Book Digest: April 21, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: The Craftsman; L.A. Outlaws; Bonk; Parenting, Inc.; Armageddon in Retrospect; Last Last Chance; Invisible Nation; Temporary People; The Struggle Against Dogmatism; But Didn't We Have Fun?; American Earth; Ahmadinejad; The Sorrows of an American.

Having had reason to contemplate philosopher/titan Ludwig Wittgenstein, (see below) I thought I would lay out a few hors d’oeuvres of his thinking. From his so-called early phase:
  • The world is everything that is the case.
  • What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
  • The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
  • The thought is the significant proposition.
From his later phase:
  • Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
And by the way, Wittgenstein, who served in the Austrian army in the Great War, observed:
Nowadays it is the fashion to emphasize the horrors of the last war. I didn’t find it so horrible. There are just as horrible things happening all round us today, if only we had eyes to see them.
Right on with the read on.

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett
Book Digest This moment is as good as any to consider the notion of craftsmanship and those who engage in it with the end of producing something. Respected thinker Sennett clearly exhibits the appropriate sensibility in unpacking what is involved in being a craftsman, the riveting example of which is enigmatic polymath and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein building a house for his sister. Happily, Sennett resists trotting out a series of abstractions, instead offering examples, including Frank Gehry, Stradivarius, and Julia Child.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Craftsman

L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker
Book Digest In his latest crime novel, Parker fashions an interesting character that claims to be the descendent of the outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, whose existence is unsubstantiated, and who served as the inspiration for Zorro. When she isn’t a history teacher, Allison Murrieta is a thrill-seeking, high-performance-car-driving robber. On her trail is an ex-Salvadoran gang leader/stone-cold killer and an all-American sheriff’s deputy. No heavy lifting here, but this novel has the valence of a good episode of Law and Order.

» Read an excerpt from L.A. Outlaws

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Book Digest Roach has earned a reputation for writing about offbeat subjects, including Stiffs, on cadavers, and Spooks, about ghosts. Now Roach takes on the sticky subject of sex and sex research. That she manages to do so with alacrity and buoyancy is commendable, and that she appears to game for anything is evidenced by the passage in which she describes measuring the distance between her clitoris and urethra. Though I am not particularly interested in reading about sex, I am sure many people would be.

» Read an excerpt from Bonk

Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul
Book Digest The subtitle of Paul’s expose—How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers—and What It Means for Our Children—clearly suggests her antipathy to an industry dedicated to infantilizing parents and expunging any child-rearing confidence from them. It’s about time someone brought attention to this predatory and exploitative industry. Seasoned journalist Paul does it with aplomb.

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
Book Digest A posthumous publication of yet more of the humorous Hoosier is a reminder that for devotees, there will never be enough of his unique lampooning—especially when it seems cretins and vulgarians and flim-flam men occupy many positions of power and influence. Most poignantly, this tome includes the back story of how Vonnegut came to write Slaughterhouse-Five: As an American POW in Germany, he witnessed the unforgivable bombing of Dresden and was forced to dig out bodies and remains. Vonnegut refers to an Allied pamphlet dropped on Dresden in the aftermath:
The leaflet should have said, “We hit every blessed church, hospital, church, museum, school, theater, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”
Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel
Book Digest I must confess I found myself resisting this book, its dim, dark, droll light, its too over-the-top characters: The protagonist’s mother is too, too much. But, well, I succumbed. You may also. Or not. Maazel’s mentor, Amy Hempel, blurbs:
You have to look to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son for a narrative voice as darkly funny and drug-inflected as Maazel’s. This sprawling, wonderfully digressive novel is up to the task at hand: love at the end of the world as we know it.
Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East by Quil Lawrence
Book Digest Until the current Iraq disaster, the Kurds—with 25 million people, it’s the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland—would probably continue to live on the margins of world consciousness. BBC correspondent Lawrence has spent seven years living among the Kurds, and as Jon Lee Anderson extols:
In this dramatic narrative, Quil Lawrence has untwined one of the most tangled histories of the Middle East and made it comprehensible. Invisible Nation is a riveting account of Iraq’s Kurds and their essential role in the reshaping of modern Iraq. For anyone wishing to understand how the Kurds’ quest for nationhood plays into the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, this book is a must-read.
Temporary People by Steven Gillis
Book Digest Dandy Dan Wickett, the tireless publisher of Dzanc Books, assures me I will love Temporary People. This, of course, doesn’t matter; what matters is whether or not you like this fable, written in tones and coloration reminiscent of George Saunders, and set on the island of Bamerita, whose history is like “the rim of wheel made to turn round and round, our political cycles nothing if not redundant.”

» Read an excerpt from Temporary People

The Struggle Against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy by Oskari Kuusela
Book Digest As an impressionable undergraduate philosophy student I was powerfully impressed by Wittgenstein—as much by his brilliant and tortured persona as by his ruminations. Many, many years later it is the former that stays with me. Thus it was fun to stumble across this monograph dealing with one of Wittgenstein’s central concerns—the status of philosophical statements. Kuusela reiterates Wittgenstein’s view that there are no theses, doctrines, or theories in philosophy, and while focusing on the later Wittgenstein (of the Philosophical Investigations), he does reference the earlier Wittgenstein (of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) to illustrate what he means by philosophizing without theses or theories.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Struggle Against Dogmatism

But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 by Peter Morris
Book Digest Harkening back to America under the Van Buren Administration, we are shown the migration of our national pastime from country to city via such dusty heroes as the Knickerbockers of New York and the famous Cincinnati Red Stockings. Interestingly, the issue of professionalism’s effect on the game was evident early on as veteran players left their beloved game when it was transformed into something more standardized than the rough-hewn sport of its origins. Morris is very clear: The pioneers did have fun.

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau edited by Bill McKibben
Book Digest If I had the space in my own library I would include as many of the Library of America’s fine books as possible. And this nicely designed tome would stand out: It is a “green” book, printed on acid-free paper with 80 percent soy- or vegetable-based ink. Foregoing the usual LoA black dustcover, its content ranges from Thoreau to Rachel Carson (The Silent Spring), Robert Crumb, Gary Snyder, and McKibben (The End of Nature). Al Gore’s foreword quotes Carson: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”

Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader by Kasra Naji
Book Digest It has no doubt not escaped you that obtaining useable information about foreign leaders demonized by our ruling elite is no easy task; witness what we know about Castro or Chavez or, in reverse, war-criminal allies like Pinochet and the long-gone Somozas. Thankfully, there are journalists such as Naji who do the important work of making a real-world picture of those cast as demons. And because you have been paying attention I don’t have to trot out the reasons Iran continues to dominate the attention of the Bush regime, foreign policy wonks, and most importantly the people who live there or have relatives in that part of the world.

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt
Book Digest Hustvedt’s incandescent prose tells the mysterious personal history of a brother and sister who try to make sense of a cryptic note they find in their deceased father’s papers. Susan Salter observes:
Peopled with intellectuals, authors, psychoanalysts, and their patients, and set in TriBeCa and Brooklyn, it seems a precious diorama, like something you might see in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. And yet, and yet, the pages turn themselves. The old story, the search for the self, holds water once again.
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