Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

With its long but searingly memorable title, I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. I wish I had read it before I went to Burundi (Rwanda's sister country), but it's valuable enough at this late date. Unfortunately it's not as deep an exploration of the problem as it could be. Gourevitch is insightful and hits the right level of description in his narrative, so the problem isn't the writing. The problem is the problem itself, and a few shades of issues with trust and blame: Gourevitch takes people at their word and events at their appearance just a little too often. He actually compares Paul Kagame to Abraham Lincoln at one point, which does not age well considering that now, twenty years later, Kagame is one of the many "President-for-Life" leaders in East Africa, and is definitely on the oppressive end of even that spectrum. Gourevitch veers too much toward demonizing Hutus and lionizing Tutsis. Considering that the fault for the events of the mid-90s clearly lies with the Hutu Power movement (and considering he was writing then), I understand why he'd do that, but again, it doesn't age well into the tangle of 2018 East African politics. I found this review by Rene Lemarchand to be shorter, more confusing, but also closer to the truth. Rwanda and Burundi are textbook cases of the singularly human tendency to cycle and amplify vengeance, and I'm frustrated with my own attitude that takes as a victory the mere fact that genocide hasn't happened on a large scale in two decades. Gourevitch touches on the human soul just a bit at the end of the book, and again, I don't blame him for not having an answer. This book is a window into the tangle of hate, power, and need, and that is service enough. But if there is an answer, it lies in costly forgiveness and in the choice to pour out your own life rather than cling to your own vision of justice. It's a mess. Who will rescue us from this world of death?

Book Review: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz

Here a sociologist and feminist deconstructs why so many people are so obsessed with romantic love, and so depressed and insecure when disappointment ensues. Illouz contrasts the social structure of Jane Austen with Internet forum talk of today (she has a gift for zeroing in on telling online snippets and a soft spot for the New York Times's Modern Love column). She concludes that, for all we've gained, we've lost a lot as well. What's particularly interesting to me is how Illouz's conclusions line up with those of other critics of modernity who start from very different points. It seems like a case of convergent evolution to me. Illouz concludes that modern structures hurt women more than men and create incentives for men to hold back from commitment. Her case is rooted in biology (but don't worry, not in a hand-waving ev-psych way). She's right that, at some point, our most important personal question has changed from Rene Decartes's "Do I exist?" to Bridget Jones's "Will anybody love me?". Illouz suggests that an ethical reformation will protect women from this bruising, technocratic economy of radical choice. The closest parallel I can come up with is another book that impacted me deeply with its wide-ranging secular critique of modernity: David Bosworth's The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America. When all these different authors from all these different vantage points come together in a critique of libertarian reductionism and modern malaise, I'm left asking the authors, well, we're all here. Now what? I have some ideas if anyone's interested.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? by Susannah Gibson

This is a book about what happened when science discovered the creatures inbetween the kingdoms of life, and inbetween life and death: polyps, Venus flytraps, and fossils. It's really about fitting nature with words, and what happens when the words are old wineskins that cannot contain new wine. Yet the author's focus is on nature, not on the human minds observing nature, which are far more interesting. The human-mind debates about God's action and nature of creation are so simplified as to almost evaporate away. I enjoyed the descriptions of the experiments the scientists did, but the author takes an Epicurean view of "what it all means"* as such a foregone conclusion that the history ends up as static as the old fossils described in Chapter 4. Just as the old experiments challenged the old scientists, the new experiments of the unity underlying the different kingdoms should challenge us in the opposite direction: polyps, Venus flytraps, and fossils all use essentially the same amino acids, sugars, and genetic code. That means something. But this book is all description and no challenge or extension. It assumes an opposition between God and matter that isn't necessary, and then assumes because we know a lot about matter that we have no need for God. That's fine for Laplace but I'd like to think about what it means for us today. It means so much more than this book gives it a chance to mean.

*Greenblatt's The Swerve is quoted admirably. See my review of that book for what I think of that!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Book Review: The Girard Reader edited by James G. Williams


I finally decided to read Rene Girard, and all I can fit into a one paragraph review are statements, so let’s just make them bullet points:

n  Girard thinks like Darwin. I don’t mean that he’s as important a thinker as Darwin was, but that he has a simple but effective mechanism that may tie the social level together the same way Darwin’s mechanism tied together biology. Girard’s scapegoat mechanism functions like Darwin’s variation + selection. (One could argue both are Malthusian.)

n  It’s highly significant that Girard came to his Catholic faith through his academic work. It’s hard to find these stories, but it shouldn’t be. They’re surprisingly common.

n  This particular selection answered most of my questions. I was curious about the implications for the creation of humans and also how this fits with scripture. I would have liked a little more on the former is all, but otherwise this Reader is remarkably balanced. The sections on literature and Freud/Nietzsche were less relevant but the inclusion of the interview at the end is perfect – in fact, I read it first and recommend you do the same.

I’m still digesting Girard but I only get rocked by a new (to me) thinker about once per year, and this is Girard’s year. You’ll hear more about Girard in my future scribblings, of that I’m sure.

Book Review: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin


I had put off reading this, because if there’s one thing I didn’t necessarily want to read from Helprin, it was a war novel. Not because it wouldn’t be well written – because it would be too well-written, or at least too affecting. Helpin specializes in intense, over-the-top decriptions, lush to the point of irrationality, but always beautiful even in their ugliness. Helprin’s great at writing chases, in which I feel as if I’m running with his characters, but when he writes about fights, I feel as if I’m the one being hit. I just didn’t want to read a whole novel like that. I was wrong.

A Solider of the Great War is about World War I, and takes its structure from Dante’s Inferno, so here we have Mark Helprin describing the events that traumatized J.R.R. Tolkien (for example) for his entire life. Yet, Helprin is Helprin, so there’s more beauty than horror (and even beauty in the horror). Only one short section takes place in the dead marsh-- I mean, the trenches. Around that you visit Sicily, Venice, the Alps, and again and again, Rome herself, which comes alive almost as much as New York City in Winter’s Tale (almost!). By the end it all comes together, so that this may have the best overall structure of Helprin’s “Dante trilogy.”

As in all of Helprin’s books, he is second to none at describing how men fall in love. For that alone he deserves to be read. An important subtheme is believing in God, or rather, how believing in God is not really the right term, since faith and hope are far more than assenting to propositions, it’s immersing yourself in the gift of God’s world. And again, as with all Helprin’s work, there are flaws. But I can’t help it, I love this book. Right now it’s my third favorite Helprin behind Winter’s Tale and the Kingdom Far and Clear trilogy. I’ve convinced myself it’s gotta get five stars. So sue me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book Review: Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin

It's rare that when finishing one book I immediately turn back to that same author for more, but I'm doing it in this case: my next book is Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War. I want to get more of Helprin's prose in my head. But the reason I'm breaking my own rule and getting more of the same author is that I found Digital Barbarism to be unsatisfying on a few levels. Helprin's argument for copyright extension works beautifully for the type of work he does: literature to last the ages. He makes a compelling and fascinating argument on those grounds. However, he's so busy fulminating that he only occasionally sets his argument in the context that it comes from. This is no doubt by design, because he's writing literature to last the ages, right? But the context it comes from is a society that has lost the distinction between software and literature, and between background music and Wagnerian opera. Helprin's arguments about the rights of the sole creator fall apart when, as with software or a movie, there is no sole creator. Much of the friction between him and his online adversaries can be attributed to this category mistake. The problem is that the people he's arguing with would never read one of his books in the first place, so the argument is destined to fester. Argument aside, like everything Helprin writes, this is a jewel box of words, and so it's worth it just to hold them up to the light and admire them. Just make sure you pay for them. Unless you got this from a library, like, uh, I did.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Data Talks for A World from Dust

I wrote A World from Dust for my physical chemistry students, and since its publication I've used it in class. The students read three chapters of AWfD and we work through two chapters of Atkins -- and I didn't design it this way, but the chapters actually work well together, in order. The order of topics in physical chemistry texts matches the order of topics in the natural history of the universe. Who knew?

So, to highlight the connections and to bring in recent peer-reviewed research papers, I schedule a "Data Talk" after each unit. I recorded those this quarter and posted them on YouTube, so to introduce people to what a "Data Talk" is and how it works, I recorded this little video. Here's a link to the intro video and the rest of the Data Talks in a YouTube playlist: