This summer I will release a series of posts with brief thoughts on most of the books I read, both academic and literary. Themes will range from the philosophy of science/engineering, to the near future of American society, economy, and politics, to anthropology, to the mechanisms of peace and violence, to minority and immigrant fiction:
Home Boy by H.M. Naqvi —
Like the work of a Pakistani Junot Diaz, H.M. Naqvi’s HOME BOY bursts with poetry, philosophy, politics, history, culture, Urdu, Spanish, profanity, and endless rivers of nihari. It is ultimately the deeply personal journey of a band of brothers (or should I say Others?) who feel every bit “American” or “New Yorker” yet are suddenly confronted by the social and political backlash of post-9/11 prejudice. By painting a complex and deeply human portrait of Muslims in America who fail to “fit” the post-9/11 image in almost every way, Naqvi’s emotionally and lyrically powerful novel toys skillfully with satire as the Pakistani protagonists, their government kidnappers/torturers, and society at large scratch their heads at the disparity between reality and stereotype. Naqvi may lack the distinct combination of nerd, spark, and natural cool which makes Diaz’s stories crackle, and he may depict a cliche picture of New York City as an urban salon for inebriated street philosophers, but he makes his point with humor, passion, and voice. I’m still waiting to read a successful American novel with a practicing Muslim protagonist (as if those can’t be characters or don’t exist or are only “bad guys”…), but that doesn’t detract from HOME BOY’s brilliance. I look forward eagerly to his next novel.
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody”Thou shalt not kill,” even though man’s natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody:”Thou shalt kill,” although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis,probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob,not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.
I finished Hannah Arendt’s EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM: A REPORT ON THE BANALITY OF EVIL just in time to see the Hannah Arendt biopic (which is basically an account of her life during and around the Eichmann trial). The film is a good introduction to Arendt’s ideas (though it’s impossible to go into the complexities of her original essays/report in 2 hours of dramatic film), but most importantly it’s a powerful, well-scripted (and sometimes humorous) window into the character of Hannah Arendt and her struggle to grasp the disturbing legal and moral implications of our modern political structures. Here’s the trailer for the film:
The Search for a Nonviolent Future by Michael Nagler —
Michael Nagler’s THE SEARCH FOR A NONVIOLENT FUTURE is at times more stuffed with rhetoric or preachiness than it is intellectually rigorous, and it focuses a bit too much on the lives of MLK and Gandhi (still noteworthy, but occasionally overworn and possibly overpolished examples). Nevertheless, Nagler’s book is a comforting descent from the “ivory tower” of academia, illuminating the lost history and present of nonviolent action, emphasizing that nonviolence is far from naive passivity but, if anything, is something radical and bold — in Gandhi’s words, “something for the brave, the courageous.” Although Nagler might not fully illustrate a solid and explicitly practical picture of how nonviolence can be “systematized” at the large scale — of a society based exclusively on nonviolence — he is able to point (with reference to Arendt) to the modern state’s disregard for the sanctity of human life, for even nature itself. The solution is far more complex than anyone today can probably imagine, but ultimately the sheer power of Nagler’s many anecdotes spanning histories, cultures, politics, and religions is what makes the book’s moral drive for social justice and spirituality shine. There are varieties of power other than the threat of violence, Nagler argues, and we ought to unravel and explore their potential rather than fall trap to a jaded point of view which only perpetrates a downward spiral of “violence begets violence.”