Friday, August 25, 2006

Book Report Time

Here's a few books read this summer worth reading?

In early June I finally finished
Jared Diamond's Collapse. As in Guns, Germs and Steel and The Third Chimpanzee Diamond takes big and complex ideas of biology, ecology, evolutionary theory, anthropology, chemistry, history and a whole lot more and sums it up for us simple folk. This type of writing is a real skill but academics world wide should take note and start doing what JD does so that the democracy can actually work. Pip pip for this public intellectual, we need lots more. The favorite of the summer.

For me summer is not complete without a new factoid or without a mastication reference. Did you know that bats sleep 20 hours a day, the most in the mammal family and dolphins 7, the least. And where may these nuggets appear? In any TC Boyle novel of course. No new novels from the great one this year but his latest collection of short stories, Tooth and Claw was on the docket and did not disappoint. My favorites included a story about a shock jock that stayed up for a week on the air (the bat reference) and the single guy who finally gets to go away to the high Sierra with his new girl friend but blows it because of poor planning. Any TC Boyle will do, trust me.

In the western historiographical pantheon few historians receive as much praise as the 19th century bore Francis Parkman. The problem with lists of the greats is that sometimes we need to plod through them to find the real nuggets. Plod I did for a few weeks this summer with Parkman's Discovery of the Great West. The savages, the great man, god, the doddering fools all made an appearance in a style so personal and pompous that the groans came in waves even on the Athens metro. I felt as if I had made the journey with LaSalle I felt so dirty. Enough said.

I guess there are a number of versions of Mark Twain's autobiography. I am not sure which version I read but a few things I learned about the white one:

He was a lousy businessman. Constantly looking for get rich quick schemes, trusting people he shouldn't, not trusting people he should have and just thinking that money was unlimited in the way that he lived.

Funny, funny, funny! Particularly when he was speaking of his brother and people who really screwed him over.

A narcissist in the best sense. He loved himself and could mock his own, but not too much!

A real family man. After his daughter died, he was done.

A pragmatist politically. Leaned left but truly a creature of 19th century America.

It was at its best when speaking of family and friends, at its dullest when trying to justify bad investments.

The toughest read for last: Reinaldo Arenas's Before Night Falls. Also adapted by Julian Schnabel on film, I first heard of RA from all people George Will. The story is a horrific one. Young gay Cuban nationalist sours on the revolution and is hounded mainly because of his sexual orientation and eventually ends up in a Inferno like incarceration a raving anti-communist leading to a marginal life in 1960's and 70's Cuba and finally leaving in the Mariel exodus of 1980. You guessed it, of course Miami and New York are not the place for the island free spirit and he eventually dies a horrible death in NYC of complications from AIDS.
An anecdote: in 1994 I made my first trip to Havana, I had traveled in 93 to Varadero and Matanzas, and witnessed the depths of the "special period" that was created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsidy. Havana was something of a ghost town, very few cars, the few dogs and cats that wandered the streets were so diseased and emaciated that even the gaunt like Havanaites would not partake. We were sitting in the lobby of a hotel or a lousy restaraunt and the police decided to pick up a couple street kids for getting a little to close to the tourists-tourist aparthied reigned at this time with Cubans not being allowed near the dollar generators. Most of the boys got away but one was captured but fought with the police as if he was fighting for his life. Wherever they were taking him he felt that the hunger and danger of the Havana street was far more preferable to whatever fate was before him. If it is anyhting like the experience of RA I think I have an idea of why he fought so hard to get away.

My brother has a gay Cuban Marielito friend who has read and seen Before Night Falls. He attests to the authenticity of the experience.

The book and film both bring to the top the paradox of the Cuban revolution- egalitarian, re-distributive with gains in health and education, an example. But at the same time a creature of circumstance-dependant on neo-Stalinism and the Cuban Communist Party, cut off from the US market, alone in the hemisphere and trapped within the Hispanic tendencies toward machismo and the caudillo. And after an intial opening culturally a total lack of trust in the people to express themselves artistically, personally and politically. In other words economic equality and dictatorship.

Worth the read.

Funny, I actually forgot about this book. Boring tough guy noir in the Chandler style. Cliched and dull from these eyes.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Trotsky's Life

Chris Hitchens on Leon. Notice the anti-communism at every turn from Robert Service. Also, listen for the great one's French accented English on tape.