Thursday, May 31, 2007

dina lohan, dave eggers and the coalition provisional authority

One of the (many) advantages of having your life revolve around a university campus is that come summer, you find yourself with lots of free time and a brain lubed up by nine months of reading Russian historians and overusing words like "paradigm" in daily conversation. What to do with all that pent-up mental energy just waiting to be splurged all over the place?

I completely understand the impulse to turn one's brain off and spend the lazy days of summer reading chick lit novels with scrawly, loopy drawings of shoes or martini glasses on the cover. Or, maybe, not even reading at all, but instead celebrating in the sudden uselessness of critical thinking by enjoying happy hours, big-budget sequels to sequels, and reality TV along the lines of So You Think You Can Decorate, Dancing Idol: Las Vegas or similar.

However, except for that last one (because um, it would be awesome. I'm envisioning Steve Sanders doing the foxtrot with Dina Lohan, who is wearing Austin Scarlett's cornhusk dress from Season 1 of Project Runway, and then they'd have to redecorate Lindsay's suite in rehab using only $50 worth of Ikea products. Paula Abdul and Billy Joel's monotone child bride from Top Chef would host. Then in the finale Tim Gunn and Simon Cowell would show up and tell everyone how utterly ridiculous they were. LIKE YOU WOULDN'T WATCH THIS), I can't completely turn off my brain just yet. I have to power down a little, move from sprinting into a jog before I come to a complete stop, dripping with sweat from the intellectual exertion of it all.

If I don't, I might metaphor myself into a tizzy.

And so, I've been reading quite a bit over the last two weeks and have some reviews and recommendations for any other readers out there. Not just books; there are also some articles and essays I've recently read that have stayed with me:

"White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack" by Peggy McIntosh (via Feministing)
For all of the conversation about gentrification and race (if you want to achieve a unique combination of anger and utter despair, check out the comment thread on this DCist post), this article is the first commentary I've come across where the author simultaneously attempts to learn more about her own motivations and prejudices while successfully avoiding the blame game on all sides. This, in my mind, is the first step in getting things done-- keeping the focus on the reality of daily life, while being sensitive to the histories and motivations (blatant or not) that created it. Easy to say, a lot harder to do in practice.

Hey, speaking of anger and utter despair!:

Babylon By Bus by Ray LeMoine and Jeff Neumann and Donovan Webster
After slogging through The Secret History of the Iraq War and Fiasco, I picked this up expecting to get a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure approach to the Iraq War. Surprisingly, this book has both the best on-the-ground reporting of life in Iraq leading up to Fallujah and the insurgency and the most cogent analysis of the disaster that was the CPA and American policy. This memoir of two twentysomething civilians who went to Baghdad as backpackers and wound up spending three months supervising the creation of Iraqi NGOs also points out some of the most basic ironies and unanswered questions of the war. For example, isn't it odd that every other American-led post conflict nation-building effort has been led by the State Department (or its contemporary, civilian equivalent) and Iraq's was led by the DOD-- meaning that the least democratic organization (the military) in the US was in charge of setting up democracy in an tribally-organized society that had no history of democratic tradition and was coming off thirty years of totalitarian rule? Well, hmmmm? In four years not once have I seen a reporter or political candidate make so clear a point. This book is compulsively readable and not to be missed by anyone who has ever wondered "exactly how did we get in this mess?"

And hey, speaking of messes we're in:

I keep promising to write about my deep, unwavering love for Al Gore. He was truly my first political love, and, unlike my first real love, my affection and respect for him has only been vindicated as the years pass. This book has been frequently described as "blistering," and Gore doesn't hold punches as he tries to identify the culprits as to why reason, logic and intellect have been cast as enemies to America. Such arguments have been made before, but Gore brings in several new twists that make his case for a decaying American political system even stronger. He is the first political scientist to bring in hard science on this issue, talking about how brain chemistry is changed after prolonged exposure to television over reading and human interaction. He synthesizes 9/11, the rise of the religious right, the media-entertainment complex, neoconservativism, brain physiology and Enlightenment social philosophy in an amazingly cogent, persuasive text. There's a lot to chew on in this book, and most readers will probably find things to disagree with (I know I don't find some of his lab rat anecdotes especially persuasive), but that's his point-- even if you don't agree, you're thinking, you're engaging, you're having debates with the text and yourself and maybe even other people! You're not just being talked at by a Nancy O'Dell or a Sean Hannity.

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

I want to give a copy of this book to every person who has ever whined about anything, ever. It had the power to shut me up for whole days after I finished reading it.

I have a whole huge stack waiting for me, but would love some more suggestions. What all are you reading this summer? Well, besides Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, obviously. I figure by July 21st I'll be sick of Paul Bremer and African genocide and ready for some wizarding mischief.


Kristin said...

My "to read" list keeps growing. That makes me happy.

Martin said...

I truly loved this post for your excellent choices in reading material and astute analyses of said choices. :)

I might call it a "heartbreaking work of staggering genius," in fact.

Hey Pretty said...

Unpacking the white napsack? Really? Do we have to go there? Don't let my sociology major friends hear that. That book has become something of a metaphor for unproductive liberal white guilt.

EJ Takes Life said...

HP-- Interesting... that wasn't my take at all. Then again, I just read the essay that sparked the book, not the book itself. I actually thought that as far as white liberal guilt works go, it was fairly free of hang-wringing.

Libberash said...

I absolutely loved What is the What as well and it really made the beginning of finals review much more tolerable. That and the fact that I found out that Achak is now in college. Eggers is my hero.

I recommend Eggers' short stories--How We Are Hungry as well as Eat the Document about two 70s radicals forced to go underground. Quick, compelling reads.

If you're jonesing for more non-fiction I recommend The Lost Painting about the search for a lost Caravaggio painting.

I am taking two days of from dissertation hell when Harry comes out-- some things are more important.

Flenker said...

I've been dying to read What is the What, as well as Eggers' short story collection. He's quickly become one of my favorite authors. If you haven't read it, I'd strongly suggest his book You Shall Know our Velocity!. I thought it was pretty incredible.