in Book Reviews, Books

October Books

Good grief, another month come and gone and I’m still buried in a paper that I am writing for a seminar on “Christianity and Capitalism” (it’s a little worrisome that I just finished typing up an 8 page bibliography [I always type my bibliographies first] for a paper that is only supposed to be 20 pages… I might be in trouble).
Anyway, on with my woefully inadequate reviews (hey, at least I’m actually doing reviews this month!):
1. Faith & Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money by Justo L. Gonzalez.
This is a damn good book, and one that is extremely relevant for those of us who have the ‘privilege’ of living within the context of a well-advanced form of global capitalism. Gonzalez traces the writings of the New Testament authors, and the Church Fathers, up until the fourth century, and what he finds is impressive. The issue of wealth was one that was addressed regularly (i.e. Christian reflections on economics need to go back to this period, and not simply begin with the Reformers, like Calvin — who, by the way, broke tradition with all the Church Fathers when he permitted people to lend at interest). What is especially impressive is the way in which Gonzalez shows that the early Christian attitude to property was basically the attitude of the Church described in Acts 2 & 4. Christians were said to hold all things in common with one another and, apart from the bare necessities, they were to sell everything superfluous and give the money to the poor (deserving or not!). I found this book to be very convicting, and I highly recommend it to everybody.
2. Easy Essays by Peter Maurin.
Peter Maurin, along with Dorothy Day, was a co-founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement (although Day become more of the spokesperson, the impetus and vision were largely Maurin’s). Collected here are a number of his essays, published in short, very readable lines, intended for the working man or woman. It makes for quick reading, but Maurin writes with wit (he refers to Utilitarians as Futilitarians — oh snap!) and his focus on combining cult, culture, and agriculture in communities where the worker learns how to be a scholar and the scholar learns how to be a worker provides much food for thought (especially for those Christian academics who are interested in pursuing intentional community living today).
3. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures by Jean Baudrillard.
This book was so good, and so full of content, that it is hard to know how to describe it in a few sentences. Essentially, Baudrillard argues that, within the consumer society, signs and images have replaced reality because consumption is increasingly driven by the desire for status and distinction from one’s neighbour, instead of the desire to meet basic needs. Consequently, the consumer society is defined by its deep and “radical” alienation from reality and by its insatiable desires. As he makes this argument, Baudrillard engages in some fascinating studes of consumption, growth, personalization, mass-media, the body, time, solicitude, and affluence. Of course, I’m basically murdering this book in this review, as it is probably the best work of philosophy that I have read this year. I would likely make this required reading for any who are studying capitalism (along with the Gonzalez book, and the Klein book I mention below).
4. Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International by Jacques Derrida.
You know, I’m really beginning to wonder if Derrida is really worth the time it takes me to figure out what the hell he is talking about (an especially frustrating process given that, when I finally do figure out what he’s talking about, the content of what he is saying can usually be massively reduced and stated in much simpler language without much harm being done to anybody). This book was a bit of his shout-out to Marxism, after Marxism had (supposedly) been defeated with the collapse of the USSR (because, you know, he didn’t want to talk about Marx before that, lest he was identified with the wrong kind of Marxism and ended up *gasp* being misunderstood — which really seems to be Derrida’s problem: he’s so afraid of being misunderstood that he spends so much time hedging what he is saying that it takes for-freakin’-ever to understand him!). Anyway, apart from two chapters, one on the underside of capitalism and the atrocities it has wrought, and one on Fukuyama and the neo-evangelists of capitalism, I hardly connected with this piece. I wouldn’t recommend it, and I think it’ll be awhile before I think about reading Derrida again.
5. Fascism: what it is and how to fight it by Leon Trotsky.
You know, I imagine that the USSR would have been a very different place if Trotsky had beat out Stalin but, as with any power structure, it seems like the ‘bad guys’ always win (whether that is exemplified in communism in Russia or democracy in America). Regardless, I think that, given the option of choosing how to die, being killed by an ice-pick to the head while living in exile in Mexico would be pretty high on my list. But I’m getting off topic… this book (hardly a book, more like an encyclical) is a combination of selections on fascism pulled from Trotsky’s oeuvre. It was interesting as an historical piece (i.e. especially interesting is his analysis of the rise of fascism in Germany and the way in which he is able to foresee some of the dire consequences before they occur) but I didn’t find it to be all that helpful in exploring the topic of fascism itself. It has, however, whet my appetite for Trotsky and I’m discovering that his books are hard to find.
6. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.
This very well might end up being the best book I’ve read this year. That is to say, I think that everybody should read this book. Klein engages in a decimating examination of neoclassical economics (i.e. the dominant form of contemporary capitalism) as it has arisen to a state of global dominance. In country after country, from Chile, to Poland to China, to the United States and Iraq, she demonstrates the horrendous human cost of imposing the ‘free market’ ideology that was perpetrated by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School (or, as I like to call them, the MFers). If this book doesn’t make you reconsider your attachments to Western culture, then I think we’re pretty much screwed.
7. Economics Today: A Christian Critique by Donald A. Hay.
Speaking of being screwed, if I really believed that Hay accurately represented the Christian approach to economics, then there is a good chance I’d convert to a violent form of socialism. Hays approach to Scripture, theology, and hermeneutics is shallow and borders on the absurd (when, for example, he quotes Jesus’ reference to divorce being allowed in the OT due to ‘hardness of heart’, as an authoritative text for the pursuit of capitalism as a necessary ‘second best’ option, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry). Not surprisingly, at the end of the day, Hay just ends up proposing a form of economics that looks almost identical to contemporary capitalism — except that everybody is just a little nicer to everybody else. Whoop-dee-doo.
8. Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World by Benjamin R. Barber.
This book was alright, I suppose. Maybe it’s hard to give it a fair shake after reading Klein’s tour de force. Essentially, Barber argues that both globalisation and violent forms of resistance are opposed to democracy and actually mutually support one another. Hence, the more of globalisation we see, the more of ‘jihad’ we will see, and the less democracy we will have. I think it’s a good point, but I think Barber’s solution (recover the values of civil society as they were first proposed by liberalism in the 18th century) is flawed and too dependent upon the what William Cavanaugh calls ‘the myth of the State as saviour’ (although, in this case, it is a democratic civil society, which is somehow vaguely differentiated from that state, that ends up saving us).
9. Selling Olga: Stories of Human Trafficking and Resistance by Louisa Waugh.
I was a little disappointed in this book. It had its strong points — highlighting trafficking that occurred in migrant workers outside of the sex trade, linking human trafficking to globalisation, and avoiding condescending or romanticised ‘victim’ language in relation to women who are trafficked — but, by and large, it seemed like the book was a document about somebody learning how to write a book about trafficking. It touches upon many of the same issues raised in Victor Malarek’s book (The Natashas) but I think Malarek deals with those issues in more detail. Both books, however, provide a number of handy references to documents that have been released on this issue, and to organisations involved in fighting human trafficking so it is a helpful resource in that regard.
10. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
I enjoy Ondaatje’s voice quite a lot — he reminds me of Timothy Findley (when Findley is at his best) in his ability to write prose that sounds like poetry. Unfortunately, I’m not all that gripped by his content so this story about desert exploration, WWII, a pilot covered in burns, a Canadian nurse, an East Indian sapper, and an Italian thief (sounds like it should be good, right?) didn’t end up griping me all that much. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t really seem to get into Canadian literature (apart from the odd book, like The Wars by Timothy Findley — which is exceptional).

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