The week in books

November 20, 2008

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett, chair of languages, literatures and cultures, Illinois State University. Profile Books, £15.00, ISBN 9781846680304

"Everett is the primary interpreter and translator of Piraha and as there are only a few hundred speakers left, it's unlikely any linguist will ever possess sufficient knowledge to challenge his conclusions. Nevertheless, his courage and conviction should give linguists pause for thought. There's only so much that can be deduced from the comfort of an academic's office. In the end, if you really want to understand a language, you probably need to get out and speak to the natives."

Andrew Anthony, The Observer

Geography of Hope: Exile, the Enlightenment, Disassimilation by Pierre Birnbaum, visiting professor in Jewish studies, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University, translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford University Press, £53.50, ISBN 9870804752930

"A rich, complex and occasionally perplexing book. It contains multiple musings on the convoluted relations between social science and its Jewish practitioners ... This is not merely an academic inquiry, although, clearly, a prodigious amount of research has gone into the making of it. This sprawling, multi-subject volume is also a deeply personal and passionate book."

Steven E. Aschheim, The Times Literary Supplement

Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed by Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, University of Michigan. University of Chicago Press, £14.50, ISBN 9780226493121

"Lopez's book is likely to excite those seeking an in-depth analysis of Buddhism's historical relationship with science. He purports to offer a 'guide for the perplexed' - presumably those who are perplexed that the two disciplines should be compatible at all. His scholarly treatment should provide succour, yet he gets off to a sticky start by pondering what it means to group the words 'Buddhism' and 'science' in the same phrase, concluding that it depends on 'what one means by Buddhism, what one means by science, and not insignificantly, what one means by and'. It would take more than a week in Dharamsala to unpack that one."

Michael Bond, Nature

The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age edited by Neil Harris, Preston and Sterling Morton professor of history and art history emeritus, University of Chicago. University of Chicago Press, £34.00, ISBN 9780226317618

"Think quiz. 'A crescent-shaped town, 26 miles by 15, along a great lake. An unchallenged murder record - a splendid university - hobo capital to the country - and the finest of grand opera. Altogether the most zestful spectacle on this earth.' Where are we? In case of doubt, the city's short-lived house magazine spelled out the answer in 48 point type, 'Chi - CA - go.' Actually the emphasis should have been on the Chic, because as demonstrated by this elegant collection ... from The Chicagoan, in its heyday Chicago was the most stylish, exciting and quintessentially American of all the cities that encircle the United States landmass."

Andro Linklater, The Spectator.

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