30 October 2011

Labels, Literature, and Linnaeus

Recently, the Literary Omnivore* and I were having a discussion about the term "genre fiction," as used to describe things like fantasy and science fiction.  She has argued that the use of the label to segregate and denigrate whole categories of works is unfair, and prejudices readers against those works - they're not "real literature" if they're "genre fiction."  She has a good point, and her latest post is about a similar distinction between "comic" and "graphic novel."

The term is being used to separate “worthy” works from “unworthy”, which is not the work the label for a medium is supposed to be doing! ... It’s easy for me to go in circles—on one hand, I loathe the practice of privileging certain works out of a much maligned genre or medium, but on the other hand, there is a difference between a volume of The Unwritten and Fun Home.
This touches at the heart of a problem with such labels themselves, as I will demonstrate.  And I think the reason she goes in circles on this - as I do myself - is a recognition of the necessity for distinguishing labels as well as their limitations.

A "graphic novel" is not just a bound collection of a run of comics, to most people.  That's called a "trade paperback."  Rather, "graphic novel" is a nebulous, privileged sort of label for bound comics that are considered particularly good.  It's hard to say what exactly deserves the label... does Astonishing X-Men Volume 1: Gifted deserve to be called a graphic novel?  It's clever and interesting, written by Joss Whedon - why shouldn't it receive that name?  Isn't refusing to call it a graphic novel just a way to prejudice an audience against it, out of a view that "superhero comics" are lowbrow?

On the other hand, as noted by the Omnivore, it is very difficult to put such collections in the same class as Maus, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or 300 - all graphic novels with a cohesive storyline and much higher production values.  There does seem to be some difference there; Alan Moore, one of the greatest names in comics, once described his view of the distinction thus:

I've no objection to the term 'graphic novel,' as long as what it is talking about is actually some sort of graphic work that could conceivably be described as a novel. My main objection to the term is that usually it means a collection of six issues of Spider-Man, or something that does not have the structure or any of the qualities of a novel, but is perhaps roughly the same size.
Although Moore would later change his position, I think this is one of the best statements of the view: a graphic novel is a serious story with many qualities of a novel, told in a graphical format like a comic strip.  It is a term of convenience, just like any label: because readers need an easy way to discuss a certain group of work that shares this common quality, they need a short label for that group.  This classification and labeling impulse has been around essentially forever.  Aristotle's Poetics is one of the first and best examples, using a detailed set of criteria and principles to break down all literature into a select set of categories, and then discussing what should be the goal of each.  That's the purpose of any Linnaean system for art: to make those sorts of discussions possible.

There are many critics of the practice.  Neil Gaiman (another legend of the industry) often tells a story about what he sees as the imaginary difference between "comic" and "graphic novel":

When I was in England four years ago I was at a literary party. It was one of these Christmas parties that magazines throw. I was invited and I went along and I got talking to a guy who turned out to be the literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph. He asked what I did. When I answered that I write comic books, he looked at me as if I had confessed to shoplifting or something. So we're standing there having a drink and he's looking uncomfortable, but before I can walk away he asked what kind of comic books I write. When I answered they were the Sandman series, he looks at me, says, "Hang on, I know you, you're Neil Gaiman. My dear fellow, you don't write comics, you write graphic novels."
So as far as I can tell, it's just a difference between being a hooker and a lady of the evening. Basically. The nice thing about calling them graphic novels is that people who can't quite cope with comic books can cope with them under the term "graphic novels." And in the case of something like the Sandman series, it's more or less a marketing term. You've got an epic sort of story with Sandman. All ten volumes I tend to think of as a graphic novel. It's 2,000 pages long. It's one huge, great, wonderful, gigantic story.
Unfortunately, if we were to discard the distinction between "comic" and "graphic novel," by the next day someone would have coined a new way to distinguish between Astonishing X-Men and V for Vendetta.  It wouldn't arise with any malice, but probably in some review of a new comic.  It would look something like this:

"This new collection of the run of Limited Comic Line is a masterpiece.  It's a bound storyline, by which I mean the sort of self-contained and excellent story that you see with Art Spiegelman's Maus.
And then this term of "bound storyline" would catch on, or maybe a similar term from a different review, as people compared and discussed.  I would argue that these labels are not malicious, just useful and necessary.

Return to the "genre fiction" label, which has a similar controversy.  It is my belief that it is both reasonable and necessary to categorize fantasy, science fiction, and romance as genre fiction.  In the last thirty or forty years, each of these genres has come to have their own community, standards, and language.  Recognizing these classifications is a very necessary thing when discussing any book from these genres: literature is a conversation, and unless you recognize the speakers, you're not going to be able to keep up with the dialog.

Take the fantasy genre as an example.  Strictly as a genre, fantasy comprises stories about magic or other supernatural elements, usually in a created world.  But when considered as a form of "genre fiction," (a frustrating term, but the one in use), fantasy has further differences.  The fantasy community is differentiated from a general audience in what it expects and how it receives any given book.  Some of the most important qualities are the fantasy world-building (the invented histories, cultures, attributes, etc.), the degree and drama of the heroism in the book, and the innovation of the supernatural elements.  Often, these aspects are more important than the actual quality of the writing and traditional aspects like dramatic pacing, full characterization, or the like.

So when I consider a fantasy book, I usually try to consider it both as a general work of fiction, as well as a work of fantasy genre fiction.  When I think of The Lord of the Rings, I judge it to be excellent as fantasy (indeed, the apex of the genre) while also excellent as a work of literature.  But because fantasy values has different values and goals, and speaks mostly to its own community, this is very rare.  Often, the best of fantasy is only a middling work of literature.  I think it is thus, for example, with such blockbusters as George R.R. Martin's  A Game of Thrones or Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  As works of fantasy, they're superb, but I would only hesitantly recommend the former and never recommend the latter to someone who wasn't a part of that fantasy community.

This is not to say that the problems recognized and articulated by Gaiman and the Omnivore do not exist.  There is a ghettoization that occurs with the terms of "genre fiction," "fantasy," and "graphic novel."  A truly excellent comic series, like Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, might be overlooked or denigrated if it isn't deemed a graphic novel.  Or an amazing fantasy series like Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant could be largely ignored, because it is seen as belonging to that insular fantasy community and probably catering to their desires.  Further, the very label itself implies certain assumptions and limits about the books.  Readers approach a work of fantasy differently when it's labeled such - they expect dragons and damsels.  That's often unhelpful.

Thomas King, a First Nations writer, has come up with a good articulation of this problem of labels, and one way to sidestep it.  In his essay "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial," he has mentioned how the labeling of his works about aboriginal peoples are often labeled as "post-colonial," which he resents.

While post-colonialism purports to be a method by which we can begin to look at those literatures which are formed out of the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the colonized and the colonizer, the term itself assumes that the starting point for that discussion is the advent of Europeans in North America. At the same time, the term organizes the literature progressively suggesting that there is both progress and improvement . No less distressing, it also assumes that the struggle between guardian and ward is the catalyst for contemporary Native literature, providing those of us who write with method and topic. And, worst of all, the idea of post-colonial writing effectively cuts us off from our traditions, traditions that were in place before colonialism ever became a question, traditions which have come down to us through our cultures in spite of colonization, and it supposes that contemporary Native writing is largely a construct of oppression. Ironically, while the term itself - post-colonial - strives to escape to find new centres, it remains, till the end, a hostage to nationalism.

As a contemporary Native writer, I am quite unwilling to make these assumptions, and I am quite unwilling to use these terms.
King's solution is an alternate set of labels: "tribal, interfusional, polemical, and associational" to describe Native writing.  In his view, these labels avoid the worst aspects of the "post-colonial" label and more accurately describe Native works and their goals.  I won't get into the finer distinctions and definitions of each (read the essay if you're interested, it's pretty good) but the point is that a new set of labels can avoid the problems of the old.

The immediate and unfortunate result, of course, is that new labels will swiftly introduce an identical and new set of problems.  Such a complicated parsing as King proposes is difficult to use in everyday discussion.  While more accurate, they accordingly are more selective: "interfusional fiction" describes a very small group of books that only a few people are likely to want to discuss.  They also have the flaw of being relatively counterintuitive - "post-colonial" gives at least some idea of what it means, whereas "associational" will inevitably require a supplied definition.  And finally, even though they discard the idea of colonialism as the center of any discussion of Tribal works, they introduce their own inherent limitations from their terms.  Should these classifications catch on, in twenty years another writer would complain about them and propose his own new set.

This is the fate and inherent limitation of any set of labels.  By distinguishing and selecting, they also prejudice and segregate.  They are useful and necessary, and we can only strive for an accuracy of terms and fairness of definition that will do the least harm.  Ultimately, then, while I have sympathy for complaints about "graphic novel" and "genre fiction," I can only stick to those labels - until I hear better ones.

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*The Literary Omnivore is my current role model when it comes to bookblogging, and reading her site is what prompted me to put up a directory of my reviews.

26 October 2011

NEW! Book review directory

Now at the link at the top of the page you can access this list of books I've reviewed, alphabetized by author name and linked.  Someday, I will also go through and give each book a rating, but that's a project for another day.

"World War Z," "The Life and Times of Michael K.," "Mud, Sweat, and Tears," "Reading Lolita in Tehran," "Mezzanine," and "Daisy Miller."

World War Z, Max Brooks
The Life and Times of Michael K., J.M. Coetzee
Mud, Sweat, and Tears, Bear Grylls
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker
Daisy Miller, Henry James


World War Z, Max Brooks

It's interesting to think of books as food.  This allegory forces you to consider the traits of a specific book, its overall "flavor" and "ingredients," and try to conceive of an appropriate analogue.  For example, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is an overpowering draught of bitterness, with its unwavering central theme of hope-despite-doom (a nuclear Gotterdammerung), and so it seems to me to be like a tall and strong iced coffee: powerful, cold, and lingering.  It's a fun game to play.  And in the terms of that analogy, World War Z is Quaker™ White Cheddar Rice Cakes® - fluffy, synthetic, and probably a little bad for you.

When Brooks wrote this, he was riding the crest of the zombie craze that struck popular media from 2004 and is only now slowly subsiding.  He had helped start the fad with his Zombie Survival Guide, a fake manual for survivors of a zombie plague.  That book made some positive statements about zombies, endorsing the "fast zombie" approach (as opposed to the slow staggerers of yore).  World War Z builds on this hesitant initial attempt at actual writing, telling a story about zombie apocalypse and gradual human recovery through a series of short essays from different viewpoints.  The different speakers all tell fragments of the larger story, building up a particular mythology in the voices of an American transport pilot, South African scientist, Israeli mother, and so on.

The story is interesting and fun, and the characterization is passable.  There is a distinct hint of Wikipedia at work in the details behind the lives of each of the characters - the details that flesh them out are wide but nonspecific, in the manner of research done over the course of an afternoon on the Internet.  Brooks is always just on the right side of plausible, like a child's fantastic lies about where he found a five-dollar-bill that most certainly wasn't stolen from your wallet.

There are frequent false notes in the overall narration, clumsy little mysteries solved in a later chapter, that rattle the reader with leaden obtrusiveness.  But on the whole, World War Z is written fairly well.  It's light and silly and not too bad, so check it out if you're in need of some meaningless entertainment.


The Life and Times of Michael K., J.M. Coetzee

Nobel-prize winner J.M. Coetzee has been recommended to me many times.  I get a lot of recommendations, though, because I know many readers and I am interesting in reading all genres, all periods, and all qualities of books.  But after hearing Coetzee praised to high heaven again last month, I had to start on him.

The Life and Times of Michael K. was an extremely interesting book.  It's the best kind of deep fiction - interesting and well-written on the surface, with deep allusions and themes that ripple far in the depths unobtrusively.  The protagonist, Michael, is harelipped and slow, and lives a very small life.  In the text, he and his mother try to take a journey from their home of Capetown, to seek a better life in a mythic countryside farm.  Sad and strange, the book follows Michael's life.  He doesn't have "adventures," but instead a few things just happen to him.  He lives long periods in silence, without contemplation.

I believe in many ways Coetzee's book is about the qualities of a person, and how they are lived.  In the text, there is depicted loyalty, endurance, asceticism, wisdom, intelligence, bravery, and other traits - all normally laudable and good.  Yet here, we see them blunt and pointless, like a fine knife in a ditch scummed with mud.  They're not twisted or mocked or treated nastily, but they just seem misdirected and quite beside the point.  It's a story about how a man's life can fit untidily into his world.

It is definitely worth reading.  While not a happy story, it's a not a sad one, either.  Take a look.


Mud, Sweat, and Tears, Bear Grylls

Edward "Bear" Grylls has lived a hell of a life.  He went to Eton, joined the elite SAS, broke his back with a faulty parachute, climbed Everest, was elected Chief Scout, and starred in several television shows.  Without a doubt, he is bold, brave, and tough.  But he is not a writer.

His autobiography is not a disaster.  But with such dynamite material, it's a study of missed opportunities.  It's plagued with structural problems caused by lazy organization, as well as some genuine moments of opaque prose, where the arranged words convey no meaning.

The book begins in media res.  This is becoming nearly mandatory these days, and is getting more and more irritating.  At some point, authors (particularly of autobiographies) realized that writing an actual introduction to set the mood and catch the reader's attention required some degree of skill, and that they could do without that difficult work if they just plunked the most exciting part of the book at the beginning.  No need for context, transitions, or that difficult first sentence: you start off right in the action.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the Iliad demonstrates, but I'm starting to see it as a crutch.  Writers like Bear Grylls and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love, Committed) do it because it's easy.

There are other problems with laziness.  Mud, Sweat, and Tears has 110 chapters, despite being only 350 pages.  These short chapters, ranging from one to seven pages in length, exist for the express purpose of artificially jacking up the sense of drama.  You probably recognize the technique from Dan Brown's nonsense (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons) where each paragraph would be set off by a section break, chapter break, and a small illustration of Dan Brown bathing in money.

The way it works is by taking advantage of the reader's natural rhythm.  Certain moments in any text are heightening in importance by their placement: the first sentence, the last sentence, and any sentences set off in their own paragraph.  These sentences are contiguous to a moment of mental pause, induced in a reader by transitions.  It's a stepped-up version of the pause introduced by a period, as the reader's attention is held up for a moment.  Thus.

The technique is effective in small doses or when it naturally occurs, but it's also a tempting way for a bad writer to artificially crank up the potency of their sentiments.  And because Grylls is a bad writer, he does this all the time.

It gets old.

Worse than this, though, are the times when Grylls offers up something that looks like a coherent expression, but isn't quite intelligible.

In truth it was probably luck, but I learnt another valuable lesson that night: listen to the quiet voice inside. Intuition is the noise of the mind.
What does that mean, that intuition is the noise of the mind?  It's not just an uncommon aphorism (I googled it), and it seems to contradict what Grylls is trying to say.  It's bad writing, and not uncommon in Mud, Sweat, and Tears.

There are some brief moments of interesting phrasing.  When Grylls writes about his ascent of Everest, his fashionable staccato prose almost becomes decent:

Breathe. Pause. Move. Pause. Breathe. Pause. Move. Pause. It is unending. I heave myself over the final lip, and strain to pull myself clear of the edge. I clear the deep powder snow from in front of my face. I lie there hyperventilating. Then I clear my mask of the ice that my breath has formed in the freezing air. I unclip off the rope whilst still crouching. The line is now clear for Neil to follow up. I get to my feet and start staggering onwards. I can see this distant cluster of prayer flags, semi-submerged in the snow. Gently flapping in the wind, I know that these flags mark the true summit – the place of dreams.
But bits like this only remind us of the wasted potential, of a life of adventure told in such an incompetent way.  This book is not worth reading, and you should skip it.


Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi


Azar Nafisi was the daughter of a mayor of Tehran, raised during the time when Iran was a liberal beacon of progress under the oppressive tyranny of the Shah.  She went to school abroad, and returned to teach English literature at the University of Tehran.  Her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, relates the story of her time teaching in her homeland.  Her first semester coincided with the peak of the uprisings, and within a few years the country would be completely transformed into the Islamic Republic, crushed under a new sort of tyranny.  Unwilling to teach under the new theocratic viciousness, Nafisi abandoned the university.  Some years later, she took on a small group of select students, to meet in her home and study the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen.  The episodic story flashes back and forth in time between this small class of students, sipping tea and discussing Gatsby, and the early years of the revolution.

Nafisi is a professor, and writes like one.  Curiously, she seems to be unpublished when it comes to criticism, but her understanding of the discussed texts is more than adequate as relates their themes to her life and the changing atmosphere of Iran.  She is also, unfortunately, unable to prevent herself from reading symbolism into everything, and one of the flaws of her book is a tendency to break off into navel-gazing, losing the central dramatic thrust of the moment.  Despite this problem and an occasional self-indulgence that has left many sentences uncut that would have been better eliminated, her writing is decent enough.  It helps a great deal that she is telling a compelling story, of young men roaming the streets to enforce morality with guns in their hands and of the dawning horror that her blind radicalism, unexamined and reactionary, had helped lead to the growing horror of Islamic oppression that crushed out the light from the most advanced country in the Middle East.

It is a very good book and sparked a lot of controversy when it was published, when an Iranian professor at Columbia accused Nafisi of being a sort of elitist fifth column within the Islamic world for Western imperialism (I won't address that here, because his criticism is almost entirely unconnected with the actual book and is tediously venomous).  Read it, and see what you think.




Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker


My wife got me Mezzanine for a present.  It took a dozen pages before I said to her with happy gratitude, "This is really good!"  I was delighted once I realized its nature: Mezzanine is a book about our fractal lives. Baker's story - if it can be called that - is scarcely a narrative: the protagonist spends the entire book engaged in a scant handful of unimpressive actions.  For example, one chapter is about the moment he spends exchanging greetings with a maintenance man and a subsequent trip up the escalator.  And yet, as impossible as it sounds, this is not boring.

The protagonist's seemingly trivial actions are each the subject of beautiful, insightful thoughts - what Baker later calls "philosophy."  Each facet is discussed and its interesting points are revealed, before he fluidly moves into the next point.  It's careful, wonderful, and very well-written.

And this was when I realized abruptly that as of that minute (impossible to say exactly which minute), I had finished with whatever large-scale growth I was going to have as a human being, and that I was now permanently arrested at an intermediate stage of personal development. I did not move or flinch or make any outward sign. Actually, once the first shock of raw surprise had passed, the feeling was not unpleasant. I was set: I was the sort of person who said “actually” too much. I was the sort of person who stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast—buttering raisin toast, even: when the high, crisp scrape of the butter knife is muted by occasional contact with the soft, heat-blimped forms of the raisins, and when if you cut across a raisin, it will sometimes fall right out, still intact though dented, as you lift the slice. I was the sort of person whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.
Baker also presents further digressions in footnotes.  Footnotes have been particularly fascinating for me since I have read some Borges and David Foster Wallace, and Baker's cogent defense of the very practice (within one of his own footnotes, naturally) hits the nail on the head with why they can be such a necessary thing.

Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a rough protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of “ibid.’s” and “compare’s” and “see’s” that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one mind. They knew the anticipatory pleasure of sensing with peripheral vision, as they turned the page, a gray silt of further example and qualification waiting in tiny type at the bottom.
The examination of our lives and the objects in them and the history that has gone before is endlessly intriguing, as Baker demonstrates, and there is no bad time to indulge in contemplation of that mystery.  The conclusion of the text is a paean to that contemplation, done with a perfect enthusiasm.  I recommend this book very much, and you should check it out.


Daisy Miller, Henry James

Daisy Miller is one of the most feminist books I have ever read.  It feels strange to say that, and I'm not sure if that's a common take, but it is definitely true.

The book is brief and astoundingly simple in scope.  A young man, an American residing in Europe, meets beautiful Daisy Miller, also from America and traveling on a tour of the Continent with her nervous mother and rambunctious younger brother.  Daisy is gorgeous and intriguing, but also troubles the young man, who thinks she must be uncultivated.  She doesn't make a fuss about spending time with him alone, even though it's improper, nor does she seem to be bothered by other social niceties.  This is not to say she is impolite - she is quite pleasant and not at all rude.

In time, they part ways, only to encounter each other again in Rome.  Daisy causes a scandal in Rome by spending a great deal of time in her friendship with a local bravo, stirring up a chilly reception from other Americans in town who don't want her giving them a bad reputation.  The story ends quietly and unhappily, and everyone moves on.  There are no great scenes of high drama - life continues, and the book ends.

I call the book feminist because the whole of the action is driven by the young American gentleman's inability to comfortably categorize the free-spirited Daisy.  Is she a simple tramp, sleeping around town with her gentlemen friends?  Is she a foolish ingenue, unaware of how she appears to others and in need of rescue?  She is none of these things, but the others around her cannot understand this.

It was, frankly, astonishing to read the book and find that it had such a marvelous and direct moral, yet was written with such natural expression and beautiful prose that it was still a great pleasure to read.  The theme isn't forced down the reader's throat, which is especially curious because it is the sole conflict in the text and single focus of the action.  This one has exquisite prose, unforgettable characters, and a sparse discipline you only see in masters of the craft.  Definitely read Daisy Miller.

19 October 2011

Nevada GOP Debate

Rick Perry appears to have gotten dramatically different coaching for this debate; he has moved away from his continual refrain of "energy, energy, energy" and gone on the attack against Romney.  This was smart, because what he had been doing has not been working and has lost him his substantial enthusiasm bump with two disastrous debate performances.  Unfortunately, his new attacks were heavy-handed attempts at bullying, as he repeatedly interrupted Romney, talked over him, and made bold accusations that Romney had once hired illegal immigrants.  He got out of control, and the audience indulged itself with a rare chorus of boos as a response to his assault on poor Mitt (who has really mastered his inoffensive look of long-suffering).  Perry's new strategy might have pulled him out of his death spiral, but he's still headed for the ground fast.

Newt Gingrich remains in an attitude of all-embracing condescension, leaning back and spreading his hands with a sneer in his oft-repeated podium gesture.  In past debates he has paused mid-question to browbeat the moderators, accusing them of sowing dissension, and in this debate he rejected Anderson Cooper's prompt to move on from healthcare to economics with a condescending, "I want to stay on healthcare.  Let's just focus."  This may be a reflection of his years of worship as the Republican "ideas man."  Lost in that reverence for him, that seems to have swelled his already-large potato-shaped-head, is that a lot of his ideas are radical and cruel, such as his recent statement about how he would eliminate constitutional review by the Supreme Court, overturning centuries of precedent right back to Marbury vs. Madison.  An abhorrent man.

Rick Santorum somehow always looks unhappy, with a bitter twist to his mouth.  Wisely, he is seldom ever asked questions in debate - except when the moderators want to unleash his anger on another candidate.  This is a good thing: he has no more chance of victory than Ron Paul, and so any question asked of him is a wasted one.  Cain and Bachmann might have no chance either, but they are at least part of the contemporary Republican conversation.  Santorum, like Paul, is an outsider.  And maybe that's why he's so unhappy.

Michele Bachmann is sheer bluster and the most prominent example of rhetoric without action.  She has never done anything of note and hasn't even bothered with any feasible bills.  Instead, she spams out ridiculous showboating bills repealing Obamacare, defunding the EPA, and so on.  Her claims in the debate were consistent with this, making wild promises like her vow to build a double fence along the entire Mexico border with a "zone of neutrality" in between.  Her crazed rhetoric, wide-eyed and insubstantial, is getting worse.

Herman Cain showcases the enduring power of ignorance and denial.  The 9-9-9 plan will lower all taxes and replace them with unicorns.  It will get passed through Congress because elves will convince them to vote for it.  And so on.  Any questions or challenges are met with consistent stonewalling denial, not supporting evidence or argument.  It's a stuttering, smiling, "No, you're wrong."  And what's worse, he doesn't appear to even understand the objections.  Any question that's beyond him, he answers with the vaguest and most hackneyed platitudes imaginable ("boots on the ground," "no apologies for America," etc).

Ron Paul is mostly as irrelevant as Santorum.  He leads his own constituency that's only loosely within the GOP, and he stands no chance.  One answer he gave is worth examination: his idea that the free markets would take care of nuclear waste storage.  This is a good example of where libertarians and I part ways: I don't think that there exists a sufficient market incentive to force nuclear power plants to find a geologically stable place and ensure hundreds of years of safety.  The environment is a good example of a sector where perverse incentives work towards the wrong goal: it's almost always far more profitable to just slosh crap into a hole, knowing you're going to retire decades before it becomes a serious problem.

Mitt Romney excelled.  He was adroit and clever with his arguments, reflecting his long years of experience on the campaign trail.  The ample time he's given in debates means he doesn't have to force his talking points, but can afford to let them flow naturally.  Further, his attitude is perfectly-pitched.  When lashing out, he's reasonable and personable.  When under attack, he's calm and pleasant.  He remains far in the lead and the anointed candidate, and this debate didn't threaten that very much.  He continues to be the only possible candidate that could win against Obama (a 50/50 proposition at this point).

15 October 2011

"Squirrel Meets Chipmunk," "Your Call Is Important to Us," "Room," "Animals Make Us Human," "John Everett Millais," "The Romantic Manifesto," "A Study of Vermeer," and "Piercing the Darkness."

Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, David Sedaris

Usually you have a pretty good idea of what you're going to get when you pick up a book by David Sedaris.  It'll be a collection of stories - usually focused on his childhood and his wacky family - presented in a whimsical and poignant way.  And there's always enough bite to the criticism to make the book edgy, and enough fondness to give it heart.

Sedaris took Squirrel Meets Chipmunk in a different direction.  It's a collection of short, sneering fables with discernible but cruel morals, starring a varying crew of animals of a distinctly yuppie flavor.  They are written very well, if a bit sloppily, with the strong characterization that has long been Sedaris' strong suit and which is especially essential for short-form work.  They are also generally unpleasant.

It's not that I lack appreciation for what he's trying to do.  The fables are clever and they effectively and humorously satirize their targets.  But they left me feeling vaguely unclean with the overall message that everyone, everywhere, is kind of a jerk.

I feel like there are some sorts of people out there who would really like this book.  Well-educated middle-class people with a healthy degree of self-loathing, perhaps?  Everyone else should skip it.


Your Call Is Important to Us, Laura Penny

Laura Penny's exploration of the vast array of doubletalk in our lives is a melange of Naomi Klein's No Logo, Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, and a big handful of the current articles on alternative journalism site Alternet.  It is filled with contempt for our commercialized world, and with the greater and lesser degrees of nonsense that has taken the place of clear communication.

The music, the dancing, the lighting, the huge celebratory hullabaloo over absolutely nothing; pure Cola, millions of dollars visibly and gleefully spent to produce a sixty-second ditty about cheap brown sugar water.
Unfortunately, Penny's book is not as good as Klein's or Frankfurt's, and only marginally better than Alternet.  The unfortunate thing about any sort of principled attack on bullshit is that, as Penny accurately discovers, it is absolutely ubiquitous.  Every day and in every place and from every person.  That's because it elides too closely with the white lie - a fact that Penny admits but tries to make a clumsy distinction from.  The titular bullshit, "Your call is important to us," is a good example.  It's a piece of silly pablum used to pacify the listener, because the radical truth would be grating, unpleasant, and unnecessary: "Your call is exactly as important to us as is required to shut you up before you cause enough ruckus to cost us money."

Penny's rapid loss of perspective and consistent tone, full of bile, are the negatives.  On the plus side, the writing is good and her detailed exploration through our culture of bullshit does turn up a lot of amusingly outrageous examples and inspires several entertaining rants.  With Your Call Is Important to Us,  it's take it or leave it - it's not bad and it's not good.


Room, Emma Donoghue


After reading Kaycee Dugard's A Stolen Life, I was hesitant to read a fictional account of the same sort of captivity.  I assumed that fiction would only sensationalize the worst aspects of such an experience - the violence, the shame, etc.  How could such a book be anything other than crude button-pushing, the literary equivalent of torture porn movies like Hostel?

My wife's enthusiastic endorsement, however, finally won me over.  And I was surprised to find a subtle and well-designed book that I enjoyed a great deal.  Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in a single room, captive with his mother at the mercy of a man he calls "Old Nick" (out of a twisted understanding of Santa).  The limited understanding of a child is exacerbated by his extreme upbringing - he has trouble understanding that there is a world beyond the boundaries of Room, and doesn't understand the purpose of some of the games they play (like the one where they scream as loud as they can to try to attract a neighbor's attention.)

While it is a novel based on a gimmick, it doesn't lean on that gimmick.  Room is very well-written, paced and plotted with an extremely tight attention to detail and mood, and with an extraordinary level of characterization.  It is a very good book, and you should read it.

I have a theory about Room, actually, that no one else seems to agree with.  There might be some limited spoilers ahead, so be aware.

So anyway, Room is (I think) a fairly clear allegory for the mortal world and an afterlife - sort of a modern-day version of Plato's cave.  Jack doesn't understand the unfairness of the world around him.  He can't possibly grasp the reason why his mother flicks Lamp on and off at night, signaling for help, because his understanding has been curtailed by the cramped confines of his limited world.  I believe Donoghue is drawing a parallel with mankind, similarly trapped in a world whose rules make internal sense but are much more meaningful when viewed from outside, with full context and a greater awareness.  Jack knows that Sundaytreat happens every Sunday, but can't understand the real reason why: he just understands that things are the way they are.

Similarly, Jack doesn't really grasp the idea of Outside, or the reality of their plight.  While told about it, it doesn't quite seem believable and he can't do much more than muddle through some of the implications.  The idea that his world is just a creation, prelude to something much larger and more wonderful than he could imagine, is just not within his capabilities.  It's a concept too huge to really grasp with his limited mind.

There are strong Biblical allusions throughout the text that pointed me in this direction, even beyond the above parallels.  For example, at one point Jack muses, "When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything."  This is a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:11, gently mocking self-assured child/mankind.  Further evidence might be found in Old Nick, a onetime nickname for Satan, who visits regularly and torments Jack's mother.

I'm not sure if Donoghue is engaging in any sort of apologetics with this allegory - we're not talking about evangelism here, especially since I can't even convince anyone of this theory.  Nor do I think it detracts from the book, but rather just adds a wonderful dimension to an already wonderful story.  If you haven't read Room, then do so and tell me what you think (it's a great book).  If you have read it, let me know if you agree.


Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin


I'm not sure what I was expecting from this book.  I knew it was a book about the treatment of animals by Temple Grandin, which says a lot.  Grandin's an autistic animal science researcher who made an appearance in Oliver Sack's An Anthropologist on Mars, famous for her description of the "squeeze machine" she made to give her calming hugs, and since then has been an advocate for the autistic and animals.  So this book would certainly be some sort of discussion of how animals could be treated better in factory farms, right?  Or maybe it would talk about the behaviors animals and humans have in common, and what that means for us?

Instead, I found what is essentially a handbook for animal owners.  Working from what modern science has discovered about natural animal behavior and how animal minds work, Grandin breaks down how they think and how you should accordingly treat them.  Working with her own analyses and the work of other researchers, Grandin suggests that all animals operate based on certain patterns of interaction, called SEEKING, PLAY, RAGE, LUST, PANIC, and FEAR (always capitalized in the text).  Simply put, owners should stimulate SEEKING and PLAY, and avoid PANIC, FEAR, and RAGE.  From these principles, she moves through various animals and discusses how to actually do that: dogs, cats, pigs, cows, etc.

While this is good, and if I ever have a pet I will certainly consult this book again, ultimately it became very repetitive.  Combined with surprisingly poor writing, it is not anything for a casual reader.  Check out the relevant chapters if you have a pet, and otherwise skip it.




John Everett Millais, Christine Riding


This slim glossy book was a serviceable exploration of Millais' life and work.  I have been fond of Millais for years, and so I was glad to take a closer look.  Riding's explanations are sufficient, although her writing is only average; the book is not well-organized, but Riding's prose is clear and intelligent.  Millais was an early prominent member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (his Christ in the House of His Parents was the target for much early criticism of the movement), and much of his work strikes something deep within me.  Of particular note is his early work, such as Mariana or (my favorite) Ophelia, but a few of his later paintings like Dew-Drenched Furze were also exquisite, and new to me in Riding's book.  It's a good enough book, and if you enjoy the linked images, then you will enjoy this text.




The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand


The Romantic Manifesto is a broad view of art and literature collected in a series of Rand's essays from her magazine.  In Rand's view, art's purpose is to set forth the author's personal philosophy.  Art that fails to do that is poorly executed.  According to this view, she praises the 18th century Romantic movement (especially authors like Victor Hugo and painters like Joseph Turner) for what she sees as its commitment to representing ideals in art, and condemns Naturalism for a short-sighted attempt to depict the world without making any statements about it.  She also attacks modernism and post-modernism for similar "problems."

Rand's view of art is a strange one.  Some of the problems are flagrant: she doesn't consider photography to be art, because it can't carry any philosophical message.  But the ignorance that prompts such an opinion is only a surface one, while the larger problem lurks behind in her basic understanding of art's purpose.

Art always does carry a philosophy.  Rand is quite right when she points out that the choice of what to show in a character or what elements of a plot to tell constitute a philosophical choice that's communicated to the reader.  Her accuracy in this perception makes it all the more curious that she fails to perceive that Naturalism, modernism, and postmodernism all do carry a message - it's impossible to create art of any kind that is not a message, because that is what art is: it's a message.  That message ranges from the simplest, "look at the beauty here," to the most complex of narrations that sets out a whole worldview.  The latter portion of the book implicitly admits this, as she attacks the central message of Naturalism and other movements.  The book turns into a subjective savaging of artists she dislikes, skewing away from her promised rational and objective valuation.

Rand's central mistake on the purpose of art is a pretty common bit of ignorance, so maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on Rand.  And of course, many people might disagree with me.  But for someone who was so proudly independent, it's sad that her conclusions are so misfounded and provincial.  Her book's sneering denunciation of modern art is indistinguishable from the heckling of a morning show radio hyena.

So we have news out of the Whacko Zone this morning, B-Rad!  [sound of toilet flushing]  We have this artist whose latest work is just a sentence!  Not even a good sentence, it's just "put some canvas on the floor!"  I bet she's making thousands of dollars from this, probably our tax dollars, right?  [stock sound of woman screaming]  This isn't art!  You can maybe hang it on the wall when you're done, but that doesn't make it art!  There's no work involved, no skill... anyone could do that!  It's like all those idiots who put up a frame on a wall and call that art!  Did they make the wall?  No.  It's not pretty!  Not art! [sound of toilet flushing].
That's about the flavor of Rand's book, only with less philosophical consistency and a little more pompousness.  Skip it.




A Study of Vermeer, Edward Snow


I don't guess I know much about art.  I mean, I have ideas about what art is (see last review) and I know what I like, but I never learned a lot of the basic principles.  My high school art classes were very practical - how to draw, how to paint - and my college art classes were very informational - Indian steles, Renaissance revivals - and so I never learned about the essentials of theory.  It's a sad gap in my basic knowledge.  This book has helped a little, although my (more knowledgeable) wife read some of it and rolled her eyes hard enough to crack a windowpane.


Vermeer is amazing, of course, and if you're not familiar with his work you should immediately check it out.  This series of videos from the National Museum is reportedly pretty good.


But while I had loved his work, much of the structure behind it had been a mystery to me.  I suppose it's fairly elemental that a solid vertical line through a painting will help anchor the eye, but lessons like that (and increasingly more obscure and doubtful extrapolations) were revelations to me in Snow's book.  He goes through a wide selection of Vermeer's work, early to late, and discusses their common themes and construction.  I was surprised not to find anything about the camera obscura, which I had thought was a major part of Vermeer's process, but it's not even mentioned.  Sadly, I lack the competence to determine if this is an outrageous oversight or not.


Snow may indeed have gone a step too far in his analyses, which often examine each detail and fit it into an overall theory of vast complexity - every included element has a complicated meaning, in his view.  But for all that was lost on me, I do feel that when I look on something like The Milkmaid, my appreciation is a little deeper.  These are things I really should have noticed before, I suppose, like the pattern of pairs of open and closed items (whole loaf, broken loaf; open jar, closed jar; empty basket, full basket), the use of empty space on the right to provide balance and relief to the denseness of the left side of the painting, and the carefully ambiguous expression on the milkmaid's face.

Check it out, if you're inclined.




Piercing the Darkness, Frank Peretti


Ah, back with Frank again.  The important thing to realize about Frank Peretti's world is that it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, the church his followers founded, or anything else Christian - the nominal labels of "Jesus" and "God" aside, what Peretti's talking about is magic.

Piercing the Darkness is a sequel to This Present Darkness. When I reviewed that book, I came to the conclusion that Peretti was a deist - I thought he believed in a nonexistent God, since angels are scared of the demons, are in risk of losing the conflict, and there's no apparent intervention from the deity (aside from some vague feelings).  But after this second book, I finally realized that it's not that God is just absent - there is no God to begin with!  There's just wizards and rituals and magic.

The mechanics of the world are the same as the first book - no changes there.  There is a human conflict, poorly-conceived and hard to believe. And in the shadows of the spirit world there is a supernatural conflict, as angels and demons engage in physical combat and interfere in people's minds and (occasionally) with physical objects.  The supernatural creatures fight with swords and fists, and are empowered according to the strength of nearby believers - the demon Insanity would be particularly powerful in an insane asylum, for example.  The angels benefit from the special strength of "prayer cover," provided when Christians regularly and sincerely pray to God.  If there aren't many Christians or they're divided and distracted, then angels are weak and easily defeated.

The human conflict is a silly story that reads like a parody of a fundamentalist Christian's fears.  The ACFA (American Citizens Freedom Association) has helped a cabal of Satanists and humanists to bring a lawsuit against a Christian school for spanking a child and casting out a possessing demon.  The cabal, which controls all levels of government and the media, is also trying to cover up their persecution and murder of a young woman, Sally Roe, who flees the country, investigating her past and confronting her own sins.

It's not too hard to decode this.  The ACFA is a thinly-veiled version of the ACLU, the bogeyman of the religious right that stops them from erecting monuments to the Ten Commandments in the town square and forcing your child to pray to Jesus.  They receive a loving description.

The ACFA, that infamous association - one could say conspiracy - of professional, idealistic legal technicians, whitewashed, virtuous, and all-for-freedom on the exterior, but viciously liberal and anti-Christian in its motives and agenda. Nowadays it was getting hard to find any legal action taken against Christians, churches, or parachurch organizations that did not have the ACFA and its numerous, nationwide affiliates behind it.

The ACFA teams up with the overwhelming power of secular forces in the country to try to crush out the impoverished Christian movement, which barely manages to scrape by as it is.

The little people - the Christians - get into legal tangles because the state, or the ACFA, or some other rabid, Christian-eating secularist organization decides to pick on them, and those people always have all the power, connections, and finances they need to win any battle they want in a court of law. Not so with the Christians. They have to put on spaghetti dinners and car washes and jogathons just to hire some poor, minor-league attorney like me who supposedly has such a love for righteous causes that he doesn’t care about the money.
The cabal that is teamed up with the ACFA is a handy combination of everything that isn't Christian.  Other religions, spiritual movements, etc. all get lumped in with the Satanists and secular humanists and whatnot.  There's actually a cabal of cabals, since the spiritual retreat center, the teacher's college, and the pseudo-Masonic "Order of the Nation" are all associated - but essentially every possible thing that fundamentalist Christianity finds even vaguely threatening is explicitly given an evil overlord and representation at the Big Evil Meeting.  The Evil Meetingplace includes a variety of buildings:

Taoist Retreat Center. Valley Tibetan Project and Monastery. Temple of Ananta. Library and Archives of Ancient Wisdom. Native American School of Traditional Medicine. Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. The Temple of Imbetu Agobo. Babaji Ashram. Mother’s Temple Shrine of Shiva. The Children of Diana. Temple to the Divine Universal Mother. The House of Bel. The Sacred and Royal Order of the Nation.
But they've all gotten together to bring charges against the school.  It's supposed to be a test case: once they can get a judge to rule against casting out demons, then they can go after all the other Christian schools in the country, and eventually Christianity itself.

“Well, just look at the complaint here against… uh … the pastor, the headmaster, the church, and the church board: ‘Outrageous Religious Behavior Against a Child’- casting out the demon, of course, ‘Physical Abuse by Spanking, Excessive Religious Instruction Harmful to the Child, Harassment, Discrimination, and Religious Indoctrination Using Federal Funds.’
The Christians know what's going on, of course.  They've been struggling for a long time, trying to make it in a world where everything's stacked against them.  They've always known that the forces of Satan were just lying in wait to attack them.

“The first domino,” Brent said quietly, and then shook his head at the thought. “Looks like the persecution’s started, folks.”
The enemy has magic, of course.  All that transcendental meditation and psychic study isn't just sinister Satan-worship - it's also a way to build power.  They summon in demons that give them magical powers and can aid them.  When the assassins are closing in on Sally Roe near the end of the book, they're powered up the mountain and given strength by their spiritual assistants, and it's not until enough prayer is said that the angels can show up and dispel them, letting Sally escape.  They gain their powers through long years of study and ritual, working with spirit guides:

It all seemed so utopian eighteen years ago. I can recall the classes in Eastern philosophy and the long sessions in the meadows, sitting for hours in meditation, feeling such a unity with all life, with all that is. What bliss that was. I can remember the special spirit-guides who came to me during my last summer. They opened my consciousness to realize my own divinity, and revealed worlds of experience and awareness I’d never known before. It was like an endless carnival ride through a world of enticing secrets, and my guides promised to remain with me forever.
The Christians have their own rituals, and they pray their counter-spells.

They prayed for a place they’d never heard of before: Bacon’s Corner. They sought the Lord on behalf of the believers there, and asked for a real victory in their time of siege and struggle. They bound the demonic spirits in the name of Jesus and by His authority, forbidding them to do any more mischief among those people.
Of course, the interesting thing is that one prayer isn't enough.  It's not sufficient that just one guy prays - that's not enough "prayer cover."  Scores and hundreds of people have to really be praying and doing their ritual in order to cause magical effects.  The angels won't make things happen and won't fight on the side of the Christians, without those rituals.  Near the end of the book, Sally Roe gets slapped around and badly injured even after she's born again, because the angels don't yet have enough prayer cover.  They just watch her get hurt and wait to spring their trap, instead.

Tal turned to the courier. “Tell Mota and Signa that they have the prayer cover and can proceed closing the trap. After that, have them wait for the signal from Nathan and Armoth.”
Aside from raising metaphysical questions, the nature of the book has another effect: it allows Peretti to paper over his plot holes.  For example, at one point it is vital for Sally Roe to discover the identity of a murdered man who belonged to the Order of the Nation, the evil brotherhood that strongly resembles a Masonic organization.  She doesn't know anything about him, but she gets a hunch he might be a lawyer, because the Order is a very white-collar group.  She looks in the journal for the local bar association and finds his name!  What would be a ridiculously unbelievable leap is fixed, because she must have been divinely guided.

Just like before, this book is poorly written.  This time, though, it became much more amusing to read because I just imagined that "Jesus" wasn't the Jesus of Christianity like I'd ordinarily assume, but instead a Mexican spirit-lord that was providing his worshippers with power.  As a story about conflicting groups of magicians, it was far more enjoyable.  Still, you'd best skip it.

02 October 2011

"A Stolen Life," "My Horizontal Life," "The Year of Living Biblically," "Maxims," "90 Minutes in Heaven," "Ficciones," "A Manual of Buddhism," and "Committed"

A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard

Starting off right at brass tacks: this book is written terribly, and as a memoir it has little value  It is good in its own way, though, as a look at therapy in progress.

The horrible facts are these: Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped from the street when she was eleven years old, stunned with a cattle prod and dragged into the van of convicted rapist Phillip Garrido and his enabling wife Nancy.  Jaycee was kept in captivity for eighteen years, bearing two daughters during that time after repeated rapes.  Initially confined to a single-room shack in Garrido's backyard, she was eventually permitted to move to a two-room building, and finally was permitted access to the backyard itself after six years.  When more than a dozen years had passed and her young mind had been thoroughly warped by her captor - who had convinced her that he knew everything and had all the answers - she was even going on regular trips to the outside world.  So crushed was her psyche, that even when Garrido was arrested after his parole officer noticed Dugard's daughters at the sex offender's house, she still told the lies she had been instructed to tell.  Phillip Garrido took a fifth-grade girl and broke her, as fundamentally as a person can  be broken.  He defined for her a warped world.

Dugard's memoir is a present-tense recreation of her kidnapping and captivity, interspersed with regular moments of reflection on her experiences.  It is disjointed and confused, and long sections are devoted to remembering various cats, present-day therapy with horses, and jumbled speculations about emotion.  It is difficult to read, and I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to write.  It is this latter quality that gives it what worth it has - through the whole of the book, Dugard expresses herself with the muddled purity of true honesty.  She has some bitterness for what happened, but some affection as well - unbelievable as it may seem, she speculates that she may have been better off never having had to experience the fear of a first day at high school.

Studded among her uncertain feelings are moments of therapeutic affirmation - these are the rare times when she expresses herself directly and confidently: I know this was wrong.  I know this was taken from me.  It is not hard to imagine Kaycee Dugard sitting in front of her computer, jaw tight and eyes red, and taking control of her past and her mind itself; setting straight the snarled skeins of affection and manipulation that linger from almost two decades of abuse with these direct statements of what she knows should feel true to her.  Her process of recovery, faltering and ongoing, is present between the lines of her memoir.

Do not read this book for lurid details about her captivity, or why she didn't escape.  There are some stories about such things, but they are unsettling and confused.  Read it only if you want to see a mind during the slow and painful process of recovery, with all the muddling that brings.


My Horizontal Life, Chelsea Handler

I'm not going to say this is the worst book.  I've read Tucker Max's books, so I know for a fact that's not true.  This isn't even that bad of an effort by the famous Ms. Handler.  It's not too badly written, its message is not too abhorrent, and the structure is sensible.  Unfortunately, however, it is supposed to be a work of comedy.  And it is surprisingly unfunny.  Like the proverbial stopped clock, you would have expected it to stumble into a joke by sheer accident once or twice.  Not so.

My Horizontal Life is a series of anecdotes by Handler about her various sexual experiences.  Ostensibly she's speaking about one-night-stands, but numerically far more of her stories are about near-misses and relationships: the very attractive but stupid guy she dated, the period in which she only went out with black men, the guy she dated who had a very small penis, etc.  There are scatological elements, but little gross-out humor; the funny parts are supposed to be the outrageousness of her behavior and her forthright pride in sexuality.  In both ways, this book fails.  It is astoundingly unfunny yet completely oblivious of its tedium, like the drunk girl at a party who wants to tell you this hilarious story about how her dog likes to sniff people's butts and she once pretended to be a dog and sniff a guy's butt at a party when she was wasted and he thought she was so weird and it was so embarrassing but you know she's just gotta be herself, am I right?

There is an undercurrent of pride in Handler's telling of how she goes up to the hottest guy in the bar and asks them out, or how she cleverly manages to avoid sex with a guy she has decided against sleeping with because he shaves his chest hair.  It's a dog whistle to women's lib - she's being assertive and taking control of her sexual destiny.  In that sense, it's sort of admirable, and it's certainly hard to criticize her for objectifying men in some instances - I guess some of that sort of medicine needs to be dished out.  But aside from that single trait, mildly redemptive, and the overall serviceable writing, this book is a complete failure.  It is a crashing disaster of unfunny that barely coaxed a smile.  Avoid it like the plague.


The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs

This book is for gawking.  A.J. Jacobs knows this.  It's a gimmicky book, an account of a year-long stunt where he followed all the Biblical rules (no shellfish, no touching a menstruating woman, etc.)  No one will or should read it looking for serious analysis or spiritual insight.  This book is a circus, not a synagogue.

That said, it's a moderately entertaining circus, and somewhat better than its boring predecessor, The Know-It-All, which was about a year spent reading the whole encyclopedia (reviewed here).  Jacobs carries around a special stool so he's not in danger of sitting on an unclean seat that a woman might have touched, he grows an enormous beard and side-locks, and he even goes to Israel and herds some sheep.  His insight is generally shallow, and he actually seems surprised when his year of immersion in the Bible yields some genuine religious feeling by its end, which is perhaps the equivalent of spending a year in a pool and being surprised that you learned to swim.

Also interesting are the commandments that he doesn't follow.  He gets a pass on animal sacrifice, since it is generally believed that the destruction of the Temple let the Jews off the hook on that one (convenient!) but his attempt at "stoning a blasphemer" involved dropping a pebble on the man's foot.  I'm not saying that he should have actually stoned someone, but it would have been better to simply make a rule that he wouldn't break any laws in his Biblical life, and then frankly acknowledge that no aspect of that barbarism was even desirable.  Or to put it another way, he should have admitted that no one can literally obey the Bible without being a monster.  Throughout the text, he avoids stating this simple truth, despite the lengths he has to go to pretend to have a "slave" (his intern).  There is one near bit, though, in a discussion of how to reconcile the bloody wars of the Bible with modern ethics:

One of my spiritual advisers, Julie Galambush, a professor of religion at the College of William and Mary, explained this tactic to me: You simply act as if the Bible doesn't say what it says. There's a passage in Deuteronomy that says the Israelites should offer peace before attacking a city outside the land of Israel. If the city accepts, you take the residents as your slaves. If the city rejects your offer, you kill all the males and make everyone else slaves. For cities inside the land, you don't even offer peace. You just kill everyone: men, women, children, cattle--"save alive nothing that breathes." Pretty shocking stuff. But when talking about this in themidrash, the rabbis completely ignore the bloodletting. Instead, they focus on the part in which the Israelites offer peace. They say, See! The passage is all about compassion (I'm paraphrasing). "It's clear the rabbis have moral objections to this passage," professor Galambush says. "So they pretend it says something they do believe in--peace-- rather than something they object to. You can't underestimate the radicalness of the rabbis."
Overall, the book is about as interesting as its gimmick.  If the idea of a year of near-adhesion to the Bible's guidelines seems interesting, then this will interest you.  If you roll your eyes and say, "That's stupid"... well, you won't find any surprises.


Maxims, Fran├žois de La Rochefoucauld (trans. J.W. Bund)

There is a deception inherent in many proverbs, a sort of politician's trick: the writer lays out the climax of a thought or lesson, and we assume they arrived at this destination by our own path.  The fourth maxim by Rochefoucauld in this 1678 book, for example, is this: "Self love is more cunning than the most cunning man in the world."

To me, this is saying both that are high regard for ourselves inclines us to be more deceptive towards our real intentions and virtues than any other degree of deception we might credit; we are willing to believe the absolute best of ourselves on scanty or even contrary evidence, even if we treat other's identical assertions with a curled lip and skepticism.  No man's deceit could ever equal our own deceit towards ourselves.

That's a hell of a lot packed into that little maxim!  And what's even better, because I did much of the work of interpreting it, blazing out a trail towards the conclusion set afar, I am very pleased to regard it as genius.  Not that Rochefoucauld is wrong or banal, but so much of the delight in maxims comes from a belief that the poet is in an illusory agreement birthed from our own effort.  As the translator to this edition says, "truths expressed in condensed sentences must always have a peculiar charm."

As in all books of maxims, this one is filled with broad categorical claims and absolute statements, and constant parallelisms.  If A is something to B, then B is probably the opposite something to C ("89. Everyone blames his memory, no one blames his judgment.")  The central theme is that vice and virtue are always entwined - we are good only because of our evil.  While this approach turns out some worthy thoughts, it often turns out the obvious ("103. Those who know their minds do not necessarily know their hearts.").  And even worse, sometimes it verges into downright bitterness, declaring that, "113. There may be good but there are no pleasant marriages." - a sentiment that requires a great deal of work to assume any aspect of wisdom.  And of course, there are notions that are simply wrong: "204.  The coldness of women is a balance and burden they add to their beauty."

There are about five hundred maxims in this book.  If we ignore the thirty or forty about women (invariably poor), we find that perhaps half of what remains is worthwhile.  The rest is repetition or simply wrong.  This is surprising - most revered books of proverbs are crammed full of wisdom.  Not so with Rochefoucauld - it's a rarity.

There are some excellent sentiments to take away, though.  Among them are these:

38.  We promise according to our hopes, we perform according to our fears.
134. We are never so ridiculous from the habits we have as from those we pretend to have.
197.  There are men of whom we can never believe evil without having seen it.  Yet there are very few in whom we should be surprised to see it.
216.  Perfect valour is to do without witnesses what one would do before all the world.
245.  There is great ability in knowing how to conceal one's ability.
269.  No man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.
320.  To praise princes for virtues they do not possess is but to reproach them with impunity.
413.  A man cannot please long who has only one kind of wit.
423.  Few know how to be old.
Take these gleanings, and go read Voltaire instead.


90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper

This book was a major disappointment after Todd Burpo's Heaven Is for Real.  Burpo's kid Colton had a near-death experience, and could describe how Jesus looked, could recite some theology about how you must accept Jesus as savior, and was able to witness everything that had happened on Earth while he was in Heaven.  But Don Piper... well, it seems like Don Piper got completely screwed.

Only a handful of pages in this book are about his trip to Heaven, because he never got past the gate.  He was in a terrible car accident that tore his limbs - ripping two of them off - but he had to sit outside their "pearlescent" beauty the entire hour-and-a-half he was "dead."  His friends and family came out to speak with him (they looked like he remembered them, but perfected), he heard a chorus of beautiful music, and that's pretty much it.  He never even got Moses' autograph.

The rest of the book - 95% of it - is devoted to his arduous physical therapy, and his therapy-related witnessing.  To replace the large portions of his limbs that had been pulverized (they never even found the pieces of four inches of his femur) he had the Ilizarov procedure, which screws a metal frame into the broken parts of the bone and gradually extends them over the course of years.  By his report and all other reports, it is shatteringly painful.  Piper communicates his experiences adequately, if not well.


There are, of course, the usual philosophical problems that go unresolved.

“I’ll tell you this,” I said. “I know I had internal injuries, but somewhere between that bridge and this hospital I don’t anymore.” Tears ran down Dick’s face, and he said, “I know. I wish I could pray like that all the time.”
Thank goodness Dick was in top praying form!  If he hadn't been so good at praying that night, God would have let Don Piper die.  Totally reasonable.

When the State of Texas was found at fault for the accident, the law limited their liability to $250,000. All the money went to hospital bills, and a quarter of a million dollars didn’t make much of a dent.
Thank the Republicans, Piper.

Anyway, Piper's actual Heavenly experience was so minimal, it's no wonder he wrote so much about his recovery and his ministering to others - otherwise he would have had a rather brief essay, rather than a rather brief memoir.  But as a result, the book absolutely and unavoidably ends up being a disappointment.  I can unhesitatingly recommend that you skip it.


Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges


Goddamn.  Read this.

Okay, wait, I better elaborate.  I'll try to contain my elation - I haven't been so delighted with an author since Nabokov (and before that, Hemingway).

Borges writes short works that are a blend of short story and essay, swinging between narration and scholarly discussion of pure ideas.  He was always brief, remarking in his prologue in Ficciones that the "composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing exercise.  To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes!"  Thus this slender volume - with lengthy critical preface, still not topping 140 pages.

An Argentinian, he was very well-read, with a particular fascination with a few authors of unusually broad styles: Chesterton, Schopenhauer, Kafka.  In no small part, he appears to have loved these authors because they wrote about the themes that interested him, rather than their particular genres or approaches.  Borges was predominantly and above all interested in the infinite.  He explored the infinite in the world, writing about a hidden order to a country that was so all-encompassing its very existence was in question.  He wrote about the infinite in morality, positing a Judas whose sacrifice was beyond measure.  He talked about the infinite in man, imagining a person whose identity extended beyond the bounds of reality.

I have tried not to spoil any of the stories in this book, many (most) of which hinge on a surprise conclusion or a hidden metaphor.  Some of them, though, I can safely discuss without ruining too much.  For example, his story "Pierre Menard, the Author of Don Quixote," is a scholarly discussion of a fictional writer, Pierre Menard, whose specialty was a sort of metacriticism that culminated with a complete "rewrite" of Cervantes that copied the epic word-for-word.  The scholar discusses with awe Menard's lengthy efforts and his drafts (never shown to anyone and later burned) as he labored towards his rewrite, and praises the result.  It was one thing for Cervantes to compose a lengthy tale with all the connotations and resonance of Don Quixote, says the scholar - easy enough for that writer to handle seventeenth-century Spanish and all its archaic phrases, when he was native to the tongue and born to it!  But for Pierre Menard to turn out the same brilliant result... well, that was brilliance, says the scholar farcically.  It is an absolutely brilliant and hilarious essay/story, and a great example of Borges' skill.

Read one story a day, and think about it.  You will be rewarded beyond measure and fall in love.  Go read this!




A Manual of Buddhism, Narada Maha Thera



I have read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, a variety of other Buddhist texts (mostly Zen), and have spent the weekend in a Buddhist monastery.  But it was good to really get at the nuts and bolts of Buddhism on a basic level, which I guess I've never done before.

There's a lot of wisdom in the old words, such as the Buddha's admonition to skepticism.

Do not accept anything on hearsay. Do not accept anything on mere tradition. Do not accept anything on account of rumors. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything by mere supposition. Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons. Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your preconceived notions. Do not accept anything merely because it seems acceptable. Do not accept anything because it is respected by us.

But there's also some ugliness like you find in any ancient book.  The treatment of women, for example.  The Venerable Narada Maha Thera, the Malaysian Buddhist who wrote/translated the Manual of Buddhism, makes sure to hedge the more outdated parts of doctrine.  All modern theologians do.  He says

The Buddha raised the status of women and brought them to a realization of their importance to society. He did not humiliate women, but only regarded them as weak by nature. He saw the innate good of both men and women and assigned to them their due place in His Teaching.
This is (presumably) a defense of the Buddha's progressiveness: women aren't bad, just weak.  That's why the first rule for the order of nuns instituted by the Buddha recognizes the inherent superiority of all male monks (Bhikkhu):  "A nun, even of a hundred years’ standing by Upasampada, should salute a Bhikkhu and rise before him, though he had received the Higher Ordination that very day."

Still, Buddhism's core beliefs are interesting and unobjectionable: life is suffering, suffering comes from desire, and you can eliminate that desire and suffering by following the Eightfold Path.  The rules for life demand no stealing, no killing, no lying, and so on.  The Buddha speaks out against slavery, class stratification, and other things.  There are also psychic powers, magical karma reincarnation, and flying deities - but hey, nothing's perfect.

This text is a workhorse, carrying the reader by measured paces through the essentials.  There's no eye to beauty or cleverness: it just get the job done.  Check it out, if you're interested in Buddhism.



Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert

If you are going to read this book, be prepared to read a lot about what Elizabeth Gilbert is thinking and feeling.  Unlike its predecessor, Eat, Pray, Love, there is no framework of travel or action - she barely goes anywhere or does anything in the whole of the book.  It begins in media res (of course) but there's hardly any res to be in media: Gilbert's fiance is held up at immigration, they speak to the DHS officer who tells them they should get married if he wants to enter the country again, they travel to Southeast Asia for a while, and then they come back to the States and get married.  That's the whole of what happens.

This scant series of events must bear the weight of a huge amount of neurotic contemplation (Gilbert had a bad first marriage) and contradictory family characterization (her father is both a chauvinist monster who forced her mother to give up her dreams, and a miserably henpecked victim whose life is dominated "95%). There are some amusing factoids and anecdotes scattered in but for pages and pages Gilbert is talking about her last marriage and worrying about whether she needs to have babies and worrying about whether marriage means her career might be over and so on.  It is terrible.

Typically, it goes something like this (fabricated example):

Throughout history, women have always had to clean the floors.  When Queen Victoria was married, she said this sort-of-relevant quote about floors:  "Fuck do I hate cleaning this floor."  The ancient people of the KlingWrap even have a custom about the household floor and women's role with it: on the bride's wedding day, they strap her to the floor and then they sing a long song about floors.  But I found myself wondering if that was really a vital part of marriage: do women always have to clean the floor?  Would I have to clean the floor?  Would my darling Juan, the man who solved all of my problems in my previous book, make me clean the floor?  I didn't want to clean the floor.  I talked to my mother, and she said that she hated cleaning the floor.  But she did it anyway.  Because marriage isn't neat or simple, but it's complicated.  In the end, though, Juan told me that he didn't care if I cleaned the floor, because he is so amazing and nontraditional and beats the shit out of your husband bitches!
And that's pretty much how it goes.  Skip it.

01 October 2011

Memorial for the Parihaka ploughmen at the Northern Cementary in Dunedin, by Tom Ngatai



He kawai rangatira i puta mai i a maunga Turanaki
He Kakano i ruia mai i Ragiatea
Ka Hinga atu ki te mura o te ahi, i riro atu te iwi hereherei
kawea mai ke te hauaitu o te Wai Pounamu, he taurekareka o te Pakeha
wehea i te ukaipo.
Kia kuru pereki.
Enei hipi hiroki.
i hingahinga atu, i hungahinga mai, i ngaro whakaterunga, i ngaro whakateraro ki te po
Kua huna taurekareka, te hoki atu ai.
Watea kau anate mata o te whenua, takahia e ratou nona nga ture
Tera te raukura tikapa i titia hai tohu whakateitei i te whenua, te warewaretia

They grew under the protective mantle of the mountain Taranaki
They were firmly connected to their Turangawaewae
Then arrived the colonial wars, that uprooted their lives, and resulted in their captivity
They were brought as prisoners to the deep south, to the colder climes, to this strange land
They were separated from their whanau.
They were put to work building roads.
Sickness and death befell them.
One by one many died, and they were buried in the Northern and Southern cemeteries.
Buried in unmarked paupers' graves.
Lonely graves, in the midst of those who were their captors and also those who enjoyed the rights and dignity of free people.
We will not forget them, the suffering and their loss can only be imagined, their sacrifice will be remembered.

e Kare au e mate
Ka mate Ko te mate
Na ora tonu aau

I shall not die
 When death itself is dead
 I shall still be alive