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Sunday, May 22, 2005

The I/eyes have it -- random readings and thoughts on a Belfast weekend

Recently I've been giving more thought to the things that I'll miss when I leave Belfast next month. I'll be returning from time to time, but there is obviously a difference between visiting and living in a place. To say that I'll miss my friends and colleagues, and the daily routine of the coffee and the craic, goes without saying. I will also miss the general weekend routine that I've developed here -- the routine that starts with purchasing the Saturday Guardian and spending the rest of the weekend doing everything from workouts (not as often as I should) and shopping to laundry and a bit of cleaning. The key to having an enjoyable weekend is really linked to the quality of the articles in the Review section of the Guardian, and more often than not the paper delivers.

This weekend was no exception, although it's taken me until this morning (Sunday) to really getting into the paper. I'm not quite finished with my morning read, but already a clear theme has developed, for intentionally or not most of the interesting articles relate to personal perspectives -- or as the title of this post notes, the"I's"/eyes have it....

The cover essay by Caryl Phillips did not attract my attention at first, but turned out to be a good read about his climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with Russell Banks. Nothing really special, just as well written essay.

As for reviews, there is one interesting and scathing critique of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat that effectively removed that book from my list of things to read when I get back to the states. I read an excerpt from that book in a recent Guardian in which Friedman describes the "global" nature of his Dell laptop computer, and it actually looked pretty interesting. But according to the reviewer, Richard Adams, there isn't much more to the book then some very personalized observations with little depth. In fact, Adams suggested that the book would have been well served had the "I" been replaced on that laptop....

There is also an interesting critique of Simon Blackburn's new book, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. As the reviewer, John Banville, describes it, the book seems more an attack on the relativism of Richard Rorty than a clear statement of Blackburn's own "quasi realism", and once again the book has been eliminated from my future purchase list. If anything, I'm now more likely to read Rorty....

There are also a couple of interesting reviews of books about cultural phenomena such as our obsession with Wall Street and the popularity of reality TV shows. On the subject of "eyes" and perceptions, this week's "adaptation of the week" (which compares movie adaptations with the original books) is about the 1960 movie "Village of the Damned" and highlights the director's use of "glowing eyes" in pretraining the weirdness of the children. Interestingly, that article is placed next to an essay on the life and work of Frida Kahlo whose self obsession is seen in the eyes of her self-portraits.

And as usual one of the more interesting pieces is the weekly profile of some major literary figure. This week it is Joan Didion, and while I am only vaguely familiar with her writing, as always this feature makes me want to learn more about the individual. As it turns out, for instance, Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote to screen adaptations for "True Confessions," "Up Close and Personal" and some other films.

But thus far the most interesting piece was an essay by an American writer I've never heard of, Nell Freudenberger. The essay on her experience as a US State Department lecturer in China really does get to questions of perspective and the difficulties of relating across cultures.

Which reminded me of the local reaction to a lecture given at Queens University this week by another State Department sponsored speaker. Walter Russell Mead is on a tour of European cities where he gives talks on American foreign policy. As the Kissinger Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mead has established himself as one of the more perceptive analysts of the history and current trends in US foreign relations. In the political science business he would be regarded as a realist, and in his presentation to his Belfast audience he didn't pull any punches. I am pretty familiar with his work, and use much of his historical analysis in my own presentation of American foreign policy both in class and in my textbook chapter. Nothing he said, therefore, surprised me, and I thought the audience was pretty accepting of his argument. They were as polite as one would expect, and the question asked afterwards seemed pretty agreeable. But later in the day I got quite an earful from an American colleague who also attended the lecture as well as several graduate students. All seemed a bit shocked at Mead's presentation which they saw as an endorsement and apologetics for the Bush administration's outrageous policies toward the rest of the world. Clearly, even after 15 months of living in Belfast, I still don't have an appreciation of the Northern Irish perspective on the United States....

So much for random thoughts on a relaxing weekend in Belfast.
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