A periodic feature from The Independent Staff, showcasing brief book reviews.
Hungry for intellectual discussion? Longing for the stimulation that comes from encountering a first-rate mind with interesting ideas? Historian and bibliophile Brian Odom recommends three books to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Fans of Faulkner and Hemingway, and students of modernism, might enjoy Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry. And what could be more current than Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism? For those curious about themselves and the human condition, our reviewer strongly recommends the fascinating Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind, an “enlightening glimpse into the world of human evolution.” Enjoy!
Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
by Joseph Fruscione
The Ohio State University Press
William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway came of age in a post-WWI era in which intellectuals from across the artistic spectrum were eager to construct new modes of masculinity and find psychological grounding in a world disillusioned by war. In the newly emerging world of American modernity, Faulkner and Hemingway engaged in a more than three-decade literary quarrel that was “rich, nuanced and often vexed.” Although they met only once, Fruscione argues that the two great authors engaged in a career long “psychocompetitive” dual of aesthetic production that alternatively challenged each writer and crept into and molded much of their future work. Fruscione argues that the two men “sometimes shared and sometimes pushed each other out of the American literary spotlight.” Fruscione’s dual biography is insightful, engaging and solidly researched, but the overall notion that Faulkner and Hemingway writings constitute “a dialectic of American modernists” pushes the matter into the realm of conjectural artifice. Overall, fans of the two great writers will find much to admire in Fruscione’s constructive narrative.
Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism.
by Jonathan Lyons
Columbia University Press
Standing before the Council of Clermont in November of 1095, Pope Urban II called on the “nation of Franks” to lead a crusade in the name of God and all of Christendom to take control of the Holy Land and save it from the heavy hand of the infidels. In this scathing assessment of the anti-Islamic Western discourse, Jonathan Lyons explores how over the past thousand years, from the Foucaultian “zero point” at Clermont to the present, proponents of this anti-Islamism attitude (including Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington and the George W. Bush administration) have employed the “clash of civilizations” mentality in an effort to rally support and provide ideological justification for their own nefarious actions. Lyon identifies the core of this counterfactual discourse in the beliefs that “Islam is a religion of violence … spread by the sword” whose “tenets are upheld by coercion and force” and that Muslims are “backward,” “fearful of modernity,” “sexually perverse,” “antidemocratic” and “caught up in a jealous rage at the Western world’s failure to value them or their beliefs.” Although detractors will claim that Lyon is battling the “straw man,” his biting analysis and lucid arguments are intellectually affecting and demanding of a large readership.
Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
by Mark Pagel
In this enlightening glimpse into the world of human evolution, Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading, has constructed an intriguing tale about the processes through which “our cultures came to occupy our minds, what they demand of us, how those demands have been met and whether our cultural nature provides useful solutions for living in a modern world.” Pagel argues that the human proclivity for “social learning” has allowed us to create extensive cultural survival vehicles that provide us with our “cultural body” that “wraps us in a protective layer … of knowledge and technologies.” These tools, including “language, cooperation and a shared identity,” have allowed our cultural evolution, and with its ability to adapt “on the fly,” allowed it to stay out in front of our biological evolution. Pagel also explores the darker side of this process, agreeing with noted evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson that beliefs such as xenophobia, racism, bigotry and parochialism are adopted by cultures not because they are true, but because “they promote survival.” Pagel has skillfully combined hard science with masterful exposition and given readers much to consider.
~ Brian Odom