28 February 2012

Ancestry Part 1: Lizzie and the General

Last week, one of my distant relatives sent around an email to everyone in the family whose address he had.  He was trying to get all the information together, clumped up in a color-coded Word document.  It was a good idea, and I was interested to see so many generations assembled on the pages, but I couldn't help but think that there had to be a better way.

I'd been vaguely investigating my genealogy for some time - I guess most people eventually become curious about their origins as they build an identity.  I'd even tried assembling a big family tree with a free program, merrily plugging in aunts and cousins for a good month.  But the research hit a dead end, and I let it go... until that email reminded me.  I cracked open some databases.

The Ellis Island lists are useful, as is the Mormon-powered FamilySearch.com.  But the real goods come from Ancestry.com's thick stacks of information.  Their business model appears simple: find, purchase, and digitize all the copies of old records available.  It makes for a powerful tool - but an expensive one, at $15-35 a month.  I got the free two-week trial, and happily plowed into my wife's family.  More than most families, they knew their roots.  In fact, Lizzie already knew she was related to someone famous: General Jacob Bayley (1726-1815), an important figure of the Revolutionary War.  It seemed like a good place to start, so I saw what I could find about the man.  I found a lot.

According to Hollis Bailey's very helpful 1899 tome Bailey Genealogy, Jacob Bayley (or Bailey - they weren't as fussy then) was born in Newbury, MA.  He married to one Prudence Noyes when he was nineteen, and had just begun to make a life for himself in New Hampshire at the outbreak of the French and Indian War.  A patriot, he raised a company of militia and commanded it as a captain in the doomed defense of Fort William Henry, the demise of which can be seen in the movie The Last of the Mohicans.  He was one of the lucky ones who escaped the woodland massacre to reach Fort Edward, where he was promoted to a colonel.  Two years later, he led his men in the 1759 taking of Fort Ticonderoga.

At the conclusion of the war, Jacob occupied himself with professional leadership as a civilian.  He and a comrade, John Hazen (whose brother, Moses Hazen, had fought with Jacob at the head of the 2nd Canadian) obtained charters for two new towns.  In New Hampshire, to the east of the Connecticut River, Hazen founded the town of Haverhill - Jacob's name comes second on the list of initial stakeholders.  Across the river, Jacob Bayley founded the town of Newbury, in Vermont.  The two communities were very close, and according to A History of the Town of Haverhill by William Whitcher, they had only a single town hall between them for more than twenty-five years.  They banded together to hire a preacher for a couple of months in their first year.

Again, war erupted just as Jacob was making a home for himself, parceling out land to new residents.  New York enlisted him to command their militia as a brigadier-general, and almost immediately afterward General George Washington of the Continental Army appointed Jacob Bayley as commissary-general for the whole north.  Forty-year-old Jacob was in charge of supplying all the northern divisions with whatever he could find for their blistered feet and empty powder-horns.  He grew a network of contacts to try to scrounge up provisions, most notably the Saint-Francois-du-Lac tribe of the Abenaki.*  In this capacity, he is remembered for being particularly harsh with British loyalists.  Jacob also joined with Hazen once more to build a planned supply road from Vermont to Quebec.  Known as the Bayley-Hazen Road, it was never completed thanks to impending British attack, but was extended from the new town of Newbury to northern Vermont's Hazen's Notch.

Throughout the war, Bayley commanded several groups of militiamen from Cumberland and Gloucester Counties, New York, but received neither pay nor materiel for them or himself.  To arm and pay his men, he was eventually forced to mortgage his farm.  As he says in a proud letter to the New York Provincial Congress:

I am continually employed in the service, but have no pay and am willing as long as I can live without begging.
The only money Bayley could hope to make change hands would be the five hundred guineas being offered for him by the British - an amount worth roughly as much as a million dollars today.**  At one point, Bayley narrowly escaped a trap laid in his house by some British soldiers under a Captain Pritchard.  He escaped capture only thanks to the timely warning of one Colonel Johnson, recently paroled from a British jail, who caught wind of the trap.  Walking near Bayley as the former plowed a field, Johnson visibly let fall a piece of paper with a message on it: "The Philistines be upon thee, Samson."  Bayley escaped unharmed to Haverhill, but lost his estate.

I should mention here that Lizzie's family has long had a legend about how their ancestor was betrayed by Ethan Allen, another important revolutionary.  As the story goes, Allen instructed Bayley to go one way, then marched and fought a battle without him, robbing him of glory.

Bayley and Allen had been involved in conflicts before the Revolutionary War.  Jacob had some initial trouble obtaining admittance to New Hampshire with his new town, and for a time petitioned the Governor of New York for consideration.  We can read in the Account of the Thirteenth Gathering of the Bailey-Bayley Family Association about how in his trip to the Governor, he encountered Ethan Allen and held him in "unfavorable opinion" for being an "avowed disbeliever of the Bible."  Even worse, Ethan Allen and his "Green Mountain Boys" were engaged in a campaign of intimidation and destruction over a local land dispute.  Bayley was unimpressed.  Their brittle relationship would not improve.

Thanks to the aforementioned difficulty in obtaining a charter, at this time Newbury and the surrounding towns were part of the state of New York.  However, the lands on which these towns had been established was nominally still a part of New Hampshire.  Naturally, this had caused a great deal of conflict, and partway through the war, the result was the formation of the new Vermont Republic from the disputed "Grants."  A council of twelve men was established to govern the new state until a governor and such could be chosen: among these men were Jacob and Allen.  The two men were forced into further contact as two of the first governors of Vermont, and continued when they were both appointed to the Governer's Council in the new constituted Vermont Republic.  Their respective factions clashed repeatedly in the new Assembly, as well; Allen's "Bennington Party" was in the majority and browbeat the "College Party" continually.  Bayley strongly opposed Allen's attempts to make a separate peace for the Vermont Republic with Canada. Bayley wrote to the president of the New Hampshire Assembly:

I understand General Allen has made peace for Vermont till that time but as we do not own that state we shall be their only butt. If the United States and you in particular do not take notice of such treasonable conduct we had better let this cause drop. If you had the jurisdiction of the whole Grants which I am sure you could if you only desire it the country would be safe; but if you split at the river you keep all in confusion . . . while the matter hangs in suspense the enemy may take possession, then where is your state?  For my part I am determined to fight for New Hampshire and the United States as long as I am alive and have one copper in my hand, but if our exertions are not greater and more effectual, another year will end the dispute and not in our favor.
Despite this continued conflict and obvious dislike, the old family legend seems to be apocryphal.  Allen and Jacob Bayley were both in the field during many battles, as well as some minor skirmishes, but Allen does not appear to have ever bamboozled Jacob in the manner mentioned.  There does not appear to have been opportunity.

What is absolutely certain, though, is that Ethan Allen was hungry for glory, self-promoting, and shameless in his efforts to manipulate others.  To sway opinion his way and against Bayley among early revolutionaries, for example, Allen repeatedly would confiscate land from loyalists and disburse it to important figures, such as John Adams.  Further, under his control the Green Mountain Boys behaved less like soldiers and more like thugs - a situation mended when they voted Allen out of command shortly before his capture by the British in Montreal (an ordeal about which Allen would write a popular book glorifying himself).  In comparison with the staid and dutiful Jacob Bayley, Allen looks rather less the hero, and the legend circulated in Lizzie's family remains credible if unverified.

General Jacob Bayley died in 1815, an impoverished man, after years spent serving his country quietly and ceaselessly.  He left a brilliant legacy and eleven children.  He founded two towns, won battles, birthed a new state, and guided it in its first years.  He wrote no diary for publication, sought no awards, and demanded no honors.  He simply did his duty, from the time he was nineteen until he was an old man.  He is an amazing man to have as a ancestor, and I am glad I can confirm my wife's descent from a revolutionary hero.  There is documentary evidence at every step, and there is no doubt.

As exciting as it was to discover about General Bayley, however, the other story I have found about my wife's ancestors is perhaps even more intriguing.  More to come.

*As we will see in later installments, Bailey relations with the natives has not always been so friendly.
**Money conversion doesn't really work so neatly, particularly not over such time and between currencies (this was before dollars even existed!)  But, roughly speaking, the purchasing power of five hundred 1777 guineas (fixed at worth at 21 shillings at the time) is equivalent to the purchasing power of a million dollars today.  It serves to put some perspective on what would otherwise be a meaningless number.

22 February 2012

"Coming to Terms" on Wallace and Franzen

An excellent essay by Jon Baskin in The Point on the friendship and rivalry of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), the contrasts between their art, and the meaning behind it all:

Even questions bearing directly on the essay’s offensiveness, it turns out, cannot be entirely disentangled from the critical argument at its center. Until “Farther Away,” those writing about Wallace’s death had abided by the injunction, repeated ad nauseum by the arbiters of proper opinion, to separate discussions of Wallace’s fiction from speculations about what, exactly, had made him want to die. Franzen flagrantly violates this rule, and with good reason. The myriad elements of “Farther Away” finally coalesce around Franzen’s identification of two kinds of novels, which he claims are deducible from two kinds of characters, or perspectives. One man (call him Jon) looks at the world and sees other people; the other man (call him Dave) sees only himself. if these two men are novelists, Franzen argues, the former will produce social novels, while the latter will produce novels of the self. As such, the personal anecdotes in “Farther Away” may be justified, critically if not morally, with reference to the angle they offer on what presents as the central literary insight of the piece: namely, that “close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe.”

18 February 2012

Lost in Space: BSG, Lost, and Failed Promises

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

It might seem like Battlestar Galactica and Lost have very little in common.  BSG was a cable television recreation of a classic science fiction show about the flight of the last remnant of mankind from the genocidal robot Cylons, whereas Lost was a network television original following the attempts of a group of survivors of an airline crash to survive and escape a mysterious island.  But as different as they might seem, I believe the two shows initially succeeded and ultimately failed because of one single factor: a promised yet unimaginable final resolution.

BSG was a phenomenal success for the Sci-Fi Channel, a little cable channel that had mostly concentrated on classic reruns and low-budget schlock horror films (Frankenfish, Komodo vs. Cobra, Sharktopus).  The popularity of the show, which grew from a devoted cult into a smash hit over the course of the first two seasons, would power a rebranding of the entire channel into "Syfy."  The original 1978 series had its devotees, but had largely been overshadowed by the granddaddies of science fiction fandoms, Star Wars and Star Trek.  This made it perfect for a reboot by Sci-Fi, since it wasn't as risky as a completely fresh concept but was still attainable with their limited funding.

The reboot, which ran from 2003-2009, would retain most of the central elements of the show.  Heavily influenced by Mormon theology, the plot revolves around a small fleet of spaceships that escape from the nuclear destruction of their civilization.  The aggressors are the Cylons, sentient robots who look like humans but command armies of metallic soldiers.  The long-ago creation of the first Cylons by humans, and subsequent attempts to unjustly eradicate them, are the original sin of mankind in the Battlestar world.  While the residents of the populous human planet Caprica may have been innocent of that crime, they must bear the burdens of their forefathers' cruelty.

Virtually all fans of the show agree that its quality declined precipitously during the third of the four seasons, although their explanations vary.  Certainly a lot of things went badly wrong around that time, but which one ruined the show?  Was it the increasing amount of mysticism, where the first season's vague gestures at possible prophecy were turned into magic relic hunts reminiscent of Indiana Jones?  Or perhaps it was the heavy reliance in the third and fourth seasons on revelations about the Cyclons themselves and their own internal conflicts, which made them less simplistic but also seemed to devolve into squabbles?

I think that these and the other flaws of the second half of the run of BSG are directly attributable to a single cause: the increasingly desperate attempts of the writers to provide answers to their own questions.

From the start, BSG did a lot of things right.  The characters were interesting and could even be compelling, thanks to the initial decision to bring on the serious talent of veteran actors Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, two choices whose ability diversified a cast that otherwise threatened to be almost entirely stock characters staffed with uninspired choices.  The simple dynamic of the early show - Cylons are coming to kill us, let's run like hell - provided a great opportunity to tell more complicated domestic stories and to hint at larger things.  Unfortunately, that hinting would eventually be Battlestar's downfall: the early show opens up a lot of questions, but doesn't answer them.

In BSG, the ancient prophecies of the priestess Pythia seem to foretell events, with a dying leader (McDonnell's cancer-ridden President Roslin) guiding a shattered people of the colonies to the legendary Earth of their long-lost origin.  It is hinted that this might be because of actual religious revelation, with divine guidance at work moving people about like pawns.  Or perhaps it is simply a combination of coincidence and practical knowledge from Pythia's own journey from Earth to the colonies.  This religious dimension, with the potential for the supernatural and divine intervention, is made even more tantalizing and complicated when you consider that the Cylons believe in a single god, rather than the human pantheon of Greek deities, and their spokesperson on the show (Tricia Helfer's sex kitten character, Caprica Six) also presents a convincing case for monotheistic interference.  It's an intriguing question.  Who is at work in the world of BSG: the gods, one god, or no one at all?

There were questions, too, about morality, right from the first season's discussion of the history of the Cylons.  Created and then oppressed by humans, the Cylons fled into space, only to return for the First Cylon War in an attempt to revenge themselves on their creators.  Lieutenant William Adama flew a combat fighter in that war and learned to hate his murderous robot enemy; decades later, BSG begins with Commander William Adama preparing for retirement, never having forgotten his hatred.  The show explores this personal grudge, as well as the cyclical nature of the conflict.  On several occasions, either the Cylons or the humans are presented with the opportunity to end the war by wiping out their enemy completely, and must sort through the complicated problems offered:  If they struck first, is it okay to annihilate them?  Can we afford not to decisively destroy them, or will we regret it?  Is it naive to pursue peace?  If we try to destroy them and fail, then haven't we just doomed our descendants to repeat this cycle?

All of these questions about vengeance and forgiveness fold naturally into a larger question about outcome: how will this all end?

Initially, this wasn't a complicated question.  How will this all end?  Well, probably humans will engage in a big climactic battle, defeat the Cylons, and settle down on the Earth that they've been seeking for so long.  The laws of television make this sort of thing almost inevitable: you need a dramatic conclusion to the show's arc, you need the villains to be visibly defeated, and you need a relatively happy ending.  And essentially, that is what happened.  But the four seasons of the show kept adding more and more other plot points and mysteries that needed a conclusion.  There were secret Cylons that not even the other Cylons knew about.  Who were they, and how did they get there?  There was a mythical Earth and a trail of breadcrumbs to follow from ancient times.  Did this mean that Earth was real and BSG was in the future?  A character has come back from the dead.  How did she, and what is she?  And, of course, Gaius Baltar had visions of Caprica Six right from the first episode: was she a delusion, an invasive piece of technology, or something else?

It's easy to ask these questions and hint at an organic and seamless resolution.  Viewers are naturally willing to accept that there is a big grand plan laid out somewhere, even though the writers actually worked things out as they went along.  And so the audience will watch the hints towards possible divine intervention and a tension between vengeance and forgiveness and all the thousand little plot threads and mysteries, and they will marvel at all this and wonder, "Wow, I wonder how this is all going to tie together?"  They assume that it all will, especially when one of the characters repeatedly assures another - and implicitly, the audience - that "God has a plan."  The writers are God, and we must believe they have a plan.

The same thing happened with Lost.  Created by J.J. Abrams, it was a spectacular hit for ABC: there was a time when it seemed like everyone was watching the show.  It ran from 2004 to 2010 for six seasons, and began to go sour halfway through.  Fans disagree on exactly when it peaked, but by the end of the show there was a lot of disgust, and the sentiment, "I just want to know how they're going to end it" was common.

The first season of Lost was a masterpiece.  Episode after episode, it kept getting better.  The cinematography, dialogue, clever plot lines, and gradual revelation of backstory was astonishing.  The characters were amazing, with Jack, Kate, Hurley, Said, Locke, and others all developing into full people and clashing with each other.  There is almost nothing bad that can be said about the first season of Lost - except, of course, that it would eventually lead to the other seasons.  The monster, the interlocking backgrounds of the characters, the conflict between destiny and free will that was the ideological center of the show, The Black Roc, the hatch, etc. - these were all strange and wonderful things that we discovered and wondered at.

It soon became a hallmark of the show that every mystery that was solved was replaced by six more.  The mystery of the hatch soon led to the mystery of the purpose of the station and the numbers and the previous occupant.  The mystery of the identity of the monster as a smoke creature led to the mystery of how/why it reads minds, how it is controlled, where it came from, etc.  And so on.  The mysteries stopped being wonderful.  They became frustrating.

The situation was the same for both shows, ultimately.  Both Battlestar Galactica and Lost played on the expectations of viewers, who believed that there must be some grand design at work rather than what there was: the semi-organized chaos of multi-year projects subject to the whims of production, cast, and criticism.  The writers of BSG didn't begin the series with the idea of a Final Five unseen Cylons, or the notion that everyone was a hidden Cylon agent (as 2/3 of the regular cast would eventually become).  The writers of Lost didn't have the saga of Jack and his mysterious father issues planned when they first started writing - in fact, the character of Jack was supposed to die early on, but his popularity meant he was retained and became central (the same thing would happen with the leader of the Others, malevolent mastermind Benjamin).  In both cases, the shows accrued countless mysteries and plotlines and problems, and in the end, well... no one could have wrapped it all up neatly.  They'd spent years painting a Magic Eye picture, and only at the end were they scrambling to work out the hidden image.

BSG tried to solve its problems with a very crude sort of deus ex machina.  Everything weird turned out to be the intervention of the monotheistic Cylon deity, which raises the interesting point that all human beings spent the whole time worshipping the wrong gods.  The mysterious circumstances that result in characters coming back to life, appearing in each other's thoughts, etc.?  Well, it was God.  Anything else that didn't make sense?  It was God.  And it was he who guides mankind to their final fate on our Earth, thousands of years ago, where they will destroy their technology to mix with the indigenous population and leave behind their ancestral sins.  It's a clumsy and completely unsatisfying resolution, and far too huge to be rushed through in the twenty minutes devoted to its explication.

Lost's conclusion is far worse, thanks to a plot that was infinitely more convoluted, but basically revolves around the idea that most of the characters died about 2/3 through the series and are now in purgatory.  While the obsessives at LostPedia classify almost all mysteries as "completely solved" in their scarily-detailed wiki, there was just too much to work through.  Unless you were a fanatic, you were going to feel that there was a lot unresolved, as can be seen in this video:

Even worse is the fact that the writers of the show had long been saying that the island wasn't purgatory - which might have been technically true (it didn't become purgatory until later in the show), but still feels like a stupid way to throw viewers off the track - what we in the literature business might call a "quibble" and everyone else might call "being a total asshole about it."  For a long time, people had seen all the elements and mysteries of the show and had concluded that there was no way it could all be tied together unless there was some supernatural legerdemain going on.  And they were right.  It took magic to make Lost make sense.

It might be fairly said that BSG and Lost took the easy way out.  They implicitly made big promises to the audience: that there was a plan and a design behind everything, that it would all make sense, that we weren't just watching a week-to-week show but a whole big complete story.  As the seasons wore on, their tried-and-true methodology started to get stale and overbuilt.  You can only introduce so many new secret Cylons before the audience decides that everyone is a Cylon.  You can only write in so many coincidences in the crash survivor's backstories before the audience decides that Jack's father is a friend, lover, or enemy of everyone on the planet.  The writers couldn't go back and couldn't change direction, so they just slammed a big hammy fist down in the way and declared that - effectively - it was all a dream.  Even if they had technically answered all those questions, it was a cheap and clumsy way to do it, and monstrously unsatisfying to an audience that needed an organic resolution.

That was the fatal flaw of Battlestar Galactica and Lost: they promised a completeness that they couldn't deliver.  They started off amazing in large part because of the mystique generated by this promise, but it also doomed their end.  So the next time a show comes around, jammed full of mysteries, remember: it's easy to ask the big questions, but hard to find the right answers.

12 February 2012

"Tarnsman of Gor," "The Way of Zen," "Blood, Bones, and Butter," "Betrayal of the Spirit," "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and "Tamerlane."

Tarnsman of Gor, John Norman
The Way of Zen, Alan Watts
Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton
Betrayal of the Spirit, Nori J. Muster
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Tamerlane, or Timur the Great Amir, Achmed Ibn Arabshah

Tarnsman of Gor, John Norman

Some people might read Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars and think to themselves, "Hey, this is really good, but what it really needs is more misogyny."  If you are one of those people, then I want you to know that I do not want to be your friend, but I have just the book for you.

"Surely you are familiar with a slave whip?" I asked, picking it up and, with amusement, slapping it once or twice in my palm.
"Yes," she said, regarding me evenly. "I have often used it on my own slaves. Is it now to be used on me?"
"If necessary," I said.
"You wouldn't have the nerve," she said.
"More likely the inclination," I said.
She smiled. Her next remark astonished me. "Use it on me if I do not please you, Tarl of Bristol," she said. I pondered this, but she had turned away. In the next few days, to my surprise, Talena was buoyant, cheerful, and excited.
In John Carter of Mars (coming soon to a theater near you, by the way), the eponymous hero, a veteran of the Confederate Army, is mysteriously transported to the red planet.  Once there, he discovers that the lower gravity and his own warrior spirit make him a paragon of fighting ability, and he crashes through adventures with the various warring peoples.  Martian technology is superior in some ways, and inferior in others - most of their advanced technology, the vestige of a long-past golden age, is devoted to warfare.  John Carter eventually finds love in service and devotion to the princess Dejah Thoris, and realizes that he has a new home.

Tarnsman of Gor is a lot like that, only terrible.

Tarl Cabot, indifferent British academic but expert fencer, finds a mysterious blue envelope in the New England woods.  It transports him to another world of Gor, or Counter-Earth, where he soon finds his long-vanished father.  Our author, John Norman, an academic himself, saw fit to discard that tired old cliche of "natural exposition," where the reader organically discovers the nature of a created world through the narrative.  Instead, Tarl Cabot's father just sits him down and indulges in a lengthy sociological description of the world of Gor.

Gor is fabulously advanced in technology, except when it comes to weaponry.  Incredible devices exist to translate language, heal fatal injury, and conduct other near-magical effects.  But no weapon is allowed that is more advanced than the crossbow.  The rulers who enforce this edict and rule all from an unseen vantage are the mysterious Priest-Kings, who use fire from the sky to destroy those who dare invent gunpowder.  The residents of Gor use swords, spears, and arrows.  Similarly, no form of transportation is permitted, so Goreans ride enormous birds (the tarns of the title) and giant lizards.

Gor is divided into many city-states and stratified in a caste system: there are Assassins, Priests, etc.  But the most notable feature of Gor is the ubiquitous slavery.  Tarl Cabot, the protagonist, displays some mild dislike of the institution at the beginning of his time, but by the midpoint in the book he has begun patronizing "pleasure slaves," and near the conclusion he has actually enslaved a woman himself.  His slender concern about the horrific injustice of Gor's system is gone almost before it begins.

Impaling the stranger is a not unusual form of hospitality on Gor. Moreover, owing to the almost universal hatred borne to the city of Ar by most Gorean cities, it would be imperative in any case to keep the identity of my fair companion a secret. Theoretically, given the seclusion of the High Caste women of Ar, their gilded confinement in the Walled Gardens, it should be reason ably easy to conceal her identity. But I was troubled. What would happen to Talena if, we did, by some outstanding stroke of fortune, reach Ko-ro-ba? Would she be publicly impaled, returned to the mercies of the Initiates of Ar, or would she perhaps spend the rest of her days in the dungeons beneath the cylinders? Perhaps she would be permitted to live as a slave?
Perhaps we should forgive Tarl, though, and levy all our blame on author John Norman.  We can hardly blame Tarl for being complacent about slavery when the slaves themselves are happy with their lot in life, as indeed they are.  When Tarl, now a warrior-for-hire, accompanies a merchant's slave shipment to the end auction, he witnesses the happiness of the slaves who are being sold and who validate their worth by the price for which they're sold.

Reluctantly I took Talena to the great tent of blue and yellow silk, and we pressed in among the hot, smelling bodies of the buyers, forcing our way toward the front. There Talena watched, thrilled, as girls, several of whom she had known in the caravan, were placed on the large, rounded wooden block and sold, one by one, to the highest bidder. "She's beautiful," Talena would say of one as the auctioneer would tug the single loop on the right shoulder of the slave livery, dropping it to the girl's ankles. Of another, Talena would sniff scornfully. She seemed to be pleased when her friends were bought by handsome tarnsmen, and laughed delightedly when one girl, to whom she had taken a dislike, was purchased by a fat, odious fellow, of the Caste of Tarn Keepers.
To my surprise, most of the girls seemed excited by their sale and displayed their charms with brazen gusto, each seeming to compete with the one before to bring a higher price. It was, of course, far more desirable to bring a high price, thereby guaranteeing that one's master would be well-fixed. Accordingly, the girls did their best to move the interest of the buyers. I noted that Talena, like others in the room, did not seem in the least to feel that there was anything objectionable or untoward in this commerce in beauty. It was an accepted, ordinary part of the life of Gor.
Ugh.  It is the crudest sort of philosopher who attempts to justify himself by creating a world in which he is right and everyone is happy about it.  Tarl thinks the author's thoughts when he watches the auction:

I wondered if, on my own planet, there was not a similar market, invisible but present, and just as much accepted, a market in which women were sold, except that they sold themselves, were themselves both merchandise and merchant. How many of the women of my native planet, I wondered, did not with care consider the finances, the property of their prospective mates? How many of them did not, for all practical purposes, sell themselves, bartering their bodies for the goods of the world?
In other words, this is the grossest yet most acceptable form of misogyny: the kind that concludes that all women are whores and slaves anyway, so it's better to be "honest" about it.  It's the sort of thing you hear from every scruffy asshole who was ever rejected after a date and bitterly snarls about it over a beer, declaring, "You have to buy them dinner and presents, so isn't it really just prostitution anyway?"  And in Tarnsman of Gor, it achieves the ultimate level of nauseating self-satisfaction when Norman writes the climactic love scene:

"Call for the iron," she said. "Brand me, Master."
"No, Talena," I said, kissing her mouth. "No."
"I want to be owned," she whimpered. "I want to belong to you, fully, completely in every way. I want your brand, Tarl of Bristol, don't you understand? I want to be your branded slave."
I fumbled with the collar at her throat, unlocked it, threw it aside. "You're free, my love," I whispered. "Always free."
She sobbed, shaking her head, her lashes wet with tears. "No," she wept. "I am your slave." She clenched her body against mine, the buckles of the wide tharlarion's belt cutting into her belly. "You own me," she whispered. "Use me."
This is a very bad book with a very bad philosophy.  You should read it only if you have the some kind of gawking, disgusted curiosity that motivates me to explore terrible texts.

The Way of Zen, Alan Watts

I wanted a simple, good, thorough explanation of Zen.  I found it.  Alan Watts' book traces Zen from its furthest roots to its full modern flowering, writing in clear but sophisticated prose.

Zen Buddhism is mysterious, magical, and alien.  For these reasons, it has had a particular fascination for the West.  But because it is derived from Buddhism and influenced by Taoism, two religions that incorporate some ideas that are completely foreign to most westerners, it is hard to really grasp the principles of Zen if you examine it in a vacuum.  A serious primer must look first at the garden before it can examine the flower.  As Watts says:

In default, then, of a fundamental, orderly, and comprehensive account of the subject, it is no wonder that Western impressions of Zen are somewhat confused, despite all the enthusiasm and interest which it has aroused. The problem, then, is to write such a book–and this I have tried to do since no one who understands the subject better than I seems willing or able to do so. Ideally, I suppose, such a work should be written by an accomplished and recognized Zen master. But at present no such person has sufficient command of English. Furthermore, when one speaks from within a tradition, and especially from within its institutional hierarchy, there is always apt to be a certain lack of perspective and grasp of the outsider’s viewpoint. Again, one of the biggest obstacles to communication between Japanese Zen masters and Westerners is the absence of clarity as to difference of basic cultural premises. 
Watts examines Hinduism and the idea of a world of illusion, before moving on to trace the development of Buddhist doctrines and their travel from India to China, while at the same time looking at the evolution of Taoism and its mystical ideas, well before he even begins to examine Zen itself, at the book's midpoint.  In so doing, he brings the reader into an understanding of all the building blocks from which Zen was built.  I had thought, before I read this, that I understood some little about Zen.  But The Way of Zen showed me that I had fallen prey to some of the common misunderstandings about the philosophy.

Rather than relying on quoting authorities - of which there are many and contradictory - Watts concentrates on the historical evolution and applies reasoning to work out the development of doctrine.  He is concise but not clipped, referencing past ideas in an easy-to-follow manner, as in his description of a Zen koan.

From the earliest times the Zen masters had shown a partiality for short, gnomic poems–at once laconic and direct like their answers to questions about Buddhism. Many of these, like those we have quoted from the Zenrin Kushu, contained overt references to Zen and its principles. However, just as Tung-shan’s “Three pounds of flax!” was an answer full of Zen but not about Zen, so the most expressive Zen poetry is that which “says nothing,” which, in other words, is not philosophy or commentary about life.

A monk asked Feng-hsüeh, “When speech and silence are both inadmissible, how can one pass without error?”
The master replied:
I always remember Kiangsu in March–
The cry of the partridge, the mass of fragrant flowers!

Here again, as in painting, is the expression of a live moment in its pure “suchness”–though it is a pity to have to say so–and the masters frequently quoted classical Chinese poetry in this way, using couplets or quatrains which pointed, and said no more.
If you are interested in Zen Buddhism or in expanding your knowledge of the world in a very real way, then I strongly recommend you check out The Way of Zen.

Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton

One of the injustices of literature is that you are inevitably compared to those who came before.  This is true both in the historical sense - everything looks bad compared to Moby-Dick - and in a more local way when it comes to a trend.  If you write a memoir about recovering from addiction, it will be compared to A Million Little Pieces.  If you write shock-porn books about strange jobs, they will be compared to Chuck Palahniuk.  And if you write an autobiography that's about your rough-and-tumble introduction to the life of a chef, like Gabrielle Hamilton did with Blood, Bones, and Butter, then it's going to be compared to Anthony Bourdain's 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential.  Thankfully, Blood, Bones and Butter does okay by the comparison, helped along by Hamilton's growth from her drug-filled riotous early years into a more complex narrative.

Hamilton never intended to be a chef.  Instead, she grew up dreaming of being an author, and in her youth filled countless journals with her amateur efforts.  As an adult, Hamilton even went for her M.F.A., although she ended up concentrating on her career and restaurant instead.  Until now, of course.

The author's study of writing might explain the self-conscious arrangement of the text.  The three sections each focus on one aspect of her life and each allude to one particular anecdote, in the very well-arranged but artificial manner of the erudite writer.

"Blood" is devoted to her childhood, her parents' divorce, and its ugly and messy consequences.  The central metaphor is the image of her neighborhood butcher, and the potent impressions of a hearty and warm life that the big friendly proprietor left with her.  Hamilton details an anecdote of the rustic back workroom, where an employee brings a heavy cleaver down through some ribs, while at front the owner pours a free double handful of sweet peas into the hands of the author as a child.  The idea is that as pleasant as it is in the front, there's a hidden conflict and severance behind the scenes.

"Bones" advances to her efforts to find her place and the start of her real career in cooking, as well as the beginning of her marriage.  There is another anecdote-as-metaphor at work here: when Hamilton was a girl, her parents would throw big barbecues.  Her father prepared the lambs and hung out by the fire for hours, basting them and carousing with his friends, while inside her mother made huge vats of the necessary side dishes and handled all the other thousand arrangements - "the bones of the thing," as her father called it, referring to the vital structure for the pretty meat of his own contribution.  The metaphor, again embedded with subtlety but clear intention by Hamilton, is that her early crazy life was flashy and interesting, but it wasn't a real life without some structure, any more than an unaccompanied pile of meat is a person.  Her story of the creation of that structure ends in the twin achievements of a strange marriage to an Italian expat and the success of her restaurant, "Prune."

Oddly, while she speaks on at great and enjoyable length about her restaurant, its philosophy, and the gritty world of cooking, she leaves all sorts of unanswered questions about her marriage.  Hamilton describes her husband and their courting at length, and talks about the challenges of managing a relationship while in a high-intensity job, and other aspects of her marriage.  But for half of the book, she is an ardent lesbian in a long-term relationship.  It is impossible not to notice when a long-time lesbian is silent about why she has an affair with, and then marries, a man.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it does demand some comment.  Hamilton never provides any, and it is a glaring flaw in a book that otherwise takes such care in answering all the reader's questions.

"Butter," the last section, works around an experience she had in Italy with her mother-in-law cooking and the rich butter they had there.  It is a deeply satisfying conclusion to the story, as in this section she falls head-over-heels in love with her husband's happy family, and in the process comes to terms with her own family and her inexplicable hatred for her mother.  That hatred had been hinted at throughout the book, effectively alluded to but carefully avoided, and the catharsis from its resolution is great - and another reminder of how well-organized is this text.

Hamilton has a true love of good food and good description, and her luscious account of her life indulges the reader in rich passages of both.  Blood, Bones, and Butter is one of the better memoirs I've read, and I think most people would enjoy it.

Betrayal of the Spirit, Nori J. Muster

There is something wrong with Nori J. Muster.  There, I said it.  I thought it the entire time I was reading this: there is something wrong with Nori J. Muster.

No one lied to her when she was joining the Hare Krishnas.  She was a feminist who entered a religion that taught that men are superior because women's brains are smaller, and that taught that women must be submissive and sit in the back and dress modestly so as not to tempt men with their foul carnal natures.  She knew this, and got in anyway.

Nor did anyone lie to her when she was joining about the recent death of the founder of the movement, Swami Praduphada, or about the fact that from then on it was a collection of young American men in their twenties who would be running the organization and serving as godlike gurus for all new initiates.  She knew this and was uneasy about it, and got in anyway.

Yet throughout Muster's memoir of her time in the Hare Krishnas, there exists this perpetual sense of bewilderment.  She seems to wonder why women are treated as inferiors and why the dozen young men in charge of the group were behaving like power-drunk young idiots.  There is something wrong with Nori J. Muster.

Unfortunately for the reader, Muster's lack of awareness and her continued respect for the Hare Krishna ideals means that this is not as juicy a memoir as most cultist memoirs.  She was clearly taken advantage of, as her college friends told her right after she joined and donated all her money and possessions.  Muster and her compatriots would spend many hours each week at the airport or in front of their temple, lying to sell books or canvassing for money, while their leaders bought mansions and cavorted with celebrities.  They had no control of their lives, but did the bidding of unscrupulous men who used many of the ladies as a private harem while dangling spiritual fulfillment as a carrot to urge more work.  But Muster never really seems more than mildly irritated, because she still deeply believes in the philosophy of the Krishnas, if not the organization.  The "betrayal of the spirit" is the group's betrayal of the true Krishna spirit, not her own.  It is deeply sad.

I enjoyed it, because I have a fascination with cults and religion, but most readers would be better advised to seek out something with a little more rage.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

The most interesting thing about this collection of nonfiction by David Foster Wallace (it was his first) is his evolution into... well, David Foster Wallace.  The essays are on a variety of topics (tennis, television, David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair) and in a variety of styles: the opening offerings seem almost like juvenalia, lacking in the denseness and obsessive style I've come to expect from his work.

Of these essays, the best are almost certainly "Getting Away from Pretty Much Already Being Away from It All," his account of the a state fair, and the titular "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," Wallace's lengthy discussion of his experience on a cruise ship.  Both essays, originally commissioned by Harper's, have the misanthropic and whimsical tone that is Wallace at his best.  He absorbs and appreciates and thinks at untold depths about the fair and the cruise, two mass-market experiences of quintessentially American indulgence.  Somehow, despite feeling disgusted and terrified at so much of the world, he never seems spiteful.  Perhaps he's shielded from appearing malicious by his own failings, also offered in analyzed detail.  Or perhaps we simply forgive the clever.

New readers are advised to find these essays online (where they are freely available) to see if they enjoy his style.  If so, go pick up Consider the Lobster, his second collection.  Devoted fans of the author, on the other hand, should certainly pick up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, to see the evolution of the author and read his influential (if dated) "E Pluribus Unum," his discussion of the influence of television on pop culture.

Tamerlane, or Timur the Great Amir, Achmed Ibn Arabshah (trans. J.H. Sanders)

When I read Jason Marozzi's lousy biography of Timur the Great, one of the things that struck me was that the best parts of Marozzi's book were when he quoted the work of a Syrian contemporary of Timur, Ahmed Ibn Arabshah.  I said:

The writing itself is also problematic.  His prose is correct and clear.  But it's also uninteresting, especially when set next to the words of Achmad ibn Arabshah, a contemporary of Timur who saw the conqueror sack his home of Damascus, and whose text is alive with hate and awe.  A reader can't help but compare the lukewarm porridge of Marozzi to Arabshah's fiery broth, and Marozzi comes out the worse for it. 
A translation of Arabshah's 1435 book was hard to find.  There wasn't a copy in the whole country, so I had to place an interloan order from Melbourne to get it.  When it got here, though, I was delighted to find it was everything I had expected.  Written by a man who saw Timur pillage his home of Damascus, every chapter bristles with hatred for the subject.  He is called "the tyrant," "that bastard," "the treacherous imposter," and "he in whom Allah instilled no mercy or goodness," among many other epithets.  Yet even though Arabshah pours out his scorn on Timur, he does not seem to twist the facts.  The actual events accord with what was outlined in Marozzi's modern text - they're just related with a lot more vim.

One good example of that vim might be found in Chapter 39, titled "How He Returned to His Home and Sought his Own Country After Concluding His Destruction":

And when nature, like a tire-woman, had decked the place like a bride and the adorner of the dry earth had raised the season to its height and the growing strength of things was roused and the high peaks had decked themselves and the dust was kindled and reptiles crept, that viper [Timur] roused himself to movement and spat poison at all the dead serpents of winter with his live armies; and lo! when this viper moved, the drum was beaten, and its echo gave back a mighty thunder and corslets shone like mirrors, from which rays were reflected, blinding the sight like lightning, and the flash striking the shields threw a rainbow round the hills. And his cavalry advanced in corslets, and squadrons of horsemen, like hills of sand, riding through tracts of roses and fragrant herbs, circled in that distant country.
Just marvelous stuff!  Certainly, some of the similes seem to have suffered a little in translation, and this 1936 translation of a 1435 text is badly organized in the manner of many classics, stuttering along from incident to incident.  But these are small things, and the writing could cover a host of greater evils.

Timur was tall and lofty of stature as though he belonged to the remnants of the Amalekites, big in brow and head, mighty in strength and courage, wonderful in nature, white in colour, mixed with red, but not dark, stout of limb, with broad shoulders, thick fingers, long legs, perfect build, long beard, dry hands, lame on the right side, with eyes like candles, without brilliance, powerful in voice; he did not fear death; and though he was near his eightieth year, yet he was firm in mind, strong and robust in body, brave and fearless, like a hard rock.  He did not love jest and falsehood; wit and sport pleased him not; truth, though troublesome to him, pleased him; he was not sad in adversity or joyful in prosperity.
I am not sure I can recommend it to most; it has that knotty difficulty of many old works.  But if you are serious about history or curious about one of the great warriors of the ages, you might try to find a copy of this (prepare for a long search).

08 February 2012

"Shadow and Smoke," Charles Wright

There's a wonderful short poem by Charles Wright in the current NYRB, called "Shadow and Smoke."  It's very good and stirring.

05 February 2012

Best and Worst of 2011

I began posting book reviews regularly in December of 2010, and immediately loved the practice. What began as an idle notion to review a handful of recent reads turned into the central focus of my blog, and a great success. I reviewed about 130 books this past year. Some reviews are only a paragraph, and others are sprawling essays of joy or disgust. But a few books stand out: these are the best and worst of the new books that I read in 2011 - a summary that's a little late but inspired by my friend Sherrema.

Best Fiction
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
(original review)

There are many good books.  There are some great books.  But there are very few books that you can read once and know that it is a Great Book.  Ficciones is one of them.

The power of this book was such that, immediately upon reading it, I wished I knew sufficient Spanish to read the original text.  There must be subtleties that I am missing, despite what seems like an excellent translation.  But even without those wisps of meaning that slip away between languages, this is an astounding collection of short stories.

The stories are often mysterious or have a hidden conclusion.  They are often self-referential, or otherwise "meta."  Some of them are skilled metaphors.  But almost without exception, they are conceptually brilliant.  At the center of each weird, wonderful story lies a beating heart of an insight, animating all the strange parts and twisting limbs.  If Borges' work in this volume is similar to anything else I've read (and it is marvelously unique) then it is perhaps a strange combination of Kurt Vonnegut's gift for ideas and Umberto Eco's patient tracing of consequences.

I know I am gushing.  It's merited.  Read this.

Best Nonfiction
The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell
(original review)

I read a lot of bad nonfiction - it's a hobby.  Hokey memoirs, self-glorifying accounts, and outright lies: they're all interesting in their way.  Joining this guilty pastime is a host of mediocrity: workable histories and practical biographies.  An author like Jon Krakaeur (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven, Where Men Win Glory) gives a clever and sturdy story, but doesn't break into brilliance.  The likes of Guns, Germs, and Steel doesn't come along every week.

The Life of Samuel Johnson was a pleasant surprise, because it truly is brilliant.  This judgment will surprise no one, of course, because it is celebrated as one of the greatest biographies ever written.  Boswell, an attentive (almost worshipful) friend of Johnson, manages to rip the great man out of his life and onto the pages.  The flush-faced Johnson, huffing out clever opinions and learned commentary, is so real that the reader can almost smell the ale in the air.  Indeed, you can feel the honor of having a friend you so admire in Boswell's dedication to transcribing the experience.

It has to be admitted there is much cruft - you can safely read the abridged - but for all that this book remains the best nonfiction I read this past year.  It is clever, erudite, insightful, and vivid with the life of a titan.

Worst Fiction
Kingdom Come, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
(original review)

This may be a bit of cheating, because technically I reviewed this last book of the Left Behind series at the end of 2010.  But I'm not going to worry about it too much, because it seems necessary to honor these books, which are truly the best of the worst fiction in so many ways.  The quality of the writing is dismal, the characters are repugnant and unrealistic, the plot is inane, and the philosophy is so slobberingly stupid that a reader is invested with nothing but the deepest admiration for the villains.  This final book in the series was a worthy conclusion and summary of Left Behind, and deserves to be held up for the apoplexy-inducing pile of crap that it truly is.

My original review is pretty good, since I labored with the same flabbergasted glee on all the reviews for that series.  Check it out, if you haven't already (tagline: "If you want a picture of the future [in this book], imagine a divine sandal stomping on a human face - forever.")

Worst Nonfiction
Heaven Is for Real, Todd Burpo OR Assholes Finish First, Tucker Max
(original review OR original review)

I have a weak spot for bad nonfiction, so this was by far the toughest choice.  I couldn't actually decide on a winner: it's a tie between Pastor Todd Burpo's exploitative and shallow Heaven Is for Real, an account of his son's near-death experience, and Tucker Max's vomitous exploration of the depths of self-loathing in Assholes Finish First.  Each book is crashingly terrible in its own way.

Heaven Is for Real is another religious book.  Todd Burpo's son becomes deathly ill, and has a near-death experience in which he travels to Heaven and meets Jesus.  His father the pastor then writes this book, in which he engages in the most marvelous example I have ever seen of someone re-arranging events to suit their belief system.  Unwittingly, Burpo's story becomes a comedy, because it is all too obvious to the reader just how thoroughly he is bamboozling himself.  Vague sentiments from the boy are reshaped into specific evidence by the father; flimsy coincidences are seized upon as proof; and the whole thin skein is stretched out paper-thin to reach the length of one shortish book.  It is completely unintentional and absolutely fascinating, and so it is the best worst nonfiction: a pleasure to read because it is so bad.

The other winner is a sharp contrast.  Assholes Finish First was Tucker Max's second book, arriving after the inexplicable success of I Hope There's Beer in Hell, which came to us both in terrible book form and shockingly bad movie form.  I thought it would be impossible to do worse than the juvenile misogyny of the first book, which used self-awareness as self-justification (i.e. it's okay that I'm a pig because at least I know it) and plunged far below the lowest common denominator in its frat-boy bravado.  But Assholes Finish First has the distinction of being so astoundingly bad that it barely even deserves to be called a book.  It merits coinage as a term: Assholes finish first (assholes fɪnɪʃ fərst), noun: a booklike collection of words that inspires nausea and shame for one's gender.

Assholes Finish First is mostly a collection of stories that apparently didn't make the cut for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which is a sad thing considering the standards of that book.  Tucker Max gets drunk, faces off against rowdy fans and women who lust for him, and has all kinds of tepid adventures.  After only a few stories - summaries for which you can read at the original review - he has lost all power to shock.  Queasiness and disgust follows, soon replaced by an abiding sense of pity for this man, and repentance for belonging to the same species.  Long before the end, which dissolves into masturbatory discussion of his own success, you will be hoping for blindness or death.  In a completely un-ironic way, Assholes Finish First is one of the worst things I have ever read.