Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Invisible Cities

The premise of this book is both poignant and cool: legendary figures Marco Polo and Kublai Khan discuss the wonders and familiarity of the world. Put this concept in the hands of the genius who wrote If On A Winter's Night A Traveler and you have a recipe for success. Or so I thought. With this boring, academic work Italo Calvino has been demoted from my list of "The Greats" to "The One Hit Wonders".

It has happened before and it will happen again. I read an incredible book and rush to get my hands on the author's other, sure to be excellent, writing. Kazantzaki's The Last Temptation of Christ can't kiss Zorba's feet and Eco's murderer in the Name of The Rose should have bloodied his dagger on Foucalt's Pendulum.

Calvino's Traveler manages to use unconventional storytelling to play with the roles of author and reader. The end result is both thought-provoking and a great read.Invisible Cities is a repetitious demonstration of semiotics and epistemology. The attempt to recreate unusual story telling comes across gimmicky and the intellectual aspect is far less playful and far more boring. Read his other, better work if you are interested in this author.

NEWS: This is the last book review blog for the next couple of years. I have gone back to school and my days of pleasure reading are done. For the real eggheads I will post my essays under my new blog "Rodney Dangerfield and Me."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Suburban Nation

Why do the 'burbs suck? Why is spending time in an older city like Boston vacation-worthy while spending that same amount of time among strip malls feels awful? For years I have visited different cities and been unable to articulate what exactly distinguishes the good from the bad. The husband and wife architect team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk find those words in their excellent book Suburban Nation.

I learned that the urban building codes that guided development for hundreds of years were brusquely shrugged off with the emergence of the automobile after WWII. Diverse communities were exchanged for specialized niches of commerce, industry, and the residential. At the time there existed a need for zoning by use; industrial pollution was seriously harmful to the peoples' health. Also, cheap gas and federally subsidized highways made it efficient to build further away from the cities' centers. Now, as we recognize the true cost of suburban sprawl--environmental, social, economic--we appear trapped in an outdated mode of development.

From this larger picture Duany narrows his focus to the renaissance of traditional urban planning. It is remarkable how specific, and I believe effective, his suggestions are. For example, skinny streets. Nothing feels crummier than standing next to an eight-lane road. Narrow roads that allow easy pedestrian crossing are an often overlooked blessing to a city. Requiring buildings to be built near the sidewalks creates a more intimate space that transforms a tedious suburban drive into a pleasant urban walk. Tips like these are found throughout Suburban Nation. I am willing to believe in their effectiveness because of my experience in older cities. Without exception, the most charming neighborhoods have been built along these lines. I guarantee your favorite city was as well.

The only downside to the book was the authors' tone. This might be getting picky, but I was distanced from the message by their ranting. It is apparent these architects have spent years battling narrow-minded developers and zoning boards. I understand their frustration. But their thinly veiled anger coupled with a sloppy book binding ultimately undermined their authority. Still, if you are interested in why urban planning at all this book is a home run.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nothing Special

Swing and a miss, Strike One. I picked up Nothing Special during a casual bookstore stroll. Typically I like to just wander around the aisles until a title grabs my attention. Nothing Special, by Charlotte Joko Beck, did. I suppose the dice were a little loaded; my aimless stroll was influenced by my frustration with recent difficulties. My car had been broken into, the university was messing with me about in-state residency, and so on. So perhaps finding myself in front of the Eastern Religions section was no accident. I have often found comfort and perspective in Buddhism.

Still, I thought I had a winner. A trick in picking out good Buddhist books is avoiding authors who dwell on the esoteric details of the religion. "After the third phase of insight you will advance to the second realm where you must encounter a large demon and cut off his left hand." Something like that pops up in a surprising number of the titles on the shelves. It is too concerned with orthodoxy to be relevant for me. Sort of like the angels on a pinhead debate. Who cares?

Nothing Special avoided all such jargon. Bingo. But, alas, no. Instead I learned through experience another type of Buddhist book that I dislike--the poetic metaphor kind. While I was not punished with dogma, the sappy anecdotes emerged as a worthy foe. An example: "We are like ice cubes. We need to melt and be like water." Or: "we are all whirlpools in the river of life." Those might sound good on a postcard, maybe, but don't help me do anything but feel insulted. To be fair, the last third of the book got better. Because of that strong finish, I won't advocate a book-burning.

If you are interested in reading some good Buddhist books, start elsewhere, this one was "nothing special."

Monday, August 4, 2008


David Sedaris makes me laugh 'till it hurts. Bill Bryson makes me chuckle, sure, but the darker, taboo nature of Sedaris's stories hits harder. There is something middle-aged and middle-classed about Bryson that keeps me distanced. I just can't get lost in his antics at the post office or his basement.

What brings me to humor books is a recent crush of responsibility. With a new job and school starting soon, a little levity was what the doctor ordered to mellow out. I could tell I was gettin' prickly because Lauren suggested that she run to the store and grab me some beer "to cool off." That generous suggestion, trust me, had never been offered before and was my first clue that I needed an outlet.

So where could I turn in this, my hour of need? Sedaris. And he didn't disappoint. My favorite story in this collection was "get your ya ya's out!", a recollection of his Greek grandmother and her rivalry with his mother. The reader is given a great ride though the eyes of Sedaris as a young boy. He does an amazing job of recreating adolescence: our long-forgotten insecurities and boyhood interests are brought back to life with detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Still, it is not my favorite of his works. Dress your family in Corduroy and Denim probably holds that title. But, really, you can't miss with Sedaris, maybe the funniest man alive today.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

When Bill Moyers speaks, I listen. Ever since reading his wonderful collection of interviews World of Ideas I have been an unabashed admirer of the man and his work. Recently he interviewed Jeffrey Toobin on his pbs show The Journal. (If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and tune in.) Toobin is a lawyer who writes popular law books. His book The Nine was listed as one of the ten best books of 2007. During the interview with Moyers, Toobin explained the importance of the upcoming election for the Supreme Court; the next president will either finish the conservative sweep of the majority begun with Roberts and Alito or nominate Dems and maintain the tenuous balance. I decided I wanted to get better informed.

The Nine writes like a collection of small biographies. Each of the justices is introduced in both a personal and political context. Toobin clearly has his favorites. Thomas and Scalia are both portrayed as arrogant and reactionary. Toobin argues--and I agree--that Scalia's insistence on neutrality and originalism is bullshit. He is an activist judge who is blinded by his convictions. The liberal judges clearly hold a priveledged position in Toobin's judicial perspective.

A central message to this book is the partisanship of the judges. The theory of law held by each judge is ultimately an elaborate justification for their political views. Scalia, the States' rights warrior, quickly overruled the Florida Supreme Court to assist Bush in the 2000 election. Thomas' aversion of big government doesn't hinder his support for a legal restriction on women's own bodies in abortion. How does Rehnquist reconcile his position in favor of state legislated Christian groups with his position against state legislated affirmative action? Simple. They are both on the Republican agenda.

I think the lesson is that the ability to nominate a Supreme Court justice should be taken from the president. The political influence has proven too great. There is no other way to conclude after witnessing the Court overturn many of its recent precedents not through a change in argument or public opinion but simply through the placement of two new judges.

I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an introduction to the judges. There is another book, A Court Divided, by Mark Tushnet that also does a good job in this respect. What is missing in both of these books is a thorough look at the important cases of the Court. The emphasis is more political and personal than legal. Rehnquist's History of the Supreme Court was a good read for somebody interested in becoming familiar with the cases that have provided the context and precendent for today's legal battles.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Profiles in Courage

This book has been on my list for a long time. It won the Pulitzer, deals with American history, and was written by JFK. Good enough for me.

The chapters of Profiles in Courage are short essays on American Senators. Each in his own way was faced with a challenge and stood firm on his principles. The stories of these men were fascinating. It was fun to get a close look at how decisions were made that affected generations of people. It was also very easy to get a picture of the difficult responsibility that scale of power requires. Is it right to always voice the sentiments of your consituents, validating their right to self-governance? Or is the elected representative better guided by voting his conscience?

There is no black-and-white mandate outlining the best course of leadership. If you ignore public opinion the democratic process is threatened. I could respect a Senator who decided to humble their perspective in honor democracy. However, there are several factors that cloud this decision. We have imperfect knowledge regarding a diverse public's wishes. Any decision based on a perceived majority at home would be a guess. Further, as a Senator you must think about national consequences and the local public is largely thinking locally. Finally, and most important, strictly following the opinions of the majority means that our leaders are not leading. At times it is necessary to move beyond common understanding and step forward. The great leaders of the past did not achieve greatness through echoing platitudes, but by making courageous decisions.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Streetcar Named Desire

Dark. Really Dark. Typically when I watch an old movie or read a classic the story comes across quaint. Not that I think today's media is done better--I don't--but the scandalous and violent scenes from previous generations simply don't have the same impact on us as they had on our parents. I would be hard pressed to imagine a modern teen being shocked by Elvis's dancing, Rhett Butler's kissing, or finding out it was Sidney Poitier who's coming to dinner. With all that said, I was slammed by A Streetcar Named Desire. It was as if I expected to walk into a clean and comfortable hotel room and instead walked into my parents having sex.

Like with all stories worth recommending, I am reticent to give too much away. What is the right balance between disclosure and silence? The measured development of this slow, Southern tragedy is worth discovering on one's own. Suffice to say that the crescendo hits hard. Tennessee Williams compels us forward with an eloquent vernacular that is believable and beautiful. The characters and their interplay capture both New Orleans culture and tell a universal tale. I loved this play.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Omnivore's Dilemna

This book will change your life. To say that sounds admittedly dramatic, even pretentious. If someone were to recommend a book to me along those lines I would imagine a tear-soaked novel centered on love and the meaning of life. I would assume the novel was an implicit test of my sensibilities. Did I get it or was I too mundane to appreciate what it had to offer? Too much pressure for me. Fear not: this book is about food. And, yes, it will change your life.

It would be hard to follow Michael Pollan through Omnivore's Dilemma and not come out with different eating habits. His examination of industrial agriculture raises serious concerns about the health, ecological consequences, and morality of this practice. The critical review is powerful on its own but we have seen it before in The Jungle and Fast Food Nation. What separates this book from the others is Pollan provides the political history behind our current agricultural practices. The loss of small farms and diversified crops has been official governmental policy since Nixon. Also, most importantly, Pollan juxtaposes industrial agriculture with alternative methods of production. This shift transforms the book from shock therapy to inspiration for a new, better way to eat and live.

Pollan's reverence for earth's bounty is contagious; I found myself wishing to accompany him on his mushroom forages--and I hate mushrooms. A good chunk of the book deals with the time he spent on Polyface farm. This small organic farm clearly represented to Pollan the best of current practices. The farm was efficient, diverse, treated animals humanely, and the food tasted great. Instead of relying on artificial inputs Polyface utilized nature's ability to regulate itself. While this might sound hokey, if not naive, Pollan argues that the complexity and efficiency arrived at through evolution is far more effective than anything we have come up with so far. Chickens, cows, pigs, and plants have symbiotic relationships that lead to healthy lives.

I am really excited to attempt to integrate more conscious eating into my life. I have tried before, and failed. In fact, I am writing this while eating a microwaveable pot pie. A successful transition requires a change in lifestyle that I was unable/willing to make before. What is clear is that sacrifice is the wrong word to describe the change. When I think of the fast-food eater next to the health food nut I do not pity the healthy guy. So here I go...right after I finish this pot pie.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rising Tide

Wow, what a book. My understanding of New Orleans and our country just doubled. Author John Barry is ambitious as hell in his portrait of the South. The grand scope of this book envelopes personalities and politics from over a century and stretches from Louisiana to Washington. The flood of 1927 proves to be a great tool for examining the era of industrialism can-do, lingering racial tensions after Reconstruction, and the corrupt power politics of the moneyed South.

I have read John Barry before. His book The Great Influenza is an equally impressive examination of an American catastrophe. He does an excellent job of developing the characters in both works. That is probably the greatest strength of his writing, that the reader feels he is listening to a story about somebody he knows intimately. It is like watching a baseball game and your best friend is pitching.

After giving life to the major participants, Barry lets them loose in the midst of critical events in our nation's history. Undeniably important, for some reason the Great Influenza and the flood of 1927 aren't part of our collective memory. They should be. Or perhaps it is just Barry's writing that carries such weight. A good storyteller can make all the difference. Either way, Rising Tide is a can't miss for all the non-fiction junkies.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint is the third book in my assault on American Fiction. In it, author Philip Roth explores the darkly comic insecurities of a young Jew, Alexander Portnoy. Since I'm not Jewish, I often felt like an outsider listening to an inside-joke. I found it funny but missed out on the tearful belly laughs that I pictured Jewish men having--because they had their own childhood stories of guilt-inducing mothers and resenting Christmas. But in addition to being Jewish, Alexander Portnoy is also a boy, and the telling of his maturation fearlessly exposes an inner dialogue that is embarrassingly universal.

The style of narrative for Portnoy's Complaint is unique; the only voice heard is that of the protagonist himself. I have read this book described as 'a long rant', but I found it more like listening to a funny friend tell stories. We all have friends whose discussions are basically them speaking. For men, the struggles of poor Alexander Portnoy will provide a nostalgic remembrance of adolescence (ages 12-30)--that confusing inner experience rarely examined and, of course, never talked about. For women, enter at your own risk. The contents revealed here are vile, pathetic, and very real. You might not ever look at your man the same way again.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Last Intellectuals

The title of this book should be "The Last Radicals". Author Russell Jacoby has confused his words, apparently believing that an intellectual is by definition a revolutionary. The myopic vision of this guy was too much for me--and I'm on the Left. Consider that not one but two chapters were devoted to "The New Left on Campus" and not a peep about conservative academics except to lampoon them as adherents to The Man. Jacoby's legitimate concern--that our public intellectuals have lost their way--loses its power in the inconsistency of his argument.

A major premise to Jacoby's argument is that the loss of Bohemia through urban planning has interrupted a long history of citizen-intellectuals. The loss of cheap and hip neighborhoods forced these men and women to get a "real job" and sacrifice their ideals for practical needs. I don't buy it. A casual glance at intellectual history shows that major thinkers have often worked for or within the power structure of that culture. Churches, kings, universities, and governments have historically been the standard source of support for intellectuals. Further, there are still lots of cheap places to live in the US--ghettos, farms,etc. These might not be as hip as a Greenwich Village loft, but I doubt Spinoza would have minded.

More assumptions that must be shared to follow Jacoby are that universities are dominated by conservatives and that intellectuals are not publishing for the public. Does anybody, I mean anybody, feel like their professors were conservative? No. By a large margin, college campuses today are liberal. The media is conservative? Okay, sure. But not the universities. As for a lack of published work intended for the people, I don't see it. Or, to put it another way, I do. Lots of it. I am always impressed by the range and quality of work I see in bookstores. As an ordinary guy, I have more access to today's recent scholarship than the elite classes of the past.

So, those are my gripes. Like I said earlier, the loss of the public intellectual is a legitimate concern. While I share the "conservative" value that intellectuals do not have a responsibility to society, I respect the ones that take that burden upon themselves. If these men and women are marginalized, it is to our collective detriment. If this idea is intriguing to you, there several books on the subject. Check them out before you check this one out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Myth of Sisyphus

One of my funniest memories from college is having a final paper returned to me with no grade. The professor, it seemed, saw my jumbled essay more as art than writing and complained in his summary that it was impossible to evaluate someone obviously going through an "existentialist crises". In his defense, my "paper" was an abstract audio compilation with footnotes. I suppose that's what happens when you place an impressionable student in a course on Nietzsche.

Well, that class wound up being a big influence on my thought; the implications of living, and dying, without God--the tremendous resulting freedom and responsibility--struck me very deeply. For some time I tried to face Nietzsche's Godless death, but in the end it was too hard. It was during this time I became familiar with other existentialist thinkers: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Camus. The religion in Kierkegaard and the Marxism in Sartre turned me off to them. How can you be an existentialist and believe in historical determinism? Anyway, now armed with my big three of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Camus, I felt I had found a body of literature with a strength and fearless insight to live by.

The Myth of Sisyphus did not disappoint. Camus writes in his signature style, something of a poetic pamphlet intended for the public. There is an urgency and public concern that fills the pages. I imagine the essay as a kindred spirit to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense". Both have a revolutionary spirit and democratic respect for the reader. And while Paine deals with how responsible men should respond to unjust governance, Camus examines how an absurd man responds to life.

For those unfamiliar with the admittedly akward term "absurd" in Camus' works, it is simple, really. Camus sees as absurd the futility between man's desire to understand and the world's undecipherability; between man's desire to live and knowing we must die. It is not that the absurd man is not rational. No, the absurd man reaches these conclusions through reason. At the same time, reason is not deified in absurdism. The Enlightenment led many, whole cultures, to believe rational thinking somehow "held the key". The gift of thinking clearly is more grounded in absurdism. Birds can fly, but not to the moon. Men can think, but not know everything.

I believe that Camus recommended reading The Myth of Sisyphus at the same time as The Stranger. That makes sense. His non-fiction and his novels are drastically different and I could see the ebbs and tides of both works working well in combination. On its own, the Myth provides a forceful and lyrical examination of existentialism. The problem is, the style could be too poetic for someone not already versed in this philosophy (Nietzche's writing is also very creative, but I think the message comes across clearer). Overall, a strong recommendation. But Be Warned: Reading Camus can change your life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The World that made New Orleans

The history of New Orleans is palpable. On a walk through town, the presence of the past is everywhere. The street signs are colorful and all tell a story. Frenchmen road, for example, is where the French protesters to the Spanish government were hanged. Reflecting a diverse blend of international cultures, the architecture of the ancient homes is excellent and the craftsmanship has stood well the test of time. Cobblestone streets are still here and there.

Many people have said these characteristics lend a European feel to the city. I disagree. New Orleans is American, through and through. What is different, what so many people can't quite put their finger on, is the sense of history this city carries. I can't explain what exactly is gained through living in a city with history, I just know that I like it. Reading The World that made New Orleans by Ned Sublette is an attempt to better understand that history.

I figured the focus of the book was going to be New Orleans. Wrong. On a second reading of the cover, I noticed that, although New Orleans was written twice as large, it was "the world that made" New Orleans that was the story. This means that this book is primarily about French and Spanish colonial politics and slave trading. Of course, these very interesting subjects are integral to the development of New Orleans, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was having to learn about the city through my periphery--and I wanted to take aim at the bullseye.

The World was well-written and is recommended as a supplementary source. Sublette has done his research and presents the material with clarity and a touch of humor. His specialty is music, and he goes overboard with technical musical information at times. We'll forgive him this indulgence; however, for an overall good read. I don't know if books can become hip, but if they can, this one is. The literate of the city--although there aren't many--are all carrying this title on their hips these days. So, even if you don't want to learn about the city, be cool and read it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

I didn't read Thoreau in high school or college, and I'm thankful for that. When I did first pick up Walden, I was living in Oregon and working as a wilderness guide. My occupation and earlier reading--specifically Jack London and Peter Matthiessen--enabled me to better appreciate his work at that time.

Many students are given "great" books to study and end up resenting the authors and even reading itself. I wouldn't doubt if millions of Americans today don't read because of their tedious childhood experience with The Grapes of Wrath or The Scarlet Letter. Both books are excellent, but their multi-layered social critique has a more receptive listener in someone not experiencing puberty. This idea that the reader must be ready to read a book properly is shared by Thoreau and is examined in detail in Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, by David Richardson.

My enjoyment of Thoreau comes from reading a beautifully written affirmation of my principles and a coherent wording for many of my jumbled ideas; it is both inspiring and illuminating. The only other writing that has resonated so strongly with my beliefs, in this instance political, is Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

This book does an excellent job of tracing the development of Thoreau's thinking. The major themes of political activism and philosophy in nature are covered in detail. Also revealed to the reader is the depth of his interest in other topics such as ecology, mythology, and the American Indians.

What is missing is an adequate exploration of the world around Thoreau. The author chose to focus exclusively on intellectual matters and the result is more an essay than a telling of a man's life. The meat and potatoes of the story remain in the dark. His friends and family, the United States during the early 1800's, even the town of Concord that he is so associated with, none of these vital elements of context take form in these pages.

This book was an enjoyable and informative read, but I can't shake the feeling that it is a second-best substitute for reading Thoreau himself; you won't learn much about his life and the best parts are quotes from his works.

Monday, May 19, 2008

White Noise

White Noise won the National Book Award in 1985 and helped establish author Don DeLillo as an icon in contemporary literature; it's a blue-chip read for my recent attempt to become familiar with American fiction. Set in a small college town, this story follows the everyday events of the quirky and likable Gladney family. The Gladneys are a quintessential modern American family: the parents have previous divorces, the children have all the answers, and they all are constantly getting either in or out of their station wagon. We experience White Noise through the eyes of Jack Gadney, the father. He is an overweight college professor with an endearing sense of humor that provides him with a comic outlet for his increasing sense of disconnect with the Technology age. His attempt to find meaning--or at least dignity--in contemporary life is what guides the novel.

Jack Gadney's world is eerie, funny, and, ultimately, familiar. Microwaves, garbage disposals, televisions, highways, and medicine are as prominent as the people with whom he shares his life. The supermarket in particular takes center stage as a metaphor for the artificiality of contemporary living. The simple and natural act of eating has transformed into brightly lit aisles featuring plastic-wrapped meats and boxed meals. One of my favorite lines is when DeLillo subtly mentions a character eating a "winter apple" without elaborating on how out of touch with nature it is to eat fruit in the wrong season. And,what's more, that we aren't even aware of the disconnect.

Mr. Gadney has a broad enough perspective to see his life and his town for what it is. In fact, it is this intellectual distance from his own life that grows to haunt him. The result is a disconcerting numbness to serious events. Serious events that have lost their power because: One, they are submerged in suburban antics; Two, what is important or real has become blurred by an increasing dependence on technology and authority. Imagine Camus' protagonist from The Stranger, Meursault, as a central character in Malcolm in the Middle.

When researching (I use that term lightly) the history behind the NY Times' survey of the Best American Fiction, I noticed the opinion that many nominations were chosen more for being representative of "America" than for literary excellence. I think that observation fits here; White Noise does an excellent job placing a mirror in front of the American life, but the story isn't compelling. Then again, perhaps that is part of the genius: the stories of our lives aren't that interesting.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Blood Meridian

Recently I read an article in the NY Times that listed the best works of American fiction during the last twenty-five years. They compiled their list by surveying one hundred and twenty-five prominent authors, editors, and critics. The first thing that jumped out at me was the dominance of a few individuals--Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Phillip Roth have apparently wrote almost all our great novels. The second thing that jumped out at me was the realization that I didn't know who any of these people were. If I was to maintain my street cred at the used book store, I needed to get reading fast. Because Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country For Old Men, I started with his ominously titled Blood Meridian.

Ambivalence (am-ˈbi-və-lən(t)s): simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action. That one word captures my attitude towards Blood Meridian. There were so many aspects of the writing that just rubbed me the wrong way, yet somehow it worked. In spite of the difficulties, or perhaps in part because of them, the characters and the story have stuck to me.

The vocabulary was obnoxious. Instead of creating vivid descriptions, McCarthy's pedantic use of words renders his sentences virtually opaque. It is obvious that he did exhaustive research for this book (nicely done, sir), but that hard work need not be used to distance the reader.

The grammar squashed any clarity the vocabulary might have missed; I frequently had to reread sentences due to confusion caused by lack of punctuation. To say "grammatically incorrect" is misleading because one gets the impression that the author is trying, just coming up short. McCarthy's violence toward punctuation is palpable, mirroring the violence in this macabre allegory. There might not have been any commas.

Recognizing that I am not poetically inclined, I still think it safe to say that there were way too many damn similes in this book. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an average of a simile per page. This overuse of similes is annoying and unnecessary like this sentence.

The total impression of these writing techniques is arrogance. The hurdles the reader must jump through to enjoy this book are insulting because they are not necessary. The subject matter is not that difficult to understand. It's a Western for God's sake. The author seems to acknowledge this point by having a central character, The Judge, speak in obtuse language and then explain why it was necessary. The explanation that specific words are required because no other word quite fits doesn't hold water.

So, you must think I hate this book. And I do. Yet, in some ways I love it too. For one, the single best scene I have ever read comes thundering across these pages during a Comanche attack (To be fair, I should aknowledge that this passage would lose its power were it conveyed with standard punctuation). Also, at times I found that I was able to drop into a zone and somehow swim comfortably with the difficult text. At these times I felt witness to mythical battles amid raw and ancient lands. My best explanation is to compare this reading experience to reading Shakespeare: the first ten minutes are wasted as you battle the arcane words, but after a time you find yourself in that world.

Be prepared to enter an epic poem. Many others have compared it to biblical verse. I think this is because the text is elusive and resists logical understanding, yet the impact is there; the reader feels the meaning more clearly than his mind can grasp it. I would recommend this book to people who enjoyed Mulholland Drive. The mystery and other-worldliness can be exasperating, but the works gain a foothold by putting you off-balance with these same characteristics. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

With or Without Jim Crow

I am attending the University of New Orleans in the Fall, and I want to get familiar with the work of the professors in my department. Our friend in town recently studied under Arnold Hirsch, a historian of urban policy in America, and so I decided to start with him. I have recently heard that his book Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 is fundamental in understanding how racial dynamics has impacted urban planning and led to segregation. As it turns out, that information was learned a little too recently, because I had just purchased another book, Urban Policy in Twentieth-Century America, where he contributes an essay.

I went at this essay with an amateur interest; throughout the years I have been drawn to discuss urban planning with my friends. My travel experiences served to increase this emphasis, as it became clear that the structure of the city plays such an integral role in shaping culture and, ultimately, determining the quality of life. My personal preference is for walking cities and so I tend to enjoy cities that were planned before the automobile--Brugges, Cesky Krumlov, and Chang Mai stand out as particularly pleasant designs.

The essay "With or Without Jim Crow" focuses on the prominent role racism has played in our country's urban planning. Just how overt that role was is shocking. During the early 1900's state laws prohibited blacks from living in certain areas of the city. Where the legislature was unable to strangle diversity, gentleman's agreements and violence finished the job. The Jim Crow laws lasted until the mid 20th century and dominated urban planning through the transparent racism of the national real estate board.

I am familiar with American History and was aware of our legacy of discrimination. The story of racism in urban planning, partly due to my move to New Orleans, enabled that history to step out of abstraction. I can now imagine the victims, the riots, and the powerful lobbies that perpetuated the injustice. In Seattle, the racial aspects of history were weightless. Like the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the tragedy was real, but distance and unfamiliarity precluded a heartfelt response. Lauren and I both feel that we have been given a great opportunity here in New Orleans to re-address racial issues with a fresh perspective.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Strengths Finder 2.0

Strengths Finder 2.0 is a product developed by the Gallup Company. Best known for its polls, Gallup is a multi-faceted organization focused on producing, analyzing, and utilizing information--this book was printed by the Gallup Press, for example.

The late CEO of Gallup, Dr. Donald Clifton, was interested in the idea of strength development. The idea is that successful people are successful because they are utilizing their strengths and not working inefficiently in an area which they are weak in: Einstein would not be famous had he dedicated himself to football. Therefore, it would be beneficial for people to discover their own strength-areas and develop those.

Unfortunately, according to Gallup and Dr. Clifton, our society is upside-down with its approach to personal development. Imagine your child brings home a report card with an A in mathematics, C's in art and p.e, and a D in English. You want to encourage your child to be better student. He needs to focus on his English, right? Wrong. Dr. Clifton and Tom Rath, who wrote Strengths Finder 2.0, believe we should help this student develop his natural gift for math. The child in this scenario has a possible future as an astronaut or engineer, not as a writer; devoting the lion's share of time and energy into his weakness would be unproductive and ultimately frustrating for the student.

Strengths Finder 2.0 is a combination of a book and a test. The test determines your areas of talent, and the book explains what an interested reader could do with their new information. The test is about 20 minutes long and at the end you are given a list of your five top talents. I found that the results matched pretty well with my understanding of myself. At this point, the experience is more interesting than useful. Like discovering that you are a "type A" or "type B" personality, it is fun to examine yourself, but doesn't really mean anything in your day-to-day life. The author understands this and encourages the reader to actively use this information to help guide themselves in directions where they could be successful.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys learning about themselves. Whether the information is useful in helping your life is something else. I think there are social forces that guide us to our areas of strength without the aid of conscious decision-making. Positive and negative feedback have forged the life-paths for most of us. More importantly, I think that an individual should take on any challenge that inspires them, regardless of their natural ability in that field. The idea that we should view our lives as an attempt to maximize our comparative advantage is too calculated for me. But, to whatever degree you want to use your results, the experience was fun and knowing your strengths certainly couldn't hurt.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

My girlfriend, Lauren, has been recommending this book to me for over two years and I have continued to put it off. It's not due to a lack of respect for her literary judgement; her other recommendation, Wild Swans, is one of my favorite books. My idea about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was, "Yeah, I get it. Cultural differences lead to misunderstandings. What more can I learn by reading the book?" Well, I learned a lot. This book is a page-turner that made me think.

Author Annie Fadiman begins with a brief introduction on Hmong history. They are an ethnic group that has lived in mountainous areas of Asia for thousands of years. Their culture has been protected from assimilation due to remote living and a fierce independence. During the Secret War in Laos they were utilized by the CIA as soldiers to combat the communist Pathet Lao. Now, thirty years later, tens of thousands make their home here in the United States. The Hmong's transition and continued challenges to adapt to Western living serve as the basis for the book--specifically the challenge of a single Hmong family trying to receive medical care for their sick daughter.

The Spirit Catches You does an excellent job of fairly presenting both perspectives: the doctors come across as compassionate and intelligent, while the Hmong family, the Lees, are depicted as very caring parents. In fact, although Ms. Fadiman eventually spills the beans and admits her preference for the family, she initially emphasizes the frustrations of the doctors trying to provide medical care to a non-compliant patient.

The conflict centered on two disparate views of medicine. The Hmongs are shamanistic and view healing holistically. This knowledge has been passed down for generations and they believe in its efficacy as surely as we believe in aspirin. The Western medical community has its own distinguished history and is confident in its technical knowledge of how the body works. I side with the American doctors. What was intriguing to me about the tension in this book, however, was not which side was right, but what rights do each side have in a conflict of interest.

The doctors have all taken the Hippocratic oath. Does this mean that they have the right--indeed, the responsibility--to provide what they think is the best care, regardless of what the parents think? Or, do the parents have the right to select what treatment they want for their daughter even if it flies in the face of current medical understanding?

In the end I support the family's rights over the doctors' responsibilities. Like abortion, it is their body and there is a line of personal autonomy that is inviolable. Where the Lee family lost me is when they insisted on following their traditional methods, but then raced their daughter to the hospital when those methods failed. It was unjust to drop off such a heavy load of stress and financial commitment if you weren't willing to follow the necessary steps to prevent these occurences.

Overall, I would recommend this book to everyone. There is only one catch: The author's tone is a bit anti-American, which gets old. For example, she writes scathingly about culturally unaware Americans and then praises the Hmong's cultural insularity and naivete about foreign customs. She would bash the American looking for a McDonald's burger in India, then insist that we make major accomodations to allow cultural inflexibility here at home. In my opinion, being open to other's values does not require us to forget our own. But, like I said, overall this book is a great read and I wouldn't let this minor annoyance to stand in the way.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Things They Carried

I have never been to war, have never even been a part of the armed services. I suppose this has to do with my family history: my father was in the Navy, my uncle and grandfather both served in the Air Force. From an early age I remember my dad distanced himself from the military and his experience in Vietnam. He didn't kill anybody, didn't suffer from psychological trauma. I think he just thought it was bullshit. In his later years, he occasionally talked about the discipline and the camaraderie, and how he thought there was some merit to the experience. When it came to his influence on me as a young man choosing a path after high school, however, the military was never even an option.

So, I have no basis on which to claim Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried is realistic or not. That said, the discordant notes of sadness, courage, boredom, and surreal violence in these pages seem authentic. Perhaps this perception is more a testament to the skill of the author than to an accurate depiction of the realities of war. Yet, it is fair to say, because of the the author's pragmatic conception of Truth and personal experience(he served as a foot soldier in Vietnam), this book depicts his reality of the war.

O'Brien expresses a belief in fiction's ability to tell a true story through invention and imagination. Like an impressionist painter, he is striving to capture what he felt, what he lived, through his work. This communication of personal impression is more important than a fidelity to the facts. I think there is validity to this concept; the experiences that effect us most can rarely be captured through a simple description of events. My first accident was far more than a fender-bender, my first kiss was far scarier than any objective lens could capture.

O'Brien uses various methods to show the reader that his experience in Vietnam is always changing. Throughout the work a few stories get told over and over. Each time the details change, sometimes in incompatible ways. It is as if the Vietnam war is trying to find itself, arrive at a definite statement of what actually happened. In the end, however, we are left with a history in flux, with political and personal forces continuing to try and arrange it in a way that makes sense to their needs. The author concludes his own attempt at understanding with the phrase "There it is" and a silent high-five into a rural Vietnamese river where his good friend died. In the end, there was no moral to the story, no meaning to it all. Kurt Vonnegut uses a parallel phrase in his Vietnam classic Slaughterhouse Five: "And so it goes".

What struck me as a non-combatant so much about this book was its relevance to my life. O'Brien touches on this as well. He writes that war and its proximity to death provides us with a vivid glimpse into our Lives--our vibrant, real lives, which are as elusive as war in being understood or defined.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I rarely read fiction. That said, when I consider my all-time favorite books, many of them are fiction. There is something about this genre that has the potential to make a big impact on me. Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, does not make that list, but it was pretty good.

McEwan's story is largely character development. The plot, although intriguing, serves primarily to shape his characters. The setting is modern London and centers on upper-class writers and artists. And while I could not relate to the lifestyle of the characters, I enjoyed exploring their complex and darkly humorous minds.

I would consider Amsterdam to be literature and not general fiction. I suppose I make that distinction when the author is attempting to do more than entertain. The idea of reading as mindless entertainment--you know, the small paperback books with obnoxious covers--actually seems bizarre to me. Why not watch a movie and save yourself the trouble?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation

Have you ever heard of going through an "Ayn Rand phase?" It is what happens when somebody reads a couple of her books and then goes around acting like a jerk for a few months afterward. This person usually misunderstands Rand's championing of the individual to justify a blooming of his latent arrogance.

I am going through a grammar phase, and it is ugly. For the past month, to my horror, I find myself stopping in the grammar section of the bookstore. This is my third book so far and I just began another. Help me. To be clear: none of this has helped my writing. In fact, it has only added anxiety to the writing process and left my papers with an obscene amount of unnecessary and probably misplaced punctuation marks. I am trying hard to learn sophisticated writing, but it is fitting like a bad suit.

Enter " A Dash of Style", by Noah Lukeman. This book was the worst of the grammar books I have read so far. Instead of explaining the rules of correct punctuation, Mr. Lukeman offers vague advice: Use the semicolon as a bridge, he writes. What does that mean? The book comprises interactive exercises (yeah, right), his ideas on what it means about you as person if you use certain punctuation (I don't care), and examples in literature (You don't learn how to paint by looking at paintings).

He did write well, and so it was a fairly enjoyable read. In the end, however, I think he is too concerned about the creative uses of punctuation to be a reliable instructor for the beginning writer. I would not recommend this book to someone looking to learn how to use punctuation properly.

The American Intellectual Tradition: Volume II - 1865 to the Present

This book is incredible; David Hollinger and Charles Capper have edited a collection of essays that deserves prominent placement on any bookshelf.

The second volume of an anthology, a quick glance at the table of contents reveals a superstar line-up of American intellectuals: William James, George Santayana, Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, Thomas Kuhn, Martin, Luther King, Jr., and more. Essays from the Greats are arranged chronologically to provide the reader with a rough sketch of the development of American thought. In addition to the work from the household names, many impressive essays from lesser-known writers are included. In fact, some of my favorites were written by them. It just goes to show that popularity is not necessarily an indication of quality--Nicholas Cage is a star.

What continually struck me while reading this book was the quality of writing and clarity of thought. George Santayana (pictured at right) contributes an essay titled "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" that left me in awe. Composed with apt metaphors and picturesque imagery, the essay stands in stark contrast to the dry, pedantic works that dominate philosophy today. His poetic prose is complemented well by the humorous and insightful works by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and H.L Mencken. Both of these men exude a powerful intellectual acuity made rich through personal experience.

The range of voices in this book demonstrate the disparate ideologies that have formed our modern consciousness: Woodrow Wilson appears evangelical in his conviction to save the lesser nations; Malcolm X comes across much more petty and much less intelligent in his personal writing here than he presented himself, with the help of Alex Haley, in his autobiography; Randolph Bourne contributes an essay on pacifism that rings as true today as it did when he wrote it during WWI.

I highly recommend this book to everybody. Everybody should read this book. If 500 pages of essays seems boring, choose a few that intrigue you. You won't be sorry that you did.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy

There are not many books on the history of American philosophy. The general consensus seems to be that there was a glory period during the late 19th century and not much else to merit discussion. However, to gain a thorough understanding of my place in the world today, specifically my intellectual perspective, I find it necessary to understand the development of thought in my country. It was therefore a nice surprise to find this book patiently waiting for me on Amazon.

The format of the book is perfect: a general overview of the different "chapters" in American philosophy, short introductions to several prominent American philosophers, and some essays on general themes explored by these men and women. So, great topic plus great format equals great book, right? Not exactly. The book was limited by a couple of key shortcomings that ultimately deflated my reading experience.

A narrow scope. The copyright date for this publication is 2004, yet the narrative of philosophical history ends with Naturalism in the early 20th century. Surely a contemporary summary should see fit to include the last one hundred years. The justification for this omission could be that this book focuses on American philosophy and not philosophy in America. It could be argued that original developments in theory have not arisen here since the roaring twenties. This could be true, but I doubt it.

Poor writing. The Blackwell Guide is edited by two men, Armen Marsoobian and John Ryder, and is comprised of essays by over twenty professional philosophers. With this pedigree I expected more engaging prose. Although many essays were interesting, some authors- that means YOU, Joseph Margolis- were pedantic and insulting. At one point Mr. Margolis, a professor at Temple, writes that William James had neither the patience nor competence to understand the technical distinctions of his peer. I do not think it appropriate to write condescendingly of a deceased person, perhaps more so if that person is an American Intellectual Giant who lived in an era you are not familiar with and who is out of your league in accomplishments and importance.

I do not want to communicate too negatively about this work; I was introduced to some people whom I wish to learn more about soon (Justus Buchler and Jane Addams)and became more familiar with others who continue to inspire (George Santayana and W.E.B Dubois). My overall recommendation is to read this book with a realistic understanding of what it is: a collection of writing by different people, of different caliber, writing on different subjects. Pick what interest you, and don't waste your time with what's left.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Elements of Style

Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" is revered in the seedy underworld of grammar. Originally self-published in the early 1900's, this little book of 85 pages has become an icon. The authors' main creed: Simplify!

I found the book useful. And, although I would recommend reading this classic, it is too narrow to be considered a complete grammar reference source. Instead of addressing the fundamentals, Strunk addresses common grammatical errors. The tone is that of an exasperated teacher wanting to correct, once-and-for-all, the annoying mistakes he encounters every year. This approach is excellent for a student already well versed in the jargon of grammar: prepositions, modifiers, auxiliaries, and such. However, a thorough introduction to these building blocks would be more useful to me at this point.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Grammatically Correct

If twelve-year-old Nels saw twenty-eight-year-old Nels reading "Grammatically Correct", he would be very disappointed. What can I say? I have come to find this admittedly lame topic interesting. It started with Lauren correcting me at every turn during the job application process this summer. Apparently I couldn't make a complete sentence without some glaring mistake that demanded, and got, ridicule. After several attempts to diminish Lauren's smug superiority by reminding her that nobody likes people who correct his grammar, I eventually decided to fight fire with fire and figure out English Grammar.

"Grammatically Correct" is a worthwhile read for the grammar student. It is a relatively interesting read and provides some good insights. To be thorough, I would recommend buying a grammar textbook as well. Stilman's book only addresses grammar for sixty pages, after accounting for the chapters on puncutation and style, and competence in this area requires a more lengthy focus. At this point I feel as if I am just scratching the surface.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Philosophy and Social Hope

Remember those scenes where young girls at Elvis Presley concerts scream deliriously and faint? Well, that is what Richard Rorty would do if John Dewey were to somehow make an appearance. In his book "Philosophy and Social Hope" Rorty mentions Dewey, oh, I don't know,5 million times. Rorty, a leading American Pragmatist, feels Dewey is the grand-daddy of the current era of philosophy. In one sense, because this approach disregards the search for ultimate truth in favor of creative discussion for possible futures, Rorty sees Dewey as ushering in the ultimate phase of philosophy. I did not agree with everything in this book, but it definitely made me think. I will outline my pros and cons below.


1. "She" as a pronoun. I hate it. I get that liberal-minded people are trying to support gender equality, but please figure out a way to do it that isn't so damn annoying. Am I alone in this? Rorty uses this literary device throughout and the book loses significant points for this offense alone.

2. Rorty is too combative. He draws lines in the sands of academia in nearly every chapter. At times this aggression comes out in petty insults or sarcastic jokes that distract from the topic at hand. The undoubtedly numerous disputes between professors should be handled in a less public forum. It lacks class to do so otherwise.

3. Using "we" instead of "I". Rorty constantly uses "we" to establish his positions. It is either "we pragmatists" this or "we liberals" that. Don't assume to speak for everybody. I guess it is an attempt at humility but it doesn't work.

4. Now for the bigger problems. Rorty claims that pragmatism is the philosophy that takes Darwinism to it's logical conclusion. He thinks this because pragmatism doesn't recognize Godly influence in our intelligence, simply luck. However, Rorty then claims that pragmatists see human culture as pure social-construct. Our beliefs, emotions, and values to him are the result of habit. What? Doesn't Darwinian thought necessarily lead to an understanding that these attributes are heavily influenced by our genes? We do not love our children more than strangers because we were socially programmed to do so.

5. Lastly, I don't agree with Rorty's central argument that reality doesn't exist independently of human interpretation. I need to explore this more, but my understanding is that Rorty believes that there is no essential essence to anything beyond what we say about it. This means that when we look at my shoe we can say "it was made in china" or "it is size 11" or whatever, but that we can not know what it truly "is" because everything is contingent on everything else. I agree with contingency and am awestruck at its implications, but I still believe concrete reality exists. We may not be able to communicate the independence of any object or event, but our languages' limitations should not be imposed upon reality as well. Rorty believes that instead of fact or truth we should talk about usefulness. But there are true and false statements. I can't say my shoe is made of wood and be correct. This indicates that there is a reality that resists mere interpretation.


1. The destruction of dualism. The mind/body distinction is dead. Rorty correctly cheers the possibilities that await us as we let go of that relic of metaphysics. He claims it is a remnant of Plato's "higher world" and led us to incorrectly separate our bodies from something beyond ourselves. I am not sure where the distinction originated, but it is useless today.

2. Pragmatism's regards to Truth strike me as true with regards to ideas and opinions. Avoiding the paradox of the last sentence, let me explain. Reason replaced the Church as the means to understanding ultimate reality. Rorty argues that reason doesn't have any special access, either, because there is not ultimate reality. Everything is open to being understood through an infinite number of perspectives. The same event seen through the eyes of a feminist, a communist, a priest, or whomever will be unique to each. Reason will not get us to the correct answer, it is just a tool to be used by a perspective. For example, it is equally rational to be either pro-choice or pro-life. What we must accept is that there is no correct answer. That it is up to us to create solutions that will provide us as much happiness as possible and that we deem just.

Pragmatism is America's major contribution to philosophy. It is deceivingly complex and I have more questions than answers. I would recommend "Philosophy and Social Hope" to anyone looking for an introduction.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cleansing the Doors of Perception

I have read several of Huston Smith's books, and have reviewed one of them, "A Seat at the Table", on this blog. He is perhaps the leading scholar on comparative religion in the world today. His writing is so clear and the content so important that I find myself consistently returning to his works. "Cleansing the Doors of Perception" is Smith's attempt to seriously examine the role of entheogenic plants in contemporary religions. The book is a collection of essays that tackle various aspects of the subject.

The most interesting essay to me was the story of how India's sacred Soma plant was recently identified after thousands of years of uncertainty. The discoverer was an amateur ex-banker who undertakes an Indiana Jones-esque adventure to eventually take his place in History. His conclusion was that the plant was a psilocybin mushroom. He further claims that Soma was removed from religious practice in India, despite its historical importance, because the drug became out of hand and was hindering instead of assisting religious development.

Another engaging essay concerns the role of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies. In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled against peyote as a protected religious sacrament outside legal prosecution. Through public pressure Congress quickly created legislation that protected the plant. After the legal questions were settled, the greater question remained: what is the role -if any- for peyote and similar plants in religions today?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Courtier and the Heretic

Here and there I have come across both Spinoza and Leibniz in my reading. Spinoza intrigued me as a secular philosopher interested in ethics and salvation. Is it possible to have Faith compatible with a modern perspective? Leibniz's metaphysics forged an impression on me during my attempt to better understand String Theory (Effort failed). So, while browsing the bookstore the other day I was excited to come across Mathew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic". The introduction promised a blend of historical biography and outline of philosophies that fits me like a glove.

The first impression I have as I finish the book is: Man, Matt Stewart tore Leibniz apart! He portrays the distinguished German philosopher as materialist, reactionary, vain, and worse. While these personal characteristics might be true (I've never met the guy), I was more interested in exploring his undoubtedly rich positive contributions. This attempt to embarrass Leibniz plays a part in the author's worship of Spinoza, whom he obviously identifies with. In fact, Mr. Stewart's self-description is as someone who has retired to "pursue a life of contemplation". This smug imitation of his idol was nauseating enough for me to not buy the book at first, but I finally relented and ordered it online. I'm glad I did.

>As an introduction to Spinoza, I learned a lot. He lived in Holland during the mid 1600's. He was a Portuguese Jew by descent, but was excommunicated from the church due to his views on God. Reading the verdict of his banishment is amusing. The furious Rabbis ask for the Lord to make him "cursed by day and cursed by night, cursed when he lies down and cursed when he rises up". We get it, already. This zealous persecution is better understood with a look at the era. There are several anecdotes in the book about mob lynchings and executions of people with unorthodox views. The leaders of the Dutch Republic were actually murdered and then barbecued in the streets for supposed wrongs. It appears the authority of the Church was insecure due to the proliferation of alternative ideas and responded with violent repression.

Spinoza's first major published work is a treatise on tolerant governance. Although he later became famous for his metaphysics, the surrounding theocracies of the time were what first impelled him to write. He argued for democratic institutions and the permissal of dissenting views. Stewart states that he was in fact the earliest direct contributor to the political philosophy expressed in our Constitution. It is one thing to live in a dogmatic society and another to live in a dogmatic society whose values you reject. A reason for Spinoza's political frustration was he adamantly disagreed with the prevailing philosophy of orthodox religion.

Spinoza believed that God was universal. By this I mean that God is not a separate entity from his creation, but that creation is an extension of God. This view is radical within Western Philosophy, but can be seen in many indigenous religions. A result of this idea is that Man does not hold a special place on earth. In fact, Spinoza holds that our image of God as a bearded man making decisions is a result of our limited and human-centered imagination. Virtue in this worldview is not pleasing this substitute father figure, but in pursuing our self-interest.

This concept was misunderstood by his contemporaries. The typical understanding of self-interest is hedonism. It is assumed that we would be happiest indulging in our every desire and that virtue is a sacrifice of this enjoyment for a later, greater reward. Spinoza believes that happiness is actually found in forging a relationship with God through the development of yourself and an understanding of the world around you.

There is a neighboring perspective to this idea echoed in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama often states that his original premise is that man seeks to be happy, and from there he advocates a life of compassion to best achieve it. Both the Dalai Lama and Spinoza believe that negative emotions are the result of "inadequate conceptions of things". For Spinoza Man, should find solace in reason. Buddhism allows positive emotions to play a part.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone not specifically interested in Leibniz. I am looking forward to learning more about Spinoza in future reading. His perspective resonates still, and I am interested in the hints of Stoicism, Buddhism, Rationalism, and Indigenous thought. If anyone has a suggestion, leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

Robert Richardson is the author of three books on American Thinkers. His most recent "William James" won a Bancroft Prize and follows his previous works on Emerson and Thoreau. The writing is detailed and thorough, not for the faint of literary heart. When I showed the book to an inquiring student he replied it "looked boring. Adult stuff boring." And, at times, it was. The occasional boredom is the result of an overemphasis on the mundane aspects of the subjects' life: there must be 20 pages describing his various illnesses.Fortunately, these off moments are submerged in an otherwise excellent text.

William James was an American philosopher in the mid 1800's. He is probably most famous for "The Principals of Psychology" and "The Varieties of Religious Experience". He came from a famous family and his brother Henry is a well-known author. A well-rounded man, he was known for excellent literary sensibilities, mountain hikes, and active political involvement. As I read the book it was remarkable to see how large of an impact he has had in shaping our collective perspective.

Heavily influenced by the Darwinian revolution, he championed the idea of consciousness as an active, selective process that we have as a result of natural selection. This understanding led to the undermining of the mind-body duality that was prevalent. Instead of consciousness as an entity, it is seen as an action that our mind/body engages in. According to James, our knowledge and beliefs are the result of our individual relationship to the world. What we "see" is determined by personality and enforced by habit. This is why a Liberal and a Conservative can see the same debate and both be honestly convinced their candidate won.

This idea about how we interact with the world led to a challenge of the Absolute. The standard idea of Absolutist reality is that an independent reality exists that individuals are incapable of describing or experience fully due to their limited perspective. James argued that there is no sense in talking about what "happened" without including the subjects involved. From this vantage point each event is comprised of multiple experiences, each one valid AND complete. It is perhaps from this discussion that the "If a tree fell in the woods..." question originated.

The last aspect of his thought I will address is Pragmatism. He, along with Charles Pierce, is largely credited with creating this philosophy. It is distinctly American, and can be pictured budding in our practical culture. Essentially this perspective argues that it is the "fruits and not the roots" that matter. By this I mean that what is true is what are the results and not any metaphysical matters. This philosophy was criticized for seemingly allowing anything to be true. And, while I was quick to dismiss it myself, it is worth looking at one example just to prick your curiosity. Take a placebo. Typical thinking would have it that a placebo does not "cure" anyone. It just so happens that the person thinks they are being cured and get better through other means. Well, what about saying the placebo did cure them? How can we absolutely say it doesn't if taking one can heal? The requisite of belief does not necessarily make it less true. In fact, James at times suggests that belief-or faith- might be what is required to make religion true in the same sense.

Overall, I really dug this book. For me to approach philosophy I must be in the right state of mind. Similar to poetry, if I am not in the right place I am too distanced from the text and unable to allow it to move me. The concepts of William James are interesting and I am glad I chose this book. If you want to learn specifically his philosophy, however, I would recommend reading his own writings. The biography touched on them but of course focused more on his life.

Friday, February 8, 2008

At Play In the Fields of the Lord

Peter Matthiessen is the man. He has explored the world and written several excellent books of both fiction and non-fiction. I first discovered his work with the masterpiece "Snow Leopard". Since then I have read many of his books on a range of topics: Siberian Tigers, Leonard Peltier, Antartica, and the colonization of the Everglades. Each of his works have opened up new worlds of thought for me. So I was pretty stoked to read his early fiction "At Play in the Fields of the Lord".

It was a pretty good book that explored spirituality through an interesting story. I kept turning the pages in the familiar "reader's rush" to find out what happened next. At the end, however, I wasn't moved. I think there are two primary reasons for this: One, Matthiessen wrote many pages in either dream or drug sequences and I hate that shit. I recognize that spirituality requires a more poetic literary form, but these gimmicks are just annoying to read. Two, the characters were ultimately too one-dimensional. Matthiessen's bias against Western values resulted in cliches of American stupidity and "noble savage" indulgence.

I recommend this book for Matthiessen fans, but not for the general reader of fiction.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

1812: The War that Forged a Nation

Walter Borneman must be a pretty cool guy. I say this because it seems like lately whenever I am looking to learn about a topic that I am interested in, this guy has already written a book on it. Well, avid fans of this blog will remember that Borneman's "Alaska" was a big hit. With "1812: The War that Forged a Nation" Borneman again gets a hit, but not a home-run.

The author is excellent at unearthing interesting anecdotes. In "Alaska" and "1812" the colorful stories involving the characters of the history are a highlight. In "1812", however, the plot-if you will- gets lost in the muddle of divergent stories. Major tangents are taken on minor participants that never really get adequately weaved into the larger picture. Also, although I do enjoy military history, some of the battles were saddled with unnecessary details.

It was interesting for me to read about this conflict from a perspective of what-might-have-been. Both the British and the Americans were interested in extending their borders and the outcome of this war could have meant New England was part of Canada, or that Northeast Canada was America. As it is, the war seems to have been a grudge-match that left things pretty much the same way they were. We'll get 'em next time.

When all is said and done, I would recommend this book only to people interested in this particular war. If you simply want to read general non-fiction to learn and be entertained, there are better options out there.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

So Far From God: The U.S War with Mexico

John Eisenhower -son of Dwight- has the personal experience to validate his authority on military matters. He served in both WWII and Korea, later retiring with the rank of General. And while military prowess is not often linked to literary excellence, he demonstrates in "So Far From God" that his writing is up to the challenge of his pedigree.

The war with Mexico in 1846 is not prominent in our current appreciation of American history. This is remarkable due to it's tremendous impact on our nation: the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo annexed Texas, California and New Mexico. In addition to this tremendous addition of acreage, political divisions deepened during the war and precipitated the Civil War. So, it's safe to say that this part of our history deserves some research and understanding.

And research Eishenhower did. His book is an excellent balance of personal memoirs, official governmental correspondence and military history. For those not overly interested in warfare particulars, the detail given to specific battle movements could be a bit overdone.

The opening hostilities were the most interesting to me. As I have looked into the origins of American wars, I have become alarmed at how often the President has misled the public into aggressive action. The Gulf of Tonkin and the Iraq War being the two most blatant abuses. The Mexican-American War is often included in that discussion. The pressing question seems to be whether American troops were attacked on American soil. This was the claim of President Polk and, if true, could have justified the sacrifice required by war.

The answer is not clear-cut, but Eisenhower was clear in his opinion. He writes that "the kindest thing that can be said about Polk's message is that he probably believed it himself." What happened is....

Texas declared it's independence. It was offered two choices: The Mexican government agreed to recognize it's independence if it did not join the United States, and the United States offered to annex it as a state. Texas chose to become a state and Polk sent General Taylor down to defend Texas from an attack. Soon after, Mexican infantry attacked a small platoon of American soldiers. This much is agreed upon. The tricky part is Taylor set up camp at the Rio Grande when the Nueces River was the internationally recognized border of Texas. The competing claim of Rio Grande as the border was based on a treaty with the Mexican president that was signed while he was in captivity. Further, that treaty was never ratified by the Mexican congress. With this evidence, it is sadly evident that the Mexican-American war is another conflict that started with a President's misleading words.

Alaska: Saga of A Bold Land

Alaska. That's almost all that needs to be said. It is the last American Frontier and a treasure of history. Walter Borneman's book "Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land" is a great place to enrich yourself with the story of it's early exploration, purchase, and subsequent adventures. Mitchner's "Alaska" is better known at this point, but it is fiction and the real story is so interesting that I recommend going with Borneman.

Each chapter provides an excellent break-down of an era. The stories are full of larger-than-life characters such as John Muir and Bob Marshall, both personal heroes. The only critique could be that the book is too long. I love this subject and still found it overwhelming. The maps are a great support to the text. Overall, one of my favorite books of the year.