Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Post-Semester Post: Fall 2011

So the semester is over and I thought I'd share some mini-reviews and recommendations based on what I was forced to read. I won't be reviewing everything, only things I liked most. Also, keep in mind that I'm a writing major and did mostly writing - a lot of writing.

Francis Godwin's Man in the Moone: Arguably the first science fiction novel (though I think the credit should go to Kepler's Somnium, published four years earlier). Some say this book does not qualify as SF. I disagree: any story that has a plot dependent on some science element to make sense is SF.  At first, honestly, I thought it was a poorly written short novel. It was published (posthumously) in 1638, and it shows. Gonsales, the protagonist, a Spanish midget (or short person), flies to the Moon via geese power and arrives in a few days to meet a utopian alien society of giants. Weird. However, the professor of the class was able to cogently (whether true or not) point out the book's significance and meaning. Something about the scientific understanding of the time. I don't know how talented or prescient Godwin was. However, I'm convinced that this is an important little book.

Thomas More's Utopia: with this book I'm confident of the author's talent. It is quite thoughtful in its arguments against the societal and governmental ills of early modern England. One could, also, call it a proto-communist work. However, I did notice More's own religious views make their way into Utopia. (He was a devout Catholic, so devout, in fact, he was beheaded by Henry VIII, who he praises so efficaciously in the First Book.) The Utopians are not fond of atheists, regarding them as plainly in the wrong, and are shown to be beginning to accept Christianity, despite having their own beliefs and having a seemingly superior society. As a non-religious person, it's a tad annoying that Utopia cannot be such without the Christ. But that's More for ya.

(I bought Three Early Modern Utopias [Kindle edition], which, also, contains Bacon's New Atlantis and Neville's The Isle of Pines. Utopias are very fascinating, so I'm really enjoying these insights into how and why utopias are conceptualized.)

Edward Said's Orientalism: I'm always surprised by how much of this scholar's argument I'm able to understand. I'm usually at a lost with stuff like Lacan (or even Derrida, who I don't think was trying to be as obscure). I read part of this book as an undergrad for an English course on colonialism. Said's arguments are as relevant today as they were over thirty years ago, maybe more relevant, definitely more relevant today. Said considers this work, along with The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam, as a kind of trilogy. I don't have the other two books, but I will definitely get them as I am very much interested in US foreign policy, especially with regards to the Middle East because I feel they reveal much more about the US than they do of the Middle East, as do our conceptions of the "Orient."

Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel: I read the chapters "On Anticipation" and "On the Exotic." De Botton has a very nice way of writing (surreal, witty, peculiar) while maintaining a certain elitism I can appreciate as a grad student. De Botton confidently makes abstractions about traveling and how we perceive foreignness, how we are turned on by the slightest indication of certain difference from what we are familiar with, a phenomena he terms "exoticism"; it is really a book about consciousness and the nature of bias and discrimination. Things that really interest me.

I, also, read Borges for the first time (shame!) and would highly recommend his short story "Circular Ruins" to anyone who can read. If you cannot read, this story is not appropriate for you, as are all other such stories, those with words. I typically don't like reading translations. Especially when the original language is one I can read. (I'm multi-lingual.) So unsure if I would get all the Spanish and unsure I would miss something if I read it in English, I read the story in both languages. I should have just read it in English, I found out, because the translation was pretty damn good. It's a story that, in true Borges fashion, appears to have no connection with reality whatsoever and seems like nothing more than academic obscurantism but is actually quite deep and meaningful. It deals with, if I may give a vague interpretation, the nature of reality (and, therefore, of consciousness) and the pertinent dichotomy between the material and immaterial worlds. Entertaining throughout (a short short story) and a nice twist at the end.

(As a result of my enjoyment from reading this and a few other of his short stories for my fiction workshop, I bought the Borges collection Ficciones [Kindle edition and in Spanish], which I can't wait to start reading.)

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