The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle

Phillipe Descola

The Jivaro Indians who reside around the border of Ecuador and northern Peru were perhaps most famous for the hunting and shrinking of human heads. Because of this tradition, their villages and culture remained largely unspoiled by outsiders well into this century. In the late ‘70s the author went to live among them and earned their acceptance and trust. The picture he paints of them is a knowing insider’s look at their customs, beliefs and daily life. The text exudes anthropological scholarship, and the translation from the original French is excellent.
The book’s main weakness is that the Jivaros aren’t really very interesting. They build huts and survive all manner of hardships. By the time the author has arrived, they already have rifles and headhunting is something that nobody has done recently. Their culture isn’t visually rich or myth-laden. If one is seeking a well-written portrait of a primitive people eking out a living in a harsh environment, this is about as good a telling as one could hope for. SA

Publisher: New Press
Hardback: 459 pages

The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir

Louis Althusser

Part absolution and part apology, this, the first volume of a posthumously published autobiography, begins on the morning of November 16, 1980 with the tragic death of the author’s wife at his hands. As the influence of academe was brought to bear upon the local authorities, the French proto-Marxist was deigned unfit to plead on his own behalf and sent straight to the sanitarium without arrest or trial—a merciful outcome for anyone other than an intellectual, that is, one in the business of “speaking his mind.” Returning several years later to the scene of the crime, Althusser attempts to reconstruct the defense he was denied, and to supply some crucial answers to a resentful public and even to himself. “I intend to stick closely to the facts,” says he, “… but hallucinations are also facts.”
Tracing his troubles back to earliest childhood, to his name in fact—Louis was his mother’s beloved first husband, killed in the war—Althusser describes his haunted experience with dispassionate candor. In the process we come to know the boy continually plagued by his own absence and inauthenticity—a self virtually destined from the start to disappear. Taking refuge in his studies and subsequent academic career, Althusser distinguished himself as a scholar and the foremost authority on Marxist analysis which he revised for the hippie generation through his influential concept of the “state apparatus.” Yet periods of concentrated production and lucidity inevitably gave way to paralyzing depression: the eminent philosopher gracing the halls of higher learning one day, and the loony bin the next. Shuttled from one institution to another, Althusser remained a shut-in for the greatest part of his life, first at home with his domineering mother, then as a POW during World War II, and finally within the ivory towers of academia. His political imagination flourished within these closed quarters, as did the various maladies which finally overwhelmed his reason.
A latter-day Oedipus wandering through the wreckage of his life, Althusser seeks through writing to probe the central blind-spot, to suspend the self at the point where it vanishes, or fractures into separate compartments, be they Marxist, misogynist or just mad. The revelations which follow are a little hard to swallow perhaps, but it is entirely to his credit that he doesn’t try anything “easier.” Just as tenuous and volatile as the lines which connect radical theory to revolutionary practice are those that bind the subject to the object of love. Retaining no memory of the fatal act itself, nor even a prompting desire, Althusser argues that killing his wife amounted in effect to a kind of suicide; that by destroying “the other” through whom he gained his meager identity, he himself would cease to be. It is a scenario worthy of Robbe-Grillet: The detective discovers not only that he is the perpetrator but simultaneously the victim of his crime. JT

Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 364 pages

“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey Into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide

Sven Lindqvist

This book presents an argument that “the harrowing racism that led to the Holocaust in the 20th century had its roots in European colonial policy of the preceding century.” It sets Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the context of its times and traces “the legacy of the writings of European explorers and theologians, politicians and historians, from the late 18th century on, in an effort to help us understand that most terrifying of Conrad’s lines, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’” It chronicles many infamous genocides of “lower species” and “inferior races” that hallmarked the Western world’s “progress” in the 1800s, such as: Darwin’s witnessing of the Argentine government’s slaughter of the Pampas Indians; the complete extermination by the Spanish of the Guanches of the Canary Islands; the complete extermination of the Tasmanians of the South Pacific (also witnessed by Darwin); and America’s decimation of its native tribes, cutting them down from 5 million to one-quarter million. GR

Publisher: New Press
Hardback: 179 pages

China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture

Jianying Zha

As if a language barrier weren’t enough, the wall of a 3000-plus character writing system has prevented the curious American from having even a casual knowledge of Chinese pop culture.
China Pop does a great deal to explain the how and what of its subject, but its unfortunate lack of visual aids makes the damn thing feel like a term paper. Also, after reading China Pop, the would-be cultural explorer has no more luck than previously should he be trying to figure out who the hell is on those posters and cassettes in a Chinese record store.
As of now, though, this book is all we have, and anybody looking to know anything about this topic will have no choice but to read this, incomplete as it may be. Hold on to your ‘60s Judy Ongg records until the definitive reference work appears—no doubt she will become the next Petula Clark. But it will take more than China Pop to inform the trend-spotting cognoscenti. SH

Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 224 pages

Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968

Edited by Allon Schoener

The Harlem Renaissance is one of the best things about cultural America in the 20th century, and there has been a crying need for a volume of this sort. The text is largely reprints of newspaper reportage of the time, and is profusely illustrated with photos of events, key figures and landmarks. Not only is this volume a great bit of reference, it is also a fascinating and entertaining book that is at once charmed, a little angry and truly rich. SH

Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 272 pages

Let the Good Times Roll: Prostitution and the U.S. Military in Asia

Saundra Pollock Sturdevant and Brenda Stoltzfus

This book is an account of prostitution overseas during times of United States military occupation. It is not the words of educated, privileged American intellectuals who like to pat themselves on the back for championing the oppressed, nor is it the angered writings of American women who have suffered mistreatment in the workplace. Instead, these are the words of women enslaved—often at a very early age—into the world’s oldest and often most terrible profession. And their matter-of-fact approach to telling these first-person horror stories creates a terrifying portrait of how American men behave when nobody’s around to punish them for being cruel. While women don’t have it so great in the U.S. of A., at least here, somebody is looking. This is what happens when nobody is looking, and is a jarring portrait of man’s inhumanity to women. Illustrated with lots of pictures, as if the text isn’t enough. Powerful beyond anything that can be said in a short synopsis. SH

Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 352 pages