Bedside Table II
OK, I got behind again, just like last time. Here’s a collection of short reviews of books I’ve been reading recently. I don’t have time to give any of them their due, but perhaps I can give you enough of the flavor of them that you’ll be interested in reading them yourself.
My Life In France – This is Julia Child’s story of the period between when she first moved to France and when she moved back to America and started her TV show. It’s a delightful book on many levels. It captures a French way of life which has since vanished. It’s a love story about her husband Paul. It’s also a good description of amount of work and luck that’s involved in starting a new business. And, like everything she ever did, it’s hilarious!
Bright-Sided – This is Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent polemic against the Positive Thinking movement. It grew out of her anger about being bombarded with pink Teddy bears and “positive messages” during her struggle with breast cancer. However, like everything she does, it has a lot more depth. She traces the history of this movement from Mary Baker Eddy through today’s preachers like Joel Osteen and academics like Martin Seligman. She sees this movement as part America’s long struggle to come to terms with the strict Calvinism of its founders.
The Bomb – I picked this up when I was at City Lights. It’s Howard Zinn’s last book. I didn’t know that he was a bombardier in a B-17 during WWII. This is the story of a raid he did on the French city of Royan. This was after the Germans had retreated. There was a small garrison left behind in Royan. He’s convinced that they would have surrendered any day, and that the only reason they bombed it was so that the Air Force could try out a new toy before the war ended. Wiping the city off the map didn’t enter into the equation. He draws the obvious parallels with the A-bombs dropped in Japan.
The War That Killed Achilles – This is an interesting take on The Illiad. Although we now think of The Illiad as one of the great archetypes of the heroic war story, Caroline Alexander argues that it is actually the exact opposite. She says that Homer lived at a time when Greece was just recovering from a dark age which was caused by the fall of the war-like Mycenaeans and starting down the path which led to the first Democracies. Her argument is that many notable features of the story (e.g. Achilles disrespect for authority) are intended as arguments that the people of Greece should turn their back on the age of heroes.
God Is Not Great – I had actually been putting off reading this one because Christopher Hitchens can be a bit pugilistic. I assumed that this would be a strident, angry book. It is angry in places, but it’s a lot more than that. It is easy to see why Hitchens would have angry things to say about religion after the experience of having a fatwah placed on his friend Salman Rushdie, but it doesn’t seem to be that simple. He’s obviously thought long and hard about religion’s place in modern society. As he points out, between his upbringing and his various marriages, he’s been schooled in all three major western religions. He knows his subject matter, and he certainly knows how to argue a point.
Kluge – This is a pretty good introduction to what modern neuroscience knows about how the human brain works. The short version is that it’s a bunch of horrible hacks hung together with duct tape. The elegance of consciousness is mostly an illusion. This is a pretty good book, but I was already familiar with all of the research he references, so it didn’t really get me too excited.
The Map That Changed the World – This is an engaging story of William Smith and the birth of modern geology. It’s an interesting subject and the story is well told, but I feel like Simon Winchester has a tendency to go overboard with turning every story into a morality tale centered on a single person.
The End of Nature – If you haven’t read Bill McKibben’s classic, you should. It’s been out for more than 10 years now, and it’s kind of sad how little we’ve done to fix the problems he describes. The basic argument of the book is that in mankind recently went through a transition where the natural world stopped being something external to us and became something just as artificial and under our control as our cities and factories. He laments the loss inherent in that transition, but then argues that it means that we need to step up and take responsibility for our actions.
But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz – This is an odd little book. It’s a collection of fictional stories about real jazz musicians from the 50’s, stitched together by interludes involving Duke Ellington on a cross country road trip. One of the really interesting things about it is that the stories are all very visual, and obviously based on famous photographs you’ve seen of the musicians. However, the photographs are not in the book, so you need to rely on your memory of them. This means that as you read the story, it quickly becomes more real than the photograph. The result is that the stories seem to implant themselves in your memory as real events. It’s quite effective even though you’re always very conscious of what the author’s doing
C – I’m still digesting this one. I think that it’s probably going to require multiple reads. It’s an ambitious and complicated book, but it is so obviously an homage to Thomas Pynchon, that it’s hard to evaluate on its own merits. That said, I actually enjoyed it more than several of Pynchon’s recent novels.