The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

(Warning! No actual samurai appear in this book, unless you count the film samurai from the movie Seven Samurai, who do.)

As my old friend Eric wrote, this book is a “Stone cold masterpiece”. I whole-heartedly agree. Seriously, this book is really great. I can’t say enough great things about it. It’s funny and moving and clever and is probably one of the most insightful novels written about fathers and sons and mothers and sons and children and parents generally. It’s got a lot on education and human potential and it makes it seem like learning languages is not so hard. (I found learning languages extremely difficult, but maybe I just didn’t think of it the right way.) Also, it made me want to watch Seven Samurai again.

A book that’s very much worth reading. You won’t regret it.

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

This book is much shorter than I expected, but then it is a couple of lectures that have been turned into essays. The essays are quite smart and highlighted some things I’d certainly never considered.

The first essay begins by focusing on a scene I’d never given much thought to: in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ house is filled with suitors who want to marry Penelope, the assumed widow. A bard starts playing a sad song about all the men who went away to Troy and died. Penelope is overwrought with sorrow and asks the bard to sing a different tune. Telemachus rebukes her and tells her, basically, go do a bunch of womanly things, public speech is men’s work and I’m in charge here! Beard then goes on to draw parallels between that scene and other pieces from art, history, and literature from then to the present day.

The second essay is more about the ways that women are permitted (or not) to engage in the political sphere. She makes a compelling case that, even though we may not consider it, art and literature from the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds cast a long shadow that influences us still today. (For example, the imagery of Medusa as it’s been used through time.)

The only quibble I’d have with the book is that it’s not a manifesto. Beard has no call to action, no ideas for what to do. That being said, I think she’s doing a valuable service raising these parallels between the culture of antiquity and that of the present. Check it out! It’s a quick read.

Another Country by James Baldwin

I finished this book last week, but I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. It’s so beautifully written. The internal lives of its characters are almost too rich to fathom. When reading, it was impossible not to feel Baldwin’s constant presence. In a similar way, the novel is haunted by Rufus, a black musician who falls into such despair that he jumps off a bridge early in the story. (It was only later that I read an interview with James Baldwin and he mentioned a friend of his who killed himself by jumping off a bridge.) It’s a book that captures a very specific time and place (New York city in the 1960s) but that feels infinite in its scope–infinite in the microscopic sense, there’s always deeper and smaller to go. I can’t think of another book that captures how fraught with danger (emotionally, physically, spiritually) sex can be between human beings. Or even just a seemingly casual conversation. The kind of book that sort of makes me want to go shut myself away from other people and just read books forever. Also, there’s a party scene in this book with publishing elites that made me infinitely glad that I’ve always lived on the West coast. It’s an amazing book, but I think I got a bit more out of Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time.

Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler

Did you ever wonder what was all the fuss about people like Leibniz, Locke, Spinoza, but couldn’t get past the mountains of pages? Never fear! This comic book provides an entertaining summary and historical context for some of the most influential thinkers of the 17th century. Seriously, they should probably give this book to college freshmen. The art’s a lot of fun too.