**spoiler alert** Early on in this novel, there's a moment where the protagonist (Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in Princeton) describes her dislike**spoiler alert** Early on in this novel, there's a moment where the protagonist (Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in Princeton) describes her dislike for novels "packed with *things*, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness. She had read many of them ... but they were like cotton candy that so easily evaporated from her tongue's memory."
The further I got into AMERICANAH, the more it seemed like a novel packed with things, the characters completely bereft of inner life, a bunch of interchangeable props serving no purpose except to set the stage for the author's social commentary, or (more commonly) to reenact a scene clearly experienced by the author in real life. This is definitely what you might call an "issue novel", which is not a bad thing in itself, if the author can explore the issue by giving you a story worth caring about, which Adichie doesn't.
If I set aside the lack of interesting characters, story, or style, I don't find myself disagreeing with, or being even remotely challenged by, any of the arguments Adichie puts forth here. This doesn't exactly make the novel any more interesting.
Ifemelu is a blogger (actually, she's an ex-blogger who thinks wistfully and often about how she wishes she still blogged, which is probably the most face-achingly dull character synopsis I've ever written), and all of the ideas contained in AMERICANAH's 575+ pages would have been better distilled into about four medium-length blog entries. Instead, we get scene upon scene upon scene of boring conversation in which oblivious bigots say stupid things in front of Ifemelu, and Ifemelu struggles to keep from rolling her eyes. I am not exaggerating when I say that these scenes make up at least 80% of the novel.
Aside from Ifemelu, there is exactly one character we're supposed to like. He is her long-lost fiancé who has moved on with his life and finds himself in a loveless marriage with an irredeemably shallow woman. I put the spoiler tag on this review, but it's not spoiling anything to say that they finally get back together on the very last page....more
This is the first Morrison novel I've read, and I know now that I should have read her much sooner, not just because she's an "important" writer but bThis is the first Morrison novel I've read, and I know now that I should have read her much sooner, not just because she's an "important" writer but because I realized about three pages in that she is going to become one of my lifelong favorites. The story is such a perfect marriage of felt life and magical realism, effortlessly blending the picaresque and the personal (and, at times, the political). It's really virtuosic the way so many literary tricks are pulled without the strings ever showing, and it's a pleasure to watch the whole thing unfold. ...more
The beginning chapters are the best, as the author gives an interesting glimpse of daily life for North Koreans, the extent of the personality cult, wThe beginning chapters are the best, as the author gives an interesting glimpse of daily life for North Koreans, the extent of the personality cult, which types of activities are variously prosecuted or tolerated, etc. After that it is mostly focused on economics, which is still interesting but a lot drier.
Having read this book, I find it a lot harder to laugh at the Kims' antics, their haircuts and their press releases and the sad reality they've manufactured for their people. The global punchline that is North Korea just doesn't seem that funny to me anymore, and I have to give French a lot of credit for engendering that type of empathy in the reader without once becoming manipulative or polemical....more
I wanted to enjoy this one, but the prose is stilted and one never gets the sense that the author really understands her subject matter. Like a lot ofI wanted to enjoy this one, but the prose is stilted and one never gets the sense that the author really understands her subject matter. Like a lot of recent popular nonfiction, this feels more like a blog in book form: the author had occasion to meet some interesting people, have some interesting experiences, and write about them from a dilettante's viewpoint. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but a reader looking for some real insight into the workings of this insular community won't find it here.
I was also a bit disappointed to realize that this book focuses entirely on Hasidim living in Brooklyn, which is a relatively open culture (as ultra-orthodox communities go) and leaves a lot of room for the type of rebellion described in the book. I grew up near the much more closed community of New Square in upstate New York and was hoping there would be at least a passing mention of it, considering it is arguably a bigger Hasidic stronghold than the traditionally orthodox neighborhoods of NYC....more
Part I of this book focuses on Frankl's experiences in Nazi concentration camps. It's a parade of horrors, of course, and can be difficult to get throPart I of this book focuses on Frankl's experiences in Nazi concentration camps. It's a parade of horrors, of course, and can be difficult to get through, but Frankl's account is special in that it focuses on the moral degradation common to victims of torture and imprisonment. I found that this account humanized the Holocaust moreso than a lot of other accounts I've read, which have a tendency to shy away from acknowledging these effects in an effort to avoid disrespecting the dead.
Part II focuses on Frankl's theory of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy based in the idea that human beings are driven by an intellectual search for meaning, rather than latent instincts. Logotherapy seeks to show people the meaning of their lives and thereby overcome neurosis, rather than to analyze their pasts in an attempt to explain and give rational basis for those neuroses.
There are parts of this theory that I really connected with, and parts that just seem completely untenable. Let's start with the gripes.
Like most psychological theorists I've read, Frankl has a tendency to assign factual status to his personal opinions, without providing any evidence to support his claims. His logotherapy stands in direct contrast to Freudian/Adlerian ideas of man as a collection of impulses, and human behavior as the mere suppression or realization of those impulses. As such, he rejects the idea that the sex drive is man's primary motivator. Fair enough. But then he goes a step farther, claiming that the sex drive is essentially nonexistent, except as an expression of love, which has the power to "sanctify" the sex act. It's amazing that anyone with any real knowledge of human behavior can deny that a sex drive exists apart from the instinct to love. In the absence of any evidence, or even a coherent chain of argument, this line of thought reads like pure religious conservatism.
Frankl's philosophy also has a tendency to contradict itself. At one point he recounts a conversation with a thirty-year-old female patient; he helps her realize that she will come to regret her entire life if she reaches the age of eighty without bearing children. Not two pages later, he describes a conversation with a rabbi who despairs that his life is meaningless because his children are dead and his wife is infertile. Frankl goes to great lengths to convince the man that having children does not in itself give life meaning. No attempt is made to reconcile these contradictory conclusions.
Another contradiction comes in his comparison of "pessimistic" and "activistic" personalities. Pessimists dread the passage of time, focusing on their impending death and regretting the years wasted. Activistic people, on the other hand, do not need to look forward because they can look with pride on past achievements: "Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past." This is a total contradiction of Frankl's central thesis, that all people have an inherent need to look forward to a goal.
Lastly, I have to say that I just find Frankl's case studies hard to believe. His patients don't sound like real human beings, and his counsel is rarely as profound as he seems to think it is. For example, if you saw the following scene in a movie, you'd burst out laughing:
'A young physician consulted me because of his fear of perspiring. Whenever he expected an outbreak of perspiration, this anticipatory anxiety was enough to precipitate excessive sweating. In order to cut this circle formation I advised the patient, in the event that sweating should recur, to resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat. A week later he returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, "I only sweated out a quart before, but now I'm going to pour at least ten quarts!" The result was that, after suffering from his phobia for four years, he was able, after a single session, to free himself permanently of it within one week.'
Those complaints aside, the book has some very useful insights. I particularly like the idea of the "Super-Meaning", that once we realize that meaning is derived *outside* of ourselves, life becomes infinitely meaningful rather than pointless and absurd: "What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic."
There's another idea which seems deceptively simple, but sticks with me: "Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now." This maxim invites a person "to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed…. Such a precept confronts him with life's finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of [it]." This approach of seeing the present as a rewritable past seems like a worthwhile practice for people obsessed by regret and nostalgia, who have trouble living in the present moment. (Although this is, of course, another contradiction of the claim that man must always look forward to a future goal in order to find meaning in life.)
Ultimately, Frankl's argument is simply that it is worthwhile to live a good life, and that earnestness is better than nihilism. I can't disagree with either point, though I think this philosophy has been better expressed by other authors going back as far as the written word itself. I'm still glad I read his story and I've come away with a few useful perspectives on ancient questions....more
Like just about everyone else, I've always loved John Darnielle's lyrics -- but I have never been able to get excited about the Mountain Goats, whoseLike just about everyone else, I've always loved John Darnielle's lyrics -- but I have never been able to get excited about the Mountain Goats, whose instrumentals and melodies always strike me as interchangeable afterthoughts, just an excuse to get the words down on tape.
So for a long time I've hoped that Darnielle would write a novel, and now that he has, I'm thrilled that it's about a million times better than I even expected it to be. I read the last paragraph, then read it again... and wanted to turn back to the first page and read the whole thing from the beginning. I can't remember the last time a novel made me feel that way....more
The author makes it clear in his prologue that this book is categorically pro-soldier. While no attempt is made to absolve, or apologize for, the fourThe author makes it clear in his prologue that this book is categorically pro-soldier. While no attempt is made to absolve, or apologize for, the four men who massacred the Janabis, the bulk of the text is devoted to an indictment of Army leadership whose callous disregard for the 502nd's well-being contributed to the creation of an environment where such a crime became possible. The soldiers are all portrayed as victims in their own right.
I don't necessarily have a problem with this, although at times the writing reeks of empty Support Our Troops rah-rah stuff, obvious pre-emptive attempts to dismantle the accusations of anti-Americanism which are inevitable when a New York Times reporter writes about American war crimes.
The real issue here is that Iraqi stories -- including those of the Janabi family -- are virtually nonexistent. Even as Frederick offers an honest portrayal of the platoon's behavior (the worst of which can range from simple thuggery to outright atrocity), their Iraqi victims are described in vague terms, and barely register as more than extras in a movie, or automatons in a war game. It becomes impossible not to identify more closely with the American protagonists, even in those situations where they are undeniably the villains.
This is the inevitable result of telling such a story entirely through American sources. If the soldiers' dehumanization of Iraqis is the crux of the problem, but only the soldiers' own testimonies can be used to recreate the events, then obviously there will be very little humanization of Iraqis in the narrative, even if the author empathizes with them in an abstract way.
The rape and massacre in the Janabis' home (which, contrary to expectations, occupies only one chapter of the book) is a case in point. The author repeatedly refers to the soldiers' states of mind ("the men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now") and offers a chronological recap of their actions ("Green grabbed the AK, moved Cortez's knee out of the way, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired"). But this is not all that happened in that house.
Did Abeer speak to her attackers? Did she look them in the eye? For how many minutes after hearing the gunshots that killed her family was she forced to endure this nightmare? The reader is not privy to this information.
This is not just morbid curiosity. Frederick takes the time to detail dozens of IED attacks. There are page-long enumerations of paper-pushing and political wrangling among the Army brass. We get paragraph-long explanations of the soldiers' emotional reactions to the verbal abusiveness of Lt. Col. Thomas Kunk, who is all but held directly responsible for every crime committed by the 502nd. If these things are fit to print, then surely there is room for some tiny humanizing detail about this murdered child.
I will give Frederick the benefit of the doubt that much of this information simply was not available to him (although it is hard for me to believe that Frederick didn't have access to even one one Iraqi source, not even in government). I believe his intentions are good, and his journalistic practices ethical. Nevertheless, it is a glaring failure.
So why give it four stars? As students of history we often have to settle for the best account available to us in spite of great flaws, and this is one such case. As far as American soldiers are concerned, the anxiety and demoralization inherent to their war experience is palpable on every page, and Frederick deserves praise for that. I understand the war in Iraq better for having read this book, and that alone makes it worth reading....more
**spoiler alert** I was completely engrossed in the first half of this book, but found that it kind of regressed into a pretty typical Hollywood novel**spoiler alert** I was completely engrossed in the first half of this book, but found that it kind of regressed into a pretty typical Hollywood novel about cruel people whose good looks only barely conceal the crushing emptiness of their lives, etc.
Maria is a compelling character but the novel doesn't make good on its promises: within the first few pages we learn that Maria is locked up in an institution, separated from her daughter Kate, for her involvement in the death of someone named BZ. The rest of the novel is told in flashbacks but Kate never makes an appearance, so the reader can't really feel the loss of her; and the denouement with BZ feels rushed and unearned, particularly since he didn't especially stand out from the other mean-spirited stuffed shirts who populate the narrative.
What does work is the story of Maria's abortion, which she is all but forced into, and the way this event accelerates her disillusionment with and, eventually, her utter detachment from the rest of the world.
After finishing "Play It As It Lays", I find myself wanting to read more Didion (I can't believe I waited this long), as there is something really phenomenal in her style, even if this particular book didn't completely work for me....more
I'm giving this one four stars because it's probably the only place where you'll find all this information collected, indexed, and chronologically ordI'm giving this one four stars because it's probably the only place where you'll find all this information collected, indexed, and chronologically ordered.
As a reading experience, though, I'd probably rather give it three stars. The author is a Friend and sometimes seems to be doing PR for the Quakers rather than giving a straightforward history. Call me cynical, but as much respect as I have for Quakers and the good work they've done, I have a hard time believing their role in American colonization and westward expansion has been as squeaky-clean as it is presented here....more
Read this alongside Walter Benjamin, Zizek, Quaker history, etc. as part of a larger examination I've been doing on the subject of violence. It's tooRead this alongside Walter Benjamin, Zizek, Quaker history, etc. as part of a larger examination I've been doing on the subject of violence. It's too big a subject for me to really synthesize my ideas here but I want to sketch a few thoughts.
The title of this book is a bit misleading, as violence occupies a relatively small (though important and valuable) portion of the argument. Arendt's concern has more to do with the ideology of "progress" and its relationship to "events" – specifically, the tendency of progress to inspire events (often violent ones) even as the utopian Left insists that history (past and in-progress) can explained by theoretical models: "Events, by definition, are occurances that interrupt routine processes [...]; only in a world in which nothing of importance ever happens could the futurologists' dream come true." Writing in the late 60s, Arendt thinks the very-eventful 20th century stands as a refutation of this approach. "Alas," she writes, "refutation of theory through reality has always been at best a lengthy and precarious process."
In the latter portion of the book, we get a compelling assessment of Power, Strength, Force, Authority, and Violence, concepts which Arendt insists are discrete but interrelated. Of particular interest is her observation that Power relies on legitimacy (an appeal to the past) while Violence relies on justification (an appeal to a hoped-for future end). Power and Violence are essentially opposites, and one cannot exist where the other dominates.
Also of interest is Arendt's discussion of bureaucracy, or "rule by Nobody", the natural result of the modern Westerner's "strong disinclination to obey [which] is often accompanied by an equally strong disinclination to dominate". I've been turning this idea over in light of DH Lawrence's essay "The Spirit of the Place" in which he questions the possibility of a "masterless" society.
The contemporary reader will be shocked by Arendt's near-total dismissal of the Black Power movement, particularly the goals and tactics of the then-fledgling Black student movement. They have an "obvious interest in a black-white dichotomy"; their demands to study "nonexistent subjects" like "African literature" are "silly" and "outrageous"; etc....more
I agree completely with Mander's central thesis, which is that skepticism of technology is a healthy aI couldn't finish this book, so I won't rate it.
I agree completely with Mander's central thesis, which is that skepticism of technology is a healthy and necessary approach to "progress". Our evaluation of new technology should go beyond simply asking whether it creates new conveniences (as all technologies do), but whether it is good for the world as a whole. Such a line of thinking might have saved us from the atomic bomb, but it might also have prevented the invention of the computer I'm using right now. That ambivalence is real and must also be central to the discussion; otherwise, you're left with sheer Luddism.
Mander himself isn't troubled by ambivalence. The first 100 pages or so (which is as much as I read) are just a laundry list of Things That Were Different When He Was A Kid. This approach, aside from being boring and too narrow in scope, does not effectively address the question of techno-optimism vs techno-skepticism. Luddites will read and rejoice; tech lovers will roll their eyes and walk away. Those of us who fall somewhere in the middle will just sort of drift away in search of something a little more nuanced....more
A disappointing and at times frustrating read. Rather than presenting the argument promised by its title, the text is primarily a laundry list of theA disappointing and at times frustrating read. Rather than presenting the argument promised by its title, the text is primarily a laundry list of the evils of the prison industrial complex. At times it reads a bit like an undergraduate term paper, summarizing important writers (Currie, Foucault, etc.) without really engaging them or adding new dimensions to their work. The book could serve as an excellent primer for the reader who may be unaware of just how crooked our penal system is, but it does little to turn reformers into abolitionists, which is ostensibly Davis's intention.
Fewer than ten pages in the book's very last chapter are devoted to "Abolitionist Alternatives". Unfortunately, even this chapter is essentially a lengthy paraphrase of the epigraph which precedes it, in which Arthur Waskow insists that our focus must be on "building the kind of society that does not need prisons". In other words, we need to work on improving our schools, developing more humane attitudes toward drug users, and removing the profit motive from the prison system. These are all important, if somewhat broad, goals — ones which are championed by even the most mealy-mouthed neoliberal, and do not in themselves constitute an argument for abolition. In fact, the admission that we do not yet *have* "the kind of society that does not need prisons" would seem to imply that the answer to the book's titular question is "no".
In the book's third-to-last paragraph, Davis finally comes right up to the edge of a serious discussion of what abolition would actually look like, and then says she'd rather not "rehears[e] the numerous debates that have emerged over the last decades—including the most persistent question, 'What will happen to the murderers and rapists?'" But if she didn't want to answer this question, why did she write the book?...more