Thursday, 13 October 2016

Selected Reading Reviews: 2015-16



A friend mentioned the use of vanity to motivate himself to read. The idea being that he regularly posts a list of books he has read, with short reviews accompanying them, in order to impress the internet and incentivise reading. It seems a perfectly good idea, so I thought I'd copy it. Fortunately I have been keeping a list of the books I have read, along with mini-reviews, for just over two years  now. Accordingly this post is an assortment of reviews for some of the good, bad and ugly books that I have read over the last two years. So, in no particular order...


Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

A ground-breaking book in so far as it detailed the world of cheffing in juxtaposition to that of fine dining. Very honest but not entirely un-pretentious. Bourdain clearly revels in his mastery of the nomenclature of cooking and takes a childlike glee in revealing the seedy, crude and bleakly comical world of professional cookery to his presumably upper-middle-class clientele. It's as funny as it is insightful and for anyone wondering, as an ex-cook, I can confirm that it is mostly true.


Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Cutting and personal to the point of being cryptographic: such is modern verse libre. Lots of wonderful images and lovely mouth sounds: "the yew's black fingers wag" and "fat, gold watch". Initially intimidating on account of its obscurity but by the end I salvaged a few nuggets of poetic black gold.


One Hundred Years of Protest by Christopher Catherwood

A warning against what will happen to those who write about contentious subjects while trying not to upset anyone: in this case Catherwood ends up comparing Palestinians throwing rocks to rifle-fire from professional soldiers. This is done purely so that the author can preach the refrain "senseless violence on both sides".
Gandhi here is portrayed as an anti-racist (he wasn't) and a hard-line pacifist (again, nope) and the psychology of militant activism is boiled down to an expression of unreasonable outrage - despite the author holding Nelson Mandela (the leader of a terrorist organisation) in high regard. 


 

Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman

Interesting, accessible but about twice as long as it needs to be. Fonts influence us: they communicate as well as construct content and they have evolved alongside advances in culture and printing. I fully support Hyndman's goal in getting people to think about font more and her book makes for an adequate introduction to the subject - it's just a shame that this book isn't much more.  


 

Liberalism: A Counter History by Domenico Losurdo

The freedoms of the liberal world were hard won; universal suffrage and the abolishment of slavery were both contentious issues among the architects of the modern world. Losurdo's counter history reminds us of the theoretic possibility that was liberal freedom as the reserve of the privileged. Focusing primarily on the Atlantic slave trade, and also touching on the labour struggles of the developed west, Losurdo examines the philosophic acrobatics that were required to champion freedom during a time of great subjugation.  
The books thesis is rooted in an examination of the history of political struggle in early liberal society, its rhetoric and emergent conceptions of freedom. Of particular note is the idea that we could have freedom without equality and the small triumph of egalitarian struggle in helping correct that mistake.



The Philosophical Life by James Miller

The blurb of this book argues that it "confirms the continuing relevance of philosophy today". I have always been sceptical of such projects; especially when the philosophers the book points to are no more recent than Nietzsche. It would be much more prudent to prove the relevance of philosophy by pointing to the myriad of fascinating works published in recent years.
Perhaps what is meant by proving the relevance of philosophy, is its defence of philosophy as self-help - ala Alain de Botton. This is another project for which I have limited sympathy. Philosophy hasn't really operated with spiritual goals in mind for quite some time and I'm not entirely convinced that that is a problem. Even if enlightenment and happiness was the goal of philosophy I'm not sure this collection of mini-biographies makes a good case for the discipline. Seneca and Socrates were both murdered; Aristotle and Plato were widely ignored by the people they sought to tutor and Nietzsche and Kant died as pair of mad, tormented bastards. 
The book is still readable and informative, even if it doesn't achieve what it set out to do. Though there is one remark in the books conclusion worth expounding on: philosophers may face despair and madness ahead of them but they reason nonetheless. And we are all philosophers, by the very dint of being capable of thought.


 

4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane

A play that utilises an almost vers libre monologue to flit between moments of psychotic dread and sparkling gallows humour. Clearly written from a very honest emotional place, the clich├ęs of mental health are steam-rolled into oblivion by Kane's candid and confused narrator. Intense, raw - must read again.


Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Ranciere

Ranciere explores the tensions of a secular republic and presents an understanding of democratic struggle as an expansion of public space in the face of technocratic elites. Modern political leaders must ape the values of democracy while simultaneously attempting to keep the populist masses at bay.
French, continental and as poorly written as it sounds. Like much of the post-modern canon it's 5% good ideas couched in post-modern verbage; an insightful analysis buried under a landslide of badly composed sentences with too many indexicals, needless ambiguity and a weird fetish for turning adjectives into proper nouns. Left me in many places feeling "the confused" and had me re-reading many passages two or three times over.


 

The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Anderson 

 Absurdly amoral fairytales seems to be HCA's thing. The Tinder Box is about a soldier who murders an old woman to steal her magic Tinder Box which gives him command of three magic dogs who help him commit regicide and marry the resulting orphaned princess. There are moments of humour here and there that make me think Hans Christian Anderson had adults in mind while also writing for children: the Deacon visiting the housewife in Little/Big Claus seems to be a wink and a nod towards more adult content.

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