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S. Coleman (Dublin)

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Ireland in Crisis: A Study in Capitalist Colonial Undevelopment
Ireland in Crisis: A Study in Capitalist Colonial Undevelopment
by Raymond D. Crotty
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Vote Crotty Number 1, 26 Sep 2014
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This was the mid 80s, before the Celtic Tiger and the property bubble came and went, dashing the hopes of those who thought Ireland had turned the corner and leaving things in a worse state than before. Crotty's book explains why such an outcome was highly unlikely, although I remember seeing his book in the library at the time and thinking that he had got it wrong. As it turned out it was the mainstream economists.

In his thesis Ireland is one of the 140-odd post capitalist colonized failed and "undeveloping" states in the world and the only one in Europe, although the most thoroughly colonized of all.

It is an extraordinary work by an extraordinary man, for Crotty had been a self-taught farmer and then a self-taught economist before finally, having scorned an academic sinecure under "an unjust social and economic system that denied one half of those born in Ireland a livelihood, he became an agricultural adviser in the Third World, where he was practically unique among his colleagues in his knowledge of stock (see "A Radical's Response").

I am reading it again for perhaps the fourth time. The first few chapters, tracing the history of western Europe and then Ireland from an economic viewpoint, are terse and concise, coolly and authoritavely written and quite compelling. Discussing the period following Independence it opens out and slows, as it must, as it approaches 1986.

Half of the book is given over to the appendices which once again overwhelm by sweep of subject and penetration and clarity of reasoning. I don't know how original this all is but I suspect it is very much so. It is like one of those slim volumes that pack a punch, but keeps it up over 300 pages. Written "for the plain people of Ireland" it not only explains how it has come to this, but also gives a persuasive account of how our modern world civilization, based on individualistic capitalism, came about.

Top of my list.

Le Rideau (Folio)
Le Rideau (Folio)
by Milan Kundera
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.73

5.0 out of 5 stars Want to know what novels are about?, 1 Sep 2014
This review is from: Le Rideau (Folio) (Paperback)
This is one of those very short books that are so packed with intelligence and ideas that they demand to be read again. I have read this one three times and will come back to it. It reminds me in this respect of EH Carr's What is History?, Desmond Fennell's The Postwestern Condition or Máirtín O Cadhain's Páipéir Bhána is Páipeir Bhreaca.

I have never really come to grips with Kundera's novels although they have been generally interesting enough and certain scenes are very good indeed (eg litost and the reunion of the writers and poets or the hideous Clovis family, the archetypal progressives). After reading this however it seems as if I might have been missing something. This book is compelling in its arguments and clarity, and dense so I won't attempt to summarize. He sees literature as an international canon with its own historical developmental logic (or whatever that is in English). Put in another way, novels throw a new light on life and the wolrld, piercing the drab curtain of conventional wisdom and received opinion. What it means is that you will (or should) look at novels in a different light after reading it.

I will just mention a few things that particularly caught my attention. These include the fundamental importance of humour and (following Flaubert) of stupidity. There are a couple of very funny scenes from Don Quixote, an amusing story about an exchange of idendity with a friend in Prague and a comparison between central European kitsch and French vulgarité.

This is introvert thinking at its best with a driving internal logic throwing off dazzling insights. It has jumped into my top 50 and landed up near the top. You'd nearly learn French just to read this (although the thinking is complex and abstract the language is simple). Kundera did to write it.

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
by Daniel Everett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Losingi My Religion, 13 Jun 2014
I read this first as a library book not long after it came out and found it fascinating. My young son told me, rather to my surprise, that the Piraha pictured looked very happy.

I bought recently and read it for a second time. I was even more impressed this time round. The author writes with skill and intelligence. He clearly has a high opinion of himself as an expert in his field, and I share it.

Like another of my favourite extrovert authors, Bill Bryson, Everett is fascinated by language. I was absorbed by his description of the language and his summary of some of the main debates in linguistics and how his own findings challenge the language instinct theory championed by Chomsky. During the last reading I often tried to pronounce the Piraha words, with the high and low tones and the glottal stops (there is a useful clip on YouTube).

Most of the incidents were vivid in my memory from my first reading, for example the football match in the jungle, but a few aspects of the book only really hit me second time round, such as the Pirahas' sexual promiscuity. The theoretical arguments are another and even I, who have an interest, sometimes found it hard to sustain attention, particularly at night in bed. For me significant thing is that such expert theories (in this case argued so persuasively by Pinker in the Language Instinct), which seek to hold the whole of human life and experience in their thrall, are in the end little more than passing intellectual fashion, an "insubstantial pageant".

There are clips on-line of the author talking about his work. These confirmed the conclusion I had already long reached. In one lecture he jokes about belief in religion and the supernatural and quite a few members of the audience are heard laughing. The implication is clear: they know better. Now the author says that it was his dealings with the Piraha that led him to abandon his religion. This may well have contributed, but as an extrovert peer pressure from his academic colleagues and what are increasingly mainstream atheist views in the West would have been the main reason. (And he notes in the book that it had been a long time coming.)

I suppose the Pirahas are probably among the very last of the long line of noble savages who caught the imagination, from Caliban onwards, a yardstick against which we can measure our civilization (unlike an earlier commentator I won't use inverted commas for this word).

One final point. The Pirahas' culture of "immediacy of experience" (here the inverted commas are justified) reminded me of many, many people I have met.

The Shadow Of The Wind
The Shadow Of The Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No! It's rubbish!, 9 July 2013
This review is from: The Shadow Of The Wind (Paperback)
I still have another 200 pages to get but it should be over by Christmas. In case anything should happen to me I want this review published.

I got lost early on with the meandering and pointless plot and the sheer stupidity of, well, everything. I am reading it in the original language so at least I'll learn a bit of colloquial Spanish, which I am glad is not my vernacular. This stuff makes even Dan Brown look good.

On the plus side it gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of right-on, political correctness (ie what now passes for normality) in modern Spain: same as in the English speaking world but with added pretentiousness and sentimentality. If you like phoney folk "wisdom" and platitudinous pieties buy this book.

There is so much to jeer at, in particular the author's relentless efforts to flatter the reader and to ingratiate himself and the unflagging right-on-ness, like a comedy club without the laughs. One passage which remains in the memory is where "Daniel" on returning home one night sees his father, who has waited up for him, asleep in his favourite armchair. Daniel notices for the first time how he has aged (the fine wrinkles on his face, the texture of his skin - you know the kind of thing) and open upon his lap (and this is the bit) lies his father's favourite book, Voltaire's Candide.

This is how it goes on, page after page, cliche upon cliche, without mercy. Although the writing should embarrass a schoolgirl, Zafon seems to fancy himself as a literary heavyweight - Hombre, por favor!

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon)
The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon)
by Dan Brown
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Yikes!!!, 1 Oct 2012
I am still only a quarter of the way through this as I am reading it in Polish with the English original alongside.

So far not a lot has happened. The author has warned about Opus Dei ("FACT") and introduced what I take to be the main characters: Robert Langdon (how many permutations of names did Brown go through to arrive at this one?), a French judicial cryptologist (what...ever), a sinister hulking albino (give me a hulking albino - Brown's words - who isn't), a Catholic prelate and a nun. Langdon is an American professor of symbology (huh?) and if you ever feel the need to return to education try to avoid this subject in case you meet someone like him. Flashbacks to his Hollywood idea of lectures will make you cringe. But there is no need for that as Brown is on hand to tell you all you need to know. And there's even more to learn about the architecture of the Louvre and its alarm system in particular, so if this is what you are looking for you buy this book. The albino's life history makes you long for the day when cliches were fresh. The prelate - well he is a 'prelate' of the Roman Catholic Church, a word that sounds sinister to most ears I imagine. And he has just enjoyed a comfortable flight to Rome, so he's got it coming to him. The nun is a bit different: by reason of her vocation she is also bad but being a wumman she is by definition good - no doubt Brown will explore this 'interesting' moral conundrum and reach a satisfactory resolution in tune with pc requirements. As for Sophie's flashbacks to her happy childhood days with her grandfather - no, I can't go on.

The language is clunky and the syntax convoluted, so you suspect it was originally written in a foreign language (Polish?) but the (Roman) (Catholic) Church suppressed the original as its revelations were so sensational - another cover up? But the plot is fast moving and cunning in its low way. At the moment the hero and heroine are running up and down the corridors of the Louvre.

It's just like Scooby Doo but without the dog.

Was It For This?: Why Ireland Lost the Plot
Was It For This?: Why Ireland Lost the Plot
by John Waters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.19

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Was it for this grey geezers bled..., 27 Sep 2012
One press review of the book seemed not to disagree with its general content but concluded nevertheless with the accusation that John Waters was calling for a return to the past. I mention this because it is a typical reaction to him and it raises various possibilities including: the reviewer hadn't understood or properly read it, or had done so but was unwilling to fully concede its merits or did concede them but wasn't going to admit it. (By the way, a prominent Irish academic in a generally favourable reviw of his earlier "Feckers" got the idea from it that Waters was afraid of "strong women".)

Waters has never to my knowledge sought to return to the past. In An Intelligent Person's Guide to the Future he is explicit about this and looks for a reconcilation or synthesis between old and new in the person of Mary Robinson, an idea he since recanted on the reasonable grounds that far from being a force for reconciliation she turned out to be the flagship for the liberal agenda. Waters was an ally, it seems, of Raymond Crotty and would surely have been aware of his views on Ireland's 'iniquitous and unjust' society. Joe Lee's sharp and witty mainstream 20th C history goes into the details so there is no excuse for ignorance here.

However it's hard not to feel just a little sympathy for the reviewers as the book is complex and lacks the focussed power of his recent Lapsed Agnostic or Beyond Consolation and the punchiness of his newspaper column. Some of it we have heard a hundred times by now (he 'gets it' too, of course, but we are spared all but the bare bones here - he also 'gets' politics far better than most) but largely it is Waters' own distinctive mix and he draws on familiar themes of his in a thoughtful, if slow, progress as he gropes for the wider explanation. He mentions Crotty, Fennell and, giving credit where it is due, McWilliams.

I found the part dealing with the presidential election a bit long although most insightful and I remain to be convinced by some of the psychological analysis here. Ditto the national mythology stuff, but I could be wrong. Also, the book meanders much of the time, no doubt because the author can think of no better way of giving a full, truthful picture. But remember, this is the man who, in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Ireland, had called the Celtic Tiger's bluff when it was just getting into its stride: nobody had expected it and it had appeared, just like that, out of nowhere.

He is conciliatory towards his ideological opponents. I don't believe he has been cowed into submission but is acting out of generosity and a recognition that polemics have their limits because in the end it all goes beyond our powers of control. As the current cliche (or was it last year's?) goes: we are all in this together. And in view of the flak he has taken over the last twenty years he is entitled to strike whatever tone he likes.

One bit I noticed is his description of Irish society as suffering from "bi-polar disorder". Two quotes from the first chapter spring to mind in this regard:

"Progress... came to be modelled on external precedents..."

"What concerns me somewhat is the fact that we never seem to tire of saying certain things, even after they have ceased to be useful or germane. What astonishes me is that, even surrounded by the debris of our mistakes, the last thing we want to do is adopt a critical posture in relation to the thinking that led to the mess."

The psychologist Dorothy Rowe in her books about depression explains how humanity is divided between introverts and extraverts (she has her own spellings for these), the latter basing their existence on perceived external reality, as opposed to the introvert's grounding in the sense of self, her big insight being her observation that every couple is composed of one of each. Under stress the extravert flies into the external world, into manic activity. If you see Ireland as having an extraverted `personality' (admittedly it is a big jump to this from talking about individuals), one traumatized by its history, then it would explain a lot. In short, what is is by definition right, so these ideas were adopted simply because they were there and everyone else had them. (Interestingly, Rowe, herself an introvert, seems to subscribe to the consensus.)

Crotty however always remained hopeful that genuine progress was possible, even in the face of the the grim post-colonial evidence. Perhaps we will see the day when Ireland engages in mature debate, deals with the reality on the ground, embraces change and finally gets over it. A future not built on cliches.

The title comes from the well-known Yeats poem:

Was it for this grey geezers bled
The country and its future white?
For this that all that sh*te was said,
For this Sean Fitz..?

A Confederacy of Dunces (Penguin Modern Classics)
A Confederacy of Dunces (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Kennedy Toole
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How did he do it?, 9 July 2012
I first read this thirty years ago. A friend and former colleague used to read it once a year he liked it so much. On re-reading, I was surprised about how much I had missed first time round. The depiction of Ignatius himself was much as I'd remembered but I hadn't realized how beautifully drawn the other characters were or the intricately constructed plot. Or the finely observed speech of his mother, Santa, the old fellow - of course Jones made an impression first time round. The humour is even better second time round (it would remind you in a way of the cruel wit of Ricky Gervais' The Office). I had also got the impression first time round that the joke is exclusively at Ignatius' expense - not so. The author takes on everyone and everything - only the factory owner (and Jones) seem to escape ridicule.

Half way through you are helpless before the relentless brilliance of it all, you know Toole cannot put a foot wrong.

I can understand, I think, why many readers don't get Ignatius. First, I think, you have to realize what it is about modern life that so enrages him. I think one of Myrna's letters to him (which he reads in the bath) gives some of the best clues. As I recall, she talks about a man she had met who had appeared to be a radical firebrand but who turned out to be an agent provocateur. The letter gives a taste of the new pc agenda as it were in embryonic form before it became standard fare. She tells, amongst other things, of how the Vatican was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, of her interest in Ignatius' crazy proposals for a Divine Right party.

It's too brilliant, too funny, too assurd. It can't last and it doesn't. By the three-quarter mark it begins to flag. Could it be that it's too superficial after all, lacking depth? Suspicions grow and as quickly evaporate in the unexpected warmth of the ending. This I had not remembered (or rather had not noticed).

But that's another story. What stays (again) in memory is the brilliance and you ask yourself that question. No, not the one about how they managed to avoid recognizing his genius during his own lifetime (we are all surely hardened against this kind of thing by now). Rather, how, so young, did he do it?

Made In America
Made In America
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading, 3 July 2012
This review is from: Made In America (Paperback)
This starts off as mainly a book about the development of the English language and the first couple of chapters do not disappoint. He is clearly an expert in his field. (Well, I think he is.) But then it opens out into a broad popular/ social/ economic history. There are plenty of his trademark stories and anecdotes and lashings of his trademark humour. It is done in such an entertaining way that I barely noticed that he'd moved beyond the linguistics insofar as it becomes more about the introduction of new vocabulary than anything else.

It's a fun book, but for all that it gives a much better idea than hardly any other book I've come across of how the US (and us too) have reached where we are: health, food, sport, cars, roads and shopping centres. One story in particular that stays with me is how the young officer Eisenhower (ie think) attempted to bring a detachment of troops from east to west coast 100 years ago: just to see if it could be done.

Being the extravert that he is (psychologically speaking) he makes a determined effort at the end to justify pc newspeak. Doesn't quite work for me but nice try, bless him!

You will learn more in this book than in hardly any other publication of comparable size.

La Lorraine francique: Culture mosaique et dissidence linguistique (Sémantiques)
La Lorraine francique: Culture mosaique et dissidence linguistique (Sémantiques)
by Daniel Laumesfeld
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.63

5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for lovers of language, 3 July 2012
This is one of my favourite books and I've read it twice.

it appears to have been put together from his writings after the author's untimely death and there are chapters by others included (can't remember her name just now).

This is essentially about the Germanic dialect of the eastern part of Lorraine in France, bordering Luxemburg and Germany, which is the same language spoken in Luxemburg. The author goes into the history of the area, both linguistic and political. It is fascinating. There is also some telling material from his upbringing (I recall in particular the moment he and his brother rejected their native language) and even some humour (a funny story about a 100th birthday celebration if memory serves). There's also a good bit about issues of identity. Apart from some of the political history sections (relating to the status of Luxembourg about 200 years ago or so) I found the book to be very absorbing. Finally there is a brilliant graphic/ tabular analysis of modern Letzerbergesch (however that's spelt) within the borders of Luxemburg, in terms of dominant/ dominated status within the various situations where it is used, broadly under the headings of spoken and written. A real eye-opener. It's really for the interested layman as far as I can see and the French is straight forward. Ever since reading it I've had a fancy to visit the area in question.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars What was all that about?, 15 Jun 2012
I just finished reading this (in the Spanish original) less than a hour ago. I won't go into plot summary as others have already done this here. But I think there's something more here than an exercise in experimenting with form. As an earlier reviewer notes, there is surely a big autobiographical element. Some seem to like the local Peruvian flavour although I found it pretty irritating myself, espcecially the cliches and the macho stereotypes - although admittedly, with radio soap opera element running throughout, most or even all of this may be the author's depiction of an earlier time. What at first seems the weakest part of the book, the final bit where he returns to Lima several years later, is on reflection the most powerful. the love story has ended and is written off to experience, off-handedly almost. Life moves on. He meets a few of his earlier friends and colleagues and, of course, he meets Pedro Camacho again, who is now a shadow of the earlier towering figure, an albeit slightly comical literary and professional colossus (check spelling), at least in his own terms. I'm not sure quite what it means but it's powerful stuff and leaves a lot in your mind (or as they like to say nowadays, it 'resonates'). It reminds me of other books, big novels, I've read, or it could be classic films. The closest I can get to laying my finger on it is Dickens. Say when Pip meets Joe Gargery some years later in London - how different he looks now! Or where Patrick Kavanagh leaves his native village at the end of Tady Flynn and suddenly the place looks so small and tawdry. Powerful stuff.

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