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These days I am reading...


Reading in Progress

I fell behind on the reviews and I don't seem to have the time to catch up. Problem is, reviews should be written immediately. Just a couple of weeks after finishing a book, the ideas are gone. Anyway, here is a list of stuff I read 'recently.'
Ken Bain
What the Best College Teachers Do
Harvard UP, 2004
Pascal D'Angelo
Son of Italy
Guernica, 2003
Bolasco, Giuliano, Galli de' Paratesi
Parole in Liberta': Un'analisi statistica e linguistica
Manifestolibri, 2006
Primo Levi
Auschwitz Report
Verso, 2006
Mariateresa Fumagalli Beonio Brocchieri
Cristiani in armi: Da Sant'Agostino a Papa Wojtyla
Editori Laterza, 2006
Jared Diamond
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Penguin, 2005
Graham Hancock
Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization
Three Rivers Press, 2002
Robert Kaplan
Eastward to Tartaria
Random House, 2000
Michael Jordan
The Historical Mary: Revealing the Pagan Identity of the Virgin Mother.
Seastone: Berkeley, 2003

Interesting study on the
Laura Quercioli Mincer
Per Amore della Lingua: Incontri con scrittori ebrei
Roma, Lithos 2005

Edited transcripts of live-audience interviews (in a theater, presumably) with several non-Italian Jewish authors, most of them Holocaust survivors. Cosmopolitan by definition, these are representatives of layers and layers of cultures, overlapping identities, undefined boundaries of linguistic differentiations. Some of the stuff is narcissistic, self-absorbed and masturbatory, but some are straight shots of ice cold aquavit in a damp, foggy morning. Some are milking the Italian Jewish memoirist fad, play the game of the recalcitrant witness. Others have genuine stories and genuine, non self-pitied, self-congratulatory souls to bare. The interviewers felt the need to compete intellectually with their victims and this obviously detracted from the spontaneity of the search. There were often competing agendas at play, this interview is about me, not it's about me kind of thing.
Eli Zaretsky
Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (First Vintage Books, 2005)

I wonder why the publisher decided to defile such a phenomenally serious book with a title more suited for an Harlequin romance to be sold packaged with heart-shaped chocolates on Valentine's day. I was reading it on the subway, and once again hiding the cover, lest people thought I was taking notes on how to land a date. OK, on to the serious stuff, now. No words could ever convey the sense of awe I was feeling as I was reading this book. By far the best experience of any kind I have had in a long long time. Not even winning the lottery would give me this kind of high. I felt I was in the presence of a phenomenal writer and a true deep thinking intellectual. Nothing is for show here, no catchy quotes, no crowd pleasing special effects, just the methodical, systematic flow of a dense, thickly layered, complex and nuanced prose. It was like drinking a top rated Burgundy, the kind you can afford maybe ten times in a lifetime. A Marxist with a deep understanding of social dynamics from a Frankfurt-school, American-left and strict analytic perspectives, he connects clearly the causal relationship between socio-economic evolution, political structures and philosophical debate framed in the psychoanalytical model. I enjoyed tremendously the critique of the development of psychoanalysis, although at times, many times, it was way over my head. I am somewhat conversant with the conceptual framework of Freud's work and the constructs expressed by the standard terms of psychoanalysis, but it was a real challenge to understand the nuances and implications of the debate among the top thinkers, from Freud himself to Ferenczi, Reich, Jones, Adler, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein to name the big ones. On Jung, correctly, Zarestky wastes little time. As we come closer to the present day, the terse, precise terminology of psychoanalysis and the social sciences becomes muddled. It's the period of Lacan and Althusser, Deleuze-Guattari, the French model, Foucault and -- interestingly -- the less opaque Derrida (I never thought in my life I would say something like that.) One of the really interesting theories is that psychoanalysis originally aspired to become an overarching theory of human development and it was reduced to pure therapeutic tool primarily by the object- relation American sect. From my perspective, I noticed one of the typical downfalls of Marxist methodology: as long as it is applied from a distance and observes its object with a telescope, things are clear and bright. But when it gets too close, it becomes a dialectical exercise to fit contradictory events into the theoretical model. So, if you look at a span of 30-50 years, you can delineate trends, processes and even identify the points of non-return. Yet, when he brings his tools too close, and starts looking at 5 year spans, or even less, sometimes, I find the arguments unconvincing. It's the same reaction I first had thirty years ago when I read Frederick Antal's "Florentine Painting and its Social Background." Same method, same smart, convincing analysis, same slip into the microhistorical dimension, where the standard model no longer applies, in my view, and you really have to switch to quantum socialmechanics. If you can see it, you can't measure it, and if you measure it, it's no longer there.
Jonathan Spence
The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds (Norton 1998)

It could have been a great book, but when historians act like forensic accountants, you are in for a long ride that takes you nowhere and in the interim overloads your brain with too many insignificant facts. In the meantime, the juicy stuff, the revealing anecdote, the risky interpretation, the attempt to explain less with logic than with poetry, are nowhere to be found. And so you go on, pedantically, trudging through the documented accounts of the various people who went to China, the reports they brought back, the image of the East that slowly took shape in the West with all its idiotic assumptions and generalizations. It's the kind of book you can write buried in a carrel inside some library in the Midwest. The fact he wrote it in a carrel buried inside Sterling Library at Yale, makes no difference. There is no point of view, here, just the telling of how observations were recorded and disseminated. No notion of the consequences of those ideas, no insight into the present hangover of those ideas. Of course not, he is a historian and his interest is only in dead things. As far as the West in the Chinese mind, just forget it. You can't get it hanging around Sterling.
Mario Pei
Talking Your Way Around the World: Profiles of the World's Chief Languages (Harper and Row 1971)

Dear old Mario, he must have written this book in the '50s at a time when very few scholars were also celebrities. He put together a compendium of notions, grammatical, phonetic, syntactical, providing a general outline for the study of foreign languages the way they were taught in those years (and, unfortunately, the way they are still taught in too many places, one of which too painfully close to me-- but that is another story.) I picked it up for a quarter, maybe thinking I could extract some very simple examples on a certain method of linguistic analysis to present to my students. I decided not to: given the little they know and the desperately low level of critical ability they have, they may conclude that this is the way to do linguistic analysis for foreign language acquisition purposes. Even if I tell and yell this is a 'negative' example, I fear they would drink it up without filtering it.
Erling Haagensen, Henry Lincoln
The Templars' Secret Island: The Knights, the Priest and the Treasure (Barnes and Noble, 2004)

Here we go again with the Templars. This time they built churches that served as lookout spots (or something more) on a tiny little island between Denmark and Sweden. Is it the island from which the Burgundies originate? Why does it have round churches as in Jerusalem? And why did the Gothic cathedral all of a sudden appear in France in a very short period of time. Where did they find all those skilled architects, head masons, geometrist, to design and calculate the infinitly  complex operations needed to build those giants of stone? All good questions. As to the answers, I couldn't care much, but I really enjoyed the history of 'sacred geometry' and the analysis of units of measurement in use in the Middle Ages. The relationship between mile, foot, inch and all the intermediate units, suggest references to the irrational and metaphysical numbers (√2, the golden section, the relation between the inner square and the outer square whose side is equivalent to the diagonal of the inner square as in a cloister -- the magic of what the human heart and eye perceive as perfect proportions). These were the relations that allowed the construction of these gigantic buildings, whose technology is still a mystery to us. (Same as Brunelleschi's dome in Florence, for instance. Where did he come up with the formulas for the construction? How did he communicate his ideas in numeric terms to the master builders?) I think these are really interesting questions. The Templar stuff is just honey for the flies.
John Emsely
The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire and Phosphorus
(Wiley 2000)

Booooooooooring. Not enough science and not enough humanity. Sordid? Murder? One of the most dishonest and misleading subtitles ever to appear in print.

Jeremy Narby
Intelligence in Nature (Tarcher/ Penguin

Boy, am I cranky. This is the perfect book for the kind people who believe Newsweek's coverage of Hollywood should go under "culture." When you open a book whose subtitle is "An inquiry into knowledge" you have the right to expect some respect. What you get instead, in this case, is the dicking around of a spoiled preppy with a large trust fund and an advanced degree in anthropology. First: how do you fill 250 pages? Well, you actually write 125 and add another 125 of quotes, some a page long or more. And how do you fill the first 125? Easy. You regurgitate over-ruminated, stale, boring ideas, then take a trip to Japan to interview a cognition scientist who doesn't have a problem stating that animals are intelligent (and even trees), then you get back to Switzerland where you spend most of your time and trust fund money on skiing and interview a European scientist who agrees but is more cautious with the term "animal intelligence," mix it all together and, voila, you have a book. Repeat, stir, pour and next year you will have yet another book.
James Wasserman
The Templars and the Assassins (Inner Traditions 2001)

 By now I am beyond embarrassment. I keep on reading this kind of stuff and I don't seem to get tired of it, although by now it's rather repetitive. The thin thesis of this book is that esoteric thought penetrated Medieval Europe thanks to the influence the Assissins and other Islamic sects had on the Templars. A rather pedestrian hypothesis with the corollary of an intriguing claim, though, namely that the Templars were indeed heretics. It's the first time I heard anybody admit the possibility. Which doesn't justify their wholesale massacre, but nevertheless puts things into a different perspective. I have zero knowledge of Islam and even less about the ancient times of the religion. This book gave me lots of information on theological disputes, hundreds of murders, assassinations, conspiracies, wars, unholy alliances and betrayals all in the name of Allah. From what I read, they were even worse than the Christians. Problem is, the pages were so full of details, names, family genealogies, diplomatic games etc. that I could not follow. I read along without really getting an idea of what was going on, buried under the details. Got an idea of Shiites, Sunni, and half a dozen other sects, groups, factions etc. Little new I learned about the Templars since the research is based on secondary and second-rate sources. Decently written, too detailed, not the ideal subway reading.
Recent Readings

James Carroll
Constantine's Sword (Mariner Books2001)

I will read it again. This is the most deeply satisfying and challenging experience I have had in a long, long time. The writing is superb, the intensity of the intellectual and spiritual process is breathtaking, the depth and breadth of research astounding. And I am using, unfortunately, stock adjectives. This book contains so many answers to questions I was barely able to formulate that it ended up opening entire new avenues of reflection just on the stuff I knew. As to the new things I learned, and the new ways of thinking I learned, it will take me years to digest this whole trip. That's way I will read it again. And, most likely, again. I must write to thank him.


Laurence Gardner
Genesis of the Grail Kings (Barnes&Noble2004)

I must stop reading this stuff. Now I got into the genealogy of Moses, back to his Egyptian king forebears; Abraham and his Sumerian king forebears. And the nature of the philosopher's stone, the burning bush, the god of Genesis that wasn't really one god but a bunch of gods, etc. I don't mean to make light of this book: I had a really great time reading it but I wonder, I wonder. I am going to ask my friend Hilary who has a Ph.D. in Biblical studies and is a scholar of Akkadian and other obscure ancient cultures what she thinks about it.


Patrick Howarth
Attila King of the Huns (Barnes&Noble 1994)

So, he wasn't such a bad guy anyway. Yes, he killed wholesale but everybody else did it in his days. And, he really had leadership qualities. He must have been a fun guy to hang around with, with all the parties etc. Too bad the writer is so boring he makes even Attila sound like a bureaucrat, with all decisions made in the passive construction. A snoozer of a book that substituted for a sleeping pill for a subject that, in the right hands, would give nightmares. Waste of time.  

Eduard Estivill, Sylvia de Béjar (Mandragora 1996)
Fate la nanna

A slim 100 page paperback translate from Spanish on how to help your children fall asleep and, most important, stay asleep. With Kiki waking up every single night between 12.30 and 3.30 AM, any suggestion is welcome.



Laurence Gardner (Barnes&Noble Books 2003)
Bloodline of the Holy Grail

It's getting embarrassing, all these books on the Grail, the Templars, the Freemasons. On the subway, I hide the jacket and hope nobody snoops. But it's addicting, maybe because each one of these books is really, really pissed at the Catholic Church and Christianity in general for the millennium old lies it tells. This book is long on genealogies, from King Arthur's to the Merovingians' to Jesus' himself. It seems to have lots of knowledge about the mystical rituals of Essenes and Nazoreans, and I wonder how much of it is standard scholarship and how much just hypotheses. That's the problem with this kind of books: you cannot ever tell where solid historical research ends and where the flights of fancy begin. In any case, it was fun reading. I learned quite a few things about the origins of certain symbols (for instance the "X" that indicates error). At the end, though, I really could not tell what was the point that it was trying to make.


Christopher Knight & Robert Lomas (Barnes&Noble Books 1996)
The Hiram Key

Here we go again, a book that explains it all. From the Egyptians all the way to the contemporary Freemasons no historical mystery is big enough for this pair of fearless 'scholars'. Puzzles that have kept historians busy for centuries (and that have earned them hundreds of tenured positions in academia) are instantly solved through 'careful' selective reinterpretation, juxtaposition of apples, figs and oranges, bizarre deductions and Pindaric flights of fancy. It did reinforce some notions that I already have on early Christianity (at my age repetita iuvant), but nothing earth shattering. Oh, by the way, if you want to know the secrets of the Egyptian Kings (not to be confused with the second-rate Pharaohs), from the building of the pyramids to the shuttle back-and-forth to the kingdom of the dead and the secret of resurrection,  just dig under Roslyn Chapel. Everything is there. OK?

Simon Winchester: The River at the Center of the World. Picador (Henry Holt):1996

Another Brit, another snot. The history of a journey from Shanghai to the sources of the Chang Jiang (otherwise known to the Philistines as "Yangtze" river), 4000 miles away, in the Himalayas turns into the usual ego-centric voyage of observation without empathy, vignettes without depth, reconfirmed stereotypes without self-doubt. All the people he meets, except for his guide, a gorgeous woman who, I hope, did not sleep with him, are caricatures: from the stodgy, dumb-ass police, to the pathetically selfish bureaucrats. There are no real people in this book. Even the 'good ones' are cardboard cutouts of crazy drivers, crazy boat captains and crazy idealists. At the beginning it was so unbearably self conscious, I didn't think I could make it through. Later, it relented a bit and was at least readable. Decent account of the relationship between Mao and the River, the meaning of the swims etc. Unfortunately the book lacks the grandeur of vision and understanding that is the identity itself of the Long River. The book is a prostate-impaired stream of piss where only the cataracts of imagination would do justice to the topic. Amen.
Stanley Stewart: In the Empire of Genghis Khan. HarperCollins 2000.

I had recently read a great book on the history of the Mongols and I could not resist buying what looked like a contemporary travelogue, a work of "literary journalism" about the land of the Mongols today. What I got was the narcissistic writing of a snide pompous bag whose only interest was using every single adjective ever invented in the English language to describe landscapes. The focus is relentlessly on the writer himself and the writing itself, with close-to-zero interest in the people around him. Actually, the book starts out well, but the moment this guy reaches Mongolia proper and the journey across the land begins, he loses interest in everything except himself. Encounters with extraordinary people, which could have overflown with poetry and empathy are just the pretexts for sarcastic put-downs. Travels through decrepit cities that could have suggested metaphors and reflections of cosmic proportions under the Great Eternal Sky, are merely excuses for cheap shots and dime-a-dozen attitude. You get the feeling that he wears his restrain in writing on his sleeve, throwing it in your face, but that in reality that is a mask because he doesn't know how to emote, or, quite simply, he is too shallow to have any real emotions. He spends four  months riding a horse through some of the wildest, emptiest, most suggestive land in the world, close to the edge of an image of infinity as you can get, and you never get the sense of his real self. I don't think it's because he is British and doesn't know how to get in touch with his feelings (at least you would have sensed the struggle and felt the pain of this inability), I think instead it's because the whole trip to him is just a stunt, and doesn't have anything to do with passion, curiosity, intensity and the search for the meaning of life (which is what any decent writing is about).


Jake Page: In the Hands of the Great Spirit. Free Press 2003

This is the kind of book that makes you wish you were reading the Congressional Record instead. Because this is the kind of writer who can make: the Pueblos rebellion; the deportation of the Navajos to Bosque Redondo; the Cherokees Trail of Tears; the history of Tecumseh; Wounded Knee One and Two; Geronimo; Chief Joseph and the Ghost Dance, bore you to death. There is no insight whatsoever, emotional, spiritual or even just plainly human, for the victims of the greatest genocide of our history. The only faint hint of discomfort with the history of Indians, is the boring and detailed "analysis" of the dozens of broken treaties that litter the land stolen by Whites. His biggest thrill seem to be the lawsuits about the establishment of casinos on Indian reservations. There is not one single line of original research, not even, say, the perfunctory perusal of period newspapers. And not one single footnote either. Everything is from secondary sources, cheap history books written for consumption by White masses. I can't understand why I wasted my time reading the whole thing. I have this obsessive-compulsive bug that, once I start a book, forces me to finish it. I need therapy.

Jack Weatherford: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Crown Publishers, 2004

A blast of a book. Well written, without even a hint of impartiality, totally devoted to promoting the notion that the Mongols were the best thing the earth ever knew. Smart, strong, courageous, cunning but straightforward. What a wonderful world it must have been and would have continued to be had they not been done in by the plague in the XIV century. I got to learn a lot. The end of the Medieval chivalric culture in Europe was probably due to wholesale the massacre of knights who were unable to stop the Golden Horde. Chalk one up for Genghis. And the Giotto cycle of frescos in Assisi? Perspective was imported to Europe from China as a result of the trading initiated by the Mongols. I took a look at those frescos (in books) and it's also absolutely true that the decorations, the fabrics, the clothes, are very strongly reminiscent of Chinese and Mongol decorative motifs. What a great fun I had.

Leon Wieseltier: Kaddish. Vintage 1998.

I am sure I am the only person who read every single word of this book without skipping even one. That doesn't mean that sometimes I didn't space out and ended up ruminating pages while my mind was wandering elsewhere. I had been planning to read this book for, well, six years, since it came out (has it really been that long? Seems yesterday.) I kept on postponing thinking that I would finally find some quiet time at home. This is not the kind of book I can easily read on the bus and subway in my four hour commute (two and two) to Brooklyn College. I had to give up: finding sizable chunks of free time without interruptions at home is impossible. When I do have that kind of time, I devote it to preparing my courses and my own research. So, that leaves the subway. It's a dense, intense, informative, and challenging book, typical Wieseltier, a great writer but certainly not a light one. That's why I like him. I never get the sense that he is out to please his audience. He is intellectually arrogant and that's fine with me: he is entitled to his arrogance because at the end he delivers the goodies. That at least is what I thought for the first three quarters of the book. Then it got too solipsistic and self-adulatory. The joy of genuine discovery became a parlor game of Talmudic one-upmanship, a baroque swirl of pseudo-philosophical pirouettes that ended up in pure sophistry. I took away a couple of great quotes (one is posted in my homepage,) a lot of information and insight into Jewish thought, and the nagging doubt that Wieseltier really does not know Leibniz all that well.

Ludovico Incisa di Camerana: Il grande esodo. Storia delle migrazioni italiane nel mondo. Corbaccio 2003.

Fun reading, lots of anecdotes and, more important, useful information about two centuries of Italian immigration. The author is clearly a product of Italy's school of political science. You can see the watermark through almost every word. Sometimes, as often happens to Italian writers, the argument is lost in the preciousness of the argumenting. However, the basic thesis is strong and well supported. I remember saying that Italy never had "the culture of emigration." I found out I was right. Emigration, despite being such a huge phenomenon, never became part of the social and political culture of the country. For the official Italy, once gone, Italians were gone forever, and no institutional effort was ever made to exploit their success for the benefit of the old country. Sadly, the emigrants kept on believing in Italy despite the abandonment and the betrayals. It's a little bit like the child that has been rejected by mother and has internalized a morose sense of utter failure. He will spend his lifetime trying hard to succeed in hope of pleasing mother, of showing her how good he is, in the eternal and hopeless hope that she will finally take him back and give him love. But mother never does and never will. (My use of masculine pronouns for the child is intentional.)

Piera Sonnino: Questo e' stato. Il Saggiatore 2004

Memoirs of the Holocaust. The most extraordinary fact about this text is that it was written in the late Fifties, and probably was not meant for publication. It thus precedes the recent, rather abundant production of Italian Holocaust memoirs, a literary and publishing-industry phenomenon that is begging for an analysis and an explanation. Piera Sonnino's book belongs to this phenomenon in the sense that it is being published only now. At the same time it is outside the recent interest in that it was written in the mid to late fifties. My literary bloodhound nose smelled the scent of "Se questo e' un uomo" in a couple of pages. It is not impossible that Piera Sonnino did indeed know Levi's work, either in its first edition (Da Silva, 1947) or more likely Einaudi 1956. The description of the mud, for instance, is reminiscent of Levi's comments. Also, she uses the word "gamella." That's Levi's word. Was that the standard Italian term for food canteen? I never saw it anywhere before reading Levi. Did she take it from him? An obvious reference to Levi is the title, taken from the poem "Shemà" that appears in the opening page of "Se questo e' un uomo" ("Voi che vivete sicuri nelle vostre tiepide case..... meditate che questo e' stato"). But I think the title is the choice of the editor, not Sonnino's. Briefly, the book is the account of the destruction of her family of 8: parents and six children.  They were all deported from Genova together and died separately in different Nazi lagers. She was the only survivor. Although I have read several dozens of these accounts, every time it's like the first time. This is really the never-ending story. You can't stop asking over and over and over the same old trite and worn question: how could such evil ever exist?


Michael Baigent et alii: Holy Blood, Holy Grail. (Dell Publishing)

Some people watch football or professional wrestling for relaxation. I read about stuff about the secrets of the Knights Templar, the Grail, etc. It's my mental chewing gum. And I liked this book. The basic -- although convoluted -- hypothesis is that Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene who left Galilee to settle in southern France. Maybe Jesus himself did not die on the cross and managed to sneak out to southern France. Anyway, his bloodline a few centuries later intersected that of the Merovingians who were themselved descendents of the lost tribe of Benjamin. The Merovingians lost the crown to the Carolingians thanks to the betrayal of the Catholic Church. Their bloodline continued underground and eventually one of their descendents, Godfroi de Bouillon became King of Jerusalem. After that it gets more complicated, with the Albigesian Heresy, the Rusicrucians, the Prieure de Sion, the Freemasons etc. etc. etc. Oh well, this stuff is fun to read mostly because it is written well and at least one gets the sense of some serious secondary-source research being done on some very obscure periods of history.


John McWhorter: Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why we Should, Like, Care. (Gotham Books).
There are only two reasons that explain why Steven Pinker wrote the dust-jacket blurb for this book: he didn't read it AND he is on the take. The author is the prototype of the crassly ignorant self-important dunce whose works populate Barnes and Noble bookshelves. A professor of linguistics by trade (god save our children,) he lives with a total vacuum in his skull and calls that ideas. The only thing he knows anything about are show tunes and that's all he should be allowed to write about: show tunes and piano bars. He is such an idiot he doesn't even realize that his own thesis leads naturally to the indictment of the Civil Rights movement for the dumbing down of America. As far as the research methodology of this book, I cringed. Clearly, clearly, one night he got drunk in a bar, started arguing with a couple of other drunks that the rhetorical quality of today's speeches isn't close to that of the past, woke up the next morning with a hangover and a deadline to publish a book for tenure, decided it was a brilliant and original idea, went to the library and -- without any knowledge, historical, sociological, philosophical, cultural and poetic of either the past or the present -- started stealing passages from the speeches of some famous orators he never knew existed and -- voilà -- here is the book. Oh, he talked ignorantly about other things. For instance that he doesn't like opera in the original language. He likes it translated in English or at the most with supertitles. As if that wasn't dumbing down. By the same token, if he didn't speak English he probably woudn't like the Beatles and Bob Dylan either, because he wouldn't understand the words (which didn't prevent the rest of the world from adoring them). And he goes on with this kind of idiotic, ignorant non-sense. He says, for instance, that Italians have a love for elaborate oratory. Now, I am Italian and he is not, and I will bet that he can't even read the headlines of Italian newspapers, let alone comprehend the sorry pedantic state of Italian rhetoric. To make it short, he is the very emblem of the idiotification of culture, rhetoric, art, music he incoherently blabs about. How sad. I will ask Steven Pinker for a refund.

Gianni Scipione Rossi: La destra e gli Ebrei. Una storia italiana (Rubbettino).
Who would think that a right-wing intellectual -- if such a thing really exists-- could write what appears to be a balanced, impartial book on the anti-Semitism of the political right in Italy, starting with the racist campaign that culminated in the racial laws of 1938. From Mussolini to Fini everyone gets their share of blame and shame. It seems to me it was thoroughly researched with lots of interesting facts. The book admits that anti-Semitism and ant Judaism are very much alive in the right, particularly among the rank-and-file and loose associations/organizations. What a surprise to discover that Giulio Caradonna, a Neanderthal thug and a self-proclaimed "picchiatore fascista" was one of the most adamant pro-Jews of the movement (kind of embarrassing, actually). Many try to disguise the undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the right with their support for Israel, but it shows up in their apologetic interpretations of the racial laws. I thought it was interesting that many 'voltagabbana,' i.e. former Fascist who after WWII switched sides and embrace the Left, kept their anti-Semitic views intact. They just changed the rationale for them (you known, the usual anti-Zionist fig leaf).
Steven Pinker: Words and Rules. The Ingredients of Language. (Basic Books)
Two hundred an ninety pages about English irregular verbs. That's my idea of fun. Pinker is a light writer (meaning he doesn't smother you down with jargon-laden prose) but sometimes the arguments he uses to debunk competitors' theories are so circularly circular you find yourself wondering if you shouldn't turn the book upside down to get to the end of the thought. In any case, I did learn quite a bit, a couple of good sound theoretical points, and an infinite number of trivia tricks about English to entertain my linguistics classes for a couple of semesters. For the trivia, thanks a lot.
Elaine Pagels: Adam, Eve and the Serpent (Vintage)
After reading Beyond Belief (see below,) I picked up another book by Elaine written earlier (I had also read The Origin of Satan by her, but that was probably eight or nine years ago.) In any case, it was readable, a little too divulgative for my taste, and all together a little thin on ideas. I learned interesting things, though, in particular about St. Augustine and the shaping of Christian ideology/theology. That Augustine, what a horny toad! His sex drive must have been so high he became frightened by it. His granitic belief, based on personal experience, was that sexuality is uncontrollable and that passionality enslaves humans to the point that they have no free will. So he decided the only way to control it was total repression and condemnation, for himself and everyone else. His other notable achievements were the invention of the original sin, the interpretation of Jesus as redeemer of that sin, and the advocacy of hand-in-glove relationship between Christianity and political power. Plus the sanctioning of the Jews as killers of God. It was more than enough to cause problems for two thousand years.
Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief. The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Radom House)
I did learn a lot from this book, particularly about the theological disputes among Christian sects in the first two/three centuries. It fills several gaps in my knowledge about the period. I could have easily done without the author's personal narrative. I think this stuff about the author BEING the text is going too far. Elaine Pagels is a great scholar but frankly I don't care much about the vagaries of her existence.
Fiamma Nirenstein: L'abbandono. Come l'Occidente ha tradito gli Ebrei.
The book is just a collection of columns/essays published on "La Stampa" and "Panorama." The only new text is the introduction written in the tone typical of the world-famous Oriana-Fallaci hysterical scream. The argument-counter argument discoursive tactic, often conveyed by the rhetorical device of the in-your-face question, makes the discussion so convoluted that often I had no idea what she was talking about, and when I did I couldn't tell which of the two positions she was describing I was supposed to be outraged about.
Gianrenzo Clivio, Marcel Danesi: The Sounds, Forms and Uses of Italian. An introduction to Italian Linguistics.
The subtitles should have read "An Introduction to Linguistics Using Italian as a Pretext for a Few Examples." Nothing new under the sun. The first couple of chapters are a nice compendium of research on Italian phonology. As to the rest, it took the structure from Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams' "An Introduction to Language" and replaced the examples from English with examples from Italian (actually there are a lot of examples from English too.) Usefulness in class? Next to zero if you teach Italian, next to zero if you teach linguistics. And why did they put a photo of Stefania Sandrelli -- fully clothed-- clutching a book on the cover?