Albert Camus, Between the World and Me, books, Brothers, C. Wright Mills, Dora Bruder, Frank McCourt, novel, Patrick Modiano, review, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ted Kaczynski, THe Marxists, The Stranger, writing
This month’s Book Nook covers one book that’s taken me ages to finish, and then a few other quick short books.
First off is The Marxists by C. Wright Mills. Sociologist Mills is probably best known for his seminal work, The Power Elite, about the role of the rich in the formation of US policy and their usurpation of the democratic process. The Marxists, however, is much less well known and not always easy to find.
Mills was a lapsed Marxist when he wrote it, but I think his project here is very useful, even today. His idea was to make a readable survey of the different varieties of Marxism that have evolved since the Russian Revolution. So here you’ll find descriptions of the myriad forms of socialism and communism variously championed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, the Social Democrats, Tito, and Che Guevara, among others. Mills has an opening essay where he details what specifically belongs to Marx, and then, largely through primary source material quotation, he allows the various tendencies to speak for themselves.
I found it tough sledding, but worth it. By contrasting the different strains of communism, I was able to get a real grasp on what the key features of Marx’s philosophy were, and the subtleties of his thought. It also helped to explain for me the sometimes bewildering alliances and betrayals within the history of the left. Definitely recommended for those who want to get a further grasp on what Marxism means or could mean.
Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry is a series of essays by famous and not-so-famous authors concerning their brothers. The book opens with David Kaczynski talking about how he idolized his brilliant older brother while growing up, only to realize later on that the handwriting of the Unabomber’s letters was that of his brother, Ted. Gutwrenching. Other entries are touching and humorous, with Frank McCourt’s introductory essay about his brothers at a long postponed Christmas get-together a comic gem.
I’ve been attracted lately to short books! To that end, I recently completed Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano. In 1988, Modiano came across a small 1941 French newspaper notice which reported that a young girl, 15, named Dora Bruder had gone missing. Modiano attempts to find out who Dora was, and in so doing leads himself through a trail of memory of both the horrific French Occupation and his own childhood memories. In this seemingly artless book made of scraps of information, Modiano weaves a fascinating tale of the ephemeral nature of historical experience.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an eloquent recounting of Coates’s realization that as a Black man, his entire life has been spent worrying, literally, about the safety of his Black body. As he explores this theme under the guise of a letter to his teen-age son, he recounts both his personal experiences and the larger role of White Supremacy’s need to subjugate Black bodies as the central fact of United States history. Though some have seen Coates’s work as nihilistic, I don’t agree with that. He is suspicious of alliances with whites and insists that whites of goodwill will have to find their own path; he wants to spend his time relating to the wide spectrum of Black life he encountered once he was able to leave the confines of his Baltimore streets. My biggest issue with the book is that there is not much of a class analysis, but Coates’s point is that, in the US at least, notions of race are even more constricting than that of class. I think it’s arguable, but his own story provides strong testimony.
I had read Albert Camus’ The Stranger when I was in high school, but picked it up again because my wife was recently reading it in French. I’m probably an outlier here, but what struck me most about the book was how funny it was. Yes, there are all kinds of issues about personal responsibility and colonialism, but I couldn’t help but fixate on the notion that it was a story about a man whose actions were subject to the ridiculous interpretations of everyone around him for their own ends, while the man himself was erased. For me, the key scene is Meursault in the courtroom, on trial. Both the defense and prosecuting attorneys come up with all kinds of clever explanations for Meursault’s actions, explanations meant to bolster the strength of each side, respectively; but, instead, what both sides showed they had in common with each other was the complete irrelevance of their ingenious theories to the actual truth of the man standing before them. I laughed out loud at times.
Next time: Life in wartime France in Trains of Thought by Victor Brombert; Stephen Stern’s novel of Jewish life in a fantastical surreal Memphis, The Pinch; and When Strangers Cooperate by David Brown, an investigation into how social conventions are formed. And, for magic related items there will be a separate post soon where I cover some interesting magic videos and ebooks.