Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, June 18, 2009 | Category: |

William Zinsser - Writing About Your Life -
With Writing About Your Life - a pleasurable and instructional book - Zinsser brandishes his skill with words, while exposing the practice required to hone such skill.  He focuses on writing memoir. He maps the challenges you face when writing a memoir and he provides tactics to avoid common problems, to improve your focus, and to clarify your intentions.  He makes a case study of several texts along the way, drawing on his own writing and his experiences interviewing other writers such as Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and many others.  The book is well-rounded, incorporating Zinsser's peculiar take on a life lived well, on God, on writing as career and passion, and on appreciation of commonplace beauty.  This is the second book by Zinsser that I've read and I plan to read his other books.  In particular, he refers to a book he edited, Inventing the Truth, in which several writers contribute their opinions and advice on writing memoir (including those authors listed above), which I now intend to read. 

I am not centrally interested in writing memoir, but I am motivated to write semi-autobiographical fiction, and writing that biographies my extended family.  Zinsser's Writing About Your Life contributes valuably to that pursuit as much as it does to memoir-writing because many of the same strategies and insights remain true.  Moreover, the strategies would hold for poetry in which I might choose to focus on those close to me: getting the facts right, keeping the images accurate and concrete, evoking the sound, smell, and sense of a place, or a person makes all the difference in the condensed purity of a poem.  Most crucially, Zinsser advocates writing honestly and without judgment, or, if you choose to judge those about whom you write, then do so humbly and forgivingly.  He laments the plethora of memoir-cum-attacks written in the 90s when people profited off of the pain of their families, with Jerry Springer-inspired TV action to promote their books.  He argues that this kind of memoir is best left behind.  Write honestly, faithfully, and forgivingly (of yourself and others) and you will have a beautifully written book. 

I saw upon searching online for Writing About Your Life that Zinsser has a new book, Writing Places, which was published on June 1st in the UK. I will probably wait for the paperback to be released, before I read it.  I will review it and tell you whether it lives up to his previous standards of writing. Dillard - The Writing Life -
Annie Dillard, author of several fiction and non-fiction books, has been recommended to me numerous times by many authors, the first of which was Deirdre McCloskey in her Economical WritingAs with many things, intention finally met reality and I was content. 

Dillard meditates on the processes of writing, doing so without sentimentality or harshness.  She imparts the lore of writing, showing the toil required to obtain quality: the labour to unearth the ore, the vision to ensure its purity, the sweat of crafting and re-crafting.

The book enchanted me, it compelled me to read it.  I was meant to be studying for exams or to be writing myself, but instead I began to read it.  It was not difficult, I used it as a break time pleasure.  The book is slim, it curves alluringly in your hand when you read it. It demands to be read.  I had about ten pages to go while I was in bed reading, but I realised that in my fatigue I was missing some of the rhythms, losing the lyric in the prose.  I put it aside until the next morning when I sat outside to read the last few pages in the morning sun.  What a pleasure. What a joy.  What a reminder of the burden and the privilege of writing.

I have not read any of Dillard's other books.  I now intend to read as many of them as I can buy, or find in libraries once Amy and I are in the UK, or even while we are in SA and I can frequent the Rondebosch Library.  I will report on them later.
Professor Peter N. Stearns - A Brief History of the World  [The Teaching Company - Audio Lecture Series] 
There was much to appreciate and much to frustrate in this series of lectures by Prof Stearns.  Let me explain that I am a novice when it comes to world history, I have read Guns, Germs, and Steel, I have read various history books here and there, in particular as they relate to institutional evolution (consider here Douglas North, Friedrich Hayek), but I am far from an expert.  When he conveyed content, Professor Stearns was interesting, and thus the course was.  When he was wordy, tried desperately to justify the 'role' of world history, or giving lengthy disclaimers before explaining things, he became boring, the tempo of the course dropped, and my interest lagged a bit.  A side concern was his frustrating use of language, we don't need to be told things are 'obvious' and people really don't 'utilize' things as often as he says they do, they 'use' them.  

Nevertheless, let me highlight a few of the things I found fun and interesting.  First, he described how Mansa Musa, during his trip to Mecca, destabilized the Egyptian economy because he carried so much gold with him. The Egyptians recovered when Musa left.  Second, with the advent of Enlightenment the institutions that people employed for things that were lost was very interesting, prior to Enlightenment people hired 'Cunningmen' who were magical, savant-like individuals who would 'find' your good for a fee (somehow). After the Enlightenment, barely a century after widespread use of Cunningmen, Lost and Found centres popped up around cities and people would go to these if they lost something, rather than resorting to magical beliefs.  Another interesting tidbit he recounts was how China and India were the two largest recipients of New World (South American) silver.  Why? Prior to the development of high quality manufacturing in Western Europe, the Western European countries wanted the high quality garments, crockery, and many other goods that were produced by the Chinese and the Indians.  Finally, as a last fun fact, Stearns describes how opium was the most widely traded good in the 18th century.  I knew previously that it was an important good, and that its trade sparked the Opium Wars in China, but I had not realised how dreadfully important its trade was to the Brits and how widespread its consumption was (then again, having read the Romantics, I should have known, ahhh... laudanum).

Because of my interests in the evolution of institutions, or moving toward a theory of what Talcott Parsons calls  'evolutionary universals', I don't believe that Stearns play up enough the strange dynamics of the neolithic transition.  The neolithic transition did horrific things to human nutrition.  Quite aside from the closer proximity with animals and people that resulted in greater exposure to germs, humans were much more poorly fed. Agriculture resulted in decreases in height, similar decreases in weight, weaker bones, and all kinds of other odd results, results that we would not immediately think would enhance fitness.  Stearns also didn't mention at all the advent of private property, which probably occurred around the same time as the neolithic transition: being able to plant stuff on 'your land' was only so good if you could store 'your' stuff and differentiate it from 'other peoples'' stuff.   

Still, I felt educated by listening to the lectures.  Stearns, when he discusses actual content, teaches well and exposes his 'obvious' breadth of knowledge.  I learned a substantial number of facts, as well as more about the trends in non-Western civilizations, an area in which my knowledge is limited.  Like most people of South African Anglo-Saxon heritage, my formal history included spates of Western Civilization with some South African history thrown in, embodied by recurrent encounters with Khoi-San history, the Mfecane, and the Groot Trek.  I believe that the course offers a decent supplement to books like Jared Diamond'd Guns, Germs, and Steel, though only introducing the relevant topics and leaving deeper analysis and reading to the interested listener. 

Fiction & Memoir Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse 5 
Slaughterhouse 5 is one of those books I had intended to read for ages, then I took one of those silly facebook quizzes and it told me 'as a book you are Slaughterhous 5'.  I had to read it. It is strange indeed.  I would not want to listen to it as an audiobook: Vonnegut bounds around t the timeline like a rabbit on cocaine, it's 1967, then it's 1944, then he's in no-time in Tralfamadore being inspected by aliens.  To listen to this would probably the closest I'd come to a psychadelic experience. 

Nevertheless, in the written form it is spectacular and it launched itself easily into a place next to my other favoured anti-war books (Catch 22, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms).  Like Catch 22 it is humorous, yet simultaneously dreadfully sad.  The image of  emaciated Billy Pilgirm  in a poorly fitting fur-lined coat turned to waistcoat, silver stage boots for Cinderella and wandering through the bombed wasteland of Dresden makes phenomenal satire - you become confused with your simultaneous urges to cry and to laugh. Incoherent laugh-sobbing wouldn't be inappropriate. Safran Foer - Everything is Illuminated
Previously, I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I thought it fantastic.  Consequently, I read Foer's books in reverse order.  I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I had hoped I would. 

The author conjures three different wisps of a story: the first involves letters sent from Alex, a Ukrainian teenager working in his father's tour business, to Foer.  The second comprises Alex's recounting of Foer's quest to discover his grandfather's origins in the shtetl of Trachimbrod.  These two strains succeed well, driven mainly by Alex's strange yet systematic errors in English because of his abuse of a thesaurus, as Alex comments, "I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting." The third strain didn't appeal to me at all. Foer tries to invoke a kind of magical realist history of Trachimbrod, of his grandfather, and of his ancestors. I found it weak.  I inevitably wanted to read past these sections to arrive at the sections when Alex wrote his letters, or wrote his own stories for Foer.  The third strain made it seem like Foer was trying to be too clever, trying to ruminate too obviously on themes of memory, dream, and sexuality.  Consequently, I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I enjoyed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Frank McCourt - Angela's Ashes: A Memoir [Audiobook]
The voice of an old Irishman, Frank McCourt, tells the story of a young American boy of Irish descent, his journey to Ireland with his beleaguered family, and his eventual return to the United States.  Frank McCourt reads Angela's Ashes enchantingly, his voice mellifluous and resonant.  He sings the songs of woe, liberty and battle, he chants the poetry, he accents the speech so that each character's 'Och' is unique yet conveys the essential Irishness that the memoir captures so well.

In Angela's Ashes, McCourt triumphs because he writes with the voice of a child, presenting his child-self in such a way that makes the voice credible, that justifies his actions.  In the audiobook this is complemented by his reading because his tone, his pitch, and his manner change consistent with how he wrote. 

The story wrenches you from laughter to shivers of hunger (you feel persistently hungry reading this book) to a moistening of the eyes.  The 'Disease of the Irish' plays a substantial part in this book, how it affects families, how the culture impelled its boys to embrace the bottle of stout, the evening pint.  McCourt engages too with the notions of the Irish state, the politics of liberty from the British, and how the class structure of Ireland, with its correlates of Catholicism and Protestantism, abutted working class sensibilities. 

The book works because McCourt writes honestly, yet forgivingly of his family and himself.  I would strongly recommend Angela's Ashes as a first step into memoir if you have not read much memoir.  I would also recommend listening to the audiobook to hear McCourt's voice, to hear his cries, his 'och's, his singing, and his emotion underpinning the narrative.   

Conversations with Amy
I thought I'd try to introduce another new facet to these book discussions by telling you what my wife, Amy, thought about the books, and what we concluded together in discussions.  Sometimes these chats will inform how the reviews themselves evolve, other times I'll review and then report on Amy's thoughts later.  

Amy read Sebastian Beaumont's Thirteen (which I commented on previously), she enjoyed it, but not as much as I did.  She thought that it was good, but not as good as my review made it seem.  She took longer than than my day-and-a-bit to read it though, which I think contributed to the differing levels of enjoyment.  Two central themes in the book are relevant here: trance states and memory.  For me, reading it quickly was like invoking a trance state to read the book 'as intended'.  Because Amy read the book only of an evening having worked hard during the day, she did not enter the book in the same way.  At least this is my current null hypothesis.  I await discussions with other people who read it quickly or slowly.

Amy also agreed with my assessment of Foer trying to be too clever in Everything is Illuminated.  She also ranks Extremely Loud  above Everything.  That said, we enjoyed how we both laughed out loud while reading Extremely, which potentially means that my three stars rating is a bit harsh, maybe the book is worth more, probably four stars would be justified.  Of the reviews that I read recently, many gush about Foer's genius while other's claim that he's a hack.  I wouldn't go as far as either of those extremes, but I would say that he's creative and someone to watch.

Currently have 3 comments:

  1. Excellent reviews.

    And, yeah, S5 is superb. (My vote still goes to Catch-22, though.)

  2. Yes, Catch-22 probably still ranks higher for me in my War Books, as does A Farewell to Arms for reasons entirely unrelated to humour.

  3. Dillard is a gem. I'm teaching "Wreck of Time" in my comp class next semester.D