H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: reviewed

The sales of this book have surged. The text has secured a lot of publicity, and it has won a prestigious award. So it was interesting to see what was the cause of all the fuss. It is an emotional melodrama with some flashes of good writing, but it is also a history book with a certain bias. The natural world aside, it contains a bourgeois take on the Cold War.

The book is meant to be about hawks, T.H. White, and grief, but because the author had a kitchen sink approach to her subject memories of the Cold War kept coming back to haunt her. This was most evident when she equated vile Nazism with state socialism by the use of the word totalitarianism. However, it was also apparent when Lenin’s tomb suddenly appeared in the text. Russian technology also made an unnecessary appearance.

This mattered because she was forced to admit that she had believed history to be over in the Fukuyama sense. It also was responsible for her misreading of the Hungry Thirties. She referred to the craze for hiking in that decade but ignored the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, for example. The selective silences and dubious inclusions in this text distracted from the ability of the author to grapple with psychology. In the end, this book was disfigured by the confused liberal and conservative ideologies that kept on parading when the last page was completed.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon: reviewed

This text is a fascinating document which was composed after the end of World War One. It hints at how one poet felt about a tragic conflict. It also indicates how isolating it was for those people who had doubts about the utility of the war.

Sassoon tried not to judge his unquestioning superiors. He attempted to relate to ordinary soldiers around him. He tried to be sympathetic with the ignorant people on the Home Front. But in the end, he was alone. A man with a stiff upper lip and a poetic sensibility, a brave witness to unnecessary carnage- he was alone.

Sassoon had a remarkable way with words. His proficiency with his pen made his text come alive. History books could not come close to his way of representing facts on the ground. And his wit outlived him. It can be remembered by his fondness for the old quote:

“I shall not ask Jean Jacques Rousseau
If birds confabulate or no.”

Specters of Marx by Jacques Derrida: reviewed

The oddness of life, reading, and philosophy was highlighted in this provocative text. Jacques Derrida, arguably a champion of making things too complex to be politically constructive, has indicated that he saw value in the work of Karl Marx. This was of interest because the practical philosopher had endured criticism for being deterministic, teleological, and inaccurate. Nor was Marx someone who was much praised by postmodernists in general.

However, the approach of Derrida to Marx was idiosyncratic. It involved focusing on some of the lesser works to a high degree. Nor was the reading made much clearer by the stress on competing translations of Hamlet, for example.

Nonetheless, when Derrida concentrated on commodities and their powers the reader was made to perceive some of what was at stake. The peculiar nature of the commodity was underlined and intriguing points about the changing values of commodities were driven home. As Derrida wrote:

“we can perhaps return to what Capital seems to want to say about the fetish, in the same passage and following the same logic…By rendering an account of the ‘mystical’ character and the secret…of the commodity form, we have been introduced into fetishism and the ideological.”

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami: reviewed

This large collection of short stories was written way back when the author had a fresh and exciting talent. Several of these tales have a surreal element which stems from a fascinating imagination bubbling away. Franz Kafka may be an influence as some reviewers have stressed, but there is something distinctive in the narratives in question.

For me, there is seemingly an autobiographical flavour to the conclusion of the final piece of text. A salesperson has opted to live in a sphere of pragmatism. He has chosen a life of mundane success, barely touched by the magical world he has left behind. However, the poignancy of this fragment is matched in other parts of the book. And the translations seem to have been performed with skill. One of the more moving stories is a reflection on someone who used to read a lot and who has taken it up again:

“All I wanted was to get back to my book. I wanted to stretch out alone on the sofa and munch on chocolate while I turned the pages of ‘Anna Karenina.'”