February 27, 2015

Book review: “Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries” by E. J. Hobsbawm

In Sicily in the late 19th century, the Socialists who went out into the rural areas to organize the peasants were hard-headed men. Their aims were economic, and their demands were very specific. Not so for the peasants. In rebelling against the oppression of landowners and the government, they were millennial in approach. Their hope was for a just and perfect world, a sort of heaven on earth. Their aims, as summarized by Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels, were simple: All should work. There should be neither rich nor poor. All should be equal. There should be no need to divide estates and houses. All should be put in common and the income should be justly distributed. This would not give rise to quarrels or selfishness because there would be brotherhood…and those who broke brotherhood would be punished. These peasants, like most of the “primitive rebels” in Hobsbawm’s book, were pre-political. Their world was changing and had changed, but they didn’t have the intellectual framework with which to understand that change and respond to it. They had been living an essentially medieval life, centered on their village, with rights, responsibilities and power dynamics that […]
February 23, 2015

Book review: “Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

As I wrote in Sunday’s Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune, psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s new book Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy deals with the emotions, fears and terrors that human beings — his clients and himself — bring to the subject of death. In ten short chapters, each of which, for the most part, deals with a single client, the fear of the end of life is often hidden in seemingly unrelated behaviors and thoughts. It’s Yalom’s skill as a therapist as well as the hard work and vulnerability of his patients that gets beyond those initial symptoms to the deeper causes of personal unrest and unhappiness. In Creatures of a Day, Irvin D. Yalom is up-front about many of his techniques as a psychotherapist. This is likely to be of great help to other therapists, particularly those new to the field. Even more, these methods can be used by people in therapy and those who are simply trying to examine and improve their lives. They’re various strategies for going deeper and facing essential truths and challenges. Here are some: • Being there: “The most valuable thing I have to offer is my sheer […]
February 20, 2015

Book review: “Time for the Stars” by Robert A. Heinlein

Back in 1905, Albert Einstein promulgated his relativity theory. One wrinkle had to do with how time would be experienced by someone on Earth as compared with someone else traveling in a rocket ship at near the speed of light. Twins, say. I can’t claim to understand the mathematics or physics, but the idea is that time would be slowed down for the one in a rocket ship — to the extent that, on his return to Earth, he would find his twin much, much older than himself. In his 1956 book Time for the Stars, Robert A. Heinlein took that theory and ran with it. And ran with a lot of other stuff as well, including telepathy, the search for Earth-like planets, the strategies of family dynamics, psychosomatic injuries, the psychology of siblings, the nature of life on other worlds and the meaning of “alien.” “How does it feel to be a little green man in a flying saucer,” says one character as a ship from Earth prepares to land on a newfound world. “What?” “An oofoe. We’re an oofoe, do you realize that?” “I suppose we are a U.F.O, sort of.” No “sort of” about it. Heinlein understood […]
February 10, 2015

Book review: “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson

There are travel books, and then there are travel books. One sort, such as Fodor’s, is jammed with facts about hotels, trains, battlefields, subways, mileage, restaurants, museums, exchange rates, airports, safety tips, trails, cathedrals, stadiums, cruises, tours, shopping…. You use this sort when you are going to a place as a tourist, and it functions as a handy, cleverly packaged, compact database to help you maneuver around. The other type of travel book — such as Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island — isn’t about taking a journey yourself. It’s about going along for the ride without ever leaving home. And what’s really curious is that it really isn’t so much about the place that’s being visited. It’s about hanging out with someone who is interesting, thoughtful, funny and alert. That’s Bryson.   Cringe-producing moments Certainly, no travel companion is perfect, and Bryson is smart enough as a writer to include a few cringe-producing moments like those that happen on any trip. In Edinburgh, for instance, a “spotty young man” behind the counter at McDonald’s takes his order and then asks, “Do you want an apple turnover with that?” Bryson, who describes himself at this point as “fractious and […]