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.

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