Flash Reviews: The Long, Strange Summer of Books, Brains and Beer

Once upon a time, I was a book blogger. I read books. I wrote about what I read. I read about what other book bloggers read. And I argued with my fellows about books. Mostly with From Couch to Moon. Because she sups upon the tears of her vanquished foes. Woe unto you, unsuspecting Heinlein fan, for From Couch to Moon is become death, destroyer of patriarchy.

I lost my momentum earlier this year. Life got in the way, as life does. Rare is the book blogger who remains steadfast in his or her dedication to the craft. Consider Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased. Not only has he been blogging for four years, but he also employs in his blog name the Oxford comma and an ampersand. Pleased with his grammatical choices, Chris reads pulps paperbacks whilst sitting upon the graveyard of American industry.

If one were to form an impression of my year’s reading based on my entries here, one might assume that I have given up on reading altogether, that I am even now dressed only in my skivvies, eating Lucky Charms out of a mixing bowl, and staring into the middle distance, a victim of la cafard. Quote Philip Caputo:

“…the battalion began to suffer from a spiritual disease called la cafard by the French soldiers when they were in Indochina. Its symptoms were occasional fits of depression combined with an inconquerable fatigue that made the simplest tasks, like shaving or cleaning a rifle, seem enormous.”

Or blogging. So many French soldiers gave up on their blogs while in Indochina. A real tragedy for social media.

But lo! I have been not been idle. No, indeed, I have been reading as ever. Permit me to share with you here some of the books I read over the course of the past few months. (This may or may not be a prelude to a return to active blogging.)

Fiction

The Waterworks, E. L. Doctorow

I read this after learning via a New York Times article that it’s one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s favorite books. Solid historical fiction, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. If you’re looking to try Doctorow, stick with his masterpiece, Ragtime.

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, Okla Elliott

This high-concept dystopian novel has received a lot of attention. I’m sorry to report to you that it’s bloated and its conceits a bit overdone.

Alexander Tuvim: Not his real name!

Aleksandr Tuvim: Not his real name!

Wayward, Blake Crouch

Pines, Blake Crouch

The Last Town, Blake Crouch

Make no mistake: Black Crouch is by no means a writer of literary fiction. In the epigraph to Wayward, Crouch quotes Michael Crichton–an apt comparison. But let’s be honest; Crichton has his place. Sometimes you want candy, and that’s what Crouch gives you. And he’s really good at it. Crouch’s books may not be terribly deep, but they’re compulsively readable.

Ack-Ack Macaque, Gareth L. Powell

Great concept, poor execution. I preferred the original short story. But given its popularity, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

Nonfiction

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer

How has it been 11 years? As always, Krakauer takes something worthy of an article and pads it into book-length. It held my attention, though.

How to Read, Eckhard Gerdes

No.

The Fellowship: Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

I was so looking forward to this and am sad to report that I was a bit let down. A solid introduction to the Inklings, but nothing really new here, and I feel like the Zaleskis strained at times to make palatable to the modern reader the moral failings of Tolkien et al. (Look, people can be jerks and still do great things.)

The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul, Rodger Kamenetz

Why do I do this to myself? No. Just no.

Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters, Rodger Kamenetz

Do you speak Jewish? No? Then skip this one.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison

People love this book. Love it. Jamison is significant because she was open about mental health at a time when it wasn’t popular to do so–and it’s still a very important issue. Jamison is a skilled writer, but her prose is sometimes overwrought.

Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, Peter Manseau

Eh. Didn’t need to be a book. Casual readers will find themselves bored to tears by Manseau’s detailed history of the mid-twentieth century American Catholic church.

One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, Alan Lew

The late Alan Lew was a really interesting guy as well as a fantastic writer. Lew devotes most of One God Clapping to the decades he spent as a devotee of Zen Buddhism. Despite Lew’s inclinations–Buddhist, Jewish–there’s fodder here for anyone who considers themselves a seeker.

American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, Hannah Nordhaus

An entertaining if forgettable diversion into one American family’s history.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

I highly recommend My Promised Land to anyone interested in understanding the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Shavit, a Haaretz journalist, identifies defining moments in each decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reporting with nuance and sympathy the motivations of Palestinians and Israelis. He also employs some truly outstanding turns of phrase, for instance, “For one long moment, he who is their Nebuchadnezzar wishes to be their Jeremiah.”

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Bart D. Ehrman

Bart Ehrman is the New Testament scholar (and avowed agnostic) you never knew you wanted to read. Don’t start with this one, though, which is in part a recapitulation of his other popular works.

A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, Deborah Baker

A (sadly) somewhat dull travelogue of Allen Ginsberg’s 1962 trip to India, although it does include a truly excellent exchange between poet and student of Zen Gary Snyder and his wife, Joanne Kyger. I paraphrase: Gary: “Don’t you want to study Zen and learn to obliterate the ego?” Joanne: “What! After all the time it took to get one?!”

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

An examination of the collision of “traditional” Laotian culture with that of modern American medicine. The Laotians and their doctors not only speak different languages; they nearly exist in different worlds. The clinicians treat what they understand is a biological illness but what is, for the Laotians, a spiritual malady–and, perhaps, a gift. Also a pocket history of the Laotian people. Good stuff, this, but you need a strong attention span.

The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, Rodger Kamenetz

It’s good enough, but unless you’re Jewish or Buddhist, you don’t need to read this one.

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, Bart D. Ehrman

I confess that I’m an Ehrman fan, indeed, a partisan, if you will. (He has his detractors both within and outside of the Academy.) The logic Ehrman employs in his examination of theodicy–the philosophical reconciliation of human suffering with the existence of God–is reductionist but compelling. Lest you fear that God’s Problem might be highfalutin, Ehrman writes in a clear and entertaining style fit for the layman. Probably among the best places to start for an introduction to Ehrman’s thought.

That's me in the corner.

That’s me in the corner.

And? What next, you may ask? Shall I return to blogging? I’m not certain, but I admit that I’m tentatively leaning toward “yes,” with the caveat that my activity will appear much reduced compared to my previous efforts. I suspect that, were I to begin writing reviews now, I would schedule them to begin posting in late September or October, and on a weekly frequency. I’ve missed the conversation in which my blogging comrades and I once engaged. (Except for that with From Couch to Moon, she’s scary.) So a return seems likely, if not inevitable.

A Brief Commentary on the Fallacy of Anthropocentrism

A certain species of thinker observes the wickedness of the world and says in response to it, “God is sadistic.” How can it be otherwise in a world in which babies are murdered? This thinker is perhaps unwittingly operating according to the assumption of traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of God. Indeed, without knowing it, he or she is practicing theodicy, the philosophical accommodation of suffering to the existence of God. “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t He feed the poor? God must want us to suffer.”

There are various problems with the “theodicist” (note: not a word) approach, notably its starting point, that God, as humanity has traditionally conceived it, must be an all powerful being that intervenes in human history. The theodicist probably continues to think of God as male, and likely assigns human traits to Him. The theodicist is unaware of “recent” developments in theology, recent here meaning the last two centuries, for instance, Buber’s relational God or, more currently, process theology. Some theodicists may be obliquely advocating atheism, e.g., “You can’t reconcile a loving God with human suffering, therefore there must be no God.” Aside from being binary and reductionist, among other shortfalls, this argument continues to place human suffering at the center of existence.

A more subtle thinker moves several steps beyond crude theodicy. He or she takes in the scope and grandeur of the universe, approximates a sense of humanity’s insignificance, and says, “The horror is not that God is malicious, since there is no God. No, the horror is that the universe is indifferent to humanity.” This thinker gets closer to the truth, but still goes awry. He or she continues to assign to the universe human traits. We might term this pantheism (equating the universe with God) or panentheism (the “interpenetration” of the universe and the Divine). But this thinker assumes that the universe has a moral position in regards to humanity.

"The light's winning." (True Detective, Season 1.)

“The light’s winning.” (True Detective, Season 1.)

All of which is understandable. It is human, so human, the essence of humanity, to place itself at the center of the narrative of reality. As the late David Foster Wallace pointed out during the 2005 commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

In other words: ME! And at the species level: US! Voltaire is said to have remarked that “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.” For our times, we might rephrase it, “If we weren’t certain that we were the center of the universe, we would have to convince ourselves of it.” At its most basic level, it is a matter of individual and communal survival.

But.

The reality is that even the pantheists and panentheists are wrong. They are wrong because, even as they make the divine more abstract, they still assign to it human motives, or, if they are being careful, interpreting it using human perception, which is, of course, their only mechanism for doing so. They forget that the universe simply is. The universe is not divine, nor is it interpenetrated with the divine, because there is no divinity. Divinity is a human value judgment that thinkers apply to the universe.

The horror is not that God is sadistic. The horror is not that the universe is indifferent to us. No, the horror is that the universe lacks the capacity for indifference. The horror is that we are all alone, on this rock, floating in space, and that for all our powers of discernment, for all our science, we are gropers in the dark.

Brief Quote: Summer of Night, Dan Simmons

In order that Books, Brains and Beer exists, a reader and a writer must meet. (Credit where credit is due: The sentence structure I employ here pays homage to the first line of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, e.g., “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet.”)

I am obviously (I think) a reader; this blog is testimony to that fact. But am I a writer? You may well ask. I shan’t answer. No, I reject your need for pat certainties, for categorization. I dwell in the vast unknown. Join me. I beckon you, as Pan calls to Wendy.

So. That’s a bit overdone, eh?

I’m breaking my long silence to share with you a thought. This is the first thought I’ve had in months. It’s an exciting day here, my friends.

It occurs to me that even the most hackneyed writers unwittingly say the most striking things. Perhaps it can’t be escaped. Most writers write a lot. Statistically speaking, I suppose, the more words you put to paper, the more apt you are to express something meaningful. There is Truth in Crichton, as startling as it may be, like hearing a Valley girl begin spouting Wittgenstein amidst all the “likes” and “fer sures.” (Valley girl? That’s a dated reference.)

Dan Simmons, Summer of Night (1991)

Dan Simmons, Summer of Night (1991)

And so it was that on the train this morning I read in Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night:

Duane glanced over his shoulder, hoping without hope that another car would come the other way, that some adult would intervene…that he would wake up.

(My emphasis. Real writers don’t use italics. T-shirt idea, anyone?)

And that’s it.

But it occurred to me: In some way, on some level, nearly every day, isn’t that what most of us are waiting for, for some “adult”–someone else who might take responsibility–to step in and set right the things that are bothering us, to make it “all go away”? Most of us meet our challenges, of course, but not without our private psychic struggles. We put on our shows of courageousness, decisiveness, but, hidden from view, we’re masses of quivering neuroses, what Alan Watts called “men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark.”

Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that an author of thrillers might capitulate such an idea. Rather, the idea itself–that we remain on some fundamental level the children we once were, that we just want someone to help–is so profound, so True, that it must penetrate even the campiest of books, and, some might say, the densest of minds.

 

Random Thoughts on Skyrim

I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks, 2011) for nearly four years. Four ****ing years. You might wonder why I don’t just finish it. I’m by no means a serious “gamer.” In fact, Skyrim is just about the only game I play. I often go months at a time without playing Skyrim at all, and then I play furiously for a few weeks or a month–only to abandon it again. I come back to it, though, because playing it is meditative.

Skyrim has pretty graphics, and, significantly, it doesn’t require me to think. “But Matt,” you ask, “don’t you want to think? Don’t you want to challenge yourself?” That’s a cheeky thing to ask. Jerk. But to answer your question, no, I often don’t want to think. Here’s what happens when I think:

Cthulhu_by_Blizzard67

Yep, when I think, I create a breach in the cosmos and summon forth the elder god Cthulhu. So it’s better for humanity when I don’t think.

Besides, everyone needs to rest his or her noggin. You can’t operate at full capacity all the time. Sometimes a man’s gotta put aside all those deep, deep thoughts he thinks and mash some buttons. Mmm, mashy.

One of the fun things about immersing oneself so deeply in a particular game is the intimacy one develops with it. Because Skyrim is not cognitively demanding, I can play the game and examine the world in which it’s set, “Tamriel.” The folks at Bethesda are clearly fans of “worldbuilding.” (I am not, at least when it comes to SFF books. I guess it serves videogames.) But still, having wasted many hours of my life on Skyrim (and SFF reading), I begin to wonder certain things. To wit:

  • Although Skyrim’s world is vast, it is dense with ancient ruins haunted by the undead, bandit hideouts, fortresses of evil wizards, among various other adventurous phenomena. Indeed, upon close consideration Skyrim’s scope is strangely disproportionate: The “normal human” to abnormal phenomenon ratio is skewed heavily toward the latter. Outside of the central town there is a bandit den, a team of poachers, and some baddies using a magical forge to create powerful weapons. Inside the town, though, people seem oblivious to these developments. Is this some sort of cognitive dissonance? “I know there’s a vampire living in the cave outside town, but I can’t see it, la la la la.” It’s like a parody of traditional fantasy.
  • If there are so many magical artifacts lying around, why do they command such high prices at market? This seems counterintuitive, at least in regards to classic supply-and-demand theories. What’s the political economy of Tamriel?
  • Before I realized that creatures respawn–this was very early in my Skyrim career–I thought I might be singlehandedly responsible for causing the extinction of Skyrim’s giants. I was a little sad, honestly. (But I kept killing them.) I wondered what effect this might have on the mammoth population. Would it explode, since giants seemed to be their only predator? Or, like the domestic cow, would they disappear in the absence of their keepers? What’s the natural predator of a giant frostbite spider? A Falmer (blind, cave-dwelling elf), I guess. There are dogs, but no cats. Chickens, but no roosters. No other birds. Skyrim’s ecology is weird.
  • Why don’t wizards rule Skyrim? They’re powerful enough. Are they too busy pursuing esoteric knowledge? Seems unlikely; I can cast spells, and I’m running around killing anything that moves.

In terms of format/gameplay:

  • Skyrim, like World of Warcraft (as I understand it; I haven’t played), assigns the player a variety of tasks to perform, e.g., a villagers asks the player to help her find her brother, player agrees, player goes to a cavern to find him, player fights beasties, player finds brother, returns to villager, mission accomplished. All “missions” are structured this way, step-by-step, one-two-three. Leveling up is accomplished by performing routine tasks over and over again. For instance, to improve at smithing, one has to smith; to achieve the highest accomplishment of smithing, one has to smith a lot. It’s fun to personalize one’s armor and weapons. And I understand the psychology of the format: In the game, unlike in real life, progress is very clearly delineated (experience points, leveling up). But does it have to be so mechanical? Just because this is the way people think when they play a game doesn’t mean that the game has to cater to it. It could challenge them to think otherwise. (But that would ruin my goal of not-thinking.)
  • Almost every encounter is resolved through violence or the exercise of power. What about collaboration? Invention? Negotiation? No? Skyrim lives by the sword and dies by the sword!
  • There is such a thing as an interface that is too minimalist. Just sayin’, UI/UX guys.

Review: Fludd, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is best known in recent years for her award winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Given the accolades showered upon Mantel’s fictional treatment of Tudor England, readers may be forgiven for overlooking one of her earlier novels, Fludd (1989.) Indeed, short, strange, tragicomic, and allegorical, Fludd could easily be dismissed as a curio, a relic predating Mantel’s ascent to literary stardom. But like the novel’s title character, Fludd conceals more than it lets on.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Mantel takes us to Fetherhoughton, a dour mill town in the north of England. Mid-twentieth century Fetherhoughton is a singularly miserable place, surrounded by moors on three sides, “the vast cemetery of [the villagers’] imaginations” (12). Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton’s spiritual leader, is a drunk. He is also an atheist. Agnes Dempsey, Father Angwin’s be-moled housekeeper, cares for the priest and keeps him to a semblance of order.

The “modern” bishop, upon visiting Fetherhoughton, insists that Father Angwin dispose of the statues of saints that line the church. Father Angwin is distraught: “[F]aith being dead, if we are not to become automatons, we must hold on to our superstitions as hard as we may” (27). The bishop will also send a curate to “assist”–that is, spy upon–Father Angwin. When the titular Fludd arrives in Fetherhoughton, he is both more and less than what he seems, and he sets into motion events that will change the lives of Father Angwin, Agnes, and Sister Philomena, among other Fetherhoughtonians.

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a "unicorn book."

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a “unicorn book.”

Mantel narrates Fludd with a diction that is distinctly English even to these benighted American ears. The “typography of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration,” Mantel tells us. “So may the manners, customs and dress of its inhabitants,” all of which, by the way, Mantel neatly skewers (11). That line is representative of a syntax and vocabulary that is singularly English. The propriety of Mantel’s writing lends it an archness that simultaneously softens and enhances the jibes she makes at her characters’ expense. Fetherhoughtonians, stand-ins for Mantel’s northern countrymen, refer to the second stories of their homes as “miyoopstairs” (13). Distraught by the suggestion of the vernacular Mass, Father Angwin comments of the townspeople, “I can well understand if you think Latin’s too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?” (10). Mantel employs this diction and tone to great comic effect throughout Fludd. She makes it plain that Fetherhoughtonians know nothing about their faith, and the (faux) politeness of her delivery demonstrates not only the absurdity of their practice, but also the absolute confidence with which they mangle their religion.

Some readers have complained that Fludd loses its momentum in its third act. It’s true that the story grows somber as Mantel shifts her perspective from Father Angwin’s battles with the bishop to Sister Philomena’s more existential struggle with life as a nun. In my opinion, Mantel’s decision to focus on Sister Philomena improves the story. It takes what would be a passing comedy and lends it greater depth. As Mantel makes clear before she begins the novel, Fludd is based on a sixteenth and seventeenth century alchemist, so the story must involve transformation. Some readers may find Sister Philomena dull–I did not–but, by becoming involved with her, Fludd himself is changed. Fludd confesses that he normally ignores women, but he is drawn to Philomena. Through Philomena, then, Mantel takes a deus ex machina-type character, the mysterious and unknowable Fludd, and illuminates his humanity. The novel is the better for it.

Fludd may not be a perfect or even a great novel, but it is a very good one. Some readers have commented on its subtle “gothic” tone, but that’s hardly right; indeed, if the gothic is present at all in Fludd, it is there for Mantel to mock. Fludd is something of a paradox. It is a comedy that knows the importance of the issues at which it pokes fun. Mantel is cynical, but she also believes in personal transformation. It is complicated, like Father Angwin, who, having given up on God, fights all the harder on behalf of “the dear old faith.” Fludd is of two minds, like many of us these days: “Everyone is where they should be; or we may collude in pretending so. And God’s in his heaven? Very bloody likely, Father Angwin thought” (157). Highly recommended.