Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Xmas books

Scandals, sexism and science

Writers and readers choose their books of the year

The Colour of Water by James McBride is an incredibly moving memoir about an African-American child's relationship with his white Jewish mother. Standing at the crossroads where individual meets societal, it shows two intelligent, decent people trying to navigate their way through prejudice, ignorance, love and poverty. Sensitive without being sentimental, it reveals how both racism and the racially deterministic thinking it produces diminishes both white and black people and sheds a human light on the complexities in relationships between blacks and Jews in the US.
Gary Younge


At £29 and 642 pages, Americana is not a book for the faint-hearted. Until now James Dunkerley's work has largely centred on Latin America.

Americana examines some exemplary moments in both North and South America in the 1850s, in particular three trials that demonstrate the cultural currents and conflicts of the time.

It is an idiosyncratic and sometimes rambling account, stimulating in the connections it makes--between disparate histories, values and attitudes--but demanding of the reader in its joyful leaps between different times and spaces. Americana is a challenging read for historians--but I don't think it makes many concessions to a reader less widely read or confidently panoramic than Dunkerley himself.

Hilary Mantel's The Giant, O'Brien is a poetic and deeply moving account of an encounter between poetry and science, a peasant world and an urban milieu, Ireland and England. O'Brien is a giant but also a storyteller well versed in the tales of rural Ireland. Forced to go to England to perform as a freak, he retains the lyrical language of his past but he and his culture are dying. Hunter, the anatomist, sees in his dying body a gift for science. The encounter is complex and moving.

Scott Anderson's Triage explores a more modern trauma--how to come to terms with the primitive brutality of modern war. The protagonist is a war photographer in Kurdistan who cannot come to terms with what he has seen--until he is given an insight by a man who had helped Franco's soldiers come to terms with what they had experienced in the Spanish Civil War.

Frank McLynn is not a professional historian, but his Villa and Zapata is a learned but unstuffy analysis of the Mexican Revolution and its two most radical leaders.
Mike Gonzalez


Stiffed

Susan Faludi's Stiffed is a riveting and rather unexpected read. I opened the book full of foreboding that yet another feminist was going to write about men rather than women and give ammunition to the post-feminist claim that men have been oppressed by feminism. But Faludi is a feminist, not a post-feminist. She attempts to understand women's oppression in the nuclear family, in the economic system and in the images prevalent in popular culture by considering men's place in the system.

Starting with a therapy group for domestic violence offenders, she scours American male bastions: heavy manufacturing industry where skilled workers are losing their jobs, the army, prisons, unemployed teenage boys with nothing to do all day, sports and sports fans. She finds men with a sense of loss, a lack of identity and, in some cases, a seriously misogynist view of women.

She points the finger not at feminism, or at most of the men themselves (whilst never excusing violent actions or sexist attitudes), but at the nuclear family, at the economic system and at the pressures of popular culture.

Most of the studies of men suggest that men have lost a golden age, a time when men had a job for life, role models they could identify with and the wife took care of the home. Faludi is very clear there was never any golden age, and that patriarchy in its different forms has always oppressed both men and women (although women more so than men). Strange though it may sound, this is a book about men's experiences and testimonies that is a serious addition to the feminist debate--and highly readable with it.
Liz Davies


Found maths tough at school? So did I. But numbers are still fascinating. Simon Singh's book Fermat's Last Theorem was a best seller because of his wonderful capacity to simplify things. And the starting point is incredibly simple; what we all struggled to learn at school--that a2 + b2 = c2 . But why doesn't this work for any other powers? In the 17th century Fermat claimed he knew, but for centuries mathematicians have tried to find what that proof was.

Singh's The Code Book is another journey into numbers but this time they are the stuff of codes. Simple problems give rise to the biggest complications. But they are mixed with politics, economics and war, and the desire of the rich and powerful to protect their secrets. Singh explores secret codes from ancient Egypt to modern computer encryption and he saves the best till last. Read how computer encryption is based on ideas first discovered by British intelligence services who were then ordered to keep the ideas secret. They were rediscovered by American mathematicians and today underpin programmes which almost all computers use, earning them billions of dollars a year. Forget Kim Philby. This may be the biggest British security scandal of the last century.
Mike Haynes


In the superb The New Military Humanism Noam Chomsky argues that cases of military intervention with genuine humanitarian intent are difficult to find and that, historically speaking, the outcome of intervention is almost always detrimental.

Focusing on Kosovo, Chomsky shows the way in which narrow political interests motivated Nato's military assault, and how the US and its allies knew even before the bombing commenced that dumping diplomacy in favour of intervention would inevitably lead to an extremely high civilian death toll and massive population displacement. The mass media once again blurred the facts and succeeded in presenting the bloody air raids as a humanitarian effort to save the powerless.
Neve Gordon


As for books which came out last year, the best for me was Piers Brendon's Dark Valley, a panoramic picture of the 1930s full of wit and insight most of which, perhaps surprisingly since Mr Brendon is something very important at Churchill College, Cambridge, will be more than acceptable to Socialist Review readers. Since there are far more good old books than good new ones I must mention my best read of of the year: Stendhal's great novel The Red and the Black, sometimes translated as Red and Black. I felt rather ashamed that I was well into my sixties before enjoying this wonderful book, and I encourage Socialist Review readers to make absolutely sure they do not leave it so long.
Paul Foot


Life and fate

Two of the great themes of the 20th century are war and the Holocaust. The Russian novel Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman deals with both. A war correspondent during the battle of Stalingrad, Grossman's novel sets its characters against the terrible conditions there and describes the fate of those who fell victim to Stalin's purges. His descriptions of Jewish victims of Nazism are some of the most moving I have ever read. It is a book which reminds us again of some of the most awful treatment of human beings and how they survive because of their collective solidarity and humanity.

Walter Mosley, the best selling US black novelist, deals with some of the same questions in a very different way in his short, if overpriced, essay Workin' on the Chain Gang. Mosley's insistence that questions of race have to be dealt with by looking at class is beautifully expressed and testifies to the changes in US politics in the past year.
Lindsey German


My book of the year is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. The kaleidoscope of characters in this beautiful book--beggars, beggar master, Muslim, Hindu--barely maintain a fine balance, each teetering on the edge of chaos. This is India. Two 'untouchables', struggle out of their caste to become tailors. A rebellious, intelligent widow, who married against the wishes of her family, employs them. The stinking slum where the tailors live is bulldozed in a crazy political programme to beautify the city. They take refuge with beggars, but are trucked away with them in the night, and left stranded, out of reach of their jobs. The humanity of the characters shines through the anarchy of life under the corrupt political system.
Muriel Hirsch


Magical Urbanism

In Magical Urbanism Mike Davis shows how the last 30 years have seen a massive growth in the Latino population of US cities. Latinos are now the majority in California, and outnumber blacks in six of the ten biggest cities. They are now becoming the majority in some of the largest urban centres on earth.

Hispanics have faced racism and discrimination at all levels but, as Mike Davis shows, Latino workers have created new militant traditions of struggle, drawing on the international solidarity of a global labour movement. Latinos building vibrant societies in derelict inner cities are proud to wear their union labels. In a world of growing resistance to capitalism, the struggles waged by Latino workers in the US continue to be an inspiration.
Judy Cox


Imagine--a science book that's a page turner and laugh out loud funny. Part of the laughter is that before reading Richard Lewontin's It Ain't Necessarily So, I hadn't realised the extent to which that whole reductive Dawkin determinism ('Genes have created us, body and mind') had been depressing the shit out of me.

'DNA is a dead molecule', Lewontin argues. 'One of the most non-reactive, chemically inert molecules in the living world.' Reading this made me feel like I could breathe again.

Lewontin is, like Vandana Shiva, keenly alive to how perfectly the doctrine of DNA serves that other vile slander against life--capitalism. DNA makes nothing, shapes nothing, but is merely one part of a complex cellular machinery of proteins. Such communist behaviour by our bodies, all working together cooperatively without a boss, has to be airbrushed out of natural history. The fetish of DNA as 'Master Molecule', Lewontin argues, is 'the transfer onto biology of the belief in the superiority of...the planner and designer over the unskilled operative on the assembly line.'

Xmas books

The book is a collection of essays, most of which started out as reviews of books by corporate-friendly scientists. Left wing fight fans will love the sight of him wiping the floor with all those bell curve racists, selfish gene elitists and human genome mapping smart arses.

Lewontin writes simply, carefully and intelligently about complexity, and feels no need to razzle-dazzle us with fancy jargon. And in these tedious postmodernist days, what a blast to have someone use logic. This is one of those books which seems to increase the electrical activity in your brain, and makes you feel all subtle and super-intelligent yourself. Until, that is, you make the mistake I did and think, 'Right, now I'll have another go at the Grundrisse...' Doh!!!
Robert Newman


Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje, is a beautiful, chilling book about Sri Lanka's bloody civil war that has killed over 70,000 people and exiled many more. Despite a recent escalation of violence in Sri Lanka that makes the Middle East conflict look tame by comparison, there is a near complete blackout in the press about the war and only the most half-hearted peace efforts. Journalists who dare to enter Sri Lanka are deported or killed. In this context Anil's Ghost, the story of a forensic anthropologist on a macabre fact-finding mission, is more than historical fiction. It is an act of great honesty and defiance--the closest most of us will come to any kind of truth.
Naomi Klein


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