The Siege and more...
Written in 1970, The Siege is a parable of Balkan nationalism, an elegant metaphor for Albanian Dictator Enver Hoxha’s Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union. It also serves as a stark reminder of the power of resistance in the face of a foreign enemy. By rights, Kadare’s beleaguered Albanian garrison ought to have surrendered as soon as the Sultan’s emissaries offered terms. Not only were they outnumbered and outmatched by the Balkan superpower, most Albanians would have probably been better off under the Ottomans’ suzerainty. Albania’s material culture was far-outstripped by the Ottomans’; the Sultan’s army and civil service offered any loyal subject ample opportunity for advancement and personal enrichment, and voluntarily joining the preeminent power in the Near East would have been much easier than fighting a losing war amid the crags and valleys of High Albania. Even the defenders’ Christian faith wasn’t much of an obstacle to peaceful assimilation—the Ottoman Sultans were famed for their religious toleration. So why fight? Kadare doesn’t offer any definitive answers, though his harrowing account of the siege suggests a few possible reasons for the Albanians’ obstinacy. But if you don’t have the patience for his characters’ meandering digressions into the nature of patriotism and national identity, Kadare’s account of the campaign is a satisfying piece of storytelling in its own right. Will Collins
And Then There’s This by Bill Wasik
And Then There’s This examines nanostories and how they are spread through the viral culture of the Internet. Nanostories are anecdotes that, though relatively meaningless on their own, are spread widely through the Internet. More generally, the book looks at how the Internet has changed cultural trends. According to Wasik, the Internet doesn’t change culture as much as it accelerates it. It also creates subcultures that, due to Internet communities catering to niche interests, are made up of members who no longer feel like members of subcultures. The reader is left to decide whether or not such trends are positive for society or not—the implication is that they are probably not, but Wasik’s ultimate goal is to understand such trends rather than evaluate them. The book is impeccably organized, full of sharp analysis, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. It’s everything a cultural study ought to be. Given the quality of the writing, And Then There’s This is easily one of the best books of the year. Given the relevance of its subject matter and the lack of much in-depth, critical writing on the Internet’s effect on culture, it may be one of the most important works of non-fiction on the digital age. Jason Buel
Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions
In his introduction, author John McDermott writes how he had the “extreme good fortune to be asked by Al Hendrix [Jimi’s father] and his daughter, Janie, to join his newly formed company, Experience Hendrix LLC, and manage the Jimi Hendrix catalog”. Modeled on Mark Lewisohn’s seminal 1988 The Beatles Recording Sessions, Ultimate Hendrix shows just how busy Hendrix was, with a performing/recording schedule that would have killed the Beatles if they’d been one guy instead of four. The book’s day-to-day entries oscillate between high productivity and very low frustration, with peaks and valleys dictated by Hendrix’s fortunes and later his moods. Undoubtedly, 1966-67 was a peak moment. Both Chandler and Hendrix knew early on what they wanted, and through a symbiotic relationship that was as pragmatic as it was alchemical, they managed to create some truly great music in a very short time. Hendrix arrived in the UK in September 1966, his first single (“Hey Joe/Stone Free”) was released in December, and his debut album Are You Experienced a mere five months after that—no time for Chinese Democracy here. Ultimate Hendrix describes songs being built from the bottom up, listing the many takes and practical procedures behind some of the most familiar, impractical sounds. On 20 February 1967, for the track “I Don’t Live Today”, Hendrix “skillfully manipulated a hand wah-wah unit [which] foot-controlled models soon replaced”. A hand wah-wah? Another favorite Hendrix trick was to create “various spaceship sounds… by moving his headphones into and away from his vocal microphone”. From such mundane things is magic born. McDermott, with Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox, Hendrix’s engineer and long-time friend and sometime bassist respectively, fill the dates with detailed entries that track the guitarist’s career from struggling sideman to rock superstar to super-exhausted and struggling rock superstar. Guy Crucianelli
Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities
Wicked Plants should be recommended reading for anyone who has even an infinitesimal interest in the outdoors. If, as the author states, “3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets while 68,847 are poisoned by plants”, then why do we still have this hubris about being smarter than flora and fauna? Perhaps because most people are not fully aware of how frightful plants can be. “Wicked” is truly an appropriate adjective for this book, as I was appalled by the fury of plants. There is, for example, the mundane corn, which does not slip off the tongue as a dangerous plant. And yet, the Native Americans knew that corn had to be treated with some sort of lime; otherwise, the body would not be able to store niacin, leading to disease and death. Then there is the terrifying Cogon Grass, where “the edge of each blade is embedded with tiny silica crystals as sharp and serrated as the teeth of a saw”. This book was incredibly enjoyable and did prompt me to do some soul-searching. Perhaps what readers most garner from Wicket Plants is the knowledge that they must live their lives in a respectful, at times even cautious manner with plants, and not expect plants to take much interest in their society, in turn. Shyam Sriram
Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics
Pronouncing a book ‘important’ elicits both joy and sobriety—joy that an author has so vividly and wisely addressed vital issues of the day, and sobriety that the issue, the conflict, the threat, and the human costs are so real and urgent that we are in dire need of a voice to address them. David Grossman’s collection of essays, Writing in the Dark, is important. Grossman has become known as a political activist and a voice of reason and reconciliation in Israel. His fiction is not bound by the rigors of political haranguing, and neither is his non-fiction reduced to abstraction and polemics. In clear prose translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, the first three essays here discuss the sources, methodologies, and uses of literature in a world disinterested in its own suffering, while the last three essays, all speeches, are more explicitly sociopolitical. Such a basic description does an injustice to Grossman’s weaving of the personal and the political, the private and the public, into a vision that is both pragmatic and thoughtful—ingredients crucial to any lasting peace. This collection is an argument against the status quo, whether it be our daily ignorance and distance from the Other, or the passive, defeatist stasis in Israeli politics. Grossman’s clarity and humanity set these essays apart from other polemics, making Writing in the Dark a wise and rare book. Robert Loss
You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
You Are Here unfolds along several dimensions, describing the sizes and scale of the universe to its horizon, the increasing smallness of its essential particles, and its birth and expansion over time. The book is not merely concerned with the big, galactic picture, however. Potter spends a lot of time exploring the progression of science, from its genesis in ancient philosophy to today’s scientific methods. In a virtuosic chapter, he neatly explains the history of scientific thought from its earliest thinkers like Plato and Aristotle to contemporaries Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, with brief yet revealing synopses detailing their contributions to our understanding of the universe. Potter shows how each new theory built on previous ones, and how our present knowledge of our world is the result of constant proposition, experimentation, and reevaluation. He also charts the evolution of life on Earth, and follows humankind from its earliest known origins as it crisscrosses the globe and solidifies its dominion over it. You Are Here is a triumph of popular science that clearly and succinctly elucidates the significance of the subject at hand. Michael Patrick Brady
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