All posts filed under: Books

The Subversive Simone Weil—A Review

A review of The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, by Robert Zaretsky. The University of Chicago Press, 181 pages. (February 2021) “How much time do you devote each day to thinking?” That’s a strange question to ask a nurse from one’s hospital bed, but Simone Weil was no ordinary patient. On the contrary, philosopher, mystic, and, at that time, member of the Provisional French government in London, Weil was in every sense extraordinary. Praised by André Gide as the “patron saint of all outsiders,” known to her fellow students at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) as the “Categorical Imperative in skirts,” and dismissed by Charles de Gaulle as “a crazy woman,” Weil was certainly unusual. At once charmingly amusing and maddeningly irritating without meaning to be either, Weil was a bona fide eccentric. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, one detects no sense of humour in Weil. Candid to a fault and always in dogged pursuit of the Good, she believed that thinking is what gives us dignity and protects us from tyranny. …

Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks

I couldn’t finish Ulysses. This was 1994, the year after I’d graduated from Arizona State University with an English degree, and the year that my rock band started providing a living from playing gigs in Tempe. Both of these events left me divorced from a reading community I’d come to rely on since my junior college days in Moline, Illinois, when I took a class that required the reading of eight novels. I read those novels—which included A Clockwork Orange, The Awakening, 1984—found them more daring and provocative than anything in rock music, and started entertaining the idea that I too might write one someday. It would be 10 years after that class before I would quit my band and jump headfirst into novel writing. Until then, I was left with a music life that paid the bills but ultimately didn’t ask much from me, and a literary life that felt stalled—no more instructors leading me down the path of great literature; no more parsing the differences between romanticism, realism, and naturalism; no more Shakespeare …

Interview with Slavenka Drakulić—the East-West Doyenne of the 1990s

For anyone interested in Eastern Europe in the 1990s—that surreal time when the Berlin Wall had just fallen but the gulf between East and West remained palpable—the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić was required reading. Her books opened up to us that world from inside, written by a woman—one of the pioneering feminists in her country—who’d lived 40 years under the old system and knew it in her bones. Each book illuminated some different aspect of life in that part of the continent hitherto so difficult to approach. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991) told us about everyday survival under communism, its textures and minutiae as felt by normal people. Balkan Express (1993) described the horrors following the system’s collapse, as Yugoslavia disintegrated and a bitter civil war broke out. Café Europa (1996), meanwhile, spoke of the region’s longing for normality, to leave the communist past behind and become part of the New Europe. Her collections of essays were short and hard-hitting—about 200 pages—packed with anecdote, detail, vivid description, and with each you felt …

The Prophet of Dystopia at Rest: Margaret Atwood in Cuba

Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale As a Cuba scholar, a student of literature and politics, and an enthusiastic reader of Margaret Atwood’s work, I have collected articles and media clips over the years related to the Grande Dame of CanLit’s many private and official visits to Cuba. Frankly, the file is thin. Generally, scholars engage with her important body of work (more than 60 books, fiction and non-fiction), without mentioning this topic. It is an interesting footnote, no more. Why interesting? Because it illustrates, in her case and as a pattern, how an inquiring mind sincerely committed to human rights and democratic values can turn off its critical antennae. Atwood allowed herself to become a compliant guest in a country that checks almost all the boxes of totalitarianism, minus extensive terror: a single-party state, no rule of law, arbitrary arrests (2,000 of them during the first eight months of last year), stultifying media (even Raúl Castro says so), and a regime of censorship …

In Praise of the Novelization—Pop Fiction’s Least Reputable Genre

This month brings us the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. No, not the film. That came out in 2019. But now HarperCollins is publishing a novelization, written by Tarantino himself, and based on the earlier film. This particular type of fiction—the bastard offspring of the film treatment and the legitimate novel—is probably pop fiction’s least reputable genre, which no doubt is why it appeals to Tarantino. When HarperCollins announced the project last fall, Tarantino issued a statement saying: To this day I have a tremendous amount of affection for the genre. So as a movie-novelization aficionado, I’m proud to announce Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as my contribution to this often marginalized, yet beloved sub-genre in literature. I’m also thrilled to further explore my characters and their world in a literary endeavor that can (hopefully) sit alongside its cinematic counterpart. Movie novelizations have been around since filmdom’s silent era and are still a fairly common sight on the paperback spinner racks of chain bookstores and airport gift shops. The …

Modern Europe and the Enlightenment—A Review

A review of Modern Europe and the Enlightenment by Rumy Hasan. Sussex Academic Press, 240 pages (May 2021). In a June 2019 interview given to the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin brashly declared that the liberal idea had outlived its purpose. He supported this claim by noting that the public had rejected ostensibly “liberal” European policy stances on immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. In his new book, Modern Europe and the Enlightenment, social scientist Rumy Hasan rigorously explores whether the aforementioned positions really are consonant with liberal democracy and the Enlightenment values that underpin it, and concludes that Putin was burning a straw man. If Hasan is correct, then the entire configuration of the political board game has been misconstrued. This makes his argument pivotal to understanding how well (or poorly) the rhetorical labels ascribed to political policies fit their substance. Modern Europe and the Enlightenment opens by presenting a balanced examination and robust summary of Enlightenment values. Hasan diligently charts counter-Enlightenment influences in Europe, whether in the cultural relativism of soi-disant liberals, the …

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Remembering John Ball, the Writer Who Gave Us Virgil Tibbs

Sidney Poitier, who retired from acting 20 years ago, turned in many unforgettable screen performances over a career that spanned the entire second half of the 20th century. But his best known is almost certainly his portrayal of police officer Virgil Tibbs, the protagonist of Norman Jewison’s 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, one of the first films to impress the combined issues of policing and racism on popular culture. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best movie lines of all time places Poitier’s “They call me Mister Tibbs!” at number 16 (right between “E.T., phone home.” and “Rosebud”). As portrayed in the film, Tibbs is a Philadelphia detective who happens to be passing through a small Mississippi town when a murdered body is discovered by the police. A racist local cop goes to the station to see if anyone might be trying to hastily catch a train out of town. There he finds Tibbs who, after visiting his mother in …

Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property—A Review

A review of On Property by Rinaldo Walcott. Biblioasis, 96 pages (May 25th, 2021) The true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, “This is mine,” and came across people simple enough to believe him. How many crimes, wars, murders and how much misery and horror the human race might have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch, and cried out to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this charlatan. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth itself belongs to no one!” Even if most sober-minded readers might dismiss Rousseau’s counter-factual history as a symptom of a dangerous utopianism, his critique of private property has fired the imaginations of radical thinkers and activists since before the French Revolution. While Rousseau himself did not believe we could return to a propertyless state as the “solution” to modernity’s problems, his view of history as a “fall” from …

Thomas Sowell: Tragic Optimist

History is not destiny. ~Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture Somewhere out of the mysterious interplay between nature and nurture, internal and external factors, cultures and structures, and bottom-up and top-down forces there emerge the individual and group outcomes that we care about and which ultimately make the difference between human flourishing and its absence. What distinguishes various political ideologies, in effect, is how the line of causation is drawn, or, more specifically, from which direction. What gets left unexamined in the rush for compelling narratives and ideological certainty, however, is the territory between different causes and how they combine to shape reality. Few have gone further to map that territory than the American economist, political philosopher, and public intellectual Thomas Sowell. At 90 years of age, Sowell remains among the most prolific, influential, and penetrating minds of the past century. He understands the world in terms of trade-offs, incentives, constraints, systemic processes, feedback mechanisms, and human capital, an understanding developed by scrutinizing available data, considering human experience, and applying robust common sense. Sowell has written …