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Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal

Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal

Tim Parks

2020


A tale of Italian life, and especially Italian academic life. I've seen this as an outsider, and recognise some of the terms and issues described: it'd be fascinating to hear an Italian academic's view too.

The story goes well beyond academia, though, to the things that make Italy both a wonderful and damaging culture: the impact of tight families and high expectations, especially for people moving from the south (Puglia and Basilicata) to the north (Milan, Bologna). Many of the themes have equivalents in other places, especially Ireland, but the differences in perception are often hard to decode as an outsider, and this book was often like listening-in on episodes that I've seen but not understood.

4/5. Finished 02 December 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)

Kim Stanley Robinson

1992


A future history of colonising another planet. It was written in the 1990s but reads like it was written in the late 2010s: a penetrating exploration of how nationalism, capitalism, and a desire for independence might play out over interplanetary distances, all told with Robinson's usual hardest-of-the-hard-science approach.

4/5. Finished 22 November 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Aja Raden

2015


The desire for jewels exists everywhere, and this is an overview written by someone with a deep understanding of jewellery and its place in both fashion and politics. There are some great vignettes, especially about the rise of cultured pearls and the influence of De Beer's on the emergence of diamonds as fashion essentials.

Raden is less sure about history, though, and sometimes gets carried away with detail that doesn't in any way relate to the issues at hand. Many of the comments are alarmingly ahistorical: describing Mary Tudor as "mad" and "insane", for example, for actions that were perfectly sensible in the context of a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. And the notion that there being no market economy means that nothing can have value assigned to it, or that any attempt to better workers' conditions amounts simply to socialism, betrays her own background more than it illuminates either the history of the jewellery.

3/5. Finished 21 November 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

We Don't Know Ourselves

We Don't Know Ourselves

Fintan O'Toole

2022


A personal but wide-ranging exploration of Ireland in the last sixty years, by someone who's reported on a lot of it. That makes for an insightful reading of political events in particular, the rise in national self-confidence and fall in religious influence across Irish society.

It's probably largely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't spent a lot of time in Ireland, though: many things remain under-explained, as perhaps they have to given the sweep of the narrative. The deep-seated feelings of guilt that underpin many social relationships go unmentioned, for example. And the description of the boom-and-bust of the 2000s won;t be clear to anyone who doesn't already know the story.

But O'Toole does manage to dive deeply into something that many outsiders find perplexing: the "dual consciousness" in Irish life whereby something can be known about but not acted upon, or rather where daily life goes on without any reference to things that "everyone knows". (I lived in Ireland off and on for over twenty years, and this still baffles me.) How was Charles Haughey treated as a man of the people when he lived quite clearly beyond his means? Why did no-one investigate? – well, because there was nothing to expose, because "everyone knew", and so no demand to read about it.

But with those provisos, this is an excellent history of a period of tumultuous change for Ireland, during which it emerged into the modern world, peacefully and culturally intact.

4/5. Finished 10 November 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois

1903


This is a hard work to capture succinctly. A collection of re-worked essays that address the concerns of those working for civil rights in the early 20th century, looking at the failure of Reconstruction and unable to see the currents that would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its limited successes.

There are some things that place the writing in its particular time. There's an acceptance of race, of racial differences and distinct, widely shared racial characteristics that is jarring to the modern ear. There's also a casual anti-Semitism that's perhaps even more shocking when deployed in the cause of emancipation by such a deep thinker who mainly overflows (at least in the main part of the book) with inclusivity towards white Americans.

The essays range in tone from the high idealisation of education in "Of the training of Black men" to the howl of anguish in "Of the passing of the first-born". And then – in this edition, anyway – there's the sudden volte face of Du Bois's later thought in "The souls of White folk", where he interprets the First World War as the start of an anti-colonial struggle that's redolent of much recent writing in the same vein.

It's only having read Du Bois that I (as a non-American) really come to appreciate his influence and hear the echoes of his thought. Certainly he is being channelled directly in Between the World and Me, and his ideas and even his speech patterns come through clearly in the voices of the modern civil rights movement.

5/5. Finished 01 November 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)