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January 04, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People, Thomas Gregor (University of Chicago: $10.95). We live in an erotic environment, with commercials outlandishly equating sex with everything from jeans and automobiles to toothpaste and soft drinks. But while we think about sex, we seldom analyze it in our own society (the Hite Report studies sexual behavior, not sexual culture), much less in other societies. Attempting to provide a readable introduction that goes beyond explaining the "who, what, where and how of sexual activity," Thomas Gregor, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, looks at how sex structures the villagers' "understanding of the cosmos and the world of men and spirits." The Mehinaku Amazonians profiled here are a jovial bunch; once the author allays their concern about a rumor that Americans eat babies, they become convivial. "We Mehinaku dance a lot. We sing a lot too," says one, while others explain their myths and criticize some of our own, particularly romantic love, which they cannot comprehend.

After hearing a Portuguese song on the radio, one of the Mehinaku asks Gregor, "What is all this, 'I love you, I love you.' I don't understand it. I don't like it. Why does the white man make himself a fool?" While romantic love is suspect among the Mehinaku, Gregor writes, "romance between spouses borders on bad taste. Husband and wife should respect one another and, to a degree, stand apart." In the introductory chapters to this well-written book, Gregor also leaves the Amazon for a quick tour of attitudes toward sex in other cultures--it's a "national pastime" in Polynesia, a source of "tension and guilt" among the Irish of Inis Beag. The tour offers a cross-cultural mirror through which we can better see ourselves.

Edges: Human Ecology in the Backcountry, Ray Raphael (University of Nebraska: $6.95). Ecology is a branch of sociology as well as of biology, but most of us continue to associate the word with streams, lakes, tide pools and forests. We see ourselves as observers of the ecosystem, not participants in it. True, the Bomb has brought home the realization that we have ultimate power over the planet, but our anxiety about an apocalypse is matched by our nonchalance about slower, subtler forms of ecological change. Ray Raphael sees two forms, both ambiguously termed human ecology : the growing influence of city culture on the countryside (almost all-pervasive now that TV stations can be scooped up anywhere with a satellite dish) and environmental damage caused by development. "Edges" is not, however, another polemic urging readers to bow out of the urban bustle. Raphael recognizes that conflict is inevitable, both in the natural world (flora in meadows, when the meadows approach the woodlands, must cope with lower sunlight, alien species of trees and soil that no longer feels right) and in the social (immigrants must struggle to learn a new language and culture).

There is, however, a crucial difference: Immigrants resolve conflict through change, while there is no "melting pot" for flora and fauna. Plants species may become extinct, but never the same. Raphael points out that we, in contrast, need to avoid being co-opted by "the uniform, manipulated language of the mass media." Raphael lives on the northern coast of California, and his affection clearly lies with others outside the mainstream. Still, this breezily written text does not pass judgment on city-siders, for Raphael takes both economics and ecology into consideration, offering suggestions for making "a decent living off the land without exploiting it in the process."

Nicaragua: Unfinished Revolution, Peter Rosset and John Vandermeer (Grove: $12.95). The best resource available for Americans trying to determine whether U.S. intervention in Nicaragua is a sound idea, this collection of recent essays spans the ideological gamut, from impassioned speeches by Presidents Reagan and Ortega to detailed, analytical studies by representatives from the United Nations. Taken together, the essays help answer critical questions often ignored by the broadcast news media: Who are the contras ? What are the policies of the Contadora Group and the United States? Are the Nicaraguans threatening the "security of the region"? While the title "Unfinished Revolution" could be read as equating intervention with interference, the articles critical of U.S. policies are never strident in tone.

Perhaps most representative of conservative U.S. thinking is an excerpt from the Kissinger Report, which equates the region's security with the region's "democratization," recommends that the United States increase economic aid to Central American countries to encourage dependency and suggests a continuation of the contra war. Interestingly, Kissinger's is the only essay in favor of intervention to put careful evaluation ahead of emotional appeal.

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