Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Books of 2011- Nos 6-10

6-Unoriginal Genius by Marjorie Perloff,University of Chicago Press. Famed Professor of Poetics Perloff(Professor Emerita at Stamford U) takes us on a journey through the poetics of copying, citation, and constraint based writing. Landmarks along the way include Walter Benjamin's Arcade Project, Charles Bernstein's opera, Susan Howe's the Midnight, the Oulipo and Kenneth Goldsmith's summary of CBS am traffic reports. The one volume that will get you up to speed on how to read and enjoy the new poetics.

7-El Narco, Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo(Bloomsbury Press)British journalist Grillo's dazzling report from on the scene about how the cartels have been transformed into a major criminal insurgency, with due consequences for the US. Based on interviews and on the scene coverage by this ourstanding journalist now residing in Mexico City. Chilling.

8--Romain Gary- A Tall Story by David Bellos(Harvill Secker UK). Bellos, Professor of French and Comparative Lit,Princeton U.,is already well known form his brilliant biographies, including of Georges Perec, the Oulipo master, as well as translating much of Perec's work, including Life: A User's Manual and a recent text on the nature of translation.Here (in a book shamefully not yet published in the US) he gives us the biography of Romain Gary,whose life moved from Vilna to immigrant status ,to airman in UK with the French resistance, diplomat(French Consul General in Los Angeles),celebrity spouse(Jean Seberg) to best - selling author, the only man to win the French Goncourt Prize twice. This, included the creation of a fake identity- that of Emile Ajar, under which he avoided the requirement that the prize could only be won once by an author.And it eventually earned Gary the scorn of critics.
The many lives of a most unusual man-and the role that deception plays in our own self-constructed lives.Wonderfully written and a fascinating study in the nature of identity in this world.

9-This is Madness by Darian Leader(Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books,UK). An absolutely riveting book by a psychoanalyst on the nature of psychosis- and how those afflicted use delusions and other seeming badges of lunacy to construct their way through their own conditions to a kind of mental equilibrium. Replete with Lacanian analysis beautifully explained ( for a change) and lots of examples from practice and history.With special chapters om Aimee(Lacan's famous patient who stabbed well-known French actress Huguette Duflos outside a French theatre), The Wolf Man, and Dr Harold Shipman,who put to death in excess of 250 persons by morphine injections. An enriching study on what triggers psychotic outbreaks and what can remedy psychosis.A plea for individual- centered treatment in an age of compulsory drugs and uniformity.

10-Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas- A long,demanding but brilliant masterpiece from the author of A Book of Memories, called the most important novel since WWII by Susan Sontag. Published to mixed reviews by a bunch of Anglo- Saxon reviewers who by and large have neither the time nor the temperament to enjoy a book so heavily based on the politique of the body,nor willing to read a novel whose transcription chapter by chapter does not flow with the ease of reading expected by some, this is yet the one novel where the politics and aesthetics of sex interfaces with the history of Hungary and Central Europe from the years of World War 2 through the Hungarian Revolution to the dismantling of Communism.The beastly self in all its turgid glory,in juxtaposition to the rational and socially acceptable self- a rambling tour through espionage, duplicity, repression and death and the emotionally tangled lives of the many characters who step in and out of its pages.Not to be missed, especially for its epic descriptions of marathon sex and its relation to our emotional lives. Called an example of bad sex writing by a few critics. some may yet find it the ultimate in sticky fingers and slippery epiphanies.

These books should be available from, or the publishers directly

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best Books of 2011

Here is the long promised best ten list of 2011-not in any particular order of merit-

The first 5-
1- The Origin of Aids by Jacques Pepin( no, not the culinary expert), published by Cambridge University Press. I first learned of this incredible tome in a NY Times piece dated Oct 17, 2011 in the Health Section. Pepin is an infectious disease specialist who teaches epidiemology and the like at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec.Pepin uses his own medical knowledge, plus years spent in the bush in the Congo running a medical clinic plus years of research in Africa and French libraries. He traces the history of AIDS, from the first time it jumped the ape to human bloodstream circuit, estimated some time, based on testing of preserved samples, around 1920- 1930 and probably occurring in rhe Cameroun, to where it was transmitted into the Congo and languished there until- and this is the key to the medical mystery , a series of disease amplifiers occurred that created the first epidemic in Africa in the Congo, to its ultimate transition,probably through Haiti to the US, where it blossomed and was reexported.
Along the way, there are fascinating sidebars on Tribal anthropology, Belgian colonialism, plasma infection in an operation controlled by the once feared head of the TonTon Macoute( secret police of Papa Doc Duvalier), sex tourism and the like.

But the major amplifiers occurred initially in the Congo where the Belgian colonists, anxious about controlling the spread of diseases like African sleeping sickness and other illnesses from the locals to themselves, engaged in an obsessive weekly program of vaccinating the locals -with needles that were not properly sterilized. After a period in which there was perhaps a very small number afflicted with the AIDS syndrome, which had jumped from ape to man probably through a cut hunter scenario, the disease finally began to multiply. That, plus the growth in population centers following the end of colonialism where particularly some urban areas had male to female ratios of 1.5-1 as a result initially of much greater male migration into urban areas compared to females,encouraged the increased practice of urban prostitution for unaccompanied females trying to make ends meet.Here the author segues fromm medical expert to sociological researcher and builds a convincing case that it was these practices and the excessive but unsafe vaccination that constituted the first two disease amplifiers.
It's a much shorter step from there to the importation of large numbers of French speaking Haitians into Kinshasa(once Leopoldville, named for the brutal and avaricious King of Belgium, who once owned the entire country in his own name and had thousands if not millions of rubber worker workers killed and enslaved under his regime). They(the Haitians) were needed in the newly formed nation, which had come to independence without a trained class of French speaking government bureaucrats.
It's a few more short steps from there to Haiti,infected blood plasma( a little more speculative here, ) and sex tourism to where the disease ( in a different strain) spread to the US.
But the thrust of the book is on and in Africa and it is a peculiar combination of medical research, local experience in the bush as well as detailed sociological and historical research and clear writing that make this text the most fascinating of mysteries explained about as well as one could possibly expect. Perhaps not a final answer but a brilliant exposition. One of the best books I have ever read!

2-Memoirs of a Dervish by Robert Irwin, Profile Books UK.
This is the astounding memoir of Robert Irwin, the dean of scholars on Islamic culture in England, and the author of numerous classic texts and novels, including the classic study of the Arabian Nights:A Companion,and For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, with its criticism of Edward Said's philosophical polemics, as well as a number of novels,including The Arabian Nightmare and the humorous Satan Wants Me, a send up of the cult of Aleister Crowley.
This is an unorthodox memoir about growing up in London, and going to Oxford during the swinging 60's days, and as a pot - smoking anarchist , but not a progressive leftist. Instead, Irwin sought his solace in Sufism, made several journeys to Algeria taking religious instruction in Mostaganem and studied under the esoteric guidance of those in England and North Africa. A wild journey into another counterculture-one of wild communal dancing and the quest to be a holy fool from the dean of Arabists in the West. As anyone who has read and cherished Irwin's writings should know, despite disagreements with his political hammerings of the Franz Fanon's and RD Laing's of the 60's, this is an engaging and wild trip as only Irwin can deliver it.
(available thru

3-The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch by Ladislav Klima(Twisted Spoon Press, Prague)- This is one of a number of English language translations of classic Czech literature, in this case from Klima(1878-1928) who was a mentor to the celebrated writer Bohumil Hrabal and the Plastic People of the Universe( a much later group). It is a sophisticated piece of decadence a la Maldoror by Lautreamont, mixed in with a strong Nietzschean will. Ostensibly a tale of how a prissy key adviser to the Kaiser is brought under the will of a lower class mesmerizing wife, who marries him , then relegates him to a position of supreme inferiority, until he engages in savage retribution and ultimate self- detroying perversion- at another level it is the hallucinatory tale of a man obsessed by Will and and a radical subjective need to become God. It is a classic darkly comic and obscenely funny piece of writing, - not for everyone but a wild excursion indeed. True black humor.

4- The Secret Tradition of the Soul, by Patrick Harpur(Evolver editions ,Berkeley, California). From the author of Daimonic Reality and The Philosopher's Secret Fire, a template for those seeking the answer to the role of the soul in our lives and its
place in the great traditions of culture from Greek philosophy and Renaissance alchemy to Romantic poetry and the Jungian aesthetic pyschology practiced by the late Jmaes Hillman. A clear, concise life-altering view of the underappreciated role of the soul, as opposed to the more abstract spirit in our religions and culture. A handbook for more meaningful living through the imagination.Highly recommended.

5- Harry Belafonte- My Song-(Knopf) A great American life, from a Jamaican immigrant family who came to fame in the 1950's to 60's entertainment and civil rights - with detailed involvements with Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, John and Robeert Kennedy,Sidney Poitier the civil rights movement, Nelson Mandela , Fidel Castro and Clinton, and from a man who has never hesitated to call it as he sees it- from the progressive left.This is a no bullshit autobiography.

Please note- These books should be available from , or from the publishers directly. Nos 6-10 coming next.