My submissions for the Best Books of 2004 dwell on the lesser-known. I figure that since everybody lists roughly the same books that it might be worth drawing attention to some others. These may not be the best books published in 2004, but they’re certainly great books that deserve more attention:
For the past two years or so there’s been an interesting discussion going on about how to review books. On one side of the divide are Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs and the genre of the polished and witty negative book review that is supposed to be more entertaining than the book itself. There is also a mode of philistinism setting in that involves the rubbishing of challenging books, epitomized by B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto and Jonathan Franzen’s regrettable attack on the late William Gaddis in the New Yorker. The other main development is the philosophy of reading set out by Heidi Julavits in the inaugural issue of The Believer, which attacks the “snarkiness” of much contemporary reviewing, where fatuous savagery and faux-learned ridicule have replaced any serious consideration of authors and ideas. In this spirit, The Believer recently published a long “letter” from Rick Moody defending Nicholson Baker’s novel Checkpoint from a swipe in the New York Times Book Review. The Moody/NYTBR agon brings to mind the old clash between Eggers and the Times dwelt upon at length in this Slate item.
These debates have come home to roost in the form of Charles Taylor’s new Salon.com review of Nick Hornby’s new book, The Polysyllabic Spree, the first title from Believer Books. The book collects Hornby’s hilarious Believer columns over the last year and is a gem. Hornby is one of the funniest writers around, and the idea of his column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” is brilliant insofar as it allows him to write about whatever books he has happened upon, old or new, classic or oddity, rather than reviewing current titles alone.
Taylor has written a weird review of the book for Salon that can be read in its entirety here. It is written in praise of the book but against the mentality of The Believer, which he describes nastily as a kind of literary Up With People. Charles Taylor, who I presume is neither the great Converse sneaker-king nor the Canadian philosopher nor the Liberian war criminal – unless he is a very busy man indeed – argues that “Where [The Believer] deserves credit for bucking a trend that is harming contemporary criticism isn’t in its attitude toward negative reviews but in the freedom it has given Hornby for his column.” His argument is strange because it makes it seem as though Hornby’s accomplishment has nothing to do with The Believer or was acheived in spite of its editorial direction.
He is also referring to the fact that The Believer doesn’t print soley negative book reviews, and asked Hornby not to explicitly name books he hated when he discusses them in his columns. Is this a problem? I happen to know from personal experience that The Believer isn’t in the business of puffery, or producing good reviews of bad books. In fact, the purpose of The Believer’s newish one-page reviews section is to draw attention to literary fiction that isn’t ordinarily picked up by larger book reviews. At any rate, all this wouldn’t be worth going into if it didn’t open up some bigger issues about reviewing. Personally, I don’t mind extremely negative reviews, because sometimes they get me intrigued and upset and stir things up. I had never read Rick Moody, for example, until Dale Peck described him as “the worst writer of his generation” – a clearly false statement since there must be someone Moody’s age writing copy for douche ads. But now I’m going to read Moody. There’s nothing more curiosity-inspiring than attempted censorship or apoplectic castigation, and when somebody at Slate trashes Wes Anderson’s new film The Life Aquatic I get myself to the theatre as fast as I can. There’s another matter, of course, which is that some of the best nonfiction ever written, such as Mark Twain’s “Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” takes the form of negative reviewing.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that negative reviews are a branch of humor writing, and that the best comedy comes at the expense of the powerful, pompous, and pretentious, or what Laurence Sterne called “false gravity” in Tristram Shandy. I would argue that novelists as a rule are not the enemy, and that crushing a first-time novelist or a person trying to express something is a little like pushing a baby stroller down the subway stairs.
On the other hand, a critic’s first duty is honesty, and if there is no way out of an assignment then it does nobody any service to soft-pedal something one has taken a strong dislike to. Snarkiness is the mediocre mind’s second-rate, knee-jerk response to the culture of puffery and hype; in fact they are two sides of the same problem (and feed off one another) rather than true adversaries. My utopian suggestion would be a restoration of the concept of real criticism – independent, honest, passionate, partial, and decently paid – rather than the devolution of book reviewing into a badly-paid arm of publishing PR or the smarmy posing of middling minds who percieve contemporary literature as an endless river of bilge that threatens the sanctity of their precious critical faculties.
Ian Buruma on the effects of Theo Van Gogh’s murder on Dutch society, in the New Yorker:
For van Gogh, the worst crime was to look away. One of his bugbears was the long-standing refusal (since abandoned) of the Dutch press to identify the ethnic origin of criminals, so as not to inflame prejudice. He saw this as a sign of abject cowardice. To show respect for Islam without mentioning the Islamic oppression of women and homosexuals was an act of disgusting hypocrisy. In a free society, he believed, everything should be said openly, and not just said but shouted, as loudly and offensively as possible, until people got the point. It was not enough to call attention to illiberal Muslims; they were to be identified as “goat-fuckers.”
Van Gogh often expressed his admiration for the late Pim Fortuyn, the populist politician, who regularly proclaimed that there was no room for a bigoted religious minority in a liberal society, and that “Holland was full.” Van Gogh called Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002 by a deranged animal-rights activist, “the divine baldie,” partly to annoy the bien-pensant liberals, who were quick to denounce any criticism of minorities as racism. His friend Max Pam thinks that van Gogh’s attitude was mixed with professional rage; like Mohammed Bouyeri, van Gogh had trouble getting state subsidies, not for community centers but for his films. Yet there is no getting around van Gogh’s nasty streak.
Christopher Priest on The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, a comedy of erroneous terms, in The Guardian:
It was, as expected, a long read, comprising a large number of etiologies of diseases, some lurid, some disgusting, some surreal, all invented and diagnosed by a range of writers, from “Rev Michael Moorcock” to “Dr China Miéville”.
Each etiology has the same format: a description of the origin of the disease, then its symptoms and history, and finally its possible treatment or cure. Almost all of them are written in the same sort of style: a deadpan, passive-voice, cod-serious discourse, backed up with pseudo-academic paraphernalia, the joke being the knowing voice of mock seriousness.
From the New York Times:
Dr. Axelrod shared the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists, Dr. Bernard Katz of Britain and Prof. Ulf von Euler of Sweden. Their work was essential to the development of psychiatric drugs and others and led directly to the development of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the class of antidepressants that includes Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.
The Nobel Foundation cited the men “for their discoveries concerning the transmitters in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation.” But Dr. Axelrod’s influence extended far beyond the discoveries related to the prize.
In the 1940’s, even before receiving his doctorate in pharmacology, Dr. Axelrod played a major role in identifying acetaminophen as the pain-relieving chemical in a common headache treatment of the day.
The newly discovered substance was later developed and marketed by Johnson & Johnson under the brand name Tylenol.
From the Christian Science Monitor:
Soon, everything from children’s backpacks to the shoes you buy could be tracked by radio signal.
Nearly unknown a decade ago, a device the size of a pencil tip is beginning to infiltrate every corner and pocket of American life.
This recent technology – called RFID for “radio frequency identification” – is making everything from warehouse inventory to lost-luggage tracking to library checkouts easier, faster, and much more informed.
At the same time, the rush to harness the technology is raising a host of regulatory and other concerns, including the invasion of privacy, personal freedom, and civil rights. Those issues in turn are generating concern by lawmakers for how access to data collected by such methods should be limited and protected.
From The Economist:
In the span of 18 months, Isaac Newton invented calculus, constructed a theory of optics, explained how gravity works and discovered his laws of motion. As a result, 1665 and the early months of 1666 are termed his annus mirabilis. It was a sustained sprint of intellectual achievement that no one thought could ever be equalled. But in a span of a few years just before 1900, it all began to unravel. One phenomenon after another was discovered which could not be explained by the laws of classical physics. The theories of Newton, and of James Clerk Maxwell who followed him in the mid-19th century by crafting a more comprehensive account of electromagnetism, were in trouble.
Then, in 1905, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein found the way forward. In five remarkable papers, he showed that atoms are real (it was still controversial at the time), presented his special theory of relativity, and put quantum theory on its feet. It was a different achievement from Newton’s year, but Einstein’s annus mirabilis was no less remarkable. He did not, like Newton, have to invent entirely new forms of mathematics. However, he had to revise notions of space and time fundamentally. And unlike Newton, who did not publish his results for nearly 20 years, so obsessed was he with secrecy and working out the details, Einstein released his papers one after another, as a fusillade of ideas.
For Einstein, it was just a beginning—he would go on to create the general theory of relativity and to pioneer quantum mechanics. While Newton came up with one system for explaining the world, Einstein thus came up with two.
December 30, 2004
From Newsday [via Preposterous Universe]:
Major earthquakes can change the rate of Earth’s rotation, scientists said yesterday, but it’s not yet clear if the 9.0 quake actually did so – and, if so, by how much.
If the rotation rate was changed, it was by less than three microseconds, said gravity expert Richard Gross of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. A microsecond is one millionth of a second.
“We won’t know for weeks,” said geophysicist Thomas Herring of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The most accurate measurements will take about three weeks to get all of the data processed. So it’s a guess, as of now.”
The Lion Brewery plant in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, has so far produced 120,000 bottles of water for shipment to the affected areas, with Oxfam’s help.
“With so much loss of life, how could you not help?” brewery manager Nausha Raheem said.
“Once we got over the initial shock and realized the gravity of the situation, we decided to do what we could to help. It has been a bit of a logistical effort and has involved all of our staff, but it is desperately needed,” she said, according to Oxfam
The switch-over took place on Monday, the day after the Tsunami smashed into the Sri Lankan coastline, killing more than 27,000 people, according to the latest figures.
I took the picture of the Lion Brewery billboard in Galle in November.
Yesterday, I wrote that trying to understand the mechanics of the disaster is a solace of sorts. Of course, I said it without reflecting on the fact that I’m a convinced atheist and see no value in trying to integrate these things into some eschatology or divine telos. I guess a more common phenomenon is a jump back into a theodicy; even without being prompted by an occassionally assertive rationlist, like myself, believers confront the “why would an all benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being . . .” line of questions.
Martin Kettle raised the issue a few days ago in The Guardian.
“From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?”
(Norman Geras had this post on making meaning in the face of a tragedy shortly afterwards.)
“Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people, now dead, would have been moved to safety.
Let’s get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.”
It’s a sentiment I share, but then I was struck by the reasons Norman Geras offers for his discomfort with Dawkins’ response.
“In an intellectual discussion about the grounds for belief in God, one may legitimately argue, with all the force one can muster, that there are no compelling grounds. On the other hand – and to put this point with particular sharpness by use of an extreme example – I wouldn’t think it morally admirable to give out aggressive statements against religious belief at the funeral of someone from a devout family; or to advise a grief-stricken person against appealing to (their) God for solace.
Now, to be fair about this, in the letter in question Richard Dawkins may be seen merely as contributing to a reasoned discussion about religious faith in the national press. My own discomfort with the form of his concluding sentiments, however, is that the immediate context of that discussion is the vast tragedy that has just unfolded along the coasts of South-East Asia. It’s hard to abstract what he says from the immediacy of that, from the scenes of loss and grief and suffering that are being relayed to us hourly. Against this background ‘getting up off our knees’ and ‘not cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers’ have, to me, a rather brutal ring, insensitive to the complexities and vulnerabilities (final item) of the human condition.”
Thinking more about it, Dawkins’ letter seems to me to be far less clincal than Geras’ read of it suggests. I hear in Dawkins’ letter, especially its beginning, not only a “reasoned discussion about faith” but also some anger and frustration at what he perceives to be the (malevolent) role of religion in the wake of these things. The point can be debated, but I think that frustration and anger at being told that it’s God’s will in response to sin or that it’s a Job-like test of faith is also a very human reaction, born of the immediacy of the loss.
I didn’t have a chance to see Liz Mermin’s documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but by all accounts it was characteristically insightful and beautiful. (Liz’s previous documentary On Sacred Ground, about abortion providers, is amazing, and I recommend it to all.) The Beauty Academy of Kabul is about American beauticians who go to set up beauty schools in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban. Here’s a BBC Four interview with Liz about the film.
“BBC Four: Was it the fact that it was New Yorkers going over to Kabul that attracted you, or the beauty school project itself?
L[iz] M[ermin]: I read a story about the project in the New York Times. The reason it jumped out at me was that at that point, 2002, the news was all so dire from that part of the world. This was such a bizarre human interest story and it seemed like such naive idealism. The idea of a group of well-intentioned Americans popping into Kabul and teaching woman about hair styles seemed irresistible. But when I started talking to them I saw the other side of it, the business development angle, and it seemed like less of a joke.”
December 29, 2004
Marc Weingarten in the New York Times Book Review:
Leslie S. Klinger is not one of those Sherlock Holmes obsessives who feel compelled to actually live as if they were distant relatives of the fictional detective. He doesn’t greet visitors wearing a deerstalker hat and an Inverness cape, and his cheerful contemporary home in Malibu, Calif., is a far cry from the Victorian lodging house at 221B Baker Street where Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. John Watson, lived in London.
But as Holmes himself could attest, first impressions can be deceiving. Step into Mr. Klinger’s home office and you will find the evidence of his abiding passion: Thousands of books about one of the world’s most famous crime busters. This is the raw material for Mr. Klinger’s project “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” a two-volume, 10-pound collection of all 56 Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, complete with Mr. Klinger’s exhaustive footnotes. The collection, published last month by W. W. Norton is being hailed as the definitive exegesis of Holmes and his times.
How much can science and popular culture intertwine? A lot, apparently, at least if some of the floats in this recent Carnaval, the sensual, samba-ridden, sexually ambiguous Brazillian festival before Lent, are an indication.
“[I]n 2003, a talented young carnavalesco (the designer of a carnaval parade; yes that’s a profession in Brazil) named Paulo Barros proposed to one of the less affluent samba schools, the Unidos da Tijuca, a science theme for the February 22, 2004 parade. No one had gone down this road before—typical Carnaval themes are Amazonia, African or Portuguese heritage, sex, the sea, television stars et cetera. Unidos da Tijuca agreed to the plan, and began preparing for ‘The Dream of Creation and the Creation of the Dream: Art and Science in the Age of the Impossible.’
Paulo Barros then approached the science-outreach group, called Casa da Ciência, at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The enthusiastic Casa da Ciência crowd loved the idea, and worked with the samba school for a year to get ready. The results showed, from the words of the theme samba to the costumes.
. . .
The vast majority of Brazilian scientists, even some who usually left town during Carnaval, were supportive of this incredible opportunity for science to interact with popular culture. The United States equivalent might be a science-themed halftime show at the Super Bowl.”