peteg's blog

The Two Faces of January

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Watched in the hope of getting the Oscar Isaac fix I didn't get from Star Wars. This is something of a The Talented Mr Ripley with Kirsten Dunst standing in for Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen doing his best to anchor things. The film is inexcusably flaccid, doubly so given the strength of the cast, the settings and that writer/director Hossein Amini ably adapted Hardy's Jude the Obscure for the screen.

Paul Beatty: The White Boy Shuffle.

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Kindle. Finished it off at Quán Làng Cát (on the beach at 2/2 Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Hàm Tiến) on a day when I hoped to be scootering somewhere west of Phan Thiết. The ladies at Diễm Liên would not rent me a motorized vehicle as the cops are apparently blitzing the place in search of some New Year lucre. (Diễm said the situation would remain until after Tết, though I am sure they will be renting scooters out to more insistent foreigners than I before then.) Similarly the ladies at Quán Làng Cát wouldn't sell me a tôm kho tọ (prawn claypot) for lunch as I'd had them too many days in a row already. On the upside they make a decent coffee and their hammock is somewhat comfortable.

This is Beatty's debut novel from 1996: a first-person growing-up-black-in-L.A. story, somewhat like his most recent effort, but with more emphasis on the growing up part. The Trek and the DnD echo Clune's recent Gamelife, though the surfing and conviviality of outdoorsy Santa Monica were beyond Clune's pasty-geek experience. Gunnar, the narrator, is nerdy, a poet, but also a basketball hero and therefore beyond it all. His account of his ancestry is hilarious. I don't know why they all had German names. The teleology of it all would have made Aristotle weep.

[...] I tried to appreciate Spock's draconian logic, Asimov's automaton utopias, and the metaphysical excitement of fighting undead ghouls and hobgoblins in Dungeons and Dragons, but to me Star Trek was little more than the Federalist Papers with warp drives and phasers. "Set Democracy on stun. One alien, one vote." I was cooler than this, I had to be — I just didn’t know how to show my latent hipness to the world.

The change in semesters brought new electives and a chance to make new friends. All the exciting choices, like Print and Electric and Wine-making Shop, were gang member bastions and closed to insouciant seventh-graders such as myself. During spring registration I stood in line behind sloe-eyed bangers and listened to kind liberal guidance counselors derail their dreams. "Buster, I know you want to take Graphic Design, but I’m placing you in Metal Shop. Mr. Buck Smith will know how to handle you, and it’ll be a good prerequisite for license plate pressing. You’ve got to plan for the future, Buster, ol' boy. Can’t be too shortsighted, Mr. Brown. Remember, the longest jail sentence starts with one day."

Clearly Beatty has read the DSM cover to cover, and finds (at least some of) it laughable. His neighbour/gangbanger cares so much about him that his gift on Gunnar's eighteenth birthday is a mail order bride. After milking the delivery of/marriage to Yoshiko itself for laughs, Beatty spins the arrangement out against type: the couple is happy and harmonious, somewhat due to Gunnar therefore escaping rampant objectification by the local ladies. There is more vivid racial commentary, rejection of the wisdom of the tribal elders (87%: "If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. Martin Luther King, Jr"), a meditation on suicide and perhaps an incitement to, an easy familiarity with brutality, and much else. He uses words the Kindle dictionary does not ken.

That poets will once again be universally recognised as opinion leaders and placed at the centre of the culture is a trope this book shares with Hal Hartley's contemporaneous masterpiece, Henry Fool.

He Never Died

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A Henry Rollins B-movie. He stakes out the no-man's-land between Eastwood and Arnie. It's nothing we haven't seen before — vampires choosing blood banks over killing, a solo jaded vigilante, a soaked diner waitress, the fast-talking over-familiar first-meeting-with daughter, etc. — amongst the TV revivalists. Violence seems to be meaningless to Rollins, which has its own weird fascination. The bad guys are deemed unworthy of motivation.

Neil Genzlinger at the NY Times.

John Benditt: The Boatmaker

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Kindle. The good weather at Mũi Né got in the way of chewing through the books of the year. An airy review at the New York Times was the draw, I think, which I take as evidence that its publicist is indeed as good as Benditt indicates in his afterword. Roughly put, this is a rifling through the lore of Christian versus Jew: we get a carpenter with grandiose notions, alcoholic and violent, irresistable to women, who refuses to participate in the creation of a new messiah after undertaking a heroic and under-described voyage from Small Island to the Mainland via Big Island in a boat of his own making. (He doesn't call himself the boatmaker for nothing!) The man learns about money, which has value as a matter of belief, and the unthinking predation of the Christians on the Jews. Somehow he comes to know that his purpose is to go back to Small Island and disrupt the monopoly of the boatbuilding tribe using the wealth of his met-her-in-Mainland wife's family. I learnt very little, and am left wondering if the author is trying to muscle in on Paulo Coelho's uplifting-neofable racket. The reviewer is dead right that all the twists seem preordained; it suffers from the common all-the-women-are-beautiful-available-and-willing etc. fracture in the universe, amongst many others.

Legend

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Kray brothers hagiography, but told from the perspective of Reggie's wife Francis. The voiceover turns it into some kind of morality farce. The movie doesn't know what it wants to be and all of Tom Hardy's yakka is for aught. Emily Browning cannot keep her Swinging London accent from sliding down Church Street to Neighbours. Just bad.

The Hateful Eight

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Tarantino's eighth. It ambles along but feels overstuffed with unnecessarily graphic violence and landscapes. The Morricone score was long on promise but short on delivery, and a casual browse of IMDB suggests these tunes are offcuts from earlier works. (He got an Oscar for it nevertheless.) The actors are his usual suspects plus Jennifer Jason Leigh in egoless histrionics. The characters develop surprisingly far, but does he have a point? I got the von Trier vibe at times, but not the chills; this is something schematic, like Dogville, but nowhere as brutal. I think Tarantino could learn something from Moodysson's efforts.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. Anthony Lane.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Lotte cinema in Phan Thiết, 60,000 VND. I wanted to buy some train tickets at the station, so it seemed as good a time as any to see Star Wars as rebooted by JJ Abrams. I also got a coffee at the wonderfully kitsch Lâm Kiều and was bailed up by the entire wait staff for English practice... until the boss showed up. The main draw was Oscar Isaac. No-one goes to see Star Wars for the politics; this is all about moral clarity and not shooting first. I ended up feeling a bit emotionally exploited as the plot was mostly a reheat of the first one. Near the start, after the certainly-unintentional comedy of having First Order be the bad guys, there's some possibly-intentional comedy: the stormtroopers arrive and one that takes cover gets killed while another crouching in the open does not. After that I did my best to ignore what was front and centre in the frame — it's almost always what you expect — and look to the edges. Do all the Imperial stooges have English accents? The Republic forces seemed to be very multicultural. Carrie Fisher's scenes were pleasantly poignant; she carries her damage well.

#29 in the IMDB top-250, but for how long? Dana Stevens tells me that Mr Brick (Rian Johnson) is directing the sequel. I can only hope it's as twisty as everything else he's done. Star Wars noir, is it possible? (No, no, not the schwartz.) Anthony Lane sharpens his claws.

Dennis Lehane: World Gone By

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Kindle. Chowed across another two soggy days in Mũi Né. I was surprised to find that this is the first book I've read by Lehane, given how many of his works have been adapted into movies (even good ones). I ended up thinking of this story as an exploration of Robert Duvall's secondary character (Tom Hagen) from The Godfather: a consigliere of the wrong race, who dirties his hands with some of Michael Corleone's street smarts and family issues. Perhaps that was lazy on my part, but I felt it took very little imagination to read; I'm getting the impression that Lehane writes scripts and calls them novels. It is nowhere as funny, and far more patronising, than the book I just finished by Paul Beatty. The prose is flat, the similes and metaphors are tired, the humour is not very funny, and audience is presumed vapid.

To be blunt, everything here is reycled from the glory days of organized American crime and story telling, and often only lightly fictionalized. (Wikipedia has about as much speculation and innuendo as this book does, but no horse in the prurient deviant sexuality stakes.) The World War II backdrop (the Nazis forever the gift that gives to America's creatives); Batista's Cuba; the son Tomas wanting to be a U.S. solider, just like Michael, despite his father's argument that he's part Cuban and his country hasn't done a thing for him; the "you're not killing my child" histrionics, but with an immediate backdown; some get-on-the-plane dialogue, just like Casablanca and not Predator; tedious racism. You get the idea. There is some massively unsound reasoning about the existence of God (that doesn't even make for good rhetoric) and an attempt to co-opt alcohol fetishism ala Fleming's Bond.

Janet Maslin saw something in this that I didn't. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout.

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Kindle. Mostly read on a soggy day in (a room at Diễm's and Liên's guesthouse in) paradise. Beatty is very funny. His premise is that some people of colour pine for the good old days of slavery and segregation (those with even more repugant markets and regulations?), and what's more, things might turn out better with a return to antebellum conditions: there's no violence on the bus, the students are more successful (according to standardized tests?), the whites start agitating for desegregation and people are going to want their slogans in Latin. I guess it's a quantity theory for the L.A. ghetto, in sitcom-style like the Hitler revival I just completed. There's plenty of racism to go around, though Beatty reserves the most scathing for his own people. His humour makes it possible for him to explore what it means to be of colour in the U.S. in 2015 without disrespect or occlusion. I'm certainly keen to chase up his other stuff.

Dwight Garner didn't sell it to me back in February, but only in his list of the year's best. (I don't know why.) One thing he got slightly wrong is that the narrator does not wilfully reintroduce slavery, but caves into the wishes of his mate, the aged star Hominy, who demands a weekly whipping. The book is rife with these types of smooth feints that would probably feel like trolling in less capable hands. Kevin Young. Seth Colter Walls at the Guardian.

2016-10-26: Beatty wins the Booker Prize for The Sellout.

Timur Vermes: Look Who's Back, translated by Jamie Bulloch.

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Kindle. Read mostly in a hammock in the beautiful garden of Diễm's and Liên's guesthouse in Mũi Né. The premise is simple: an unreformed Hitler wakes up in Berlin in 2011 and is taken to be a method-acting comedian. It is quite funny at times, particularly by showing how the media will do anything for a rating. The occasionally very muddled thinking left me wondering if it was the author being funny or if this was plausibly Hitler's authentic mode of reasoning.

Janet Maslin gave it a year's-end thumbs up. Showing the trans-Atlantic humour gap, Steven Pool at the Guardian. Yes, Downfall.

Nuts in May

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Mike Leigh, part of the Play for Today series. Dare I say that Keith is almost Continental in his rigidity. Quite fun in some parts.

Luke Carman: An Elegant Young Man.

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Kindle. Perhaps it was reading about the 10th anniversary of the Cronulla riots or the dismal performance of the touring West Indies cricket team that sent me in search of new Australian stories. I thought I'd send a message of support to this bloke, writing from east of where I say I'm from, written in money. It took a day to read it, at Công viên Gia Định ("family park"?), the nearby Porevol Coffee, and later on, Cafe Sỏi Đá in Hồ Chí Minh City. I can't say I didn't get what I paid for.

The first piece (Whitman and the Whitlam Centre) annoyed me as it is written in the Tina Fey style: wouldn't it be funny if ... this is just like ... followed by a literal playing out, and, more often than not, a climb down. By pulling punches after throwing them, Carman revels in insincerity. The relentless assertion/correction pairing at the sentential level gets wearing, like all trolling, and I wouldn't call it poetic. Elizabeth Bryer, literatti:

The collection’s novel-of-education intentions soon become clear: the narrator recounts, in quick succession, different sources of wisdom — certain poets, children's authors, musicians and films — alongside the often contradictory pearly words themselves, without ever making clear to which of these, if any, he subscribes. [...] There is a breakneck energy, here, the impatience of youth, the feeling of needing to know now, of pushing boundaries and of a constant, insatiable thirst for knowledge.

I didn't read any more of her review. This "needing to know" is bullshit: it's just the generic youthful lust for experience. Knowledge (and wisdom) requires one to interpret this experience, and as she admits here, that's precisely what Carman avoids doing. So instead we should ask if the raw material he presents here is actually interesting; does he take us to Western Sydney or has he just written Aussie ethnic lit of the kind that Nam Le derides?

His influences are fairly obvious. Pro wrestling here is low-rent tent boxing. (The lack of an audience is quite amusing.) Somersault was about a road trip starring a restless, frisky Sydney girl. Women have been sexually assertive since ... forever now? Violence in homes and on the streets has been omnipresent in the media since I was a child. Looking to Kerouac is pure necrophilia these days, like trawling Sydney for downmarket jazz bars and expecting to smoke everywhere. There's the odd moment of Romper Stomper anthropology, and many nods to Chopper-style self promotion. But these, of course, point south to Melbourne and not west to Mount Pritchard. He evokes the instability of Mark Latham at times. And really — really — don't we all have stories of unhinged behaviour arising from teenage boredom? I admit that mine do not feature guns.

A thread of defeat runs deeply through all these stories: At 39%: "As always, if given sufficient time, I'd make up my mind to do nothing." and 71%: "[...] I could understand how Hugh escaped into books so often that he'd bent into a permanent shrug." I see this as pure Australiana, but having said it, why does Carman want to get into literature?

The argot of Western Sydney presented here demonstrates that the droll Australian mode of expression is dead; it's all totally crass now, and to be frank, Carman's language never excites. He doesn't explore/excoriate the classic coming-of-age Australian stories, or any of the vast material of immigrant experience such as the plays of David Williamson that we got drilled on as kids. Paul Kelly's kitchen-sink songs must be passe. To go to a bowling club, an RSL, and not have an angle on the going down of the sun, on Khe Sanh, reduces those settings to anywhere, any time, without the authentic 1972 prices of Hồ Chí Minh City. Look instead to Don Walker for something that is more than a snapshot of any given day near Liverpool.

Sydney's literatti wet itself when this book was released. I get the impression that most reviewers were women. Certainly those I skimmed showed little comprehension of blokey culture; there's nothing particularly unique about getting a fist in the face in Cronulla (cf the myriad king hits in pre-shut-out Kings Cross, "bring back the biff" in rugby league, the roughness of old mining towns like Newcastle, Wollongong, Cessnock, etc.). They got excited by its adoption/imitation of literary styles more modern than Patrick White's modernism. The street poetry of Sydney for my time there was hip hop, far more radical and inclusive than Kerouac, and there's no sign of those themes here.

Aatish Taseer: The Way Things Were.

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Kindle. Read perhaps a bit faster than warranted. I liked his review of a book about the Partition that convinced me not to read it, and perhaps heard about him as a translator of Saadat Hasan Manto. Surely his fiction might be worth a look-see.

Briefly, this is an extension of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, commencing with the Emergency and proceeding more-or-less to Modi's recent elevation, trying for the quasi synchronous realism but not the magic. He adopts Ishiguro's increasingly-stale two-track temporal structure, but never achieves the graceful slipperiness of the master, and most recently, Murray Bail. It gets away from him badly at times. Similarly he speaks for his generation in explaining its parents to its parents, as Ishiguro has, and the father's ashes are, so clunkily, the remains of the day.

Of course Taseer is in strong company when criticizing his own country. He is never as funny or as vicious as Renton despite having (probably?) more provocation on the English colonialism front. The skewering of philistine businessmen flails about in caricature, and unpacking the Sikh apartness would have been more valuable than the generic rants about deracination. There is no comprehension that, while India's ancient understandings of language may not have been practically useful for much of the twentieth century, modern analyses of computation have revived the genre. Too much arts, not enough science, I fear. Sure, everyday aesthetics has always been a long way down the list. I didn't get a strong feeling for his attitude towards Modi; here he is a Hindu nationalist who doesn't understand history or cultural roots, but in public Taseer has lauded Modi for making noises about sanitation.

Taseer places his erudition and upbringing (in the drawing rooms of Delhi) front and centre; Alfred Hickling unpacks the latter at length. The Sanskrit games are not idle, but some are annoyingly opaque, which makes me think he is talking to his buddies in the diminished cultural elites. His characters are often fragments of himself, and there are too many secondaries that serve little purpose; it could have been fifty pages shorter and a lot deeper. His main character in the present-tense track is occluded; Skanda's inner life is unrealised, and we never get to see his sister as an adult. Why did Uma stop talking to Ishi? The section that resonated most with me was well away from the dead scenes of Delhi society past, when Toby (the father) uses his son (Skanda) to explain his life philosophy:

He had once said – and she clung to it as the intellectual basis for their separation, ‘I don’t know why people feel that if this is the only life, then it follows that one must be hedonistic, or live hard. I should think that if this is the only life, if really and truly there is this and nothing else, then one can relax, squander one’s life with impunity, spend it reading, sitting in a chair, or learning languages. Wait it out, you know. Treat it like a throwaway thing. One-use-only.’

‘Toby, that makes no sense.’

‘Do you remember when we were with the kids once, at that aquarium in Baltimore?’

‘Yes...’

‘And we bought Skandu that little plastic stick, which, if you cracked it, would glow in the dark...’

‘Yes, he loved it.’

‘He did. But do you remember what he asked us?’

‘No.’

‘He asked us how long it would glow for. Whether it would glow ad infinitum, or whether – and this was nice – it could be turned off, to glow again on another day...’

‘Toby, what has this to do with anything?’

‘It has everything to do with everything. Because – do you remember? – once we told him that that was it, that once he’d cracked the thing, it would glow till it ran out, and never glow again, he was instantly contemptuous of it. He threw it aside. We tried to explain to him that he should cherish it in the moment, enjoy the glow while it lasted, but it was no use: he was no longer interested.’

‘Toby, are you saying that that is your attitude to life?’

‘In a sense, yes,’ he said, and grinned.

And another, Toby hooking up with his second wife Sylvia:

He put the light on; it fell aslant over Sylvia’s bare back, where his eye fixed on a mole partially enveloped in skin. Again disappointment returned, deep and unreachable. He decided to finish the chapter he was reading. She stirred a little. He watched her with some mixture of curiosity and dismay. He was at the end of Swann in Love: ‘And with the old, intermittent caddishness which reappeared in him when he was no longer unhappy and his moral standards dropped accordingly, he exclaimed to himself: “To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!”’

Malathion gas... the serpent's egg has already been hatched! Taseer is not a careful scholar, as witnessed by the corrections to his articles in the New York Times. Detail may be beneath him. His article How English Ruined Indian Literature is larded with manifest conceptual error. And really, is his point that who controls the past controls the future? (cf Asian Dub Foundation in obvious debt to George Orwell.)

Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle.

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Kindle. I tend to read PK Dick's stuff in pairs. This one is fictional history: FDR checks out early so the Nazis and the Japanese win World War II. I probably didn't read it closely enough, but in summary the Nazis remain scum but the Japanese rule the west coast of the U.S. in some quasi-enlightened but non-creative way. Someone extracts something like the notional history of our present timeline from the I Ching and novelises it. Yeah. That stuff put me in mind of Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently holism, but it's a lot more earnest here. Amazon has apparently made this into some kind of video.

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

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Kindle. Well, quite by accident I found myself reading more ruminations on empathy. What Ridley Scott turned into mere background psychobabble in Bladerunner is fleshed out here; I prefer his patricide and other narrative strengthenings to Dick's amateur musings. I tried to hold firm to the hypothesis that Deckard was an android (let's posit a Nexus 7) and it mostly hangs together, at least if you allow for implanted memories. (Then again, with those and a sketchy narrator, anything goes.) The key technological development over the Nexus 6 is, of course, empathy, but of an overly general, unfocussed sort; cue the Nexus 8. There's a lot of respect shown to animals here, which implies vegetarianism, but apparently no-one eats so we don't actually know.

I found it strange that androids are held to be certainly lacking in empathy but that they still clump together, as if they have a herd instinct. Are these therefore somehow the same, but operating at different evolutionary/consciousness levels/stages?

Genevieve Lloyd: Enlightenment Shadows.

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Gen was my philosophy prof at UNSW. The best class I took for that degree was hers on 18th Century Philosophy, largely because of Hume (the first philosopher in history to make substantial sense from a twentieth-century empirical/rationalist viewpoint) and her insights into Kant's Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose. The second best was hers on the ancient Greeks. I bought her book at the time it was released, about two years ago, and have been lugging it around with me ever since. I finally committed to finishing it last week after about three starts — on three continents — and the end came at one of the few remaining authentic Trung Nguyên cafés, near Chợ Rẫy hospital, in Hồ Chí Minh City.

The introduction and blurb suggest that this text canvasses similar topics to David Malouf in his recent Quarterly Essay, viz the Enlightenment as the creator of future tense and the intellectual framework/process we currently inhabit. (Charles Yu is therefore observing regressive behaviour with his "present indefinite", though — with my limited understanding — I wonder if it's not the default mode of the Vietnamese language.) The reality is somewhat different however: Gen provides a close reading of several Enlightenment classics and highlights particular common themes, such as empathy and slaughtering sacred cows but not getting lynched for doing so. Therefore, instead of an overview of this tradition (which she is as capable as anyone of providing) we get something somewhat quixotic.

I took a few notes along the way, but nowhere enough to do justice to the whole text. Gen (p4) cites Derrida's Spectres of Marx as an example of the necessity to repeatedly critique what many economists are now calling "zombie ideas". One such is Kant's demand that (p9) "nations will stand to one another in relations similar to those in which individuals stand to one another in civil society." — a concept that Krugman et al reject as naive, as governments have concerns and powers that no individual has. Consider, for instance, a state monopoly on violence, the ability to print money, and a notional stewards-for-coming-generations role. I don't think there's enough slack in "similar" to cover these types of things.

Gen (p120) dug up this great quote from d'Alembert:

The art of reasoning is a gift which Nature bestows of her own accord upon men of intelligence, and it can be said that the books which treat this subject are hardly useful except to those who can get along without them. People reasoned validly long before Logic, reduced to principles, taught how to recognize false reasonings, and sometimes even how to cloak them in a subtle and deceiving form.

Cough, ahem, yes. Another of her common themes is the idea of objectivity arising collectively, but not therefore becoming a species of subjectivity or a view from nowhere. I think we could call it crowdsourcing or the wisdom of crowds, or gesture at the coherence theory of truth if we need a fig leaf. Yeah, then Hegelian thesis/antithesis leads to balls up and so forth.

Gen observes that Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch is so mired in teleology that it is beyond redemption. Adam Smith's invisible hand plays a similar role, somehow benignly picking out a better destination and not just a more efficient route. Kant's ideas of the relations between nations is woefully naive, being of the Kissinger-like realpolitik ilk (Gen p147):

[...] in relation to international rights Kant observes that, although the preferred route for states or rulers to lasting peace may be world domination, Nature wills it otherwise. Peace between nations is created and guaranteed by "an equilibrium of forces and a most vigorous rivalry."

... which didn't work out so well for colonized countries for quite a while. Interestingly Kant also advocates for limited human rights, a sort-of mutual obligation while-visiting sort of thing.

The introduction and conclusion are very strong, and it is unfortunate that the intervening "close readings" are not as interesting to this non-specialist. Gen also fails to achieve Krugman levels of polemics, which is to say that she's too polite and scrupulous to slaughter her fellow ponderers for minor infractions. That she needs to if she was to gain any traction in the modern debates around refugees, climate, etc. is a shame. As always she speaks authoritatively about Kant's political philosophy, and I would have dearly liked to hear more about that.

Mark Collier. I concur with his conclusion: I had hoped this book would provide an overview of the entire Enlightenment project.

In a timely coincidence, here is Jason Wilson mining a similar vein, and Mehdi Hasan on those who call for an Islamic reformation. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, cited by Gen, does not cover herself with glory in her interview with Jon Stewart.) Roman Krznaric tries to argue that Peter Singer is ignorant of empathy, but does not himself account for the imagination it requires.