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March 15th, 2011

10:34 pm: RBG

Born 78 years ago today in the Flatbush, Brooklyn, you remain an inspiration to progressive lawyers everywhere. You were a Jew in a law school of wasps, a woman in a field of men, and you remain a principled and brilliant justice. You inspire me to work harder, do more, and never let them see you sweat. Happy birthday, Mrs. Ginsburg, I hope you have many more.

February 25th, 2011

09:51 am: As villagecharm  mentioned last night, I have been cheating on livejournal. A couple of months ago I started yet another new blog; this one dedicated to my primary interest: books. You can see it at foxhillreview.wordpress.com

So far, it is going well. I’m excited about what Charm and I are writing for it. The fact that it is searchable on google and is actually attracting the attention of strangers is a plus.

 I will still be posting here every once in awhile, but if you’re bored or book obsessed, check out Foxhill.

February 23rd, 2011

02:48 pm: Dear Mountain Goats Obsessives,

Please give me a lyric about love that isn't depressing.


February 13th, 2011

06:56 pm: Discourses and Selected Writings

Epictetus (trans. Robert Dobbin) (Penguin)

Epictetus. Freed slave, logician, and stoic, is one of the many classical writers more often referenced than read. Epictetus’s name is bandied frequently when the subject of stoicism comes up. His writings were extremely influential on Marcus Aurealius (some of the writing attributed to Epictetus exists only in quotation in the Meditations) and that which influenced the great Marcus gets remembered.

This volume is made up of two works, the “popular” Enchiridon and the longer, more rigorous, Discourses. I read this, bizarrely, after having it recommended on a running blog. Unlike much of modern philosophy, the book is accessible and wonderfully funny. I do not read Greek, so I do not know if this is because Epictetus himself was funny, or if the translator, Robert Dobbin, took liberties with the text.

Now, before we go any further it should be noted that I don’t know jack shit about ancient philosophy, but that doesn’t stop me from writing about it fairly regularly. The rest of this review may read like undergraduate essays, but whatever.

I you are a new student of Stoicism like me, I’d recommend tackling the Enchiridon first. I would actually recommend reading it before the Meditations. It is short and accessible but not as poetic as the Meditations. Building from simple logistic formulas, the Enchiridon lays out the basic ideas underlying Stoicism.

Those ideas, put simply, are that there is that which we can control, and that which we cannot control. Identify which is which and live accordingly. Our emotions and actions are controllable; the actions of others and the ways in which others perceive us are not controllable. Make your emotions and actions coincide with your ethics, and don’t worry what others think of you. Pretty simple, right? Not exactly. Controlling ones desires line them up with ones ethics is no easy task; neither is not caring about what the emperor thinks of you. Much of this book is taken up with addressing just how one goes about living such a life.

Stoicism, and its obsession with self-discipline, could only have come about in a society of surplus. Those struggling to find enough food to eat don’t worry about whether their fine robes are making them soft. The enduring appeal of the school is tied to the enduring desire to rise above the pettiness of our everyday lives through control over ourselves. It isn’t an easy way to live, but it is one I find appealing. In moments of weakness, I imagine I will return to it for inspiration.

February 10th, 2011

01:11 pm: Coup or Not?
I can't tell, not yet. Anyone else watching Egypt right now?

February 5th, 2011

06:04 pm: Egyptian Books

During law school I spent a summer in Egypt. I made many friends and read my fair share of books. Someone once said to understand a people, read their poetry. I’m not a poetry fan, but here are some of the best Egyptian authors or books about Egypt that I have read. I don’t read Arabic, so my choices are only from those works that have been translated into English.

Nagib Mafouz.


Mafouz, Nobel laureate, victim of an assassination attempt, and for many years, the voice of Egypt, towers over Arab literature. He is by far the most popular and important Arab writer of the twentieth century. He was very prolific, and most of it is good. I’ll highlight just a couple.


The best by far is the Cairo Trilogy. Written in the expansive, meandering style of 19th century European novels, the Cairo Trilogy tracks the history of the modernization of Egypt through the story of one family in old Cairo. Its massive, but the pages fly by quickly. I would recommend this book even if Cairo was not the lead story on the news every evening.

Notably, a large number of Mafouz’s books have been turned into films. In the Arab world, the films adaptations are sometimes more recognizable than the novels themselves. I met multiple people in Cairo who did not know the Trilogy were books.


Another lesser-known work by Mafouz, Adrift on the Nile, is also worth a look, especially in these times. One of Mafouz’s more overtly political books, it addresses the lack of political will in the upper classes of Egypt, especially amongst artists and writers.  Adift takes places in the 1960s, in the time of Nasser, but the story could have been told in the Cairo of 2007. Disenfranchised and decadent artists uninterested in the political future of their country populate the novel. That was, until last week, a common criticism of the youth of Egypt today.


Obviously, everything has changed, but Adrfit on the Nile is still a good portrayal of the kind of decadent ennui that has been a factor in Egyptian culture for some time.


Nawal El Saadawi


The great feminist writer of Egypt has been a voice for women’s rights and social justice for going on ninety years. Her autobiography, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, shows you in uncomfortable detail just what it meant to be a dissent under the Mubarak regime.


Because I don’t read Arabic it is hard to know if Saadwi doesn’t have translators as good as Mafouz or  if her writing is not are strong, but her books sometimes are not as well writtern (or translated), as Mafouz’s work. That does not take away from their emotional power. Her novel Woman at Point Zero, about the horrific treatment of one woman in Egyptian society, is extremely disturbing and moving. I read it years ago and the thought of it still puts me ill at ease.


Nothing about Saadawi’s life has been easy, and neither are her books. But they are worth the effort, and she is worth celebrating for her incredible courage.


Alla Al Aswany


Aswany is a younger voice in Egyptian literature*, and his novel The Yacoubian Building is a must read. Portraying the goings on in an apartment building in Cairo, it was among the first novels in Arabic to honestly discuss homosexuality and hints at the complex role of the Muslim Brotherhood in modern Egyptian society. Perhaps not the greatest work of literature, it is amongst the most honest portrayals of Egyptian society that you will find in English.



Max Rodenbeck


Rodenbeck is not Egyptian, but his book Cairo: The City Victorious is a wonderful love letter to the city. Cairo can be a cruel mistress; its dirty, loud, insanely crowded, full of injustices large and small, and, in my experience at least, can be exhausting and frustrating. Rodenbeck acknowledges all that, and still loves the place. His enthusiasm for the city, warts and all, pulls you in. Read this, and go see the place for yourself after the current crisis calms down.


*It tells you something about the state of Egyptian literature that a “younger” voice was born in 1957.

January 25th, 2011

05:42 pm: Egypt on my Mind
Egyptians and other Arabic speakers have created a type of Arabic script written in roman letters and numbers which allows them to communicate on platforms like text messaging and facebook, that don’t easily support Arabic. Just now, a good friend from Egypt posted this on facebook:

Howa bel nesba lel television el masry....el donya kewayesa we mafish ay haga? ma32oul kol el nas bet2oul ay kalam 2ela el television el masry?! mashallah 3alehom walahi

From my conversation with the poster, I think this means something like, why aren’t they covering on television what happened? Moments after she posted it, there were twenty something comments, in Arabic and English, about the protests. Ten minutes after that, she had deleted the whole thing. I’m feeling for Egypt right now.

02:16 pm: Nicolas Shakespeare, the author of The Dancer Upstairs has an incredible article on his first meeting with Martiza Lecca. Lecca is the ballerina in whose apartment Shining Path leader Alerto Guzman was captured. The article is haunting and excellent, check it out.

Not a lot is available in English about Shining Path, and much of what is available is very academic. My sources in the world of terrorism scholarship say the definitive book on the movement is David Scott Palmer’s The Shining Path of Peru. I might have to put that on the to be read list.

January 20th, 2011

04:59 pm: Henry VI Part III
Henry VI Part III (Folger Edition)
William Shakespeare

I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine the Henry the 6th plays are among the least performed in the Shakespeare cannon. Written early in Will’s career, they just aren’t very good. The first is really down right awful. It is confusing, poorly plotted and hard to get through. Joan of Arc is a character in Part I and it still sucks. The second is a little better (the middle of Part II is dominated by an alternately bloody and comedic peasant revolt which is pretty amusing) but still not worth all that much. Part III, while not rising to the typical Will standards, isn’t bad, if you like ‘em bloody. It gets especially good in the second half when the evil caricature of Richard the III really gets going.


There are a couple of things about Henry VI Part III that I want to note. First is the real cruelty on display in portions of the play. I am no Shakespeare scholar, but it seems to me that the early Shakespeare plays* are more graphically violent than the later plays. In Henry VI Part III we have the cold blooded killing of a little child by a knight, the child’s father is then taunted with a handkerchief dipped in the kid’s blood and then if that wasn’t enough, get the mass stabbing of a  Prince by a gang of nobles. It is gruesome stuff.


Critics give a lot of reasons for this brutality in Henry VI Part II. Two of the reasons often argued resonate with me. Perhaps Will wasn’t confident enough yet that his dialogue could hold the crowd’s attention so he resorted to more graphic violence. He was competing with bear baiting after all. I’ll buy this. If you write a scene where a queen puts a paper crown on a man’s head, gives him a handkerchief with his own child’s blood on it, and then has him killed, people are going to remember your name.  


The second reason for the violence often given is that the plays reflect a critique of chivalry and a dislike for war that was common in England in the years after the War of the Roses and the various wars in Europe. Maybe.  I will say that there are few heroes in these plays and generally the aristocracy behaves badly. Perhaps that is because Will was attempting a critique of the nobility, or perhaps royals acting badly filled seats. Like much in Shakespeare studies, it doesn’t much matter anymore what Will intended. It matters what resonates with us.


Also of interest is how the plays represent the Tudor ruling classes perception of the War of the Roses and the houses of York and Lancaster.** There is a huge literature out there on the way that Shakespeare’s plays influenced our understanding of the historical persons he used as the basis of his characters. I’ve read some of it, but not much. What I have read says that Richard very likely wasn’t a hunchback, if he was deformed, it probably was minimal. He also probably didn’t kill the princes in the Tower. But that doesn’t stop Shakespeare from portraying him as an evil hunchback murderer. And that is how we imagine him today.


When I think of Richard the Third, I think of Olivier, sneering:


I will go into this more after I read and review Richard III, but Henry VII, the founder of Tudor England, usurped Richard so it isn’t surprising that Richard is portrayed so awfully in Henry VI. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the play isn’t just a hit piece on the house of Lancaster. The Yorks, those of the killing of the little kids, don’t get off easily either.  The Henry the VI cycle isn’t among the best Shakespeare has to offer, but it is worth the time to read both to put the other, better, works in context and to enjoy the spectacle of royalty acting badly.



* People argue ad nausea about the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays, but there is little doubt that the Henry the VI plays are among the first.


** Before I read these plays I knew jack shit about the War of the Roses. I might write something just synopsizing this skirmish. If you are reading the Henry Plays and Richard III, instead of watching them, I think you need to have some familiarity with the War or you’ll be lost.


January 19th, 2011

04:59 pm: The Passage Justin Cronin

The Passage is a seven hundred page vampire novel written by a novelist who graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. That makes it a pretty rare bird. It is also a book I enjoyed tremendously. I imagine there is very little middle ground with this book. You either enjoy its epic scope, slightly showy writing, and meandering plot or you think it’s a bloated book by a guy who couldn’t make money with serious fiction so turned to genre literature to put his kids through school.  I liked it, your mileage may vary.


The plot is convoluted and epic, but to put it briefly, and not spoil the fun, the U.S. government has created a sort of vampire. Not Twilight style sexy vampire, but really grody scary vampire. Anyway, the vampires get out, all hell breaks loose, and humanity has to fight… for its very survival!


There must be a thousand books out there with that basic plotline. What separates the Passage is the skill of the writing, which is well beyond what you see in most genre fiction, and Cronin’s ability to be good at both plot and character.


The plot versus character dichotomy is something I have written about before. I remember in undergrad my classics professor drawing a scale up on the chalkboard with “character” written on one side and “plot” on the other and saying, “works which focus on character are literature, work which focuses on plot are entertainment.” He was that kind of a dick. He wore a bowtie.


He also had a point. Too often what I find lacking in the genre literature (save the true crossover geniuses like Gibson, Price, etc) is a lack of proper character development. What I often miss when I read “serious” fiction is any sort of plot to care about. I am not particularly interested in cardboard cut outs rampaging through an alien world shooting lemurs with lasers, but nor am I particularly interested in reading something where two very well drawn individuals sit in a café in Brooklyn and talk about fucking “love” or whatever. Can’t I have three dimensional characters AND lasers? I guess I can, in books like the Passage.


Though there aren’t any actual lasers in the Passage. But you get the idea.

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