Time and Free Will – 5/5
I am not a philosopher or even particularly well-read in philosophy, so this review is more from the perspective of someone with a literature background, and who is used to using philosophy to serve the aims of literature and philology. This book is particularly suited to the task because through early breakthroughs (or perhaps just ideologies) in psychology — specifically he references William James (and it’s possible he mentions Freud, but I don’t recall it specifically) — to better understand ideas and forms of thought predating it. It’s strange we don’t do this more. I think about how Susan Sontag mentions the deflating power that antibiotics had on the metaphorical power of tuberculosis in her essay “Illness as Metaphor”. The basic idea is that once the disease could be effectively treated, it loses it’s power as a metaphor. Tuberculosis was more or less a death sentence and so using it in literature gave it the power of immortal, moral, and elevated presence when bestowed on a character.
Here, we have something similar. When we can use scientific breakthroughs to speculate on our concepts and understanding of time, emotion, self, and eventually the questions of being, we have to change the very very we conceive of the language and metaphors we use to understand those things. We otherwise risk being left behind. This book feels very strongly as a transitional work between the 19th and 20th centuries in this way.
Money – 5/5
|A very straightforward, direct, and clear explanation of what money is, where money comes from, what money isn’t, and what is also money but is not exactly money. The general thesis of this book is that anything that can be spent in order to buy something (or pay taxes) whether it’s directly based on a standard like silver or gold, a specific weight, represents an actual amount available in a bank, or is purely representational of value counts as money. So a lot of this book spends time explaining all the things that weren’t money that became money, and helps to explain why it seems in my lifetime (40 years) there’s numerous new things that have become money, or were financial products that now function as money. It helps that Jacob Goldstein already does this for a living.|
Sour Sweet – 3/5 Stars
|I haven’t read any Timothy Mo before and my first impressions is that he’s a very talented, very British and very 1980s/1990s novelist. That’s not to say anything disparaging about this book other than I didn’t enjoy as nearly as others have, but that it’s a very interesting, well-rendered, and thoughtful book about Chinese immigrant experience in London in the postwar period. I am primarily read in American literature, and in general, my experience with Chinese diaspora comes with US/Chinese immigrant experience, and my experience British/Chinese interactions tend to be specifically in colonial spaces.|
The Utopia of Rules – 5/5
This book from David Graeber came out after his well-known book on debt, before his book on bullshit jobs (though he talks about the work leading up to that book here), and later his long history book and of course, sadly, his death last year.
This book looks at the question how does bureaucracy shape our lives, in what ways is it utopian in nature, and how do we feel about it in general. Two key things seem important to point here: the book is argumentative, but not polemical. This is because Graeber is working through the question here primarily through an anthropological lens. He’s also not naive enough to believe that simply being against something as he seems to be really does a whole lot about it. He spends a lot of time talking about Foucault, and specifically Foucault’s influence on American academia, but like Foucault, Graeber had a separate political activism life outside of his writing that is not different hugely, but distinct. The second reason this book is less polemical is because it’s a series of connected essays on the topic of bureaucracy in American life, but not a fully formed connected thesis on the topic.
He does make a lot of arguments within the book though. One important thing he does is to spell out a couple of definitions he’s working with or assumptions he’s working under. One, almost everything in our life functions under a bureaucracy, and this is not limited to governmental processes. Corporations are also highly structured entities like governments. These, too, are bureaucracies. This is important because a lot of anti-bureaucratic rhetoric, or anti-government control rhetoric is mostly about replacing one with the other, depending on your general political flavor. So the reordering is more ideological or even tribal than anything else. And similar to Foucault, Graeber also sees a lot of violence inherent in the system. It’s not generally the state violence we think about with something like Stalinism, but it is violence or the threat violence that is the key controlling element of society. It helps to mention that Graeber argues repeatedly in this book that not only the military but also police forces function as bureaucracies.
When he’s describing bureaucracies as utopian, it’s also important to see that he’s not calling them utopias. His exactly feelings on them is a little blurred (or more so obscure) but rather that by nature of their definition they are utopian. The belief that undergirds bureaucracies is that humans are accountable to the highest standard of a society. This means that if there is a best way of doing something, then humans can be expected to do it or be held accountable for failing to do it. We know it doesn’t work this way. I am a high school teacher and my creating a perfect system for a class or just a single assignment does not mean that in practice it will work perfectly. I certainly have the power to hold a student accountable for failing to achieve the goals of the assignment. If they fail a quiz, I can give them a bad grade. If they cheat, I can give them a punishment. And if they fail to show up, I can give them a chance to make it up or fail them. What I can also do, is find ways to react or at least to respond to the ways that students are and find paths to the goals of the assignments. Systems that rely purely on bureaucratic means limit forms of success and punish individuals for failing to fall into those ways, almost regardless of the reason. And because they’re based on the lies of meritocracy (when really, it’s always about access) it can shift the responsible for failure to the individual.
It’s a very interesting book that was informed through an academic lens and only sometimes gets a little in the weeds of academics, but it also presents a very succinct distillation with the problems of academic structures, whether you’ve been on the inside or outside of them, or both.
Mind of my Mind – 4/5
This is the second book of the Seed to Harvest series in terms of publication and I THINK also chronologically. We are in Octavia Butler’s wheelhouse on this one. A young woman with amorphous telepathic powers is coming age in a system of millenia of selective breeding. Her mentor/enchanter figure is a 4000 year old man with untold powers who has kept alive by transferring his being into new bodies and breeding selectively with potential mates and attempting to raise a cadre of exceptional beings. Part of this process involves a “transformation” or “transition” that crystalizes the powers in the new person, and as you might guess, also presents the danger of death. High risk/high reward, and sounds a lot like the initiation process of many sci fi and fantasy novels. Kwisatx haderach much?
Our protagonist knows all these things about herself, but she also thinks she’s being positioned to become the wife of Doro, our immortal being. Instead, she’s shunted off to another high-ranking telepath, forced to marry him, and become his mentee. This betrayal is both hurtful and confusing, but she can’t deny the new connection made. This leads her to come into her own and begin to wonder why Doro can be allowed to remain as powerful as he is.
Sign of the Unicorn – 3/5
The third book of the Chronicles of Amber pick up more or less where we left off book two, where Corwyn was confronted by a presumed issue of one of his powerful brothers and survives a fight. Now it’s time to account for everything that has happened before, and try to make sense not only of how Corwyn got to this place in recent years (and it’s been years), but what also led to to those events in the years previous. I am started to feel like the books are blurring a little, which will probably lead me to stop reviewing them individually at this point. In the meantime, I will keep plugging along. It’s hard to take these as separate stories at this point.
Assembly – 3/5 Stars
A short and highly impressionistic first novel about a youngish (around 30 or so) Black, middle-upper class woman in London dealing with what all that entails. The novel exists almost exclusively within the close narration of the lead character who works for some kind of company that does some kind of business, and represents more of an elevator out of a lower-class childhood than a clear, meaningful purpose. She’s dating a doctor who comes from a well-off family, and she’s a woman who finds herself walking around London. All of these spaces provide her with plenty of opportunity to experience uncountable numbers of micro and macroaggresions, all while also trying to deal with the simple act of being. The writing in this novella is very good, and I think the length works for the close narrative perspective, but also means that the impact of the total is slim (but not slight). Each scene is powerfully rendered, but the novel takes some time to get the handle of the various moments, and since there’s not much novel there, we run out of room by about the time we get through with it.
People Love Dead Jews – 5/5 Stars
Obviously the first thing to stand out here is the absolutely fantastic and unsettling title of this book. The book itself shares some similarities to David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count, especially in topic and title audacity. But the books diverge in tone especially. Baddiel’s book is polemic, and this is a little more of a series of essays circling a wide and not always direct discomfort. There’s also a little more history and investigation here. Baddiel’s book also litigates some very specific conflicts he’s had with critics.
I was visiting a city south of me (I live in Richmond VA), and there was a statue of Martin Luther King Jr there. The statue proudly proclaimed that Dr King visited the city in the early 1960s. They didn’t get into why. In Richmond, there’s a lot of commemorations of Confederacy (though not as many as there used to be). Those, too, love to tell history up until some very specific details. Even the monuments to someone like Gabriel Prosser, who led a slave rebellion can get a little murky in light of the rest of the history of the city. “This is the site of the largest slave jail in the United State” run by someone…. Dara Horn’s second chapter in this book speaks to the similar discomfort of Jewish Heritage sites she visited, where the dedication is proudly displayed, but the explanation of why there currently weren’t any Jews there is not really discussed. This speaks to the idea at the heart of this book, that dead Jews are celebrated or sadly, commemorated, but not so much live Jews.
The book then goes into a mix of different topics related to this overall idea. Th essays are a combination of memoir, history, journalism, and commentary. The topics begin where most Americans interact with the Holocaust, with the diary of Anne Frank. Dara Horn isn’t the first writer who has asked the question (and this is constantly asked of MLK as well): what would Anne Frank’s legacy if she had survived? Philip Roth saw his version of a living Anne Frank as a blocked writer, while Dara Horn suggests she would have an impressive and illustrious career similar to other Holocaust survivors who wrote. But that also her legacy would be different.
We also learn about a heritage site built in a remote Chinese town that is now the site of a giant ice city tourist attraction. It was also a city that was built almost entirely by imported Jewish labor as a path for the trans-Siberian railroad. Once the railroad was built the town remained populated by the Jewish laborers but when an influx of non-Jewish Russian emigres moved in, they brought with them the antisemitism well-known in Russia, and the Jews were killed, forced out, etc.
Horn deals with both real and fictional portrayals of Jews in literature and writing and discusses the different ways that those portrayals are often controlled or shaped by non-Jewish audience.
We get a scene of Horn listening to an performance of The Merchant of Venice with her son when he became interested and then trying to figure out the legacy of the play now. Her son seems to see right through the obfuscation of the question “Is this play anti-Semitic?” with a clear: Yes. But neither quite knows what to do with it afterward. It’s interesting to me because I also don’t know what to do with the answer, but I am not at all uncomfortable with the question, because it seems pretty obvious. But then again, I don’t have the centuries old baggage of British anti-Semitism to contend with personally.
Another chapter deals with the myth of Ellis Island arriving Jews having their names changed with the more likely explanation that many Jews arriving in Ellis Island changing their own names. And this speaks to lot of what this book is about. How to deal with the uncomfortable facts of history. And this leads to some of the last parts of the book, which does feel very American. How do we handle the very real fact that Jews are not “perfect” victims? Well, the book is also uncomfortable with trying to sort that out. Dara Horn reminds us that her goal is not to clarify everything that might not have obvious answers, but to keep her children from becoming those imperfect victims.
Jews Don’t Count – 5/5 Stars
In the first half of this book, David Baddiel reminds his readers that this book is a polemic. And in the tradition of polemic, the argument in the book is presented in relatively unswerving and unrelenting terms.
There’s a few arguments happening here. 1) That anti-Semitism is racism. This first argument is presented in a couple of different ways. For one, describing antisemitism as antireligion is too limited and also fraught. Jews are targeted because of who they are, and Jews’ specific faith is almost never called into specific question when experiencing anti-Semitism. Some Jews aren’t religious at all, like the author. And since religiosity is never part of the calculus of hate, and given that religious practice is often foisted on Jews in the process of hate, this seems to miss the mark. Here I mean that religious practice, when not specifically made up or willfully misinterpreted is ascribed to “all” Jews, not just Jews who happen to be religious. In anti-Semitism, there certainly is not a nuanced conversation about the differences among Jews in their faith, or lack thereof. In addition, antireligious sentiment is in vogue right now, but specifically toward Christianity, which then takes on specific characteristics depending on the criticism. In the US for example, while there is a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric in general, the general anti-Christian sentiment generally addresses evangelical Protestantism, specifically because of its links to anti-LGBTQ movements, the rise of Right-wing fascism through evangelicalism, and ways in which evangelicalism has moved toward specific and intense takeover of cultural fights, the military, and other parts of public life. Anti-Catholic criticism is often tied to the church’s colonial past (and present). Anti-Islam criticism tends to come primarily from Right-wing forces, but also is prevalent in large ways in the cultural attitudes in the US, UK, and Europe. Islamophobia is also wrapped up in racism (similar to David Baddiel’s arguments) against MENA people, Black Africans, and South Asians. This knottiness of how the forms of racism get interconnected with anti-religious criticism is complex. And of course, anti-Islamic criticism is more complicated depending on where you are in the world. So because of the current climate about anti-religious sentiment whether that’s tied to forms of racism, or completely justified from someone’s own experience of being persecuted by organized religions, Baddiel argues that it softens or fogs the issue of antisemitism as an antirelgious bigotry. Baddiel makes the point that before the Nazis put people on trains, they didn’t ask them how often they go to temple. They used racial categories (however unscientific) to inflict genocide. Baddiel addresses the common argument of “Don’t let the Nazis’ categories define you” with the argument that whether he likes it not, those categories did define his relatives, and still do.
Another argument: 2) Anti-Semitism is often left out of the concept of oppression. The title of the book comes from the omission of the persecution of Jews in the broader arguments about persecution and oppression, especially in the US, the UK, and Europe. He gives a few examples, but makes it clear that his examples are simply that. He also suggests that critics of oppression (coming from the Right) love to nitpick individual examples, and we can see this in almost conversation about specific examples of racism. There’s always a perfect explanation for each individual moment or act as away to explain away any prejudice or racism.
2a) Anti-Semitism is treated as a “lesser” bigotry. This argument stems from forms of antisemitism as well, or a discomfort with some issues related to it. Baddiel cites the classic paradox of antisemitism that Jews are both less than human in terms of health, body, spirit and simultaneously secretly in charge of the world. (Baddiel uses much worse descriptions of Jews by bigots, and I shall avoid those here). It’s also connected to the general association of Jews being white (or not white) in wider cultural consciousness. This is where it gets more difficult to talk about because Jews come in all shapes and sizes and skin colors. Baddiel acknowledges this, but especially in the US and UK, Jews are associated with specific forms of whiteness (and the thing about stereotypes is that they are wrong and limited). So for a lot of people, Jews are simply white. That is, until there’s a need for them not to be white. And this gets further complicated by the fact that whiteness is a fluid category historically. He uses the idea of Schrödinger’s White, where Jews are both white and not white, depending on the situation where it’s called to question. I think this also happens a lot in a few other conversations about appropriation and white privilege. So if I am looking at the US Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter became an associate justice in 1916, while Thurgood Marshall became a justice in 1968 which absolutely does speak to the relative social position of Black people in the US, but makes a more complicated argument about Jews in the US. And that’s entirely separate from Jews in other parts of the world. Baddiel is clearly arguing not for the total accuracy of who is Jewish in the world, but the ways in which Jews are represented in cultural consciousness in specific places. This matters because so much of what Baddiel is arguing here is the ways in which Jews are talked about, especially online, and especially in politics. The other reason supplies for why this is considered as “lesser” bigotry, is because of the assumptions about how successful, represented, wealthy etc that Jews seem to be as far as media and politics etc show them. He responds to this that his family was wealthy until they had it taken from them and were sent to the concentration camps. Also worth mentioning that this perception of Jews being successful (and being undeserving of it) is also part of what fuels and has fueled antisemitism for centuries.
This is also the point at which the book gets more contentious for Baddiel as well. His audience is not white supremacists and avowed anti-Semites. His audience is “people who consider themselves on the right side of history” and he’s not arguing against overt anti-Semitism (except for when people on the Left delve into it — at least somewhat — unwittingly), but the ways in which microagressions seem to slip by otherwise progressive well-meaning people, and with the forms of omission he argues Jews experience from the concepts of power and oppression. And because this book is polemic, instead of academic, he is really trying to press these points and create those contrasts. He also clearly wants to try to remove the sense of zero-sum from the responses to oppression. This becomes a problem in real life because of the Left’s general discomfort with Israel and Zionism, and the Right’s supposed support for Israel and Zionism (and at the very least the Right’s willingness to confidently state it and to tie it unabashedly to their own Islamophobia). Baddiel avers here and reminds his reader that he’s not a full-throated supporter of Israel and its relationship/treatment with Palestine. He does argue though that this discomfort affects the Left/Progressive’s interactions with and feelings about anti-Semitism. This is also complicated by the general anticapitalist rhetoric of the Left and how too often this falls into anti-Semitic tropes as well.
His book I think also creates some tension, and this was brought to the public with Sarah Silverman’s comments recently about “Jewface” in media. That is, not just the playing of Jewish characters on screen by none Jewish actors, but especially the infusion of these roles with Jewish stereotypes, especially a kind of “nebbishness” of characters that are Jewish or coded as Jewish. As an example of a character coded as Jewish, but isn’t technically Jewish, he provides Jason Alexander who is Jewish playing George Constanza (Italian and not Jewish) in Jewish-coded ways, an obvious result of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld writing the character based on their own experiences, but then changing details at the last minute. He uses a few recent examples to highlight non-Jews playing Jews: Rachel Broshnahan (and by extension Tony Shalhoub) in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which is certainly a show about Jews in New York in the 1960s. He also uses the Al Pacino character from the show Hunters (and then has to add some spoilery updates because the show played some tricks with the audience).
So the book faces some specific criticisms. Some in good faith and worth pursuing (more by Baddiel than me) and some not. If you reject “identity politics” as a whole and think Baddiel is just trying to get in on the action, well, whatever. But Baddiel’s refusal or inability or at the very least decision, to not really get too much into intersectionality? That’s fair, and I also think he would admit that. He does say that it’s not for him to try to explain someone else’s experiences of being a Jew who would not pass for white in any meaningful way. He also addresses, but perhaps unsatisfactorily, his own past use of Blackface in comedy. He says he’s apologized for it several times, but otherwise doesn’t try to shy away from it. But he does specifically call out it being brought up in as a silencing tactic against his arguments. And the last criticism is that the book is short, or incomplete, or not as in depth as it needs to be. This seems more or less true, but the book clearly has succinctness and concision as guiding principles throughout. Plus his original point about not wanting to create a catalog of offensives stands. One reviewer called it whiny, which well, maybe…read the opening section again and think about the word whiny.
This is a book to generate thinking and discussion. I would hope this book is part of an emerging conversation, and I specifically found it through the process reading comments about the recent Whoopi Goldberg scandal, so I hope it leads to further discussion. I do think he makes some very salient points about silencing that happens in Left-adjacent circles.
A Fanatic Heart
This is a profile of Edna O’Brien written about the time she published her late novel The Little Red Chairs, which is specifically about a Balkan war criminal living in an Irish village. There’s two things that stand out to me here as interesting. One, Edna O’Brien like Beckett and like Joyce, as well as plenty of previous writers, are all Irish writers known as being from Ireland, but also having left Ireland. So having someone not Irish be in Ireland is very interesting. Two, O’Brien’s first husband was Irish of Czech descent, and he sounds…well, shitty. So that adds some things too. This is an article that see O’Brien wrapping up her career, but she’s still around and published a novel in 2019, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she’s currently working on yet another novel. Her last novel also took place outside of Ireland. There are a few countries where the assumption is that authors from there, write about there, and Ireland is certainly one of them.
How Civil Wars Start 5/5
This book came out last year, and unlike the other books about our next civil war, this one is appropriately toned, and clearly comes from a place of knowledge and expertise. Another book I read on the same topic, but which was way worse than this one turned itself into a weird little make-believe game about what a civil war COULD look like. This book instead explains the factors that lead to civil war, provides an analysis of several recent civil wars for comparison, explains an example of a country that met all the criteria for civil war, but that did not have one, and provides a sense of how a civil war could be avoided. That Walter is an expert rings clear throughout the book, and that she’s not glorifying or playing conspiracy theory with this book maters a lot too.
My Evil Mother – 3/5 Stars
This is a Audible short story by Margaret Atwood, and is fairly lightweight in tone and in general. The story involves a woman who has spent her life hearing stories from her mother about the women in their family maybe or definitely maybe being witches, and certainly facing persecution. A story that plays around with the mythos of witches, and updates how they look in modern contexts. This is a story about single motherhood and changing mores (or more so, the slight opening up of society to actually accept — even in the smallest ways — the lived experiences of people and not just the harsh application of morals).