Thursday, April 22, 2010

1984, Brave New World and other depressing stuff

Many a time we've participated as a family in the "No TV for a week" program at my children's school. Every year my kids, for the first few days, act like they're going to die a slow, retracted, terribly excruciating death. What? Read a book instead of watching SpongeBob? Play outside with our actual legs moving, our actual heart beating, instead of our fingers getting early carpel tunnel on a game console? But my "friends" won't know that I'm eating dinner, or that I ran an errand today! Perish the thought!

Until eventually, when the whining reaches a decibel only dogs can hear, it then, amazingly, stops. They adjust. They realign like a good hip joint slipping back into place. A miracle happens. We start to do more together as a family. We talk more around the dinner table because we're not in a rush to get back to the idiots on Survivor. Do we all fall in love again? No, this isn't The Cosby Show (hee hee), but really, by the end of the week we do connect again in almost a primal way. (Just kiddin. I do love my family anyway, sort of..when they're nice to me..)

I agree with Postman, we are now more Brave New World than 1984, in that we love the distractions, the silly minutiae that controlls us. I like OK Magazine just as much as I like Newsweek. Reading a book online and on the printed page is as aligned in my brain as peanut butter and jelly. But as our little tv and computer experiment shows, it is possible to get back to the prehistoric basics if we want to.

But do we want to?
That's the problem.
Brave New World here we come.

Written in the 1930's, I got the feeling throughout that Huxley wasn't a big fan of American capitalism, or was that just me. Hmm..
Have we turned out like he predicted? Are we sex-starved, atheist, gum-chewing, movie-watching, drug users who never want to be unhappy, at all costs? (Did I mention I like OK Magazine and Entertainment Tonight?)

Maybe not to that extreme, but we have evolved I guess. For better or worse, in this "marriage" of ideas who knows for sure. It probably depends on who you ask - which may also depend on who you voted for, and who you listen to on the radio. I tend to hope our country isn't headed straight down the crapper, but don't mind me - I'm high on my "soma" and am currently hanging out on Fantasy Island and getting a tan with Ricardo Montalban. Read the book and you'll get why I said that. Worth at least one try for its historical significance.

So, the year 1984 came and went without too many major government take overs. (Not really but let's pretend.) But we've made great strides haven't we? Currently, we can steal a person from their home claiming they've violated the rules of our country. They're an Enemy of the State not worthy of basic rights. A great danger to the norm we call our society. We torture them for answers they don't want to give. Tell them they're insane, that our way is the best way, the only way, until they break and the creases are permanent do we cure them of their vile ways. A shiny new American penny coming out clean on the other side. A carbon copy of ourselves and our ideals. Or so we think.

But what if instead of America, it's Oceania. In place of Guantanamo Bay, put the Ministry of Love. In the place of our government, put Big Brother.

Even I noticed the similarities.
And I'm a Democrat.
Scary, scary.
Anybody else have some thoughts on these books and the state of our current lives? What similarities do you see?

As for me, time to read something lighter, like Of Mice and Men before I run as fast as I can into a brick wall, or drive my imported car off a cliff.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist

"Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic? Can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art? If not, why not?"

It was highly appropriate that the narrator would ask these questions near the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because by then I was also wondering if excrement counted as art, or at the very least could pass for it. Of course, we all know that excrement can, and often does pass for art. Mr. Joyce's novel did absolutely nothing for me. I read the words of the novel and thought I should be having a profound sense of something; instead I felt nothing.

A Portrait is a bildungsroman, a coming of age story about a boy as he transitions into becoming a man (an artist, if you will). It follows five episodes in Stephen Dedalus's life; the first one when he's in elementary school and the last one about when he's in college. In between we see him transition from being a confused and scared little boy, to rebellious prostitute visiting sinner, to repentant Catholic, to areligious cynic. However, the novel is not written in the narrative form with which contemporary readers are more familiar. Instead, it's written a distorting stream-of-consciousness-not-always-linear writing style that is abrupt and not always easy to follow. Maybe that's what makes Joyce the "father of the modern" novel. It also might make the novel pretentious (and by "might," I mean "more likely than not").

I have two complaints about this book. 1) I did not feel like anything happened the entire novel. Even within the episodic chapters, I did not feel that very much happened. I never felt connected to Dedalus. This is to say, I didn't feel like this novel had a story (and for those post-modern snots out there, I do insist on a having a story in my novels). 2) I couldn't relate with Dedalus' big revelations. First Joyce gives us a massive sermon in which Dedalus, the sinner, fears the burning flames of hell. Then, later, we get an extended aesthetic discussion about the nature of art. Neither offered any new insights to their respective discourses. Instead, they're presented as being parts of a growing Dedalus. Maybe I'm too jaded with personal revelations, but these episodes (and the episodes generally) reminded me of the trite personal epiphanies of high schoolers who have decided to open themselves up to one another, and, you know, have deep thoughts, and stuff. It felt like these "deep thoughts" were important, not because of their merit, but because Dedalus was having them. Sorry, Stephen, I don't give a shit. (that's right another reference to poop). And in case you're wondering why I re-titled Mr. Joyce's book, it's because I feel like this was the portrait of a young man, portraying himself as an artist.

This is the second James Joyce novel that I've tried to read (the first one was The Dubliners). If there is a James Joyce fan out there, would you please explain to me why he matters? I don't get it, and I genuinely want to. I just feel like this is another academic, over-hyped writer to be referenced only to other "enlightened" types, and only at elite parties where everyone is drinking something out of a martini glass and smoking foreign cigarettes. Someone take me off my soapbox.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow (with Michael Duca)

Outraged, Steinbrenner called the visitors' dugout at Anaheim Stadium and lit into Yankees manager Lou Piniella. Was he aware, asked the owner, that Sutton was cheating?... "George," Piniella responded, "do you know who taught him hot cheat?... The guy who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitching for us tonight," Piniella said. "Do you want me to go out there and get Tommy John thrown out too?"

The Baseball Codes was great. I love baseball and loved reading about the game from an insider's perspective (not that the author played baseball, but he talked to a shit ton of players, managers, broadcasters, etc). As the title suggests, the book goes through and sheds light on many of baseball's unwritten rules. For example, there are chapters devoted to the when and how of bean balls, the proper etiquette for stealing signs, and the omerta of the clubhouse. The thesis is that the game's unwritten rules basically boil down to respect: respecting your opponents, respecting your teammates, and respecting the game. The code tells you how to go about showing proper respect and what to do if someone ignores it. If a hitter stands around too long in the batter's box admiring a home run, he's going to get drilled his next time up. You can steal signs or add the occasional spit to your fastball, but if you get caught you knock it off. If your teammate gets in a brawl, everyone better get their ass on the field, even if all you do is lightly shove a friend on the other team for show. And so on and so on.

What was fun about this book is that it was basically a long string of anecdotes from all eras of the game, almost all interesting and some hilarious. Some of my favorites:

  • One accepted practice is that if a hitter fares particularly well against a certain pitcher, the pitcher sometimes feels entitled to brush that hitter back or hit him, just to keep him on his toes. Well, in 1975, Bob Gibson gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock, but retired before he faced him again. Fifteen years later at an old-timers' game, Gibson inserted himself in the game when LaCock came to bat just so he could deliver that long awaited bean ball.
  • Whitey Ford made a mix of turpentine, baby oil and rosin that he used to give himself a little better grip on the ball. He kept the concoction in a roll-on deodorant container and one time Yogi Berra borrowed it, thinking it was regular deodorant. Apparently they had to cut his armpit hair out to get him free from the stuff. Only Yogi.
  • Satchel Paige had a lady friend, Nancy, who he sometimes like to meet up with when he was on the road, unbeknown to his wife. One time his wife showed up to the hotel unexpectedly while Satchel was entertaining Nancy, so his teammate, Buck O'Neil, ran interference until Satchel could extricate himself. Later, after getting ready to turn in with his wife, Satchel went a couple doors down to give Nancy some money to take the train home, but she couldn't hear him knocking on the door. He knocked louder and called out, "Hey Nancy." O'Neil, in the next room, here's Satchel's wife come out in the hall, so Buck jumps out of his room and says, "Hey Satchel, I'm in this one." From then on his nickname was Nancy.
I'd say that if you aren't a big baseball nut you probably won't get as much out of this one as I did, but if you do love the game then I definitely recommend it.

Did you know that Joe Torre, Felipe Alou and Dusty Baker all played together for the Braves in 1968? That's more than 4600 career managerial wins playing for one team. Fascinating.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In the First Circle (the uncensored edition) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“What is the most precious thing in the world? I see now that it is the knowledge that you have no part in injustice. Injustice is stronger than you, it always was and always will be, but let it not be done through you.”

He found, though, that even reading was a special skill, not just a matter of running your eyes along the lines. . . From boyhood he had been sheltered from erroneous books and had read only those that were warranted sound, so that he had got into the habit of believing every word, of submitting without question to the author’s will. When he began to read authors who contradicted one another, his resistance was low, and he could not help surrendering to whichever of them he had read last. What he found most difficult of all was to lay down his book and think for himself.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent eight years (the maximum allowed under NKVD policy) in Soviet prison camps for being critical of Stalin in private letters to a friend. During the course of his imprisonment he spent time in a sharashka - a prison camp made up of scientists and engineers, who had been picked out of the more brutal taiga camps, for the purpose of solving technological problems for the state. The living conditions in the sharashka were often much better than other prisons and it is in one such camp, Marfino, that In the First Circle is set. The title itself is a reference to Dante’s Inferno and the first level of hell.

In the First Circle begins with a breathless (and dangerous) phone call made by Innokenty Volodin, a Soviet diplomat, to the American embassy.



attempts to warn the West about Russian plans for the production of the atomic bomb. The scene quickly moves to the Marfino sharashka and the zeks (prisoners) who’ve been assigned to help the state with this most unusual “problem” – how to best spy on (and record) private citizen’s phone calls . Throughout the 700+ pages Solzhenitsyn offers his readers a masterful picture of humanity, politics, ideology, love and loss. In the First Circle is much more than a compelling mystery. It provides an incredible glimpse into the power of the human spirit as well as brilliant sketches of Stalin and his team of terrified subordinates and even features a humorous cameo by Eleanor Roosevelt.

The 2009 Harper Collins edition that I read was a reprint of the first uncensored edition and was translated by Harry T. Willets. Today movies and books scream “uncensored” to us from store shelves and typically only mean they offer a larger and more steamy heap than the FCC would originally allow – but the uncensored edition of In the First Circle contains no tawdry material, rather it offers a deeply moving and melodrama-free account of Soviet society from the bottom up.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.

This was an excellent book that came highly recommended from a number of people. A couple of people described it as the best story they had read in a while. I am inclined to agree with them. Not only does Zafón tell a great story, but he does so with excellent writing.

The Shadow of the Wind is a book about a book. The main character is a boy named Daniel, whose father runs a used book store in mid-20th-century Barcelona. Daniel comes across a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, which he falls in love with. But as he tries to find more books by the author, Daniel discovers that Carax is shrouded in mystery. What starts off as simply an interest in finding more works by Carax turns dangerous as Daniel uncovers a mystery decades old.

This is a slow-burn mystery. By that I mean that while there is a strong undercurrent of mystery, the other elements of the story are strong enough, that at times they become the driving force of the story. Zafón deftly weaves the history of Barcelona with an intriguing story of mystery and romance. The end product in an ode to storytelling. A love letter to reading.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Comedians by Graham Greene

The ambassador said, 'We mustn't complain too much of being comedians--it's an honourable profession. If only we could be good ones the world might gain at least a sense of style. We have failed--that's all. We are bad comedians, we aren't bad men.'

'For Christ's sake,' Martha said in English, as though she were addressing me directly, 'I'm no comedian.' We had forgotten her. She beat with her hands on the back of the sofa and cried to them in French now, 'You talk so much. Such rubbish. My child vomited just now. You can smell it still on my hands. He was crying with pain. You talk about acting parts. I'm not acting any part. I do something. I fetch a basin. I wipe his mouth. I take him into my bed.'

Greene's books always have something both of the religious and the political, though they are not always balanced. The Power and the Glory wasn't as concerned with the totalitarianism that had seized Mexico as it was the trial of one man's soul within it; The Comedians, as seems to be the case with Greene's later work, is more concerned with earthly things.

It opens on a ship bound for Haiti. On board is the narrator, Brown, returning to the hotel he owns in Port-au-Prince left empty by the dearth of tourists at the height of Papa Doc Duvalier's regime. Also present are Mr. Smith, a committed political activist hoping to start a vegetarian center in Haiti, and Major Jones, an affable man of dubious military connection. The blandness of their names is not lost on Brown, who sees in the three of them a sort of interchangeability that symbolizes their disconnect from the Haitian political climate.

They are the Comedians--not serious actors, not real players in this political drama. Brown himself is a citizen of Monaco, which is almost like being a citizen of nowhere at all, and had inherited his hotel from a mother he had known only in the few hours before her death. Like Smith and Jones, he does not belong to Haiti, but neither does he belong to anywhere:

The first colours touched the garden, deep green and deep red--transience was my pigmentation; my roots would never go deep enough anywhere to make me a home or make me secure with love.

But Brown is mistaken--the three of them are not as detached as they believe themselves to be. As soon as Brown arrives at his hotel, he finds the body of the Minister of Health in his pool, which sets off a chain of events that leave him and the others at odds with the Tontons Macoutes, Papa Doc's not-so-secret police. Brown fails to see that his roots have grown deep enough to be regarded as weeds and pruned away.

The Comedians is not my favorite of Greene's novels. There is something of it that seems a little "Greene-by-the-numbers." The facelessness suggested by Brown's name only underscores how neatly he parallels almost all of Greene's heroes: wry, disillusioned, and most importantly, a lapsed Catholic.

There is also something of the heightened political element that seems to bring out Greene at his bitterest. Greeneland is a tortured place, whether it be a bitterly oppressed Mexico, a war-ravaged Sierra Leone, or an isolated leper colony. Yet, when Greene focuses on matters of faith he seems to find hope even in the darkest places and in the most crippled hearts. The political Greene, by contrast, seems to be more of a cynic. Though the scurrilous Jones has his redemption in the end, the smallness of his efforts compare unfavorably to the persistence of the Haitian regime.

Though Greene's lapsed Catholics never seem to resume their faith, they end each novel inches closer to God than they were before. But The Comedians seems fonder of Communism than of Catholicism, and without a hint of religious awakening Greene's Haiti seems, like Brown's soul, irredeemably desolate.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The White Goddess by Robert Graves

It would be unfair to call the heretical poets 'apostates'. They were interested in poetic values and relations rather than in prose dogma. It must have been irksome for them to be restricted in their poem-making by ecclesiastical conventions. 'Is it reasonable?' they may have exclaimed. 'The Pope, though he permits our typifying Jesus as a Fish, as the Sun, Bread, as the Vine, as a Lamb, as a Shepherd, as a Rock, as a Conquering Hero, even as a Winged Serpent, yet threatens us with Hell Fire if we ever dare to celebrate him in terms of the venerable gods whom He has superseded and from whose ritual every one of these symbols hasbeen derived... So at his prophesied Second Coming we reserve the right to call him Belin or Apollo or even King Arthur.

I blame my long absence squarely on this book, which occupied for pretty much the entirety of March. It isn't particularly long, but I could only read about twenty pages before I needed to stop and defrost my brain.

The White Goddess is subtitled "A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth"--which, unless you have read it, means either absolutely nothing or something quite different than Graves intends. The term "poetic myth" in the subtitle is particularly duplicitous; for Graves true poetry and myth are one and the same. The thesis of The White Goddess is that all true religion and poetry expressing what Graves calls the capital-T "Theme":

The Theme, briefly, is the antique story, which falls into thirteen chapters and an epilogue, of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters concern the God's losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious an all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride, and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird.

Graves then proceeds to spend 400-odd pages detailing the various ways the Theme shows up in world myth, skipping vicariously from culture to culture drawing parallels in their religious systems. In a single paragraph he may begin in Wales, jump to Egypt, hop over to Palestine, run back through Greece, and perhaps take a stroll into Viking myth as well. Nor does he stick solely to Western religion, though excursions into places such as Mesoamerica and Japan are rare. Much of The White Goddess is an exercise in conflation, as Graves attempts to show how various deities are variations of the same archetype. For example, here Graves identifies just some of the various forms of Apollo:

Apollo himself had reputedly been born on Ortygia ('Quail Island'), the islet off Delos; so Canopic Hercules is Apollo, too, in a sense--is Apollo, Aesculapius (alias Cronos, Saturn or Bran), Thoth, Hermes (whom the Greeks identified with Thoth), Dionysus (who in the early legends is an alias of Hermes), and Melkarth, to whom King Solomon, as son-in-law to King Hiram, was priest, and who immolated himself on a pyre, like Hercules of Oeta. Hercules Melkarth was also worshipped at Corinth under the name of Melicertes, the son of the Pelasgian White Goddess Ino of Pelion.

It's mind-boggling, but it makes sense in respect to Graves' championing of the Theme; by collapsing these religious stories like paper boxes he intends to show that there is only one story. So, put simplistically, the trio of Zeus, Cronos, and Hera become an analogue of Osiris, Horus, and Set, or Odin, Loki, and Freya, or Christ, Satan, and Mary. In turn, these myths--in which the principal male figures engage in ritual, cyclical periods of dominance and submission--map the yearly calendar.

Graves' methodology here is seductive, but not quite overwhelming. In his foreword, he notes that "this remains a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind." If you suspect that this an avoidance technique that allows Graves to get away with dodgy scholarship, then, well, this simply wasn't written for you.

The foundation of the book is built on two Welsh minstrel poems, which Graves spends the first third of the book dissembling, reassembling, and interpreting as alphabetic codes beset in riddles, which perhaps conceal a secret name of God. Elsewhere, his methodology is based almost purely upon poetic inspiration, and to reinforce a point Graves on rare occasions offers up an original poem. One chapter takes the form of a discussion between a Greek historian and a Roman governor. While fascinating, these methods do little to allay fears that the premise of the book is absurdly far-fetched. The argument fits together neatly, but circuitously; it is difficult to tell at the end of the book if Graves has presented a proof or merely a semblance of one.

Whatever of The White Goddess is based in reason and not pure nonsense, there are certain politically distasteful conclusions to be made. One such conclusion is that women cannot be "true" poets:

However, woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing. This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, and not as if she were an honorary man.

This is a bit of semantic trickery. Graves suggests that because women cannot be the surrogate of the God of the Waxing Year they cannot write "true" poetry about the Theme. It is kind of him to permit them to write poetry at all, but her poems are relegated to some, less true variety. Homosexuality, naturally, has no place in poetry.

Another conclusion is that many of the world's ills can be traced to a perversion or a denial of the true Theme. Catholicism, which installs Mary as the White Goddess figure, is preferable though it mistakes her character. Protestantism, which devalues Mary, is more insidious:

The Puritan Revolution was a reaction against Virgin-worship, which in many districts of Great Britain had taken on a mad-merry orgiastic character. Though committed to the mystical doctrine of the Virgin Birth, the Puritans regarded Mary as a wholly human character, whose religious importance ended at the birth-stool; and anathematized any Church ritual or doctrine that was borrowed from paganism rather than from Judaism. The iconoclastic wantonness, the sin-laden gloom and Sabbatarian misery that Puritanism brought with it shocked the Catholics beyond expression.

And Judaism, which rejects the female divinity completely, is worse:

Yet neither Frazer nor Hitler were far from the truth, which was that the early Gentile Christian borrowed from the Hebrew prophets the two religious concepts, hitherto unknown in the West, which have become the prime causes of our unrest: that of a a patriarchal God, who refuses to have any truck with Goddesses and claims to be self-sufficient and all-wise; and that of a theocratic society, disdainful of the pomps and glories of the world, in which everyone who rightly performs his civic duties is a 'son of God' and entitled to salvation, whatever his rank or fortune, by virtue of direct communion with the Father.

Those who know me even slightly will know that I think this is bunk. I find Graves lacking justification here; it escapes me what is meant to be so evil about this "theocratic society" which values God's equanimity and intimacy. But this highlights a larger flaw in Graves' thesis: He never deigns to tell us what make this Theme "true" while admitting that there are variations, impurities, and digressions. By what rationale does Graves separate the heretics from the orthodox? What value is there in the White Goddess' viciousness and capriciousness? In many of her forms she is wholly unappealing; one wonders why the Jewish God's rejection of her is such a bad thing.

I am unprepared to tell you how much of this book is brilliant and how much is pure, unadulterated horseshit. Perhaps my mind is too rigidly scientific. But I will be the first to admit that it is completely fascinating.