22 December 2011

"Republicans for Revolution" by Mark Lilla in NYRB

Mark Lilla of Columbia has a great essay in the current New York Review of Books, eviscerating Corey Robin's history of conservatism in The Reactionary Mind and laying out a more clear-eyed view of the history and current state of the dichotomy of "liberal" and "conservative."

Liberal” and “conservative” first became labels for political tendencies in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, but the philosophical distinction between them was settled by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks in large part to Edmund Burke. After the Revolution, Burke argued that what really separated its partisans and opponents were not atheism and faith, or democracy and aristocracy, or even equality and hierarchy, but instead two very different understandings of human nature. Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.
Check out the whole thing.

Foers

I've known for a while that the Foer family is ridiculously cool.  Franklin Foer was the editor of The New Republic for six years and one of their best writers, and remains an editor-at-large.  He has also written some great pieces for New York and Slate.  His brother is Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, the book that finished for me what Peter Singer's Animal Liberation started, and whose Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is being made into a new movie after the success of the adaptation of his Everything Is Illuminated.  Another brother is Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, an account of his experiences as a "Memory Champion" of competitive memorization.

But if that's not enough, there's now a new profile out in the NYT about their father, Albert A. Foer, a crusading anti-trust lawyer who has spent his life fighting monopolies and who recently managed to stymie AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile.

Goddamnit it, Foers!  Give some of the rest of us a chance!

17 December 2011

Sex and the City: Retrospective from a Latecomer

It's been impossible to be unaware of Sex and the City.  Even if you didn't watch the show on HBO, you inevitably heard about the surges of popularity for things like the nameplate necklaces (modeled after the protagonist's "Carrie" necklace).  But even more than that, Sex and the City was the show discussed around the water cooler, neatly arriving in 1998 just as Seinfeld ended its reign.  Even after the actual television program ended - after seven years of critical acclaim - two movies sustained the franchise's cultural relevance with great success.

But I'd never really watched it.

I was aware of the basics, of course, and I had seen a few episodes.  A New York columnist and her three friends try to balance love and their lives, etc.  It didn't seem so remarkable, and the segments I had watched were tedious.  I admit that I just chalked it up as a "chick thing," a short-sighted and stupid judgment.  Virtually every other television show is created and marketed for men, yet women look past that to see the real value behind the idiotic window-dressing.  Why should I think that Sex and the City, ostensibly designed to appeal to women, would be magically opaque?  Did I think that Carrie Bradshaw emitted testicle-destroying radiation or something?

Over the past few months, my wife and I have watched the entire series.  And it is good.

I'll start with the obvious: the theme of female empowerment.  Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha each approach modern feminism in their own way.  The artificial nature of their distinct paths is a little silly (they each have their own shtick), but only in the manner of all "wacky bunch of friends" shows.  Miranda is a vocal and sardonic working woman, Samantha is sexually liberated, Charlotte pursues traditional goals with a clear sense of her own worth and stature, and Carrie pursues a protagonist's muddled blend of the three extremes.

The less obvious is even more interesting.  Consider the fact that the girls have no apparent family and few other close friends.  Their closest bonds are with each other, a fact driven home partway through the series when they worry about ever finding a soulmate.  "We will be each other's soulmates," Carrie assures the others in the second season, as they hold hands.  The strength of their friendship, as performed for the audience, is derived in part from the lack of other social webs.  No parents, no siblings, and not even any friends from work.  They have each other, and the show emphasizes that by removing any competition.  It's intentional and clever.

Sex and the City has other carefully-designed elements, as well.  The first season's plots are all reflective of the larger growth experienced by the characters later in the series:  Carrie first becomes involved with Mr. Big but struggles over trying to resolve long-term happiness from short-term passion; Miranda dates sad-sack Scooter, a pleasant but unremarkable fellow whose steadiness appeals to her (a carbon copy of husband Steve); Samantha tries to work around her focus on sex to forge a real relationship, as with Smith later in the show; and Charlotte dates a commitment-minded man whose own ideals about the future don't mesh with her own, despite expectations.  The show's creator and writers had a plan with where they wanted to go, writ small during those first episodes in a way that's almost funny (Scooter and Steve are indistinguishable).

The satisfying nature of the show comes from striking a balance between meeting audience expectations and confounding them.  It's not fun to watch something completely predictable.  A character's development, the future of the plot, the setting - something has to be different.  Yet at the same time, it's uncomfortable to always be surprised and never get an anticipated pay-off.  In large part this is where Lost went wrong: when everything changes all the time and there don't seem to be any real rules, then it's hard to keep yourself oriented and know what is meaningful.  Sex and the City balanced these two needs of the audience.  For example, Charlotte does eventually find marital bliss and gives us that warm satisfaction, but in a way that is novel enough to be interesting.

There are flaws, of course.  The character of Carrie is the most prominent one.  It's hard to tell how deliberate is her appalling nature - did the writers intend for me to hate her?  (I doubt it.)

  • She is terribly, surprisingly self-centered.  If a conversation stops focusing on her, drifting to some other topic, she inevitably makes a rude comment or simply demands to be the center of attention again.  My wife began mocking this halfway through the second season, chanting "Me me me me me!" whenever Carrie interrupted another character or steered discussion back to her needs.
  • Carrie is not a very good friend, and is just a bad person in general.  Of course there are big things, like when she cheats on Aidan with a married man.  But every episode is also like a display of her essential thoughtlessness.  For example, near the end of the last season she invites her friends to meet her beau, and gay buddy Stanford is just delighted - until she tells him that he can't come. So why invite the girls in front of him?  Just to rub it in the face of a guy she consistently treats more like an accessory than a friend?
  • Given what we hear and see, she cannot possibly be a very good columnist.  This is hard to forget when a large part of the fifth season is devoted to her great success as a writer.  Nearly every column pivots on the phrase, "I had to wonder...", followed by the metaphor du jour ("...are all the good men taken?", "...can any woman have it all?").  That is not a formula for literary success.
The problematic protagonist aside, it's a great show both because of its importance and on its own merits.  If you haven't seen it, perhaps for the same reason as me, you are doing yourself a disservice.  I have seen it all, and I regret that it took me so long.  Luckily, I'm still not done: I still have two movies to get through.



15 December 2011

BTT: Character or Plot?


This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

What’s more important to you? Real, three-dimensional, fleshed-out fascinating characters? Or an amazing, page-turning plot? (Yes, I know, they are both important. But if you had to pick one as being more important than the other?
My brief reply is that when I think about some of the books I enjoy the most, such as A Confederacy of Dunces or Les Miserables, I realize that the attribute that I enjoy the most is not their plot (though it may be intricate or magnificent) but the amazing and full characters. This is not to say that plot is unimportant, but characters are vital.

Symbols in Literature

It has been common in many school classrooms for teachers to direct children to look through a story and find the symbols, selecting out colors or objects or expressions that are supposed to have greater meaning.  And when it is time for composition, it sometimes occurs that teachers direct children to insert some symbolism into their writing.  They might say, "But what is the meaning of the bowl of fruit on the table?  Fertility?"

This is not a good practice, and badly misunderstands the role and genesis of good symbolism.

Mary McCarthy, a sage of literature and an author in her own right, once found great offense in a student's attempt to cram symbols into an already-completed short story.  The student thought that her message had to be encoded into the thing, along the lines of "green curtains indicate envy."  McCarthy was astonished to realize that this view of symbolism was becoming increasingly common at the time (1954) and wrote an essay for Harper's that remains one of the best set of ideas on the subject.  An excerpt from her "Settling the Colonel's Hash":

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero. Jane Austen may know in a general way that Emma will marry Mr. Knightley in the end (the reader knows this too, as a matter of fact); the suspense for the author lies in the how, in the twists and turns of circumstance, waiting but as yet unknown, that will bring the consummation about. Hence, I would say to the student of writing that outlines, patterns, arrangements of symbols may have a certain usefulness at the outset for some kinds of minds, but in the end they will have to be scrapped. If the story does not contradict the outline, overrun the pattern, break the symbols, like an insurrection against authority, it is surely a still birth. The natural symbolism of reality has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.
The rest of the essay is very much worth your time.  McCarthy expertly picks apart the faulty approach that sees reading and writing symbolism as a procedure divorced from actual reading and writing, and proceeds to give a brilliant exegesis for a better way of thinking.  Symbolism is recognition and implementation of a pattern in a work that highlights, contradicts, or complements a theme of the text - not a special secret code, like the Victorian Language of Flowers.

McCarthy was not alone in thinking this way.  In 1963, a boy in San Diego, Bruce McAllister, got into an argument with his English teacher over her advocacy of the crude notions excoriated by McCarthy.  After publishing his first short story, he decided to settle the disagreement and began mailing off a questionnaire about symbolism to numerous famous writers, with such questions as "Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?"  Some big names wrote back, including John Updike, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, and Norman Mailer.  Almost universally, they avowed that they did not willfully insert symbols.  Only Ayn Rand differed, refusing to answer the questions at all and instead replying with a terse admonishment about terminology ("This is not a definition, it is not true - and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.")

Ernest Hemingway famously scorned deliberate symbolism, declaring about The Old Man and the Sea:

No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
 There are exceptions to these sorts of codes.  In her essay, McCarthy rightly notes the deliberate and obvious symbolism in Ulysses.  But this is an advanced and unusual thing, and no more suited for everyday use than the blank and unpunctuated verse of E.E. Cummings (not that such difficulty ever stopped a grade-school poet from abandoning rhyme at the earliest opportunity).  Hemingway, for example, did sometimes engage in acts of premeditated symbolism, as when Santiago (the titular Old Man) sees the sharks in the water:

"Ay," he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.
But I believe that the reason why all authors, Hemingway especially, decried the practice is not that they did not find it occasionally useful, but that it was part of a runaway trend that they couldn't help but find distasteful and offensive.  They didn't want to encourage a view of literature that reduced it to a game of hide-and-seek or an elaborate code.

That leads me to my conclusion: the literary technique of symbolism is like most other literary techniques.  Anyone can do them, but they are very difficult to do well, and are better achieved through an organic effort to just write the best you can.  Nor should a reader be trying to decrypt a story by identifying the meanings of colors or the bowl of fruit on the protagonist's table: instead, read the text and find the meaning and themes, and only afterwards try to work out the techniques that got you there.  That's symbolism done right.

09 December 2011

BTT: Mystery or Love Story?


This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

All things being equal, which would you prefer–a mystery? Or a love story?
"All things being equal" means an equally well-written book, so we're talking something like Love in the Time of Cholera, not The Vicar's Wife and Gordon the Stable-Boy's Rippling Stomach.  And on that basis, I have no preference.  And this is not the false elevation of the aloof, but just a raw lack of affection for either genre in and of themselves.  I am fond of very bad ideological books and high-concept science fiction, but I have simply no feelings about mysteries or romance.

01 December 2011

BTT: Mood Reading

This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

Do you find that your mood affects the things you read? Like, if you’re in a bad mood, do you tend to indulge in reading that will support it or do you try to read things that will cheer you up? Do you pick different types of books on dreary, rainy days than you do on bright sunny ones?
For that matter, does your mood color what you’re reading, so that a funny book isn’t so funny or a serious one not so deep?
My book selection seldom depends on my mood.  Instead, I seek variety.  I like to alternate fiction and nonfiction, fluff and epic, Russian and American, and so on.  If I decide not to read the latest celebrity biography or a dense history, it's almost inevitably because I have read something similar recently and I just want to switch up.  There's probably some element of guilt involved... if I spend all Saturday giddily plowing through several volumes of pablum, I feel as though I've actively wasted my time.  Plus, bad books are like television: seductive and brain-destroying.

Naturally, my choices do affect my mood, but not very often.  I might put down something like The Life and Times of Michael K. or A Stolen Life, heave a heavy sigh, and comment, "Well, that was depressing"... but usually I'm smiling and humming again ten minutes later.

25 November 2011

Caruba, Mythmonger

Alan Caruba's latest column is too terrible to let pass unnoticed.

The 2012 national elections will be held on November 6 and I naturally want to get out ahead of all the other pundits and their predictions about its outcome. I cannot tell you who the Republican winner will be, but I can tell you that Barack Hussein Obama will be known as a former President.

He has most certainly turned out to be the biggest loser—a turkey—to hold the office of president. I can look back over my writings in 2008 and say “I told you so!” to anyone who voted for Obama.
Let's remember that this same guy who is looking forward to gloating over Obama's loss is the same guy who also confidently predicted that Obama would resign before the end of his first term, and before that predicted that Obama would be "toast" in the 2008 election ("In the end, I don’t think he likes white people very much. Not even his grandmother.").  At this point, any reader should be wary of trusting his pronouncements.

It was surreal to watch how the mainstream media went out of its way to ignore the fact that there were virtually NO FACTS to cite regarding Obama-the-candidate. Any candidate who had gone to the extent of hiding the ordinary “paper trail” that all of us leave when we attend school, college, serve in the military, acquire a Social Security card, travel, or simply acquire friends and acquaintances, surely had something to hide.

To this day, no one seems to recall being in college with Obama, though he attended Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard. Surely you would think someone would pen a word or two of their memories of him. No student in the classes he taught on the Constitution at the University of Chicago has shared those days. If he dated anyone prior to Michelle, they remain incognito.
One of the keys to a good column is making sure that a good debunking would at least require longer than thirty seconds.  Alan Caruba does not write good columns.  This page points out an article Obama wrote as a student at Columbia, some memories from a roommate there, and the account of a professor who remembers him from class.  And literally the second result on Google for "Obama student University of Chicago" turns up comments and memories from his former students.  Caruba's wide-eyed ravings here are so easily proven false, it's kind of amazing he put this print.  But hey, this is Caruba we're talking about.

There’s a term in boxing when a boxer has been hit hard enough to make him groggy, “stepping in post holes”, as he staggers around the ring. It seems an apt term for Obama who is finding fewer supporters and defenders beyond the hard core of liberal Democrats.

From promises to close Gitmo to efforts to try Islamic terrorists held there in civil courts, Obama was rebuffed. 

Obama’s promises regarding jobs to be created by his “Stimulus” have proved baseless and costly. 
It's definitely true that Obama tried and failed to find a way to close Gitmo.  With NIMBY protests in every region that was proposed and ardent opposition from members of both parties, he never pushed this one too hard.  But Caruba's claims about the stimulus are another joke of an assertion, particularly since just a few days ago the authoritative Congressional Budget Office released a report on the stimulus's effect (headline: "Stimulus added up to 3.3M jobs.")

Obama’s aggressive anti-energy policies are costing jobs from the Gulf of Mexico to the now delayed Keystone XL pipeline and all points in between. Scandals involving the bankrupt Solyndra, a solar panel company and other “green energy” investments and loans are costing him support. This is true as well wherever coal is mined and where they drill for natural gas and oil.
Oil drilling is at a record high.  Oil production is at a record high.  Reliance on foreign oil has dropped by 7% in the past two years.  Coal and natural gas aren't hurting, either.  And subsidies of renewable energy remain at a tiny fraction of the subsidies for oil, natural gas, and nuclear power.

In 2010, voters returned power in the House of Representatives to the Republican Party. Does anyone at this point seriously think that these and other factors point to an Obama victory in 2012?

He will be defeated and by a margin that will astound everyone.
Alan Caruba's confidence in his preferred outcome makes me feel better about Obama's chances; he's like a compass that always points south.

24 November 2011

BTT: Thankful

 

This week's Booking Through Thursday:

What book or author are you most thankful to have discovered?
Have you read everything they’ve written? Reread them?
Why do you appreciate them so much?
The answer is unquestionably Ernest Hemingway.  While I read a few short stories during high school, it was in college that I first really began appreciating his work.  For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, "Big Two-Hearted River," "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Undefeated," "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" are among the best he wrote and part of my first voracious charge into his writings, followed by lesser-known material and the clunky bits of poorly-written nonsense (Torrents of Spring, Across the River and Through the Trees, Islands in the Stream, "A Very Short Story," "Soldier's Home").  It was a revelation, and his writing still seems to be almost magical.  It's perfectly written and clear, bright threads of silver with every ounce of dross melted out by Hemingway's relentless editing.  On a simple surface reading, it's marvelous, but it also offers great depth and hidden design.  Without stretching into inanity or spinning theory, you can unpack an enormous amount from between the lines, unfolding naturally like the uncurling of a leaf.

I have read virtually everything Hemingway ever wrote, and most of his work I have read at least twice.  I have read my favorites a dozen times or more.  It's the power of his iceberg approach to writing, where he cut and cut until only the stark necessaries remained.  As he described it:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
It makes me want to pick up The First Forty-Nine Stories right now.

23 November 2011

Highlights from the National Security Debate

This was a great debate, only exceeded by the Bloomberg debate.  The latter excelled thanks to the superlative moderation, while the factor that made this CNN/think-tank debate interesting was the subject material.  The candidates actually had substantive disagreements, and the questions were only ridiculous in the well-calculated manner of conservative think tanks.  Moderator Wolf Blitzer was only mildly annoying, although he still has the amazing quality of always sounding like he is shouting.

Ron Paul, remarkably, shone as a beacon of sanity.  This is probably just my ideology at work, but his views were well-reasoned and rational when set against the pugnacious hostility of his reactionary rivals.  He also managed to avoid going to far into his "whiny old man" mode, and was a force to be taken seriously.  Take, for example, his answer on Israel.  It was so well-put that the candidate to follow, Herman Cain, just changed the subject.

BLITZER: Congressman Paul, would you support Israel and help Israel in such an attack? 

PAUL: No, I wouldn't do that. ... And if it did -- you're supposing that if it did, why does Israel need our help? We need to get out of their way. I mean, we interfere with them. We interfere with them when they deal with their borders. When they want to have peace treaties, we tell them what they can do because we buy their allegiance and they sacrifice their sovereignty to us. And then they decide they want to bomb something, that's their business, but they should, you know, suffer the consequences. ... Why should we commit -- we don't even have a treaty with Israel. Why do we have this automatic commitment that we're going to send our kids and send our money endlessly to Israel? So I think they're quite capable of taking care of themselves. 

I think we do detriment -- just think of all the money we gave to Egypt over 30 or 40 years. Now, look, we were buying friendship. Now there's a civil war, they're less friendly to Israel.  The whole thing is going to backfire once we go bankrupt and we remove our troops, so I think we should be very cautious in our willingness to go to war and send troops without a proper declaration by the U.S. Congress. 
So for once, Ron Paul gets to be the completed reasonable guy on stage and not the crazy uncle.  It's a shame that his domestic policies are so insane, or else he'd be a better choice than Obama.

Also on show was the astonishing sophistry of Newt Gingrich, who is the same cunning kind of villain as Karl Rove: you know he's smart enough not to believe his own deception.  The exchange about Iran is a good example.  Rick Perry was asked about what sanctions he would impose to pressure Iran into giving up their nuclear program.  He predictably replied that he would sanction their central bank, as he has said before.  Wolf Blitzer turned instantly to Newt with a follow-up question, cleverly but transparently designed to elicit disagreement and discussion.

BLITZER: The argument, Speaker Gingrich -- and I know you've studied this, and I want you to weigh in -- on the sanctioning of the Iranian Central Bank, because if you do that, for all practical purposes, it cuts off Iranian oil exports, 4 million barrels a day. 

The Europeans get a lot of that oil. They think their economy, if the price of gasoline skyrocketed, which it would, would be disastrous. That's why the pressure is on the U.S. to not impose those sanctions. What say you? 

GINGRICH: Well, I say you -- the question you just asked is perfect, because the fact is we ought to have a massive all-sources energy program in the United States designed to, once again, create a surplus of energy here, so we could say to the Europeans pretty cheerfully, that all the various sources of oil we have in the United States, we could literally replace the Iranian oil.
Newt has to know this is an insane plan, but he doesn't care.  It sounds plausible: cut off Iran's primary source of wealth and start a booming new business replacing them.  But developing new oil resources takes years, and that's assuming that our record-breaking level of drilling could be safely increased.  Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear program is on track to finish in only a few years according to last report.  Newt's proposing a long-term solution to a short-term problem.  So either (a) he is suggesting that Europe is just going to have to crash and burn for a few years until America can nearly triple its oil production and achieve a surplus to export, or (b) he isn't making a useful suggestion but just something that sounds plausible and intelligent.

His later reiteration of this point makes me think the latter, as he said "If we were serious, we would open up enough oil fields in the next year that the price of oil worldwide would collapse."  America consumes 18.7 million barrels of oil a day, and produces 7.8 million barrels per day.  To reach parity, and then to add a surplus equal to that of Iran's 4 million barrels, would require increasing our production by 290%.  Gingrich isn't stupid enough to think that the only problem is that we're not "serious" about it, which somehow makes him so much worse than his fellows.

Herman Cain was a sad figure, of course.  No one needed to hear his answers, which were uniformly some variant of, "I don't know, I'll ask someone who does."

BLITZER: All right, here's the question. Can the United States afford to continue that kind of foreign assistance to Africa for AIDS, malaria -- could run into the billions of dollars?

CAIN: It depends upon priorities. Secondly, it depends upon looking at the program and asking the question, has that aid been successful.  
In other words, let's look at the whole problem. It may be worthwhile to continue. It may not. I would like to see the results.  Just like every program we have here domestically, what have the results been. Then we make a decision about how we prioritize.
There were other interesting tidbits in the debate, again from Gingrich and Paul, such as Gingrich's accidental endorsement of the DREAM Act and Paul's coherent and intelligent attacks on the "war on terror" and "war on drugs."  Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, Huntsman, and Romney all gave rote variants of the standard conservative canon in standard debatespeke.  Of this crew, Romney delivered pablum the best, in keeping with his role as the Unstoppable Robotic Frontrunner.

All in all, very entertaining, certainly more so than last week's Thanksgiving Family Forum, a Christian-themed round-table where no fewer than four of the candidates broke down in tears.  I look forward to the next clown show.

20 November 2011

"The Bedwetter," "Health," "Where Men Win Glory," "A Complete Guide to Heralrdy," and "Fast Food Nation."

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, Sarah Silverman
Health: Five Lay Sermons for Working-People, John Brown
Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer
A Complete Guide to Heraldry, A.C. Fox-Davies
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser


The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, Sarah Silverman

Modern autobiographies tend to be pretty bad, let's face it.  The days of Burton's Piligrimage and Nabokov's Speak, Memory are in the past, and most autobiographies are written by celebrities like Tucker Max, Chelsea Handler, Bear Grylls, or one of the other famous autobiographers I've slammed lately.  This is not the fault of the genre per se, as Frank Abagnale's Catch Me If You Can and other decent books demonstrate, but rather a reflection of celebrity's corrosive effects: publishers will churn out any old crap as long as they can put a famous name on it.  Big names sell books.

Thankfully, while her celebrity as a comedian might have gotten her the deal, Silverman's book is not too terrible.  (It's not too great, either.)

You might be familiar with Silverman's work, either from her special Jesus Is Magic, her three-season television series The Sarah Silverman Program, or her appearances on MTV awards shows or Jimmy Kimmel Live.  She's famous for her level of offensiveness; the character she plays will say wildly inappropriate things, completely oblivious to her own racism or sexism.

Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I'm one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.
The Bedwetter's central revelation is that Silverman wet the bed regularly until her late teens, and in fact still occasionally does so.  And that revelation comprises the entirety of this book's soul.  Once Silverman has told all of the interesting stories about it from her childhood, and moved into her time as a comedian and her difficulties working on her television show, her account loses most of its appeal and becomes a tepid series of justifications and hit-and-miss anecdotes.  The whole spine of the text is in her childhood difficulties and her struggles to adapt - they give her story pathos and humor and heart, and when she squirms out of moist sheets and onto her stage career, the book flops bonelessly.

It's not often you can look at a book and understand how to completely fix it, but The Bedwetter is that rare text that can be transformed from mediocre to amazing in a single stroke.  Take the first half of the book and edit it down slightly.  Instantly, you have a superb essay.  It would be funny, interesting, and full of passion.  Instead, The Bedwetter reads like... well, like a superb essay spun out too long.

The latter half gives tributes to comedians who influenced her, discusses her time on Saturday Night Live, and describes working on her own show.  There are still some interesting stories, but they are few and far between.  Perhaps the best is her account of how she lost her job as a writer on SNL:


From thought to action, what happened was that, seemingly out of nowhere, I just turned and, boom, stabbed Al Franken square in the temple. He responded with a horrifying scream--his eyes wide in angry, mystified shock (like, say, a man who'd just been stabbed in the head by the person sitting next to him). I wanted so much to account for my actions but I couldn't. Besides it being a sort of challenging scenario to explain, I also couldn't explain, as I was literally breathless from laughing--like, hysterically laughing. I was a mad-woman crazy-person with tears pouring down my face. I can imagine how it must have looked. Even the explanation, had I had the breath to clarify, let's face it, was weirdo weird.

I'll never know for sure the exact reason, but that August my agent got a fax asking me not to return for a second season.
There was one thing that was inexplicable about the book: she makes a great deal of fuss in the last few chapters about how dedicated she was to producing her show at the peak of quality, and how they refused to compromise to budget cuts.  She and her staff take a bold stand and won't bow to pressure to rush out the episodes, half-assing it and churning out sub-par work.  But here's the thing: The Sarah Silverman Program was terrible.  It seemed like all three seasons of the show, now mercifully canceled, were rushed out over a long weekend.  Inexplicable, although it does call into question what the show would have been like if they hadn't been doing their best.

While The Bedwetter is a short book, and won't consume much of your time, I can't really recommend it.  It is not challenging and somewhat entertaining, though, and so I won't condemn it, either.  It has some good parts, and might serve to fill a few lazy hours.


Health: Five Lay Sermons to Working-People, John Brown

This little 1877 book, written by a Scottish physician, is a set of five lectures to the common man on health.  Brown advises his audience on the role of a doctor, how they should behave with one, how to raise children, and a set of general medical tips.  Much of the advice is still sage, like his advice to mothers not to drink whiskey while nursing and not to give laudanum to a child to make it sleep.  But I have to say that time has taken its toll on some of the medical knowledge.  Dr. Brown doesn't much go in for dentistry, for example.

I can't say I am a great advocate for the common people going in for tooth-brushes.  No, they are necessary in full health.  The healthy man's teeth clean themselves. 
The book is thick with religious imagery and the tone of a preacher, as indicated by the subtitle (Five Sermons on Health).  It is also pleasant in its admonitions, and communicates with humble metaphors some of his excellent advice.

Short, quaint, and interesting, this little book is worth a glance out of curiosity, if only to read the final few pages, which include warm thanks to the author's neighbors and friends.

And good night to you all, you women-folks. Marion Graham the milkwoman; Tibbie Meek the single servant; Jenny Muir the sempstress; Mother Johnston the howdie, thou consequential Mrs. Gamp, presiding at the gates of life; and you in the corner there, Nancy Cairns, gray-haired, meek and old, with your crimped mutch as white as snow; the shepherd's widow, the now childless mother, you are stepping home to your bein and lonely room, where your cat is now ravelling a' her thrums, wondering where "she" is.


Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer 


Pat Tillman, a star safety in the NFL, left his comfortable life and prosperous future in order to enlist in the Army.  He was shot and killed during deployment in Afganistan, the victim of friendly fire.  Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven) describes Tillman's life, death, the war, and the ideology at work in this marvelous book.  Let me say, right off the bat, that you should read this.

The writing is good, broken up into chunks by rapid shifts in place and time as Krakauer relates how Tillman grew up, his football career at college and in the NFL, cutting back and forth at the same time to the history of Afghanistan, the scene of his death.  Tillman's personal history and the construction of his character is undertaken with consummate care and an objective eye: Krakauer avoids the twin traps of adulation and cynicism, telling a well-rounded story of a happy, hearty wunderkind who puts his ideals before his interests.  Tillman was shaped by a cultural heritage that revered the noble warrior.  His aspiration to embody that ideal carried him into a foreign land, and into tragedy.

Where Men Win Glory is a work of superb journalism, like Krakauer's other books: vivid descriptions and little imagery.  Of all of his books that I have read, this is the best.  The subject material is compelling, especially when crimes of such scope - the theft of the presidency in 2000 and the deceitful incompetence of the wars - are related in terse summary.  The real-life hero who plunges into the resultant mess, Tillman, is given whole life and real character.  The climax of the book is masterfully done, relating Tillman's betrayal by the system and by the evil actions of malicious men.

This is a marvelous book, if not an artful one, and you should read it immediately.


A Complete Guide to Heraldry, A.C. Fox-Davies


I was about halfway through this book when I recognized some of the specific turns of phrase in the chapter on charges and realized I'd already read excerpts.  Not surprising, I suppose, since Fox-Davies' book is legendary.  The whole thing was deserving of a second look, so I don't consider my time wasted.

Heraldry, the study of coats of arms, is a fascinating subject.  It arose from the needs of combat, when it was necessary to separate friend from foe for reasons both practical and glorious.  Accordingly, the rudiments of the art came from the ancient world, as with the late Roman legions that had individualized standards.  But true heraldry, Fox-Davies tells us, began with the Crusades.  The kings of the First Crusade adopted different versions of the Cross, and they and their men tied on armbands of red-and-white or the like.  This articulated a slowly developing articulation of emblemization, and when the kings and their lords returned from the Holy Land, the process began in earnest.

A coat of arms - more properly called an achievement, can have many components.  At its simplest, it is a simple shield with a distinctive design, meant to identify the bearer.  This design is codified in a specific way in a descriptive sentence called a blazon, using language that is both archaic and heavily French.  For my own arms, depicted to the left, the blazon is "vert, upon a saltire argent a chessknight sable" ("on a green field, a white cross with a black chessknight.")

There are a lot of rules for creating these designs.  I am not a master of them all, so my arms were created with help from the Kingdom of Talossa's College of Arms.  Additional help has always been necessary, which is why there were once professional heralds to develop and interpret achievements.  A few professional heralds remain in countries that still practice grants of arms, such as the U.K.'s College of Arms.  But the field is also swamped with simple enthusiasts, especially in America, a country without armigerous nobility.

While dated by the century since its publication, A Complete Guide to Heraldry is a decent book on the subject.  A newcomer to the art should probably look elsewhere, to something more readable and contemporary.  But for a refresher to those already familiar with heraldry, there isn't a better book.


Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

It is absolutely clear that no one should eat fast food.  From first to last, this is the powerful message of Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.  The author explores all of the impacts of a fast food culture on our life, revealing a powerful institution whose ever-grasping tentacles are strangling some of America's most important values.  The fast food world's commitment to cranking out cheap and delicious food is not inherently wrong.  After all, that's what many restaurants try to do.  But the soulless, factory-based approach and sheer size of the fast food industry has made a McDonald's little more than a family-friendly drug dealer.  The poor and disadvantaged are cranked in and out of its ranks, reduced as near to slavery as possible.  They serve up food that has been processed out of all recognition, churning out trays of raw material that's been mashed and treated and reflavored with chemicals into wads of fat and sugar that only superficially resemble a real meal.  That raw material is obtained by a feudal system of high science and extraordinary corporate manipulation.

The fast food culture is crushing the working poor, the health of the nation, and a living food culture that's drowning under a flood of 99¢ lumps of beef tallow.  Schlosser relates the story of this world of degradation in an interesting and well-paced manner.  I almost dreaded to begin this book, since I assumed it would be a slog through an acre of depressing and dense facts.  But instead it deeply engages with its material, lightening the procession of woeful destruction with brief looks into the lives of the people involved.  The resulting book is well-written, informative, and shocking.  And whether or not you read it (and you should), please stop eating fast food!

17 November 2011

Booking Through Thursday: Which Genre?


Booking Through Thursday is a little blog that posts a question each Thursday, for readers to answer on their blogs.  Here's the question for this week:
Of the books you own, what’s the biggest category/genre?
Is this also the category that you actually read the most?
This was a tough one to figure out.  Not only am I not sure off the top of my head about the biggest genre in my collection, but I also am not sure how I'd categorize a lot of them.  I can roughly estimate, however.

About a third of my books are nonfiction.  This third is about evenly split among memoirs (celebrity and serious), pop nonfiction (Oliver Sacks, Michael Pollan), and serious histories.  There is also a small smattering of advocacy books on ethics or the like.

Of fiction, it seems to go pretty much like this:

  • 30% are trashy in some way: fluffy supernatural Charlaine Harris books, Christian fiction like Piercing the Darkness, young adult lit, and crappy fantasy.
  • 40% are fiction by the big names.  Most prominent are Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Cormac McCarthy, William Morris, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Herman Melville, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  These authors have all published a great deal, and so their work represents almost half this category.
  • The remaining 30% is a grab-bag of Tom Clancy, Henry James, Chinua Achebe, Haruki Murakami, Jane Austen, Michael Chabon, and so on.  No rhyme or reason to it.
The second part of the question - what do I actually read? - is pretty easy: all of them.

06 November 2011

Bookblogging

So while I post about politics, journalism, and a few other topics (and occasionally even my life), the most frequent topic by far on my blog is literature.  Recently I've taken an interest in other "bookbloggers," as the community is called, and I've been seeing what they do differently.

I've noticed a few common traits among bookbloggers.  The first is that they all have a review directory, something I noted on Literary Omnivore and which I immediately adopted for myself.  It makes sense for a lot of reasons.  I also noticed that virtually everyone includes an image of the reviewed books, something I had just been too lazy to do until now.  But these changes made, there are a few other choices to make.

Single-book reviews seem to be the rule.  Almost every other blogger writes about one book at a time, in contrast to my own style, which has been to read anywhere from three to eight or more books, reviewing them in a compilation post.  My wife tells me she prefers my current method, and I think ultimately I'm going to stick with it.  It makes sense for me - I usually read an average of a book every other day, but only blog once or twice a week.

Ratings also seem to be a consistent habit among bookbloggers.  This still seems a little strange to me, since until recently the only reviews I read were in the NYRB, the NYT's Sunday reviews, L.A. Review of Books, and the London Review of Books - none of which try to give a book an objective three and a half stars (or whatever).  I suppose that a rating system makes good sense when writing within a specific genre - like the bookblog Fantasy Cafe - but outside of a defined literary conversation, I'm not sure how I'd do it.  I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's words when he said, "When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher."  Different books are speaking to different groups and have different expectations.

Details on a book vary in their specifics, but are also common among bookbloggers.  Some list page count, some list format (ebook, softcover, hardcover), and nearly all have an elaborate systems of tags for genre and plot elements.  Here, again, I guess I'm too set in my ways.  With most books, page count and format just don't seem that important to me - I only mention it when it seems pertinent, like with a short book, long book, or poorly formatted edition.  And the compilation style of posting makes genre tagging an impossibility.

It helps, I suppose, that I'm not too concerned about readership.  I very much enjoy writing about books.  It improves my ability and provides an outlet for my theories and criticisms.  But my sole effort to promote my blog is to put links on Facebook and G+.  This is either because I'm lazy, because I'm afraid of failure if I try to gain a readership, or both.  Still, I'd welcome suggestions about things I should change, things you like, or general comments.  Give me some input, folks.

05 November 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life," "Contested Will," and "The Coffee Trader,"

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff
Contested Will, James Shapiro
The Coffee Trader, David Liss

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff

The two major lessons of Schiff's book are these:

  • Despite her legendary stature in history, we know very little about the last queen of Egypt.
  • What we do know is uncertain, since it was written by enemies and misogynists eager to diminish her.

Despite these limitations, this detailed biography of the last of the Ptolemies is fairly good.  Like all historians with limited direct testimony, Schiff fills in the gaps with background information and educated guesses.  She can't tell us about Cleopatra's upbringing specifically, for example, since her sources - Suetonius, Plutarch, Lucan, and a few others - don't mention her childhood at all.  But by researching the upbringings of the other Ptolemies and the wealthy families of Egypt's capital at the time, Alexandria, Schiff can piece together a fairly good picture of how Cleopatra must have grown up.  It's a time-tested and effective strategy for supplementing the sources, and it works particularly well in Cleopatra: A Life, because Schiff's descriptions are interesting and rich.

It would be downright difficult to write a bad book about Cleopatra's life and death.  The major players in her story are titans: Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Caesar Augustus, Cicero.  Schiff comes into her own in telling of the grand betrayals, great passions, and endless scheming.  She has just the right mixture of clinical abstraction and veiled opinion.  It's something like, "Based on the evidence, this is likely, that is not, and oh hey by the way Mark Anthony was kind of a jackass."

Schiff's harping on the injustice of historians towards her subject eventually begins to grate, as does her clear partiality to the Egyptian queen.  There are frequent moments in Cleopatra's story where we cannot know her motives or her goals, and can only guess - does she stay with Anthony in Greece out of love or fear of losing control?  Without fail, Schiff's favored guess is the one that glorifies her heroine as a clever and comparably decent ruler.  It's the flaw that has claimed many a biographer.  Long months or years spent in research, steeped in the life and thoughts of another, eventually sways many chroniclers to the opinion that their subject is either a hero or a villain.  To Schiff, Cleopatra may not have been Isis reborn, but she was nonetheless a sort of deity: a goddess of proud and shrewd womanhood.  It's an understandable flaw, but it does detract from the book.

This is a good book, but not a great one.  If you are interested in the epic world of Cleopatra and Caesar, then you will love the high drama of the central stories as well as the amusing anecdotes clipped from classical accounts (Anthony once instructed a servant to swim under his Nile barge and attach fish to the end of his line, to disguise his poor fishing ability, only to have Cleopatra learn of the ruse and arrange to have him reel in a dried and salted Greek fish).  But get it out of the library - you won't be rereading it.


Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, James Shapiro


To many people, the question of this book's title is a surprising one, although that will become rather less true with the debut of Anonymous, the just-debuted movie that dramatizes the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the secret author of the poems and plays attributed to Shakespeare.  The movie was called a "brutal insult to the human imagination" that "burnishes meretricious nonsense" by the New York Times, and at least one Shakespearean scholar, Ron Rosenbaum (whose Shakespeare Wars I enjoyed very much) has said it is "laughably incoherent botch of a movie."  But what about the question behind the movie, covered in detail last year in Shapiro's book?  Who wrote Shakespeare?

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read four books on the subject: Thomas Looney's 1920 Shakespeare Identified, which launched the Oxfordian movement seen in Anonymous, John Mitchell's 1996 Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Brenda James's and William Rubenstein's recent The Truth Will Out, and this last 2010 work by noted critic James Shapiro, Contested Will.  Each book had different conclusions.

Looney's Shakespeare Identified asserts boldly and with great certainty that Oxford wrote Shakespeare.  His book is filled with dated information and outright mistakes, like his claim that The Tempest didn't belong in the canon of Shakespeare's works, but was the work of some unknown.  But it is interesting for its historical value.  Looney was single-handedly responsible for identifying Oxford as the "real" Shakespeare and building the core of the case for the theory.  Wealthy, educated, well-traveled Oxford, Looney asserts, was far more likely to have been the real author of plays and sonnets that trafficked with royalty and distant lands. How could the son of an illiterate glover, whose surviving documents show an inglorious obsession with money, possibly have been the greatest artist in the language?  No, there was a conspiracy at work, where Oxford commented in secret on politics and Shakespeare took credit.  The son of a glover!

Mitchell's book, an overview of all the different theories, is gutless.  It offers a "pox on all their houses" indecisive approach, while still clearly inclining towards Sir Francis Bacon's authorship.  The larger problem seems to be Mitchell's overall credulousness - most claims and ideas seem plausible to him, even when they're clearly outlandish.

James and Rubenstein offer a new candidate, Sir Henry Neville, using the same methods as all other theorists: circumstantial evidence and biographical similarity.  As a modern, text-focused, and erudite argument, it still harbors the essential problems of all Anti-Stratfordians: the mistaken assumption that the poems and plays of Shakespeare are autobiographical, and heavy dependence on the negative evidence about Shakespeare of Stratford.  The former mistake is one of too little imagination - it took a genius to write Shakespeare's work, and they underestimate the power of genius to transcend place and education.  The latter mistake is a common one and an old one.  We have no drafts of Shakespeare's plays, but that doesn't mean they didn't exist.  Negative evidence is suggestive, not at all conclusive.

Shapiro, I was relieved to find, feels the same way that I do.  I am a harsh skeptic in literary matters: high-flung criticism and unfounded assumptions find no pleasant berth in my harbor.  To make the extraordinary suggestion that there was a hidden conspiracy to hide the works of another behind Shakespeare's name requires equally extraordinary evidence.

Contested Will recounts the whole history of the authorship controversy with an equitable eye and fair pen.  Shapiro explores the early fervor in favor of Bacon, when his fame was already at its height in Victorian Europe.  The Bacon theory still has its adherents, but it had fallen away almost into extinction even by the turn to the twentieth century, leaving in its wake only well-established sneering about Shakespeare of Stratford's inadequate background.  Oxfordianism took its place, and has now been established as the near-certain alternate candidate, a position a major Hollywood movie like Anonymous will solidify.  Shapiro explores the evolution and motivations behind the authorship controversy from first to last, and very kindly limits his harsher words until his conclusion.  The final chapter lists fierce rebuttals for each attack on Shakespeare of Stratford, and then all the evidence in his favor - it piles up before the reader, crushing the preceding chapter's various doubts with a conclusive and substantive dismissal.

One of the problems with the conspiracy is that it cannot be disproved - there is virtually no mechanism for disproof, short of a miraculous new discovery of a cache of Shakespeare's handwritten papers.  Given the span of five centuries, the gap in our knowledge of a quiet-living actor and playwright is not actually so surprising, especially since he seems to have had little interest in posterity.  But that gap is negative evidence, an appeal to ignorance, and dozens of critics have leaped to try to cram that gap with their homespun theories.  Any fact can serve their ends.  Literally dozens of contemporaries mention Shakespeare as a writer, and we have hard evidence of his hire?  That's okay, they were all fooled by the conspiracy, or else were a part of it (depending on the needs of the moment).  The chosen replacement, such as Oxford, died years before some of the collaborative plays were written?  That's okay, three playwrights (Fletcher, Middleton, and Wilkins) somehow found the plays and finished them.  But when everything is evidence, then nothing is evidence.

If you are interested in the controversy, Shapiro's book is the best and most authoritative one.  But even if you are not, it is written engagingly and will interest you in the subject as it explores the famous Anti-Stratfordians, Delia Bacon, Mark Twain, and so on.  No great knowledge of the Bard is necessary, and even a neophyte will find the twisting story intriguing.  You would do well to check it out.


The Coffee Trader, David Liss


The Coffee Trader is a worthy novel, but falls short of greatness despite early promise.  This is not for lack of a good story, at least.  David Liss tells a wonderful story of Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jewish merchant who is living and trying to make his fortune in 17th-century Amsterdam.  The world he paints is exotic, although it is less defined by its Dutch setting than by the insular community of Portuguese Jews in which Miguel lives and moves, ruled by the clerical Ma'ada.  Lienzo, down on his luck after poor luck in the sugar market, is introduced to a novel new commodity trickling into Europe: coffee.

Much of the book is focused on the mechanisms of the emerging stock market, particularly the futures market.  The traders don't just buy a share of a stock, they buy future shares at a predicted price.  If the actual shares are worth more then the buyer paid when he purchased them (when he made his gamble) then the buyer profits.  This new kink in the financial word, just recently developed in the era in which The Coffee Trader is set, combines with other techniques like monopolies, selling short, and good old-fashioned usury to create an atmosphere of drama in the book.  There's nothing like buying on margin - buying stock with more money than you actually possess - to generate tension, and by the conclusion of the book the schemes and trickery has grown so thick, the possibilities of treachery so numerous, and the stakes so high, that you'll be on the edge of your seat.

Unfortunately, the book falls shy of meeting expectations in the latter half.  It's not a bad ending.  It makes sense, wraps up all the threads of the plot, and feels satisfying.  It just doesn't provide the necessary catharsis.  Rather than a scene of triumph and a huge climax, the end slumps out.  It's satisfying, but not spicy.

This book is well-written, with excellent characterization and imagery.  The very first paragraph grabbed me, made me want to read more, and made me want a steaming cup of coffee.

It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting.  Miguel Lienzo picked it up and pulled it so close he almost dipped his nose into the tarry liquid.  Holding the vessel still for an instant, he breathed it in, pulling the scent deep into his lungs.  The sharp odor of earth and rank leaves surprised him; it was like something an apothecary might keep in a chipped porcelain jar.
Still, despite my slight disappointment, The Coffee Trader is worth reading, especially if you're interested in the rudiments of finance or historical fiction.  At bottom, it's a well-crafted and interesting story.   Check it out.

02 November 2011

Gary Kent and the "Signs of Prophecy"

On Sunday, I went to the first two sessions of a series on Biblical interpretation and prophecy.  The speaker, Gary Kent, spoke for several hours about the nature of prophecy, why we should trust the Bible's vision of the future, and how he interpreted that vision.  It was, from first to last, a perfect iteration of mainstream Christian thinking.  Kent and his lectures were intelligent, pleasant, funny, and deeply flawed.  This is my (lengthy) exposition of what I saw and heard.

The lecture series was Gary Kent's "Secrets of Prophecy," produced in partnership with It Is Written Oceania television, where Kent is a presenter, and Signs of the Times Magazine, a Christian magazine to which he contributes.  Touring through three cities, Kent delivers the first two lectures in the series, while local affiliates meet to discuss the ten successive other lectures.  These first two lectures that I saw were called "2012: Countdown to Armageddon" and "Signs That Jesus Is Coming Soon."

The venue for the Dunedin lectures was an auditorium at Otago University's College of Education.  What looked to be nearly sixty people showed up for the talks - a smiling and polite mix of all sorts of folks.  Volunteers handed out pamphlets at the front and provided cool jugs of lemon water for refreshment.  And after a few screeching moments of technical difficulty with the wireless microphone, things got underway shortly after 2:30.

Malcom Eastwick, the pastor of Dunedin's Seventh Day Adventist church, introduced Gary Kent to the crowd.  Kent shook Eastwick's hand with one hand and fiddled with the knobs on his microphone with the other, smiling broadly.

A neat and charismatic preacher, Kent looks and sounds like a man accustomed to crowds and instruction.  As he would explain, he had an unusual background: born in Wellington, Kent moved with his parents at the age of seven to South Africa, and when he was just out of his teens went back to his parents' native Australia.  As he pleasantly joked, he had plenty of teams to root for in the Rugby World Cup.  These days he is based in Sydney, where he lives with his wife Robin and their four children.

Kent's expertise would soon become apparent.  He has a broad knowledge of history, and - more importantly for his purposes - was clever at finding narratives within the scattering of past events.  He was not angry or hateful at the elements of the world to which his faith opposes him.  I want to emphasize this: while I believe he is wrong, I also believe he is motivated only by the best intentions. But he is wrong.

2012: Countdown to Armageddon

The first lecture, "2012: Countdown to Armageddon," was focused on the validity of the Bible prophecies.  He began by talking about the benefits of prophecy itself, and a few items of recent history (such as Harold Camping's much-publicized predictions of doomsday).

A lot of people are talking about what's going on? What's happening? What does this mean? ...
Imagine how different life would be if you were able to know the future. ... Right down through history, ancient civilizations have endeavored to... discover what the future holds in store, in an effort to gain an edge over fate.
As Kent spoke, a slide presentation played behind him, prompted along by a clicker in his hand.  He paced and turned and gestured - a dynamic speaker.  While the slides were mostly unremarkable, a few of them were surprisingly misspelled.  One example I noted was, "in n iffort ot gain an edge."

After a few examples of recent prophecies that had failed to come true, Kent began a long series of other amusingly poor predictions.  There was a pattern: he'd present a contemporary quote that was obviously wrong, and then he'd quote a huge number to illustrate just how wrong the quote was.  For instance, his first example was a bank manager's skepticism of Henry Ford's efforts with the automobile, which the banker called "just a fad."  Then Kent told us with glee that there were now 600 million cars in the world.  The point, Kent said, was that "[p]redicting the future can be risky, even for experts."  Other examples were Lord Kelvin's disbelief in the possibility of flight, the president of IBM's conception of the future of computers, and so on with television, the Beatles, the iPod, and Twitter.

His point was well-taken, if a little lengthy.  His slow speech, repetition, and a preacher's emphatic pauses turned a five-minute assertion into a half-hour repetition.  But it made sense, and was correct.  It is very difficult to accurately and clearly tell the future.  Modern prognosticators are either spectacularly wrong, like Harold Camping, or spectacularly vague, like "trend forecaster" Gerald Celente.

After speaking about the Maya for a time, and their prediction about the end of the world in the Dresden Codex, Kent got to the point.

If you made a prediction, I'd check your credibility - what are your credentials?
I'd want evidence - proof - that you can accurately predict the future.
I'd want to see your track record. ...
What if we could find a string of prophecies that do have a track record? What if we could examine predictions that go back through centuries of history?
Now we'd get the real meat of his argument.  Gary Kent was going to prove to us that the Bible had made prophecies of the future, and those prophecies had come true.

There are over 1000 predictions or prophecies in the Bible, and they were right every time.
According to Kent, Ezekiel 30:13 ("Thus says the Lord GOD: "I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images in Memphis; there shall no longer be a prince from the land of Egypt; so I will put fear in the land of Egypt.") makes two predictions about the future that came true: that there would be no more Egyptian sovereigns and that all the idols of Memphis would be smashed.  These predictions, he says, did come true.  The Ptolemies, a Greek dynasty, took power in Egypt after Ezekiel made this prediction, and Egypt has not had an Egyptian prince since then.  Further, the idols of Memphis are all smashed and their gods are overthrown.  Ezekiel's predictions, Kent said, wagging an emphatic finger, were correct.

Let's give credit where it is due: Kent is perfectly correct.  The Egyptian line of the pharaohs ended, and Macedonian Greeks ruled it as the last dynasty until its annexation by Rome.  Further, Memphis is very much a ruin these days - the idols are all smashed.

It's important, however, to have perspective.  Ezekiel was written around 600 B.C.E.  The rule of the pharaohs didn't end for three hundred years after Ezekiel's prediction, and the temple-city of Memphis didn't even begin to decline until that time. Ezekiel 30:3 says that the time is "soon" and the "day is near" - can the eventual decline of a civilization, hundreds of years later, really be said to be a fulfillment of prophecy?  If this is the case, then am I not just as good of a prophet when I now declare that Beijing will be burnt to a cinder - given sufficient time, something's going to happen to Beijing, even if takes billions of years for our planet to be swallowed up by the sun.

It's even more important to read Ezekiel!  That chapter doesn't just make these two predictions, it makes dozens of very specific predictions, many of which were completely wrong.  For example, Ezekiel 30:10-11 says "I will put an end to the wealth of Egypt, by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. He and his people with him, the most ruthless of nations, shall be brought in to destroy the land."  And while it's true that Nebuchadnezzar went on a rampage across the ancient world in Ezekiel's time, his attack on Egypt was repulsed by the Pharaoh Amasis II.  The repeated promises that Babylon will conquer Egypt turned out to be completely wrong - it was Persia that would conquer Egypt.

This should not give us confidence in the Bible's prophetic powers.  By Gary Kent's own standards, we can look at Ezekiel's track record and conclude that it is not much more reliable than faulty predictions about the future of automobiles.

His next bit of evidence was Isaiah 19:7 ("The bulrushes by the Nile, by the edge of the Nile and all the sown fields by the Nile will become dry, be driven away, and be no more."), which Kent claims is a prophecy about the extinction of the papyrus reed from the banks of the Nile.  Here we run into immediate problems: the bulrushes and reeds of the Nile are still very much in evidence.  Kent didn't quote the part about the fields next to the Nile becoming dry - need I mention that's not the case, either?

At this point, Kent was 0 for 2.  Nonetheless, he was very persuasive in his selections and arguments.

He would go on to argue that Ezekiel 26:3-16 predicts the fall of Tyre.  This did occur, of course, but again it was not at Nebuchadnezzar's hands, as predicted in Ezekiel.  After a thirteen-year siege, Nebuchadnezzar accepted a truce and left Tyre, which would only fall when Alexander the Great attacked it, later.

It was at this point that the lecture ended, with Kent making a final grand summation of the evidence he had presented, and concluding with a pleasant smile that the Bible had made many such predictions that came true, and so we could trust it as a reliable guide to the future.

During the twenty-minute break, I waited until Pastor Kent had a moment.  We spoke briefly about Florida, where I'm from.  I wanted to push back against some of what he had been saying, but without being rude, so I phrased my question as an attempt to clarify, politely asking about the Tyre example and pointing out that the Biblical prediction seems to have clearly stated something different than what eventually occurred.  Kent listened and nodded, and said that he had limited time in which to make his argument, so he couldn't get too detailed on things like that.  "I'm just here to show people that this evidence exists and is out there," he said.  In response to my question, though, he pointed me to Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell.

Signs That Jesus Is Coming Soon

Having established - in the eyes of many of the audience, anyway - that the Bible is an accurate source of prophecy, Gary Kent turned now to the New Testament.  He began this second session by describing some of the problems in the world.
7 billion people on Earth now. ...  and each person has an impact on the planet's environment. ... To provide land and food for all of these people we are clearing our forests at the rate of one and a half football fields per second. ... The results [of this population growth]: widespread disease, the emergence of new strains of disease, food and water shortages, poor harvests, violent and destructive storms caused by climate change.
Again, he begins from a solid foundation.  Things are pretty screwed up.

In His Word the Bible, He clearly reveals that the world will not end in fire or ice, in a bang or a whimper, nor in terrorism or an asteroid collision.
If you really want to know about the future and the destiny of the world, look at what God says. The Bible contains a lot of information about the final destiny of our world. The Bible indicates that it will conclude with the return of Jesus Christ to this earth, and that His coming will bring an end to our world as we know it.
Whenever I hear a prediction like this, my immediate thought is, "Jesus is coming to kill us all!  We have to stop him before he destroys the world!"

Anyway, according to Kent, Jesus gave a list of signs to expect that would signal the end of the world.  These signs are found in Matthew 24.  Kent calls this chapter a "schedule of events," and proceeds to break it down.

Matthew 24:2 is the first sign.  Jesus, looking at all the temple buildings, tells the apostles, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”  This occurrence would begin a time of tribulation and great sorrow on the earth.

Excitedly, Kent waved at the screen, where a painting of the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans was displayed.  "Not a stone," he declared.  "Not one stone!"

I have to admit, I was surprised by this.  It beggared belief that Pastor Kent was not aware of the Wailing Wall, the original western wall of the Temple and its last remnant after the Romans.  Yet here he was, claiming that no stone remained on another of the Temple.  If you think Jesus was speaking literally, then aren't you forced to conclude he was wrong, since there's a wall still standing?

Regardless, in Kent's view, the "time of tribulation" began with the destruction of the Temple, ending only a few hundred years ago with another series of signs.  I won't get into those signs, except to note that they are all natural disasters, and Kent appears to have arbitrarily selected a few disasters that suit him.  The great earthquake, for example, that he says is predicted in Jesus' words in this chapter (it isn't; Jesus speaks of "earthquakes in various places") was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.  It's arbitrary and silly.

Kent was starting to go off the rails.  But here's where it got weird.

Next, Kent, his thick mane of hair bobbing as he nodded at the crowd, explained that the "false Christs" that Jesus warns his apostles about indicate cult groups, the new age movement, and the occult.  He doesn't offer any real evidence or reasoning for this claim, but far more interesting was his selection of "occult" phenomena in our world today.

Kent clicked forward in his presentation, and the slide declared the list of "occult" television shows and movies: Charmed, Ghost Whisperer, Smallville, Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Bones, X-Files, Harry Potter, Twilight, Ghost, City of Angels, The Sixth Sense, Meet Joe Black, I Am Legend, Avatar, and Super 8. All of these, the audience was told, "promote the occult and spiritualism."

A lot of these make sense, if you're thinking that way.  But Smallville?  That's about Superman!  Is any fantasy an example of the occult?  And Super 8?  I haven't seen it, but I'm pretty sure it's about a giant monster.  And the inclusion of Bones just plain does not make sense.  What does Jesus have against forensics?

Anyway, these are all evidence of the end times, because of the prevalence of the occult.  Additional evidence comes in the form of the numerous natural disasters and wars plaguing the world.  This last is not something that's arguable, because it's a fairly subjective argument: the world is worse than it was in ancient days.  That's hard to prove or disprove.  Does the existence of machine guns outweigh the existence of antibiotics?  Does global warming counterbalance a doubled life expectancy?

All of nature seems out of control. The earthquakes, storms, floods, cyclones, tsunamis, unusual weather patterns shout at us that something out of the ordinary is going on. ... Friends, we are living in the end times.
With time running out on this presentation, Gary Kent grew quiet, and finally mentioned the social evils of our sinful world.  Divorce, "devaluation of marriage" (a dog whistle for gay marriage), and homosexuality are all further evidence of the end times, and our urgent need for salvation.

Kent's final point was one of the most interesting.  He said that the spread of the Bible and the Gospel all around the world - to all the peoples of the planet - was to allow everyone to make their own choice before Jesus arrives.  No one, Kent explained, would be left uninformed.

I won't go into the problems posed by this statement (it seems to neglect the pagan dead) but I would note that this final assertion argues for action.  Christian evangelists, it seems, are trying to destroy the world by spreading the Gospel to all peoples.  They must be stopped.

Gary Kent, at least, wound down with another few jokes and chuckles.  They collected comment cards and distributed more pamphlets.  The pamphlets were standard fare - a fake health warning sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventists, who have their own dietary regime; a letter asking for money; a notice for a home study course on prayer.

My friends and I left the seminar feeling a little cheated - there was a lot of chaff for precious little wheat.  Gary Kent and his message was not offensive or crazy, it was just wrong.  The evidence was selective, flimsy, and nonsensical.  And yet, Kent was a great speaker with a slick set of arguments, and I don't doubt that many people walked out of there completely convinced and ready to come to the next set of lectures.  I am only comforted by the fact that Kent is not profiting by his message - he might be misleading the gullible, but it's not for personal gain.

So there you have it.  Gary Kent's "Secrets of Prophecy" is intelligent, pleasant, and funny.  And deeply flawed.