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.

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