Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

December 10, 2008

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, the pioneering scholar of Arab women and the Middle East, has died.  We reviewed her excellent Guests of the Sheikh here last month. The Los Angeles Times has a sympatheic obituary:

[W]hen she left [the Iraqi village of El Nahra] two years later, she had won over the women and the village with her efforts to learn their language and culture.

In “500 Great Books by Women” (1994), reviewer Rebecca Sullivan wrote, “The story of her life among the Iraqis is eye-opening, written with intellectual honesty as well as love and respect for the seemingly impenetrable society.”

Here is Guests of the Sheikh on Amazon, and here is the quasi-sequel, The Arab World. Here are her pages on Librarything and Wikipedia. Dr. Fernea wrote several books about women and Arab society and served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas.

I spend some of my time in the rural areas south of metropolitan Baghdad.  Dr. Fernea’s book, which I read only a few weeks ago, opened a vital window onto rural Iraqi society.  Its acute observation and spare prose make it an American classic, like Dr. Fernea herself.

Law and Literature

December 4, 2008

Here is a break from regular programming.  Every spring, Tyler Cowen of the economics blog Marginal Revolution teaches a class on “Law and Literature” at George Mason University.  He also posts his reading lists.  I like lists and books, so this year I got curious enough to compare the five available lists: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, and a list Dr. Cowen inherited from another professor, also in 2005.

The standouts are the Old Testament (particularly Exodus), Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott, Tolstoy (Hadji Murad and/or Ivan Ilych), Melville (Moby Dick chapters on common law, “Bartleby,” Billy Budd), something called Borges and the Eternal Orangutangs by Fernando Verrissimo, and Blindess by Jose Saramago.

The Art of Political Murder by Fransisco Goldman appeared in 2008 and is back this spring.  Year’s Best SF 9 (stories written in 2003) and Glaspell’s Trifles appeared in 2007 and are back this year as well.  Henry James and Shakespeare appeared in 2005 and 2007 but have since dropped.

The balance of the list (about 30%) turns over every year and includes authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Orhan Pamuk, William Gibson, Eugene Zamiatyin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eric Ambler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, TH White, Thomas Pynchon, Isaac Asimov, Ha Jin, and PD James.  Dr. Cowen’s colleague relied more heavily on classical and philosopical sources (Plato, Sophocles, More, Milton).  There might be more turnover in the films since a different one is mentioned each year (Sia, Battle Royale, Double Indemnity).

One might add Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, or William Golding to the mix.  But the biggest omission is the New Testament reframing of Mosaic law.  In particular Romans 1-8 and 13-14 are a passionate analysis of the post-Resurrection status of law – by a trained Pharisee no less.

…[I]f it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.  I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of coveteousness.  Apart from the law sin lies dead.

Rom 7:7-8 (NRSV)

Full lists and links are below the break…

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Review: Guests of the Sheikh

November 19, 2008

Guests of the Sheikh, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, is an excellent introduction to rural Iraqi culture.  As a newlywed in 1956, the author moved with her anthropologist husband to a Shia tribal settlement adjoining a village in Diwaniya.  For two years, Mrs. Fernea wore the abaya and lived in purdah, secluded or veiled from all men save Mr. Fernea and a household servant.

However, she entered the society of the tribal and village women. The book, published in 1965, is a sharply-observed, simply written narrative of Mrs. Fernea’s observations and experiences.  The subtitle is “An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village,” but Mrs. Fernea omits theory and analysis.  Her matter-of-fact prose (she is a journalist) is accessible and almost flat, but ultimately quite affecting.

The date palms on the opposite bank were gray with the accumulated dust of the desert summer and the fields we passed were brown and dry.  Only the stubble of the small summer crop remained.  On each side of the road the flat, dun-colored land stretched away for miles, broken only by the cuts of small waterways carrying water to the fields and the dips of old canals, their dry hollows green with a little shrubbery nourished by some dampness remaining in the soil.  Here and there a single fellah was visible against the horizon; his dishdasha tied up around his waist to allow freedom of movement, he broke the dry ground with a hand hoe, preparing the land for autumn planting.

The book offers interesting benchmarks for present observers of conditions in Iraq’s countryside.  The village (whose population is not mentioned; 400 pupils in the boys’ primary school) has a chlorinated water system and “five or six” homes in the tribal settlement are connected.  The village’s power comes from a generator that runs when the mayor orders it – for example, to run his fan in the summer.  Soil salination is a problem and men that can no longer cultivate their land turn to sheepherding or migrant labor.  Employment as an armed guard or retainer is not unknown.

This is one of the most helpful books on Iraq that I have read, and apparently a classic of Middle Eastern ethnography.  I recommend it to anyone interested in Iraqi society.  It is in print but I could not find Mrs. Fernea’s husband’s dissertation on irrigation.

Guests of the Sheikh

Journeys in Literature: The Places In Between

August 3, 2007

Inspired by this glowing National Geographic profile (via Instapundit) I’ve been reading Rory Stewart’s smashing account of his journey from Herat to Kabul, almost the whole of Afghanistan, on foot, in the snow and mountains of January 2002. The Places In Between defies description. I have rarely read anything so erudite, mournful, wry, and immediate. (Added later: It is as if Seven Pillars of Wisdom was written by Adam Nicolson, the author of Sea Room.)

* * *

The Places In Between put me in mind of other treks in literature: Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time (which, however, I’ve never read) and the fascinating but probably fabricated The Long Walk, by Slamovir Rawicz. What are others in this category? Lewis and Clark, perhaps, and Shackleton.

Review: In Praise of Commercial Culture

July 14, 2007

In his 1998 book In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen, the prolific co-author of Marginal Revolution, makes two arguments. The first, about the effects of capitalism on art, is convincing, but the second, about critiques of art, is not.

Dr. Cowen argues that production and distribution via market mechanisms benefits artists and art consumers. Competition and consumer taste do a good job of selecting the best artists and eliciting innovation and masterworks. Technological advances and increasing wealth open up new possibilities and greater independence for artists. Many great artists of the past, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, explicitly operated as businessmen in a market. On the whole, market forces have been salutary for art and artists; therefore commentators should not fear commercialism in film, publishing, music, or other art markets.

This is the primary argument of the book and Dr. Cowen supports it well. Recent applications of technology to facilitate “long tail” markets provide yet another illustration of the benefits of capitalism for the arts.

However, Dr. Cowen also spends a lot of space beating up “cultural pessimists,” which I found less convincing. Cultural pessimists seem to come in two flavors: those that say the market corrupts, homogenizes, or otherwise damages the production of art, and those that decry the perceived moral or political effects of certain artworks.

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The Utility of Nuclear Weapons

July 8, 2007

Today is the 100th anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein’s birth. Heinlein inspired a generation of rocket engineers and space enthusiasts, wrote classics of science fiction, and advocated arms research as part of strong resistance to Communism.

Dwayne Day marked the day with an essay published at The Space Review (via Instapundit). He quotes liberally from a memo that Heinlein wrote for his colleagues when he retired from the Naval Air Experimental Station in 1945.

Heinlein was prescient about a lot of things; in a way he was right about the atom bomb, but not in the way he meant. His error helps explain the core argument from Gen. Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force, which I reviewed yesterday.

Here is Heinlein to his fellow aeronautical engineers:

Why we are out of business

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Review: The Utility of Force

July 6, 2007

In The Utility of Force, retired British general Rupert Smith applies frameworks from Clausewitz and his own experience to the problems of today’s open-ended wars.

From about 1800 to 1945, the dominant mode of war was “interstate industrial war,” invented by Napoleon; refined by Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Bismarck, and Moltke; and brought to apotheosis in the Second World War. The essence of industrial war is the destruction of the enemy’s military and industrial capacity to resist, leading to a collapse of will. (Gen. Smith makes frequent use of the Clausewitzean trinity of military, state, and people.)

The antithesis of industrial war is war amongst the people. Napoleon brought us this as well, via his Peninsular campaign. Notable practitioners, after the Spanish guerrillas, include Lawrence, the Boers, Israeli paramilitaries, Lenin, Mao, and Giap. The essence of war amongst the people is the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist by employing strength only at the tactical level,

to constantly and expensively undermine the stronger army and to thereby break the will of the government and the people to make war.

Among the distinctive characteristics of war among the people:

  • The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard absolute objectives of interstate industrial war to more malleable objectives to do with the individual and societies that are not states.
  • Our conflicts tend to be “timeless” (open-ended) since the desired end-state is a condition.
  • We fight so as not to lose the force, like pre-Napoleonic armies.

Today interstate industrial war has effectively ended. (more…)

The Great Depression in Memory

June 25, 2007

In this week’s New Yorker, John Updike mounts a rearguard fight against Amity Shales’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Mr. Updike begins with a warning against “Great Depression nostalgia” but a few hundred words later he succumbs himself:

Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics. Business, of which Shales is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world.

These 95 words are a good precis of the core defects of twentieth-century liberalism. Government succeeds when people “feel” better, regardless of policies’ actual outcomes. Appearance of action is more important than the action itself. Business is “merciless” and “maximizes profit,” while government is “a human transaction.” (Mr. Updike should compare the experiences of shopping at Target and renewing a driver’s license.)

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The Interpretation of Dreams

June 23, 2007

This is almost a Market in Everything: Dreamcrowd, a startup for sharing and interpreting your dreams (via TechCrunch). A dream recently featured on its homepage begins:

I drove my car to the 7-11 hopped on a bike and started to ride but somehow I got trapped under a trash truck and felt pressure and screamed. I was able to get up and start riding the bike home. I then started to go up a hill and got really tired so I hopped off the bike and walked it up…

The original is all in CAPS.

Reminds me of the dreams in Roald Dahl’s The BFG. The girls’ dreams are lovely but the boys’ dreams are about things like flying, growing a long mustache, or taking a call from the President – that is, being the center of attention or humiliating your father.

P.S. With apologies to Sigmund Freud.

A Book I Would Like to Read

May 19, 2007

A thought crystalized while following Gen. David Patraeus’s Senate confirmation and subsequent progress: here the man meets the plan – yet his success depends crucially on his ability, on one hand, to convince any number of more or less hostile onlookers that he will succeed, and on the other hand, to negotiate the political and economic conditions for success from Congress and the Pentagon. In fact, generalship is politics.

I would like to read a history of the political-military interface, with equal attention to political molding of military action and military influence of politics and political outcomes. How do politicians and civilian policymakers impose change on military institutions? How do they set priorities and coordinate efforts in war? How do military leaders shape wartime policies – e.g. with regard to escalation? How do they shape the society in which the military is embedded – including its political and legal institutions? To what degree can “the military” be distinguished from society?

I wouldn’t confine this study to any one time or place, but American history abounds with political-military tension and perhaps deserves its own volume. A partial list of cases off the top of my head:

  • George Washington and the Continental Congress
  • Continental Army militia leaders in early U.S. politics and business – this could be a socioeconomic study in its own right
  • The Federalists (Hamilton), the anti-Federalists (Jefferson), the construction of the U.S. Navy, and the intervention in Tripoli
  • The presidential candidacies of Jackson, McClellan, Grant, and Eisenhower
  • Lincoln and his generals
  • Lee and the Confederate government
  • Teddy Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet
  • The influence of military thinkers and planners on early Cold War policy
  • Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Truman and MacArthur in Korea
  • Milton Friedman and the draft
  • Donald Rumsfeld, the revolution in military affairs, and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq

So on and so forth. Perhaps Robert Kagan could take up this topic once he completes the sequal to Dangerous Nation?

PREVIOUSLY on Zeal and Activity: Review: Dangerous Nation


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