December 31, 2005

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, December 2005

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer
Joan Didion, Democracy
My problem with reading Didion is that she always leaves me feeling intoxicated, because her prose is so good. This does not make for intelligent book-chat on my part, so I'll just quote a choice paragraph.
"I thought about this precisely what Inez must have thought about this, but it was irrelevant. I thought there had been papers shredded all over the Pacific the night she was flying Jack Lovett's body from Jakarta to Schofield, but it was irrelevant. We were sitting in a swamp forest on the edge of Asia in a city that had barely existed a century before and existed now only as the flotsam of some territorial imperative and a woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of coral atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag."
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun
A fascinating story, well-told and with an unimpeachable moral (from Montaigne: "after all, it is rating one's conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them"). The depiction of a 17th century Europe where almost everyone was, by my lights, either batshit insane or deeply reprehensible or both is only too convincing (but I'm biased to think that anyway). Dividing through for Huxley's peculiar personal metaphysics and theology — excuse me, the Perennial Philosophy — is easy. (Though it's amusing to see him work his way from calling us to strive for upward self-transdence, issuing in a realization of our union with the non-dual Ground of all Being, to sounding like John Dewey: "Transferred from the laboratory and the study to the church, the parliament and the council chamber, the notion of working hypotheses might liberate mankind from its collective insanities, its chronic compulsions to wholesale murder and mass suicide". For that matter, the passage in chapter 11 about the need to mortify "our fatal tendency to set up something of our own contriving in the place of nature", by accepting instead the given facts, sounds very like his own grandfather, in the famous letter to Charles Kingsley where he says to "sit down before fact as a little child", etc.) More annoying to me, it's not always so easy to tell when he's relying on actual records, and when he's falling back on the novelist's habit of making up stuff that sounds like it'd fit.
Alexis Jacquemin, The New Industrial Organization: Market Forces and Strategic Behavior
"New" in 1985, when this was published as Selection et pouvoir dans la nouvelle economie industrielle (trans. Fatemeh Mehta). Therefore a little dated, but still an interesting look at the relationship between evolutionary processes and strategic action, and how both of them undermine arguments (a la Friedman or Alchain) that evolutionary competition will make economic agents act as though they were rational utility maximizers, and deliver us to the promised land of Pareto optimality. Jacquemin's last sections, however, on sociobiology, general evolution, etc., are dismissible. (Countering E. O. Wilson with Teilhard de Chardin is countering one mass of hopeful, hopelessly-ill-informed musings with another mass of musings, even more hopeful and even more hopeless.) Suitable for anyone who knows a little game theory (basically, what Nash equilibrium is), and a little more about industrial organization (Cournot and Bertrand models, etc.) — say the level of Cabral's introductory book.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Four Ways to Forgiveness
Slavery, politics, martial and servile stoicism, clear-eyed views of the unlimited weirdness and enduring fucked-up-ness of humanity, women's liberation, and four whopping, convincing helpings of redeeming love.
George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
Volume 4 in the on-going saga. A trifle unsatisfying, because, while it continues the story nicely, it doesn't resolve much. This seems to be because it's only half of the current installment, the other half of which should be out next year. I almost wish it was much worse, because then I could write off the story, but it's still good and I need to know what happens, damn him.
Andrew J. Polsky, The Rise of the Therapeutic State
An interesting history of the origin and establishment of the institutions of social casework and "public tutelage". Sadly, reading Foucault has led Polsky to over-use and reify "power", and to use "discourse", "discursive movement", "discursive framework", etc., in a most unhelpful fashion.
Christopher Moore, The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
How the true spirit of Christmas is exemplified by showing your beloved that you embrace the less socially-acceptable sides of their character (without going so far as to encourage them to "do some crimes"). Also by road-side graves, obscene old barmaids, and zombies who covet IKEA and brains.
Paul Park, A Princess of Roumania
I am very cross with Henry Farrell for getting me to read this very good novel, while not warning me that THE STORY IS NOT FINISHED.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; The Dismal Science

Posted at December 31, 2005 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth