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, François 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.

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