Book Digest: November 26, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: Life in the Valley of Death; In Praise of Prejudice; Questions of Taste; Heaven of Drums; Flying Close to the Sun; Fields of Asphodel; Blue Rage, Black Redemption; Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream; Gomorrah.

From Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”:
A totalitarian society makes enormous demands in the courage of men and a partially totalitarian society makes even greater demands, for the general anxiety is greater. Indeed, if one is to be a man, almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage. So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro, for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to Jazz and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation—that post-war generation of adventurers who (some consciously, some by osmosis) had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the twenties, the Depression and the war. Sharing a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things, they knew almost as powerful a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and respectable love life. If the intellectual antecedents of this generation can be traced to D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Wilhelm Reich, the viable philosophy of Hemingway fit most of their facts, in a bad world, as he was apt to say over and over again (while taking time out from his parvenu snobbery and dedicated gourmandise), in a bad world there is no love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage, and this indeed fitted some of the facts. What fitted the need of the adventurer even more precisely was Hemingway’s categorical imperative that what made him feel good became therefore the Good.
I don’t recall if Mailer’s infamous essay on hipsterism made a lick of sense—but it certainly was fun to read.

RIP Norman Mailer.

Life in the Valley of Death by Alan Rabinowitz
Book Digest What passes for journalism has in recent times lost faith in the judgment of its audience, resulting in stories saturated with superlatives and hyperbole. Thus calling Rabinowitz’s feats and personal story “incredible” may appear to be a failure of my imagination. This story recounts his efforts to create the world’s largest tiger preserve in the Hukaung Valley of Myanmar, where poachers and gold prospectors pose a serious threat to the big cats. In addition to those imminent dangers, Rabinowitz must engage a scurrilous military dictatorship, a rogue army, headhunters, local tribes, and seriously indigent villagers. Additionally, he does battle with an incurable, life-threatening disease. OK, then.

» Read an excerpt from Life in the Valley of Death

In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas by Theodore Dalrymple
Book Digest This is one of those clever monographs that unpacks a rather obvious notion, albeit artfully, that we need not dismiss all preconception as an evil. Lest anyone mistake the good Dr. Dalrymple’s intentions, he is not advocating racial prejudice. The logical chain here can be extended to the claims for the necessity for objectivity. This is an entertaining and engaging essay exhibiting (common) sense and an unflashy erudition. In any case, let Mark Twain have the last word here: “I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.”

» Read an excerpt from In Praise of Prejudice

Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine edited by Barry Smith
Book Digest It should and will not go unsaid that on the face of it I think this is a silly book. Having long ago been a serious student of philosophy, I find the suggestion that there is a philosophy of wine ludicrous. On the other hand, I also find the oeonophiliac rituals tedious and joy-killing. So clearly this book is not for me. In any case, here philosophy professor Smith collects essays by a diverse group of experts—a number of philosophers, a biochemist, a linguist, a winemaker, and a wine critic—and has them deliberate on such questions as “Does the experience of wine lie in the glass or in our minds?” “Does the elaborate language we use to describe wine really mean anything at all?” and “Can two people taste one wine in the same way?” If these are burning issues for you, by all means have at it.

Heaven of Drums by Ana Gloria Moya, translated by W. Nick Hill
Book Digest Argentine novelist Moya’s three published works of fiction have won her both prizes and international recognition. Heaven of Drums (also translated as Sky of Drums) is a story set in Argentina’s early-19th-century struggle for independence, spotlighting national hero Manuel Belgrano as seen through the eyes of a mulatto healer priestess and the mestizo son of a well-to-do businessman. How they see Juan Manuel and how he takes them exhibits a central dissonance in Argentine identity issues and politics.

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman by Cathy Wilkerson
Book Digest Active in the civil rights movement and the Students for a Democratic Society, Wilkerson narrowly escaped a 1970 explosion that killed three of her Weathermen cohorts, and drove her cadre further underground. Her memoir is a sobering recall of the roiling political waters of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—how a middle-class white girl from New England became radicalized and how that historical moment looks to her now. Judith Lewis intelligently opines:
…Wilkerson’s gracefully written and scrupulously researched memoir is a detailed and humble reckoning of someone who did her best to navigate a fractured social landscape one awkward step at a time, honoring the conscience her New England Quaker upbringing had instilled in her even as she rushed pell-mell toward “a foolproof plan to bring equality and justice to the world.”

Wilkerson confesses her weaknesses, the movement’s failures (“Moderation,” she notes, “was not a Weatherman trait”), and her considerable misgivings, both as an activist and in hindsight. But she never renounces the ideals that drove her. She allows you to understand her choices even as she rejects them. In the end, she insists, “the gravest mistake” is not to choose the wrong tactics but to fail to act against injustice at all.
And in case you haven’t read Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind, it’s a story that resonates with ‘60s idealism gone awry.

» Read an excerpt from Flying Close to the Sun

Fields of Asphodel by Tito Perdue
Book Digest Perennial protagonist Leland Pefley of novelist Perdue’s many books (Sweet-Scented Manuscript, Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture, The New Austerities, Lee) is not exactly dead. We’re talking about an afterlife where he’s equipped with a walking cane, a book of matches, a pair of pretty good shoes, and a tourist brochure—and he’s attempting to track down his deceased wife. Perdue has been compared to the usual panoply of unorthodox writers that you may or may not find attractive. You decide.

Blue Rage, Black Redemption by Tookie Williams
Book Digest Crips founder Williams was nominated for a Nobel Prize for writing books to help disenfranchised youths—the same people who were grist for the gang life mill—and was executed in December 2005. His memoir is full in the tradition of the ghetto story from Malcolm X’s Autobiography, Nathan MaColl’s Make Me Wanna Holler, and Claude Brown’s Manchild in a Promised Land.

Senior fellow at the U.S.C Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism Celeste Fremon writes:
When the writer has died by government order, it cannot help but give one’s reading experience an unnervingly weird spin, which in turn suggests the following question: When the state of California put Stanley “Tookie” Williams to death by lethal injection, was it a net gain for the rest of us, or a net loss? After reading Blue Rage, Black Redemption, my vote is resolutely for the latter.
» Read an excerpt from Blue Rage, Black Redemption

Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in The Life of Your Body by Jennifer Ackerman
Book Digest The infiltration of the rubric “24/7” into modern chatter is evidence of a shift, if not a breakdown, in the perception and employment of real time, scheduling, and human health. Ackerman attends to and asserts a number of odd facts that have to do with biorhythms, and, more to the point, argues the importance of synchronizing our actions with these biological rhythms. Ackerman writes: “The body is like Antarctica, a continent being opened up, mapped, even transformed.” Her explorations turn out to be as riveting as dog-sledding adventures from an earlier time.

Gomorrah: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System by Roberto Saviano, translated by Virginia Jewiss
Book Digest Already a bestseller in Italy, Saviano’s exposé of a ruthless Neopolitan crime organization, the Camorra, graphically, specifically, and perhaps hyperbolically shows the international reach and large stakes involved in this network of illegality. One of the more outrageous threads of this story is Saviano’s claim that if northern Italian businesses (think fashion and cars) hadn’t sold their toxic waste to the Camorra, Italy could never have met qualified for entry into the European Union. Since 2002, close to 3 million tons of chemical sludge has been illegally dumped in the region of Campania. And this, of course, explains why cancer levels there have skyrocketed in recent years. As this narrative fades to black, Saviano walks through a toxic wasteland, covering his face with a handkerchief against the dioxin fires. Sound familiar?

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