Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Soulful. That one word is the best descriptor I can come up with to describe this incredible book. That I am using even though I have reservations about “soul” words should further indicate just how deeply meaningful it is. This is a book about people being bought and sold. It takes place some years after the US civil war and follows the lives of several former slaves as they try to grapple with recently won freedom in a society that still sees them as disposable property. Slavery still exists but we don’t hear about it much and slavery as an institution has been long removed from developed nations. Morrison’s descriptions of the tragic but quotidian events of being owned by others are staggering and important. I now understand why she is so well regarded and why this book has received such acclaim. That said, I don’t know if Morrison had to follow the exact plot she chose to communicate her worthwhile messages.
The book is rich in metaphor and meaning, so I found I could not read it quickly even if the content did not appear challenging. It was, in both injustice and descriptive beauty.
I highly recommend this book.

Spoiler Alert (and minor quibble)
Beloved is supposedly the dead spirit made flesh of a child that was murdered to prevent it from becoming property. This process was never explained but the reader is lead to believe that a child died and that somehow it came back to life and into the mother’s life at the appropriate age if she had never died. This is the plot path I wondered about being necessary. Morrison could have presented the issues, even the faithful dispositions and supernatural wonder of the characters, without having to use such an unbelievable character.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Well-written, interesting and sciency – what’s not to like? I should note that McEwan excels at writing fiction that contains science, which is a much better framing than ‘science fiction’ with its connotations of weak character development and prose. There were numerous sentences I read aloud to a friend and that is one of my metrics of a quality book. If something is well-written, it can be about anything. The presentation was atypical in that there were not so much chapters as three sections. It is rare to have about 90 pages between full breaks, but it worked nonetheless. Without giving much away, the book is about a physicist who ends up involved in environmental issues, and eventually solar power (as the title implies) and has various relationships with women and other characters that are sufficiently entertaining. I think Saturday was a better book, but that is possibly because I could relate to the content even more.
Oh, and Solar primarily took place in London and referenced locations I had visited for the first time just days before.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

Concisely, I found this collection disappointing. I had hoped to learn more about the subject but I mainly acquired an understanding of Goldman’s position and presentation (which was lacking). To be fair, the work is quite old so that I have come across the ideas before isn’t surprising, nor is it just to criticize her for statements that related to a different time and social structure. My personal tastes run against hyperbole in writing and speech, a style that Goldman appears to enjoy and embrace. Many of the conditions she rallies against were (and are) indeed criminal but she wins no favours from me by using unqualified speech, though it was intermittently entertaining. I think she has a misunderstanding of human nature - a common complaint about anti-capitalists, and one less forgivable as the years since Darwin published Origin of Species increase.
Unfortunately, I cannot say I learned much, but I was reminded how terrible things were in factories a century ago (and might still be elsewhere in the world where our goods are made). An amusing factoid was Goldman’s exclamation of the rise of divorce from 1880-1909, where it was a staggering 1 in 12. I can only imagine what she would say now.
Worthwhile as history and exposure to different presentations of ideas, but not as useful as Chomsky discussing anarchism in 50-min interview available online.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

Cook's book is a decent introduction of the Koran as book/codex and as a sacred object. Aptly named, the emphasis is about the Koran, not Islam (even though I think I was hoping it would be more about Islam).  Cook intended to work backwards, by discussing the Koran as it is used and seen in the present and proceed (recede?) to discussions of the book and its followers in earlier years. A decent enough idea, but not entirely successfully executed. There were many interesting bits and I learned many things, but I don't think he managed to pull it off.
Part of what I learned was about how any text would have to be reproduced and preserved over time, both in terms of accuracy, translation and different concepts of accessibility. An example of the last point is when Cook described how a preface to an English translation of the Koran said something like, "Make sure not to confuse this with the real Koran."  Cook said how odd it would be to see something similar at the beginning of the King James Bible.  On a related note, some of the most interesting parts were about how the book/text is seen as sacred so it should not be held below the waste, nor be on the bottom of a stack of books, nor read aloud (reciting is okay though), and that some die-hards think that non-muslims shouldn't even touch it. 
I would still like to learn more about Islam but this work seemed to be sufficient to temporarily cure my curiousity regarding the Koran.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Peter Singer Under Fire - Edited by Jeffrey A. Schaler

Any book review worth its merit is the product of difficult choices by the reviewer regarding what to describe and what to omit. This problem is proportionally increased with the size and complexity of a book. Consequently, this 600 page analysis of Peter Singer that includes a detailed intellectual autobiography, 15 critical essays and his replies to them, is quite the  tricky one.
Unfortunately, I don't have time to examine the work in rigorous detail, but I will try to provide a few points so the reader has at least some notion of the work (and I'll stop describing how I don't have time to describe things).
1) I highly appreciated the 80 page intellectual biography as I had been curious to know more about Singer's life in general, as well as in relation to his work. Singer's breadth and depth of output is impressive and the fact it was sustained for so many years even more so. I always find it remarkable (and a bit amusing) when someone is known for X and even Y and Z, and then it turns out they know A, B and C. More directly, the influential moral philosopher also has detailed understandings of Marx and Hegel.
2)The book is divided into four sections that cover his work on the Moral Status of Animals, Sanctity of Life, Global Ethics and Ethical Theory. My primary interest was and is Global Ethics, but I enjoyed the first two sections as well. The Sanctity of Life section was more readable than I anticipated, likely due to the inclusion of Harriet Johnson's essay describing her personal interaction with Singer. The Ethical Theory section was one of the most important but the least readable. In general, it seems that although many authors tried, few were able to find any major weakness in Singer's arguments. Not only did I find Singer's replies to be clearer and more accessible than almost every critique, but his replies would often (unfortunately) contain a phrase similar to "I didn't really say that." One can tell that some authors put more effort into their critiques and had read more of his work than others. Highlights of critiques and replies that provided useful discussion were, among others, Judith Lichtenberg's psychological emphasis on Singer's global ethics, the aforementioned Johnson on the sanctity of life, Bernard Williams on animals and Michael Huemer on Singer's unstable meta-ethics.
3) Peter Singer Under Fire would not be a good introduction to his work but it would be worthwhile for an eager reader who has already read 2 or 3 of his books.
4) What did I actually learn?  Many things of course, but mainly that Singer has some pretty tight analogies that make us examine who we are as moral beings if we want to be consistent. Additionally, I observed that his ethical theory may not be entirely sound but I have no idea what should replace it. Also, that maybe we shouldn't be using animals at all, even if we are not eating them. Finally, I was reminded once again, that it can be hard to accept that we are not who we want to be.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Socialism: A Very Brieft Introduction by Michael Newman

Newman's Socialism is an excellent overview and introduction to the main ideas of Socialism, with examinations and comparisons to anarchism, communism, social democracy, feminist socialism, and green socialism. I appreciated the contrast of Swedish social democracy with Cuban Communism and discussion of the development of communist states through the 60s, 70s, and 80s  (and subsequent fall in 80s and 90s.
This primer was a worthwhile and timely follow up to the introductory Marx book I recently finished. 
My main complaint is that I can't remember all the important information!