if it wasn't all a trick to get people to read about New Guinea.
Neither of the above are true, of course. But I nevertheless found Diamond's obsession with a place as obscure to his audience as New Guinea occasionally annoying. Not because I don't like New Guinea. I mean, it's cool. I just don't... you know, really care about New Guinea as much as Diamond does. I would have engaged with the material more if he had used more familiar territory as his home base.
By "more familiar territory," I mean pretty much anywhere else. I think westerners have working knowledge about every continent except Australia and its surrounding quadrant (for whatever reason). While subsaharan Africa would be an "exotic" starting locale, western readers ultimately know something about it going in.
3. One of the issues Diamond barely acknowledges is nationalism. This falls outside Guns, Germs, and Steel's scope, but I experienced a puzzling, possible conflict of interest with the way I responded to certain chapters.
Being an American of Western European descent, one would expect me to respond more to descriptions of how Western Europe developed into the ultimate technological society. But I found that I was more interested in the way North American civilization progressed.
It could be that the story of North American civilization is still underserved in our education system. Many American adults still do not know as much about Native American civilization as they could. By contrast, most Americans (including non-whites) are taught some form of European history. Thus, being less familiar with the subject of North America (and feeling bored with the subject of Europe) could have produced the disparate interest. However, I am ultimately somewhat unfamiliar with the histories of Africa and China too. I was interested in these subjects because of that unfamiliarity, but not at the level I was engaged with the North American components.
I've concluded the reason for this disparate interest must be "liberal guilt," empathy for a group who (despite small numbers) still lives in proximity to me, or (most tantalizing) that geography superseded genetics and created a new cultural identity. In other words, because I live in North America - and not England or Switzerland - my identity has been tricked into believing my genetic link is to here, not there. If this is actually the case, it is very interesting....more
I have no idea how David Aaronovitch would describe the "role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history." The author spends such an inordinate amI have no idea how David Aaronovitch would describe the "role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history." The author spends such an inordinate amount of time commenting on how stupid various conspiracies actually are that he never quite gets around to his thesis.*
Of course, Aaronovitch isn't wrong. Conspiracy theories - from CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination, British royal family orchestration of Diana's death, President Bush's war mongering desire to stage 9/11, to the "birther" movement that (continues to) insist President Obama isn't a US citizen - are usually pretty stupid. They've become so ubiquitous through film and screen, the political media, and sheer persistence that we sometimes fail to note exactly why they are so stupid, even when they are constant nuisance. I expected the author to eventually comment on something like that.
I also wondered what the first conspiracy theory might be, and if the line between it to the present is continuous. But, nope. No commentary about that either.
Having modified my expectations when I realized that Mr. Aaronovitch had abandoned his thesis, I started to wonder if the author had at least written a good dismissal of his cherry-picked examples. For a while, it was sort of hard to tell. Being that half of his examples are British conspiracies with little play in the American press, I couldn't tell if the many tangents explored contributed to or detracted from the analysis. When he made it to recent American conspiracies (the 9/11 "Truth movement" and the "birther" crusade), it became clear the tangents are signs of disorganization or ineptitude. At the very least, Aaronovitch has a preference for anachronism, constantly beginning with something recent and fresh and ending with something moldering and obscure. One can (and should) demonstrate the constancy of agents provocateur embellishing White Water and the Clinton impeachment hearings through the "I'm just asking" Iagoism of the "birthers." The logical order is to handle Clinton first, then proceed to Obama. Aaronovitch writes history from the perspective of Merlin.
The reader who wants a good laugh at the stupidity of others will enjoy the multifarious rants. The reader interested in understanding why conspiracy theories flourish and what effect they have on culture has a lot of raw data to contend with here. Voodoo Histories is a good compendium of crazy shit. Unfortunately, its discipline is not significantly elevated above its source to capture the moral authority needed to back up its vulgar, if commonsensical conclusions.
*To be fair, Aaronovitch does eventually get the question of "why," dedicating about three pages (or 0.8% of the total manuscript) to the understanding (what he compiles from other scholars is fascinating). He never quite explores the conspiracy theory's "role" in shaping history, though....more
Nicholas Fox Weber personally spent a lot of time with the Alberses (Josef and Anni), acted as executor of Anni Albers's estate, observed the couple'sNicholas Fox Weber personally spent a lot of time with the Alberses (Josef and Anni), acted as executor of Anni Albers's estate, observed the couple's eccentric experience with American consumer culture, and mitigated their sometimes petulant attitude toward other people. There probably isn't a better American suited to compile a few short biographies of some of the core Bauhauslers, because few Americans probably understand the nuance and inconsistency within the Bauhaus itself.
Mr. Weber's approach is very intuitive. He employs different styles, depending on his subject. His description of Walther Gropius is gossipy and political - because Gropius revolved in a fast orbit of high drama and was the cementing force behind the Bauhaus. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe receives similar treatment - the style is as apt for studying titans of finance or industry as titans of architecture. By contrast, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky are treated like dalai lamas or suffering saints. Anni Albers's portrait is complex and personal and Josef Albers's brain is explained more than the man. Explaining how an ordinary, working class origin complemented visionary attitudes about color and proportion is the best way to summarize the Bauhaus itself.
Had Weber arranged his anthology in this order, it would flow with a sensible rhythm. Instead, he grows increasingly anachronistic as the book progresses, almost like he's trying to channel the progression of the artist's disease. Anni Albers' narrative is a blink comparitor toggling between Nazi Germany and the gluttonous art society of 1980s New York. Somehow, in the process, readers manage to get a comprehensive sense of the Bauhaus. So, I suppose cheers are in order.
The question is whether such an eccentric approach isn't a sort of irony. Weber took the single most inefficient route toward informing his readers, literally the polar opposite of the way Klee or the Alberses would bring their viewers to enlightenment.
The Bauhaus Group is tedious at times; it is indecisive about whether it wants to talk about the artists' ideas, social impact, or history. In nearly 500 pages of narrative, there is room to cover all of that if an author truly wanted to. The somewhat intangible objection of the Nazi party to the Bauhaus is a fascinating question, and the reader has to find his own conclusion - because the conclusion is not to be found in the book.
I'm out of step with the world of art history. It was neither my major nor minor in college, and I had only a few upper level classes (mostly concerning contemporary art, after 1945). The Bauhaus Group may be de rigueur among the art history genre. I recall my art history professors' rather murky understanding of actual, non-art history. Maybe the culture of the discipline is one that can't be bothered with the petty business of understanding how a thing fits in a larger matrix. If so, perhaps the peculiar editorial processes Mr. Weber has chosen do not constitute failure. However, a casual reader will find inherent challenges with The Bauhaus Group; it doesn't conform to the style of other history and nonfiction monographs. I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I'm done reading it.