Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows
I picked up this book because it was billed to me as a book that examined why we in America love certain animals (dogs) and eat others (chickens). As someone who has recently been moving back towards an ethically vegan diet after some years in the meat-eating wilderness, I was interested in this question.
In fact, the book doesn’t answer that question, at least not in a way that satisfied me. Instead, it’s a well reasoned, often deeply disturbing, argument for ethical veganism. Using first hand reports and extensive research, Joy shows how cruel factory farming is, and that should lead anyone to wonder why they eat meat. But it doesn’t really explain why certain animals are brought into the home as pets and others to the table as dinner. This is a good book on the importance of ending factory farming, but not the book I was looking for.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
The Mad and the Bad
A woman with mental problems is sprung from a hospital to watch a child heir. A tortured assassin with a bad ulcer is hire to make a murder like look a kidnapping. Nobody gets what they’re expecting.
Welcome to another crime novel by the mad genius Jean-Patrick Manchette where the writing is clean and spare and the plot twists come at you fast. Most of Manchette’s novels are full of unlikable people, and this one is no different, though, perhaps there is a hero within this one, and perhaps she’s a disturbed young woman who just wants to do what’s right.
All Manchette’s novels are brilliant, but this one is among the best.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
A clever and engrossing account of the story of Adam and Eve from its origins in early Judaism (and perhaps other long gone near east traditions) through its codification in the Torah, to its centrality in the thinking of Augustine and John Milton through to the modern developments of evolution and prehistoric paleontology.
This was a fun read with scores of digressions into Babylonian mythology, early church theocratic disputes, the English civil war and more. Greenblatt does a great job of popularizing some heady material while not dumbing it down too far. Really fascinating and fun from page one to the finish.
Mishneh Torah – Talmud Torah
In March, my friend Noah asked me if I’d like to learn some Torah with him. Of course I said yet. By Torah here Noah meant the expansive sense of the word, covering texts of religious importance to Jews. After some back and forth, we settled on learning Maimonides (aka the Rambam) laws for the Study of Torah or Hilchot Talmud Torah from the Rambam’s massive Mishneh Torah. We did this in the tradition way of Chavrusa, working together line by line, to analyze the Rambam’s distillation of the laws governing the study of Torah in great, great detail. Noah read the text in Hebrew, I in English and we discussed and debated both the large themes the Rambam was presenting and the smallest apparent logical inconsistency in the text. We did this, just about every shabbat morning, for the last nine months.
Finally, just recently, we finished. It was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences I’ve had in years. Noah is deeply knowledgeable about the Rambam. Me, not so much. Noah brought a lifetime of deep Torah study and a brilliant intellect. I think I brought some fresh perspectives and a willingness to ask stupid questions to the conversation.
Seeing very up close the care with which the Rambam codified these rules for study was a revelation and while I still don’t always agree with the great man, I’m more impressed than ever with the clarity and care that went into creating this massive, yet minutely constructed work.
As for the form of reading this – hyper closely, debating every line, while our children played in the background — it was a joy. There were many mornings when I didn’t want to get up and get over to Noah’s place, but after every session, I felt invigorated. Its an incredible way to start the day.
Recommended (the text for Jews and others interested in a detailed articulation of the rules governing Torah study) and the practice of Chavrusa for everyone.
Maimonides (aka the Rambam)
I think this is generally thought of as Manchette’s most fully realized work and the culmination of his deeply nihilistic noir novels. The Fatale is a young woman who, we soon discovers, kills lecherous men for revenge, and money. She is literally a serial killer, yet still we cheer for her, especially as she seems so close to ruining the lives of scores of awful bourgeoisie dilettantes in a small French town. Except, then, as always happens in a Manchette novel, things get even more chaotic and violent.
Like every Manchette novel this is a brilliant piece of economic writing, propulsive plot, and compelling (if hardly likeable) characters. That he does so much with so few words can feel like magic.
Three To Kill
You’re coming home late at night, you try to do the right thing, but you end up getting caught up in something you don’t even understand and then people start trying to kill you. That’s the plot of 3 to Kill, and of many other crime novels and thrillers, but Manchette, in his very Manchette way takes it in another direction where the chase and the near death provide the bourgeois businessman protagonist something he needs, some sense that life is real?
What if armed men trying to kill you is a gift?
Like all Manchette’s novels this one moves at a rapid pace, with action on top of action and little to no time for reflection. It’s a crackerjack of a novel and further testament to why Manchette is among the greatest crime writers to ever live.
The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band That Burned a Million Pounds
Man this is a weird one.
Ostensibly this is a book about a dance band that was also a sort of chaos art project that involved outlandish stunt after outlandish stunt culminating the burning of a million British pounds on a desolate island. An action that was widely panned and that the band itself could never successfully explain.
Its also a book about weird undercurrents of magic and conspiracy theories that have simmered in certain corners of British pop culture for decades, from the comics of Alan Moore to the Dr. Who series. But that’s not all, it’s also a book about the surprisingly far reaching effect of a discordianism – a religion of sorts made up as a kind of joke by a bunch of American weirdos and made famous in the science fiction novels of Robert Anton Wilson.
It’s a wild ride, going from the JFK assassination to the business of dance music production, from chaos magic to children’s television shows and I loved it. As someone who has followed this weird world for a long time, I thought I knew the story of the KLF, but nope, I didn’t know the half of it. Unlike most writers in this area, Higgs is a real journalist who did the real footwork necessary to tell this story and boy is it compelling.
If the weird is your thing, then this book is definitely for you.
Who Wrote the Bible
Richard Elliott Friedman
In the last couple of years, I’ve been making a real effort to engage more deeply with Torah study, and particularly with the weekly parshas.* This year, after coming across what seemed like a contradiction in Genesis, I asked a rabbi friend what to make of it. “Do you want the historical answer or the Talmudic answer?” he responded. “Both” I said. We dug into how to square the apparent contradiction bases on the guidance of the ancient scholars, but he also told me to read this book if I wanted to understand more about the how historically the five books of Moses were constructed.
In a nut shell Who Wrote the Bible makes the argument that Five Books of Moses were written by four different authors – J (for Jehovah), E (for Elohim) P (for Priest) D (for writer of Deuteronomy) and then constructed by another compiler. The various authors had differing perspectives and political goals in their drafting hence the contradictions and repetitions.
Friedman asserts that these authors were all individual people and my understanding is that now many scholars take issue with that and other conclusions Friedman draws here. But the general outline still holds. I’m relatively new to this subject myself, and found this to be a fascinating, if flawed, read. I’d be curious to hear from others out there who’ve read in this area about better works.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
*For non-Jewish readers, the “Torah” can be defined broadly as Jewish religious texts or my accurately as the five books of Moses. Jews read the five books of Moses on a set schedule ever year, breaking the books down into weekly sections called parshas.
The Prone Gunman
Poor kid from the wrong side of town falls in the rich, gorgeous, popular girl. Embarrassed by his humble origins and desperate to make her happy, he tells her he is leaving town to make his fortune and will be back in ten years for her. This being a novel by the great French Noir writer Jean-Patrick Manchette going off to make a fortune involves becoming an assassin for hire., of course, and when our gunman return to collect the girl of his dream, no surprise everything goes horribly wrong.
Like any Manchette novel, this is propulsive, action packed, and written in a style so stark it hurts. I absolutely love Manchette’s work, and this one may epitomize his oeuvre. Incessant action and violence and no hero to cheer for except the author himself as he implements plot twist after plot twist. Great stuff here if you have any interest in crime writing.
God I loved this little book.
In post 1968 Paris a bunch of anarchists of varying levels of commitment plot to take an American ambassador hostage. It doesn’t go well, for anyone. The violence is nearly nonstop and none of the characters is particularly likeable. Still I couldn’t put it down. This is peak noir writing set in a world of anarchists, Marxists and intelligence agencies. Basically, candy for someone with my interests.
Manchette is among the best noir crime writers the world has ever seen. After I finished this, I went out and bought all his other books that have been translated into English. His writing is extremely sparse and direct, what details are included are pitch perfect – the name of the novel a character is reading, the make of a jacket. The action is nonstop and propulsive. We learn the inner lives of the characters by their actions, not by ruminations. The grizzled revolutionary takes action, even when it is ill advised, the hopeless intellectual meanders and drinks, even when action is required. This book, like most of Manchette’s has no heroes, just broken, deeply flawed people flailing through a violent mess. I ate it up.