What I’ve been reading

1. Carsten Jensen, We, the Drowned.  A series of generational tales from a Danish fishing village, starting with the 1864 conflict against Germany.  The WSJ loved it, the Danes loved it, eight Amazon readers loved it, and I liked it quite a bit at first.  Eventually I was wandering in a "tweener" novel — serious enough not to be stupid, yet not enough giddy fun to be a page turner, not serious enough to be deep, and ultimately a European novel of ideas by the numbers.  Some of you are likely to enjoy this, but I put it down with no regrets before p.200.  Artificial gusto, I say.

2. Adrian Johns, Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age.  A very good book on the history of radio, but the real bonus is the history of economic thought section, covering what Coase, Hayek, Arnold Plant and others thought of the BBC in its early years and how that related to debates over The Road to Serfdom.  I hadn't know that some of the British pirate stations of the 1960s were inspired by Hayek.  Plus it's only $4.68 in hardcover.

3. César Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.  Commonly portrayed as an Argentina eccentric, he writes a few short books each year and over time he has accumulated the reptutation as one of the most important contemporary Latin writers.  Broadly in the Borges tradition, scattered and philosophical, there is little downside to giving him a try.

4. Javier Cercas, The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination.  In the waning of Franco's time, how did Spain turn away from military rule and toward democracy?  Can a mediocre man make a difference in history simply by retreating at the right moment?  Can a political life boil down to a single response, under gunfire at that?  Half of this book is brilliant writing, the other half is brilliant writing combined with obscure, hard-to-follow 1970s Spanish politics (does Adrian Bulli understand the life of John Connally?  I don't think so).  Cercas is a novelist, intellect, and historian all rolled into one, and he is sadly underrated in the United States.  There's nothing quite like this book.  On top of everything else, if you can wade through the thicket, it is an excellent public choice account of autocracy.

5. Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn, Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, A Father and Son's Story.  Interesting but never insightful (can I coin that as a new phrase?).  On the surface this book shows the difficulties of having a son with schizophrenia, from both the perspective of the parents and also in the son's own words.  In reality, it turned me (further) against the idea of forced institutionalization of an adult.  They lock the son up for years and they don't seem to regret it, even though he repeatedly tries to escape from what are obviously inhumane conditions and brutal, dehumanizing medications.  They were there and I wasn't, but still by putting it into a book they invite reader reactions and that is mine.  Is the ultimate argument for the son's commitment that they cannot live with the thought of his suicide risk?  For me that's not enough and I wonder if "empathy" always leads to better moral decisions.  The parents themselves stress that he probably was not a danger to others and also he had committed no crime.


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