All posts filed under: Review

Identity but Not as a Straitjacket

Identity can enrich and also limit a writer’s repertoire. Who she is and where he comes from matter, but should not be an end in itself. In particular, works of art born out of identity politics may seem like significant artistic statements when they are made, but may quickly become dated. What lasts is where the personal becomes universal. In pursuing these points, I shall contrast the lives and works of the African-American writers Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, then go on to discuss the experiences I had co-editing a 1090 page anthology of Australian poetry, when my co-editor and I serendipitously discovered the work of a poet Tricia Dearborn. *   *   * The African-American writer Richard Wright has been credited with helping to change race relations in the United States. This is not a small achievement. Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African-American to be selected by the Book of the Month Club. The following year his play of the same name opened on Broadway with Orson Welles directing. …

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life—A Review

A Review of The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, Oxford University Press, (January 2, 2018) 418 pages. “The elephant in the room” is any important and obvious fact that, for whatever reason, no one is willing to talk about. In their new book, The Elephant in the Brain, authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson extend the concept to one the most important and obvious, yet unspoken, facts about the human mind: that we are masters of self-deception, equipped by evolution with an “introspective blind spot” that hides our deeper, selfish motives, even when the same motives are easy to spot in others. The result is an entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors — from laughter to religion to the origin of language. For fans of books like The Selfish Gene and The Mating Mind, The Elephant in The Brain will be familiar territory. But for almost everyone else, the core thesis is likely to be extremely challenging. That’s …

“Canada Has Gone Mad”: Indigenous Representation and the Hounding of Angie Abdou

Late last year, I wrote an essay for Quillette describing how the fight against cultural appropriation had suddenly gone viral in Canada—particularly regarding stories about indigenous peoples. The issue “has become the subject of full-blown social panic among the country’s intellectual class,” I argued, and would remain so until artists and authors of color themselves “eventually become exasperated by doctrines that limit the influence and reach of their [own] literature.” I’m not holding my breath. But a telling controversy involving a newly published novel by Athabasca University creative writing professor Angie Abdou does show us that even some First Nations intellectuals now are becoming infuriated by the campaign to control the permitted range of literary expression in my country. I’m hoping it’s a sign of things to come. *     *     * Abdou is one of those progressive, conscientious, sensitive white writers who dedicate themselves to all the penitent literary rituals of our age. She seems to have done everything humanly possible to make sure her new book, In Case I Go, would offend no one, …

Rethinking Romance with Stendhal’s ‘On Love’

Insomnia has its hazy, surreal benefits. “If you’ve never read Stendhal’s On Love, well, you should,” my professor informed me, in a rapid-fire email exchange that took place, improbably, at 3:31 AM. (Somehow, we were both awake.) At the end of the trading of messages, I groaned at the prospect of adding something else to my reading list, set the laptop down, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But my trust in the suggestions of an authority figure was rewarded, as it often is: the next week I found myself not only reading On Love but enjoying it, while formulating questions, thoughts, and ideas in response. The text, a courtship manual of sorts from 1822, is sophisticated and lively. The key term Stendhal introduces, which is central to his vision of romance, is (to use the Americanized spelling) “crystallization”; the term refers to a twig thrown into a salt mine which, when “taken out two or three months later … is covered with brilliant crystals.” Beautiful patterns form around something that wasn’t necessarily beautiful …

Get ‘Em While They’re Young

A review of: Communism for Kids by Bini Adamczak, 2017, MIT Press and Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young, by Helen Razer, 2017, Allen & Unwin. A century after the Bolshevik Revolution, and a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, somehow the Marxist dream is still alive and kicking. There are some who see the fading embers of communism not as a dark reminder of past horrors, but as an opportunity to usher in a new blaze. Keenly aware of millenials’ growing discontent with the status quo, they are reaching for the tinder-box. German writer Bini Adamczak’s Communism for Kids is a paean for the ideology written in the form of a children’s story. As its translator into English noted in the New York Times, the book seeks to convey the virtues of communism in a much simpler way than is usually done by economists, political scientists and policy experts. This involves cute animations of a talking factory, whose obsession with producing more and more stuff makes its workers very unhappy …

Islamic Feminism’s Depressing Future

A review of Women, Faith and Sexism: Fighting Hislam, by Susan Carland. Melbourne University Press (May, 2017) 266 pages.   Dr. Susan Carland is an important public figure in the Australian landscape, especially at a time of heightened cultural intolerance. As an academic, a Muslim convert, and the wife of the most widely recognized Muslim in Australia today – journalist and TV presented Waleed Aly – Carland often finds herself in the role of the defender of Islamic faith in Australia. She has personally experienced two different (and currently clashing) cultures closely, has had the privilege of examining them from a social theory perspective, and is blessed with eloquence and charm. Who better to explain what is going on? On the one hand, we keep hearing about and seeing evidence of the unequal treatment of women within Muslim communities the world over. On the other, we find that Muslim women are among the staunchest defenders of Islamic faith and community. So how are we to reconcile these two realities? And to what extent are regressive practices coded …

On the Demise of Our Public Language

A review of Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?, by Mark Thompson. Vintage (September 7, 2017) 432 pages. You dislike the revolution in party-political communications ushered in by New Labour in the 1990s – though you may console yourself with the fact that it prompted Armando Iannucci to produce his best work. You are sick to death with the unrelenting abuse of language in public life. You nervously watch the fortunes of European nativist politicians and you appreciate the significance of the election of Trump. You look to media and news and current affairs to help you to make sense of public language, replete as it is with instances of hocus-pocus, weasel words, sleight of hand, euphemisms, bare-faced lying, and a battery of other techniques which debase public life. You shake your fist at the radio and television when you feel that broadcasters are falling down on the job – such is the importance of their role. You know that Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is a classic study of …