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Best reads of 2008

I notice I began the “best read of 2008” category this time last year, so anything from now will be a “best read of 2009” – and I do have one lined up. But today, in order of time from 26 December 2007, here are my 2008 choices. They aren’t always the latest books, as my choice is determined by Surry Hills Library and by what I may from time to time get at a bargain bookshop. Go to the linked posts for details.

1. Travis Holland, "The Archivist’s Story" (Bloomsbury 2007). Fiction.

2. Brian Leung, “Lost Men”. Fiction.

3. Conservative but informative and very entertaining: James Franklin on "Corrupting the Youth". Nonfiction.

4. Anita Brookner, “Latecomers”. Fiction.

5. Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land: A New History of Australia. See also here and here. Nonfiction.

6. Anne Holt, “The Final Murder”. Fiction.

7. Gregg Hurwitz, “The Crime Writer”. Fiction.

8. Like a benign psychotic episode: East/West imagination in "Kafka on the Shore" (2005) – Haruki Murukami. Fiction.

9. When a blog is good enough to be a book – Riverbend’s “Baghdad Burning”. Nonfiction.

10. Denise Mina and “Tartan Noir” — “The Last Breath”. Fiction.

11. Sharp yet gentle satire in McCall Smith’s parochial epic: "The World according to Bertie". Fiction. See also here.

12. I like Norman Davies – essays “Europe East & West”. Nonfiction.

13. James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia”. Nonfiction.

14. Anna Kavan, “Guilty”. Fiction.

15. David Day, “Conquest: A New History of the Modern World”. Nonfiction.

16. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Fiction.

17. A Life of Unlearning — a journey to find the truth — the book – Anthony Venn-Brown. Nonfiction.

18. ::: Alexander McCall Smith ::: “The Careful Use of Compliments”. Fiction.

19. Believe Me, It’s Torture: Politics & Power: Hitchens – an essay online. Nonfiction.

20. George Monbiot, “Heat”. Nonfiction.

21. River of Heaven by Lee Martin – Random House 2008. Fiction.

22. Rich Merritt, “Code of Conduct”. Fiction.

23. The Sourcebooks Shakespeare series.

24. John Dominic Crossan, “God & Empire”. Nonfiction.

25. Unheroic, super-intelligent gay fiction: Samuel R Delany’s "Dark Reflections". Fiction.

26. One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”. Fiction

27. Last episode of SBS’s “First Australians” and a must see anthology — the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.

28. Adrian Murdoch, “The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate”. Nonfiction.

29. But I have been reading comics… – Mike Dawson, “Freddie & Me”. Fiction.

30. Lawrence Potter, “This Book May Help You Understand the World”. Nonfiction.

31. My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008). Nonfiction.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2008 in 2008 in review, Best read of 2008, book reviews, reading, Top read

 

My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

0801-Grayling My reading these days comes from two main sources: Surry Hills Library or the bargain basement bookshops. I am after all a pensioner. Naturally, this does impact on my “Top Read” choices, but has not prevented my finding quite a few in the past twelve months. I will be listing them in another post later on, but you can also check the tag.

So the latest came via the bargain bookshop, $12.95 instead of $35 for the hardback.

I recommend Counterknowledge with two reservations.

The first is encapsulated in this otherwise very favourable review by British philosopher A C Grayling (no relation to a blogger some of us know) in New Humanist.

…The sentences that need to be added to this otherwise superb crusade against despoliation of truth and reason concern what harsh critics would, I am sure wrongly and unfairly, call a sleight-of-hand by Thomson, given that when he is not debunking counterknowledge he is none-too-indirectly associated with one of its most egregious forms by being the editor of the Catholic Herald. Early in his book he says that religion “does not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge” because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. And he leaves it there; protected, you might say, behind the wholly admirable pyrotechnics of his assault on “misinformation masquerading as fact” to be found elsewhere.

This, I am afraid, will not do. As already suggested, the most persistent and influential forms of counterknowledge, including many false claims about the origin and nature of the universe, what it contains and what it is influenced by, which heavenly bodies go round which, what can be effected by prayer or the laying on of hands, and so vastly on, are the religions. Thomson rightly criticises the fact that the British state supports five homeopathic hospitals and pays for six degree courses in homeopathy, but says nothing about tax-funding of faith-based schools – not a few teaching creationism. He quotes Popper on falsifiability as the test of a genuine knowledge claim, but does not mention Popper’s correlative stricture, that “a theory which explains everything explains nothing”, as a direct refutation of the meaningfulness of religious claims.

He grants that religion becomes counterknowledge when it is controverted by the evidence of our senses, but does not admit that all religion is therefore so. He does not address the point that when factual information is lacking with respect to some claim – as is standardly the case with the major tenets of religion – constraints of rationality come into play…

Even so, Grayling says: “This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence – a draft of which I offer below – should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate…”

The second reservation I have is that there are times Thompson seems to me to be too Eurocentric, or a little too quick to label something as “counterknowledge” simply because it does not quite fit with his version of Enlightenment philosophy. I am sure you will see something paradoxical there in my two reservations!

I would go further than Thompson by quite happily regarding the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke as pseudohistory, in which I am no different from many mainstream theologians. (You may get a post on that before Yuletide!) On the other hand, I would not be quite as dismissive as he is about Chinese Traditional Medicine.

I would also express some reservation about the use to which his generally perfectly correct criticisms of much thought in the Muslim world might be put by the likes of Daniel Pipes or Melanie Phillips, but then I am rather more of a cultural relativist than Thompson is.

That aside, the book is very stimulating and very useful. The chapter on Intelligent Design/Creationism is quite brilliant.

You don’t even need the book, really, though I do recommend it, partly out of a continuing belief that the reading of actual words on paper does have some advantages over absorbing matter from a screen – some of the disadvantages of which are actually made clear in the book! Nonetheless, the book was simultaneously published with its website, which is very comprehensive and also stimulating. Most of the people it will infuriate are people you really wouldn’t want to know anyway!

See Counterknowledge.com.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, challenge, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, historiography, History, Top read

 

Book notes and footnotes

sat29 On the right you will see a small stack of (bargain!) books, two that I have referred to just lately, and one that I am about to review.

The new book

LawrencePotter Lawrence Potter (left) has inadvertently led me to a very good book blog via This May Help You Understand the World by Lawrence Potter. As that entry says:

In a confusing universe, it’s reassuring to find that it isn’t only you who doesn’t grasp the intricacies – or even the basics – of the world’s problems. We probably all feel that at some instinctive level we understand most of the big issues, but the truth is – certainly as far as I’m concerned anyway – that we couldn’t even begin to explain the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims (and why it matters) or the US electoral system, or the Weapons of Mass Destruction controversy, or why the Palestinians are fighting each other or even why organic bananas are so much better for everyone, not just you.

In fact, I suspect that the number of people who could get any further in their explanation than “Err … well …” would be tiny.

Those are just some of the topics covered in this excellent and well-timed book…

I concur! The first entry is on jihad

Potter is very thorough and up-to-date (as of early 2007 of course). Other topics include: Israel/Palestine, US elections, world trade, climate change, Darfur, Russia, nuclear proliferation, and China. On China, about which I know a bit, I find it very well informed. Back to the review:

Considering what a comparatively slim volume it is, the amount of information in it is amazing, and it’s just so pleasing to be able to listen to a news broadcast or read a paper and actually have a reasonably clear idea of what they’re talking about. In fact, smugness is in danger of setting in …

Oh … and Mr Potter also tackles the thorny question of whether George W Bush really IS stupid.

The answer may surprise you.

And any author who looks like that has to be credible. 🙂

Seriously, this is an excellent and very readable book. He avoids pomposity and excessive predictability or overdone PC. Not a bad achievement, eh! It’s another Best Read of 2008.

Footnotes

Well, that horrible set of events in Mumbai continues to distress and perplex, doesn’t it? In my post Some thoughts on Mumbai I ventured some background gathered from good sources, but the plot really is thickening, isn’t it? Trouble is there are so many vested interests at play here it is hard to know what is most likely. There can be no doubt none of it bodes well.

In today’s Australian one letter writer expresses quite a common view, which would seem to have much in common with what I tried to say in Dark energy, God and humility, which in a way is also about Mumbai…

IT’S all too easy to see the current terrorism in Mumbai as the work of an insane minority. These men are not deranged. They are intelligent and psychiatrically normal men who just happen to believe literally the words of their silly and dangerous religious books.

Both the Koran and the Old Testament frequently advocate violence towards those of differing religious beliefs. Most people, perhaps influenced by secular humanism, instinctively do not take these “silly bits” literally. Unfortunately, a minority of the devout can’t make a distinction.

Until the major world religions, be they Muslim or Christian, are prepared to “clean up” their violent and often murderous literature, they deserve to be proscribed just like any other terrorist group.

David Phillips
Southport, Qld

As John Dominic Crossan says in God & Empire, however, it is not quite as David Phillips and many others portray it. If one considers a dual portrait of God as a God of Violence and/or a God of Love:

It is positively, absolutely not that one solution is found exclusively in the Old Testament and/or the Jewish tradition while another is found exclusively in the New Testament and/or the Christian tradition. It is not ecumenical courtesy, political correctness, or post-Holocaust sensitivity but simply biblical and historical accuracy to insist that both solutions run side by side, and often in the same books, from one end of the biblical tradition to the other. They are asserted relentlessly as the twin tracks of the Divine Express…

He’s quite right, an assertion I base on having read the Bible and Apocrypha from one end to the other, not cherry-picking as I went, and much the same can be said for the Qur’an, a substantial amount of which I have also read. (Few books are more bloodthirsty than The Apocalypse of John, after all.) It is what you do with this that matters. Crossan comes up with one solution, which I am not sure works, but at least leads to a rather healthy analysis of life and politics… I can’t help thinking, though, that the life-time study of the biblical traditions and the Ancient Near East/Greek World/Roman World has led to an only too understandable cultural myopia… We’ve all been there. What he knows he knows in depth and explains very illuminatingly, however. Can’t see fundamentalists liking it one little bit.

I make a case in that “Dark energy” post for quite a radical rethink by believers of their sacred scriptures, one that is not I have to say original to me. At the same time there are those not willing to be quite so radical who can still be perfectly harmless, even desirable, as neighbours and fellow-citizens, even if they regard me with suspicion and I regard them as being a bit cracked. Only through such benign tolerance do any of us have much hope, after all. We don’t have to be right, you know…

And the excellent blog I found…

… It’s Vulpes Libris (The Book Foxes). Have a look.

On Mumbai

This is pretty impressive: Terror in IndiaDileep Premachandran. (ABC Unleashed)

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2008 in Best read of 2008, Bible, Christianity, current affairs, events, faith and philosophy, humanity, interfaith, Islam, other blogs, reading, religion, South Asian, terrorism

 

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But I have been reading comics…

… or rather a “graphic novel”. Now I have long since got over snobbery about this format, even since Maus and its sequels. That old “quality” thing can be found here as much as anywhere else. Yesterday I borrowed Freddie & Me (2008) by UK-born (1975!) artist-writer Mike Dawson, now in the USA. I have finished it already and will read it again, so delightful I found it. To quote the review linked to the book title:

Mike Dawson’s graphic memoir, FREDDIE & ME, is structured after the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody", and his approach to comics bears a lot of resemblance to his favorite band in more than just that overarching structure. Like Queen, Dawson’s debut long-form work is ambitious, bombastic, all-over-the-place, larger-than-life, quirky, clever, self-indulgent and ultimately irresistible…

That said, FREDDIE AND ME isn’t about Queen. We learn almost nothing about the band that wasn’t common knowledge, nor is Dawson really interested in pursuing that line of inquiry. Instead, it’s a book about memory mediated through a common reference point. The story’s central conceit is that every significant memory of Dawson’s is connected somehow to Queen. The reality is that this connection, as he notes in the end, Dawson created those connections, perhaps in part as an anchor for the memories that were most important to him. For Dawson, memory and identity are one and the same, and the loss of the former leads to the loss of the latter, and loss of identity is oblivion.

The sequence about one-third in about memory is really quite haunting; it certainly hooked me.

The style? Here, if Mike Dawson will forgive the appropriation, is one small example:

 fre2

I do commend this, so much that I am adding it to my Best Reads of 2008.

You may read more here.

A good supplementary text for anyone doing the NSW HSC’s “Belonging” module too, I would have thought…

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, humanity, humour, reading, Scottish, USA, writers, writing

 

Three from Surry Hills Library

A varied set this in quality as well as genre and subject. One of them is so bad I couldn’t be bothered finishing it, though I did skip forward to check what happened. One is above average but not great in its field, which is not to say it doesn’t have quite a few strengths. One is quite fascinating and very well researched and well written, so much so that I place it in my Best Reads of 2008. Can you guess which is which?

tue11

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, History, reading

 

Last episode of SBS’s “First Australians” and a must see anthology

Last night The First Australians dealt with Mabo. I will confine myself to a positive note, having already blogged this very significant contribution to understanding the past of all of us in Australia. I thought I knew this episode’s material rather well, having read much about it at the time, but there is always something to learn. Last night I learned a great deal more about the particular culture Mabo belonged to, and I learned a great deal more about the man. All honour too to those elements of the Catholic Church that played such a vital role at that time, and continue to do so.

Nice to see that crowd of Indigenous Australians in Sydney in 1988 when many thousands from all over Australia descended on the city for the Bicentennial. I was in that crowd.

wb

a memory of 1988

bookcover-sml An ideal companion to The First Australians is the recently published Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, with a preface by novelist Nicholas Jose. Check the link, as the site offers many extras.

A groundbreaking collection of work from some of the great Australian Aboriginal writers, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature offers a rich panorama of over 200 years of Aboriginal culture, history and life.

‘This volume is extremely significant from an Indigenous cultural perspective, containing many works that afford the reader a treasured insight into the Indigenous cultural world of Australia.’  From the foreword by Mick Dodson

The cover picture is by Michael Riley, whose art I celebrated in August: Michael Riley: sights unseen.

In the preface Nicholas Jose writes:

This transformative survey of Aboriginal writing presents the stories and patterns of Australian culture and societies in new ways, foregrounding and celebrating Indigenous experience and expression. It introduces powerful and creative individual voices as it also reveals a history of struggle, suffering and strength. No doubt there are gaps and limitations. There are always more voices to be heard and other stories to be told. Yet in their gathering of literature the editors show that Aboriginal authors have created some of the best, most distinctive and most significant writing to come from this country.

That may seem hyperbolic, but to read this anthology is to be convinced of the truth of that, and to be encouraged that there is more to come.

I was taken with a final statement from the late Eddie Mabo, as reported in last night’s First Australians: the momentous events of the Mabo era not only set free Indigenous Australia, but also non-Indigenous Australia, because after that none of us ever again would be living a lie about who we are. That, I suspect, is the true spirit of reconciliation. Despite all the ups and downs of the last twenty years, despite all the problems that remain, that is, I believe, where we find ourselves and where we may find solutions for all of us.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, Best read of 2008, challenge, generational change, History, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, reading, Reconciliation, Top read

 

One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”

abstinence_teacher_jacket I borrowed Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (NY St Martin’s Press 2007) on spec from Surry Hills Library and have found it a delight, but more than that – aside from perhaps being a bit didactic. It is comedy of manners 21st century suburban US style rather than satire. It isn’t cruel enough to be satire. (I have in mind there, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s classic The Loved One, which really is rather bitter and supercilious, though laugh-out-loud funny.) There are very funny moments in The Abstinence Teacher, but the humour is more often wry and kindly. Even so, the novel exposes utterly the mindlessness that is fundamentalist moral thinking, especially but not only in the area of sexuality. It is also quite a frightening expose of the curriculum programs proposed by the Religious Right, showing that to regard such programs as “education” is a travesty.

On his own site Tom Perrotta describes the novel:

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It’s got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It’s the kind of place where parents are involved in their children’s lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth’s younger daughter’s soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn’t approve of Ruth’s style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn’t applaud The Tabernacle’s mission to take its message outside its doors.

Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value.

The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.

Yes there are soccer moms (and dads), and a wonderfully drawn gay couple… I would seriously suggest Christians read this one; they may think again afterwards – at least I hope so. The book just may prove subversive in the benign way good literature often is. If you are not a religious person you will enjoy it anyway, so long as you don’t mind a book that is really quite suburban, but better and more believable than soap opera; many of your fears about the Religious Right in America will be confirmed as you read, but you may find yourself empathising more with people you might not otherwise consider… That can’t be bad.

This is a very wise, and often funny, novel.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, Christianity, culture wars, education, faith, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, pluralism, reading, religion, right wing politics, Top read, USA

 

Unheroic, super-intelligent gay fiction: Samuel R Delany’s "Dark Reflections"

delany You have to hand it to a writer who can so deflate his own self-importance that he has The Poet Arnold Hawley, black and over 65 and over-weight and the central character in this novel, lament that publishers foisted on him the “vomitous” title Dark Reflections for a slim volume of verse when he himself had called it Pretences. Unheroic but not an anti-hero, Hawley sees through so much of the pretension that is the New York literary world, and even turns his jaded yet innocent eye on the shifting political correctnesses of his times. He wonders when and exactly how Negro became “black” and then “Black”. He wonders about “gay liberation”.

In ’88, a year after he won the Alfred Proctor Prize in Poetry, three days beyond June’s Gay Pride Day, Arnold was walking through the West Village. Somehow, Arnold reflected, the closet had just… dissolved around him. Nearly twenty years before, in the summer of ’69, Arnold, yes, had read about the riots that had begun in his onetime stomping grounds, the Stonewall Inn. They occurred over on the other side of the Village, where no one Arnold actually knew lived. He had assumed they were as unimportant as any such city disturbance. But he kept finding more articles about them. Then more. His conviction was that this “Gay Liberation” business, which so clearly was just an imitation of “Women’s Liberation”, itself only a spin-off of civil rights, had to be a social aberration that would dissolve when people grew tired of it.

But it hadn’t.

Arnold was always vaguely bewildered as to why…

We should beware of taking the Prufrockian Arnold as the author’s voice, of course, even if the usual distinctions of fiction are quite often blurred in Dark Reflections.

We are reminded of the fact that in 1950 the great American poet Wallace Stevens said of African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks at a Pulitzer banquet: “Who let the coon in?”….

If such a novel as Dark Reflections had appeared in the Australian literary scene we would have heard of it over and over again as heralding a great step forward in Australian literature — or so I suspect. Certainly among those in the USA and elsewhere familiar with Samuel R Delany’s work, Dark Reflections attracted its share of attention, as it should. It is a marvellous novel. I was not familiar with Delany’s work, partly because much of it is in the fantasy/science fiction genre, which I rarely read.

I commend Dark Reflections to you.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, reading, Top read, USA, writers

 

Bigotry is not confined to the religious or the right wing

AV has made a kind and much appreciated allusion to this blog’s recent travails. However, when he attributes the event to right-wing authoritarianism he is not entirely correct; certainly an authoritarian cast of mind and an antidemocratic spirit are involved. However, the source of the attack was not necessarily motivated by conventional right-wing politics, and certainly not by religion. On the other hand, excessive certainty and intolerance of criticism or difference were part of the picture. In those respects, the spirit of the attack was indeed, as AV notes, antidemocratic.

I can say that it is fairly certain where the attack came from, and what motivated it — the attacker’s problem, that, not mine. The attacker as good as left DNA all over the scene of the crime. In attacking me he also attacked WordPress.com, and I am sure they are not taking it kindly. They are also far more expert in these matters than either the attacker or I. It did amuse me to witness a log file from the time of these events which included a suggestion, obviously emanating from WordPress, that the hacker apply for a job with AutoMattic — the company behind WordPress. I take it that was ironic…

That brings me to two articles and a book which, it seems to me, are the antithesis of bigotry, whether that is religious or antireligious bigotry. I am not saying I agree with them, but I do say they are worth reading. The book is one of my Best Reads of 2008.

My theism is of the most modest kind and would deeply offend fundamentalists. I am thus a great admirer of the former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, “a man who, for many conservative Christians, has stretched the definition of liberal theology past breaking point, while remaining for many non-believers the most humane and persuasive apologist for faith.” That comes from a review just published in New Statesman: Doubting Dawkins. Rather than quoting it further, I will simply commend it to your consideration. Holloway’s emphasis on the primacy of compassion does appeal to me.

The second article is from the USA and does raise some interesting questions: Jonathan Haidt, What Makes People Vote Republican? from Edge.org. Again, while not necessarily endorsing all that Haidt says, I do commend it as worth consideration.

…This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like “it’s wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick” or “it’s wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet.” These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume’s dictum that reason is “the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel’s description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. (“Your dog is family, and you just don’t eat family.”) From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder’s ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?…

The book is John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now (Harper San Francisco 2007). You may read the Preface on that second link.

For a very long time I have been pondering the texts and wandering the ruins of the Roman Empire. Initially, I did so as a biblical scholar doing research for books I was writing on the historical reconstruction of earliest Christianity from The Historical Jesus in 1991, through The Birth of Christianity in 1998, to In Search of Paul, co-authored with the archaeologist Jonathan Reed of the University of LaVerne, in 2004. I presume those three books as prelude and preparation for this book on God and Empire.

I have always thought of the historical Jesus as a homeland Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. I have always thought of the historical Paul as a diaspora Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. For me, then, within Judaism within the Roman Empire has always been the absolutely necessary matrix rather than the annoyingly unnecessary background for any discussion of earliest Christianity. You can see that three-layer matrix, for example, in the sub-titles to the first and last books above. For the historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, emphasizes Rome,  Judaism, and Jew.   For the historical Paul, How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, emphasizes Jew, Rome, and Judaism. Whether you start or end with the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire is always there.

But there is now a further reason for studying the textual and archaeological history of the Roman Empire. Here is that newer but now accompanying reason. I have been hearing recently two rather insistent claims from across the spectrum of our religio-political life. The first one claims that America is now and/or was always an empire. That, in fact, the virus of imperialism came—like so many other ones—on those first ships from Europe. The second and subsidiary one claims that we are in fact Nova Roma, the New Roman Empire, Rome on the Potomac…

— from the Preface

Certainly the opening chapter is a brilliant exposition of the nature of Rome under the Julio-Claudians, a subject I have studied both at University, and as a sometime Ancient History teacher. Many of the remarks about contemporary America are also apposite. It is also good to find a very learned man who writes like a human!

That said, I am not entirely convinced by all that Crossan says. Yes, he does get up the noses of fundamentalists — and as far as I am concerned that is a big plus. (A Muslim Crossan — and I am sure this is possible and may even exist — would be highly desirable.) I also have to say that the agnostic side of my humble theism is offended by the unspoken assumption that the Mediterranean really is the centre of the world, as the Roman conceit of Medi + Terranean implies. A similar conceit made China, about which Europe and Palestine in the first century knew little and cared less, call itself Zhong Guo or Middle Kingdom. In all our historical and religious considerations, we need above all in the 21st century to take that fact on board. It is an uncomfortable consideration. It does not impact one way or another on our ideas about the existence of God, whatever that word actually means; but it does impact on our views about what God is alleged to have said or done. Inevitably, I would have thought.

TRIVIAL FOOTNOTE

My traditional “Saturday Stats” will appear on Blogspot.

 

The Sourcebooks Shakespeare

These are just brilliant, though I admit I am judging from just two — Othello and Macbeth — which (glad to say as a pensioner, sad to say from the publisher’s viewpoint) I bought last week at the remainder shop at the end of the Devonshire Street tunnel at Sydney’s Central Station. I have been going through Othello with a student in the past few weeks, and that motivated the purchase. I had no idea whether it would be worth the $9.95, but it emphatically was. 🙂

There is a website too: THE SOURCEBOOKS SHAKESPEARE. Read all about them there, and even hear some of the CDs that accompany them.

sourcebooks

On Othello, for example, you get speeches and extracts, sometimes in pairs so you can compare interpretations. You may contrast Janet Suzman’s amazing 1987 South African production starring John Kani (left below) with the historic Paul Robeson (right below) interpretation from the 1940s. Even more amazing, there is F Scott Fitzgerald doing a speech from Act I Scene 3, and if that isn’t amazing enough, a recording of Edwin Booth, the brother of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, performing the role in 1890! The CD is beautifully narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi. On top of that are essays on aspects of the play, and a very user-friendly complete edition. Just great!

othello1 robeson

Both images are links…

This post is also on English/ESL.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2008 in Best read of 2008, education, English studies, Shakespeare

 

But seriously…

28 But seriously… is the WordPress.com blog of Rich Merritt — seen on the right in 1994. It’s a great blog in its own right and will shortly appear on my blog roll. See also Rich Merritt Web site.

I am reading Rich’s Code of Conduct at the moment.

In Code of Conduct, former U.S. Marine Rich Merritt, explores the secret double lives of Don, Eddie, Karl and Patrick, all currently serving as closeted military men. Agent Jay of the Naval Investigative Service struggles with his past as he follows his own personal vendetta against homosexuality. As hope of President Bill Clinton’s promise to relieve the ban on gays in the military flourishes, Jay attempts to ruin the careers of our heroes. Action-packed, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat, while at the same time beautifully illustrating the passion and love that gay servicemen and women can have for each other.

A fast read, Merritt’s novel explores a fascinating section of the LGBTI community through his and others’ experiences in the military. Although the dialogue reads rather unrealistically, the novel was thoroughly enjoyable…

That last criticism is true at times; it is not the world’s greatest novel. Also, I would that it began differently, without quite so much military-speak and boys’ own adventure stuff so early. That aside, this is a passionate novel on several levels. It could have been even better if it had been written for outsiders rather more than it is. It would, I think, make an excellent movie though, so long as it was a movie-maker with the right political as well as artistic nous.

Of all the great no-brainers, the whole “gays in the military” controversy has to be close to top of the list. Of course there are gays in the military, in the USA, in Australia — I know a few of them and once passed a pleasant Anzac Day in a Sydney gay bar with representatives serving or previous from all branches of the Australian military — and, presumably, everywhere else. At the time the events in the novel take place, the US was still adopting an Iranian view of the matter; you will recall the current Iranian leader’s views that there were no gays in Iran, but if there were they would be — and are — executed.

One thing it confirms in spades: US conservatives — and there are of course gay US conservatives too, oddly enough — can be totally revolting and very dangerous — especially conservatives with decided views rooted in a literal Bibliolatry. Given the current presidential race the novel makes a timely read.

Rich Merritt: When I was a kid I just always imagined, given the fundamentalist nature I had, I would be a youth pastor at a church. Maybe a teacher at the school I was at Bob Jones University. Once I was in the Marines, I was off, and my life was a whirlwind… I’ve just tried to enjoy it along the way.

How much of Code of Conduct is based on personal experiences?

RM: I would say at least half of it is based on my own personal experience, but I would take my personal experience and say, “What if it had gone differently? “What if there was a different factor there?”

Which character or characters do you relate to or identify with the most?

RM: We all have kind of shadow self, and if you’re a follower of Karl Jung, the antagonist, Jay, is my shadow self. In my early Marine Corps time, I feared that I would become him.

How heartbroken were you when former President Bill Clinton went back on his word and didn’t repeal the ban on homosexuality in the military?

RM: It was devastating. There was a brief moment of hope in January 1993. I had just come out of the closet myself. When that brief moment of hope was extinguished… I know that we’re going to be victorious, but it’s going to take a lot of work.

What do you think would happen were gays and lesbians allowed to openly serve in the military?

RM: Absolutely nothing. It would be such a non-issue that people would barely register it as a blip on the radar screen. People always talk about what you do about the barracks. The thing is… so many people are going to come out; people will realize that someone is your roommate and also gay.  The counter argument that they always give… we shouldn’t let what happened in France happen to our country. My counter-counter argument is ‘Why not?’

It’s quite a journey, isn’t it? Code of Conduct is certainly a book to be admired, and I commend Rich’s blog to you.

As noted in the novel, in the future — one sincerely hopes — rabid homophobes will be regarded with the same contempt with which we now regard defenders of racism or slavery. In my view it is a test of civilisation…

Quite a different novel reflecting in some ways, dare I say, a greater civilisation is Reginald Hill, A Cure for All Diseases (Harper Collins 2008). A tribute to Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon, Hill’s novel is set in a Yorkshire town named Sandytown. If your only acquaintance with Dalziel and Pascoe is the TV version, you really need to try the books. They are streets ahead of the TV in wit and depth of reference. This is one very clever book. It also reinvents the epistolary novel for the 21st century. I rate it a Best Read of 2008.

See also A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES, Reginald Hill.

 

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River of Heaven by Lee Martin – Random House 2008 — and Waleed Aly on Andrew Denton last night

leemartin River of Heaven by Lee Martin reminded me somewhat of the movie Stand By Me, (above) and no harm in that as it is one of my favourite movies.

On an April evening in 1955, Dewey died on the railroad tracks outside Mt. Gilead, Illinois, and the mystery of his death still confounds the people of this small town.

River of Heaven begins some fifty years later and centers on the story of Dewey’s boyhood friend Sam Brady, whose solitary adult life is much formed by what really went on in the days leading up to that evening at the tracks. It’s a story he’d do anything to keep from telling, but when his brother, Cal, returns to Mt. Gilead after decades of self-exile, it threatens to come to the surface.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Bright Forever, Lee Martin masterfully conveys, with a voice that is at once distinct and lyrical, one man’s struggle to come to terms with the outcome of his life. Powerful and captivating, River of Heaven is about the high cost of living a lie, the chains that bind us to our past, and the obligations we have to those we love.

That is from the publisher’s blurb, but I wouldn’t quarrel with it. The novel is beautifully written. Given that the writer is not, so far as I can see, himself a gay man, his empathy with the central character, a 65-years-old who is closeted by social setting and past events, is utterly commendable. This is a book that just may shift a few out of their homophobia, should they be part of that sad but, one hopes, dying social phenomenon. Well, perhaps not in some cases.

In last night’s brilliant interview on Enough Rope Waleed Aly had this to say on another matter — but it fits:

ANDREW DENTON: Can logic speak to prejudice?

WALEED ALY: … it depends on the brand of prejudice …

ANDREW DENTON: Well, that that brand for instance.

WALEED ALY: No. That’s you’re not going to dismantle that through logic. There’s what is there’s a famous saying, you can’t reason a person out of a position they didn’t arrive at through reason, and I think that’s a good example of that. that’s a certain there’s a there’s an emotional rage to that.

You really must read that interview, really!

Back to my current novel. See:

lhb

That is a music blog, but the post linked to the banner is about River of Heaven — and music; Lee Martin wrote the post.

The first time Largehearted Boy invited me to write liner notes for one of my books it was for my novel, The Bright Forever. At the time, no one knew that the book would end up being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction or that I would spend some wonderful afternoons and evenings chatting with book clubs. Inevitably, during those chats, someone mentions the fact that so many songs are referenced in that novel. This happens in all my work, most recently in my new novel, River of Heaven, a story told from the first-person point of view of Sam Brady, a sixty-five-year-old man, living with a secret in the small town of Mt. Gilead, Illinois. “You have to know the rest of my story,” he says at the end of Chapter 1, “the part I can’t yet bring myself to say. A story of a boy I knew a long time ago and a brother I loved and then lost.” With that, he sets into motion this tale of the death of a boyhood friend and what it brought to Sam’s life, particularly his estrangement from his brother, Cal. River of Heaven is Sam’s confession, and along the way, a number of songs underscore his involvement in a past wrong and his present-day journey toward redemption…

A Top Read of 2008.

And back to Waleed Aly for a moment. This so resonated with my own Teenage Calvinism back around the time George Monbiot (previous entry) was born:

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Posted by on August 12, 2008 in America, Australia, Australia and Australian, Best read of 2008, book reviews, faith, Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, humanity, Islam, pluralism, reading, religion, Top read, TV, writers

 

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The spell of the Games masks the critical questions | theage.com.au | and a book review

Yes, I like so many at one level sat back and enjoyed the spectacle of the Beijing Opening Ceremony, as indeed one might. Even if there was a bit of high tech trickery with those 29 marching feet — we saw a preprepared digital version of the first 28 apparently — it was worth watching. However, in the cold light of Tuesday in Surry Hills articles like The spell of the Games masks the critical questions deserve to be read. Will such spectacular waste ever happen again?

THE Olympics have a strange power. While the Games are being played, much of the world appears spellbound, never more so than at the start of these Games. China’s Olympics are as much about announcing China’s place in the world as they are about fit young people running, swimming and jumping. Its opening ceremony was an astonishing display of no-expense-spared technical precision and choreography, paying homage to China’s history and proclaiming a bright future. It was watched by billions of television viewers, (almost 6 million in Australia) and cost tens of millions of dollars to produce.

Most of us are happy to sit back and enjoy it, basking in the success of Australian athletes and appreciating the performances of international stars. But, at the risk of being boring while Olympic fever is upon us: is this all a bit much? Was there not a sense during the spectacle that one of its drivers was an insistence this ceremony, and these Games, must be better, more expensive, more awe-inspiring than any before? Will London, which hosts the Games in 2012, now have to go one better or feel like a loser? Is this, really, what the Olympic movement is about?

The question of cost is being asked in China, although only by the brave. Bao Tong, a former senior Communist Party official who was jailed for seven years for his support of the Tiananmen Square student protesters and who has been under house arrest since his release, asked whether China could afford the Games. “There are at least 200 million people in China who still earn less than $US1 a day and you (the Government) are splurging all that money and mobilising everyone to hold a fancy Olympics,” he told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post

For “tens of millions” read “billions” — whether US or UK usage is followed…

Then too see The destruction of old Beijing: Going, gone from The Economist.

IN A few short years China’s Communists have used the excuse of the Olympic games to level the medieval city built by the great Ming emperor, Yongle. Beijing was long Asia’s ecumenical Rome, but its 2,500 or so religious sites are now reduced to a few dozen temples mainly for tourist consumption. The Communists have also destroyed Beijing’s social fabric, cutting through rich threads of community habit, shared memory and (what always infuriated them) subversive resistance to the madder impulses of higher authority. In different ways, these three books are superb guides to a Beijing that heart-wrenchingly is no more.

 The way it was (pic on right)

Jasper Becker highlights the breathtaking cynicism of this orgy of destruction; even the Cultural Relics Bureau formed a property-development company to pull down buildings in its charge. Yongle had used 200,000 convicts and press-ganged peasants for his project. Today a peasant-labour force of 1.3m has worked on 7,000-odd giant construction sites that have killed, in a hushed-up way, between 2,000 and 3,000 migrant workers a year. As for the city’s residents, Beijing’s average life expectancy is now well below the national average, thanks to smog and urban stress. So much for the promised clean, green “People’s Olympics”…

Which by a rather indirect route brings me to my first book review today: George Monbiot, Heat (Penguin pb edition 2007). As that reviewer says:

You can’t fault him for ambition…

The ultimate irony of Heat is that his prescription is probably the only one that can save this planet from the scourge of global warming, but that, as simple, direct and painless as it is, this prescription has about the same likelihood of actually coming about as a snowball’s chance in hell. Or, perhaps I should say, a snowball’s chance on Earth after Monbiot’s brave, well-researched, and ingenious ideas have been forgotten.

Young George really is a bright chap — and I say young George as he was three years old when I began my teaching career, which makes me feel what I am, a living fossil!

“I am not writing this book to confirm what you believe is true… As always, I seem destined to offend everyone.”

Another reviewer quotes that honest and provocative remark from Monbiot’s book and draws our attention to the website that accompanies the book. I am about to add that to the relevant box in the side bar here!

One of the great advantages of Heat is Chapter 2: “The Denial Industry”. It is devastating and thoroughly documented too. It should be read by everyone, really! What you then make of Monbiot’s proposals — and he is steadfastly “can do” I have to say — I will leave to you. It is rather beyond, to say the least, what is currently on the Rudd government’s agenda.

To get a taste of Chapter 2 look at Monbiot on the obviously rather dopey Melanie Phillips, as seen on the book’s website in Bluffers Corner. Melanie, Miranda — yes, the cap fits…

Go too to Monbiot.com:

Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it.
Tell them something new and they will hate you for it.

Better than a cold shower. And we had better get used to them too… If we’re lucky.

 

Believe Me, It’s Torture: Politics & Power: Hitchens

I couldn’t not blog Believe Me, It’s Torture: Politics & Power: vanityfair.com, even if I am not always a great fan of Christopher Hitchens — because this essay in which he describes being “waterboarded” surely must rank with George Orwell’s “A Hanging” as reportage we all need to be exposed to if we are not to lose our moral compasses completely.

Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions. But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict.

Exploring this narrow but deep distinction, on a gorgeous day last May I found myself deep in the hill country of western North Carolina, preparing to be surprised by a team of extremely hardened veterans who had confronted their country’s enemies in highly arduous terrain all over the world. They knew about everything from unarmed combat to enhanced interrogation and, in exchange for anonymity, were going to show me as nearly as possible what real waterboarding might be like…

And…

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Posted by on July 22, 2008 in America, awful warnings, Best read of 2008, challenge, human rights, humanity, right wing politics, terrorism, USA