Thursday, September 2, 2010

Week End Books

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Jared Diamond- Collapse: Howe societies choose to fail or succeed

It starts in Montana . Among the poorest states, beautiful Montana with its virgin forests, rivers rich in fish and open farmland  is plagued by depleted landscapes in former mining areas, toxic waste infiltrating the rivers, killing the fish and uncontrollable forest fires. A paradigm-state for environmental challenges faced now by the United States.

This was the least exciting book I had read since graduating, but it was worth the effort of  bearing with its textbook quality style. Because  Diamond is successful in proving some armchair economists wrong  as he shows us  how theories, dogmas, idiosyncrasies which are  looking neat and smart on a blackboard may be disastrous out there, in the real world. Paper manufacturers  may replant trees to replace the ones they cut and even increase forest density, but... a young, dense forest is the foundation on which those uncontrollable  fires crippling the western forests in the last decade are bred. 

Diamond examines the collapse of ancient cultures, such as the mysterious statue builders on Easter Island, or the failure of more recent ones , such as Haiti, to prove how the proper use, or abuse, of unique environment characteristics can strengthen or destroy a culture. But, and that is another quality of Collapse, Diamond admits that the environmental factor was only one of the factors leading to the failure of these societies. And the collapse was not the result of moral depravation or lawlessness but of the mere fact that : cultures/societies need to strive for environmentally sustainable economies in order to support the biological needs of their members on the long term. It is not eco-speak or fancy language with pretense of logic and science. In fact, Diamond is a critical observer of societies which were unable to adjust their cultural values to what was given to them by their environment. It is a down-to-earth, pragmatic approach and it offers down-to-earth, pragmatic solutions.

The Slap: A NovelChristos Tsiolkas -The Slap

"The Slap"' could be a book about parenting challenges in the contemporary Australian society where diversity and tolerance seems to be too often misguided and leading to confusion. Or a book about racial conflict or one about economic conflict. It could be a book about the conflict among generations and the way in which an abstraction such as "family values" takes different concrete representations for each character depending on his unique circumstances,

A suburban barbecue party. A multi racial crowd from all walks of life -the Muslims, the natives, the Jewish, the British, the immigrants, the straight, the gay, the rich, the college educated, the working class ones. A spoiled three year old from a dysfunctional family -the troublemaker. A cricket game. The troublemaker threatening another child with a bat. The other child's father losing control. An adult slaps a child that is not his....The police will be called, a trial ensues and everybody has to take sides...

Tsiolkas follows the barbecue hosts and several of their guests - their reactions, life changing decisions & actions- as the plot unfolds and brings into their attention other small facts that are their life: secrets, needs, deceptions, prejudices...He also attempts to cover several topics : from parenting to racial, religious and family values as they are confronted with an world which in its diversity cannot be proven right or wrong.

Now, my reasons for choosing The Slap from the ManBooker's long list were the anticipation of a provocation and a rich style based on the author's bio . And , in all honesty, if these were my only expectations from it, I wouldn't have been disappointed. Tsiolkas's writing style is engaging, it has wit and savor. It kept me up, reading, in the wee hours. Nor shall I complain about lack of provoking thoughts or points of view.

It's just that Tsiolkas remains a master puppeteer. An excellent one, no doubt about it. And as simple puppets Hector, Rosie, Connie, Harry, Manolis, Aisha, Anouk, Gary, Richie .... are playing only in his story. The story does not become their own and thus they lack the human dimension I do enjoy to discover when reading my favorite books.

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