Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review: "The Martian" by Andy Weir

The Martian (2014)
Andy Weir (1972)

369 pages

Left for dead on Mars by his crew-mates during a sandstorm that leads to an emergency evacuation, Mark Watney must find ways to survive on his own --- first moment-to-moment, then day-to-day. As he quickly adjusts to his shocking predicament, Watney explores ways to convert the equipment and habitat the crew had been using on Mars for their scientific mission into an oasis of survival in the barren and unforgiving Martian environment. Finally achieving some stability in his new, if highly circumscribed, world, he then turns his abilities to support the seemingly far-fetched hope of rescue.

Software engineer and first time author Andy Weir’s The Martian plays out like an extended episode of the old TV series MacGyver, as Watney demonstrates a keen ingenuity and resourcefulness in marshaling what tools he has available to survive both the sudden emergencies and the longer-term risks that threaten him. His education as a botanist helps him overcome what is perhaps his most fundamental problem --- expanding his food supply sufficiently to improve his chance of rescue. But it is his broader knowledge of science and engineering, and his ability to quickly engage that knowledge to his advantage that ultimately keeps him alive.

From a science-engineering-geek point of view, Weir’s story provides a fascinating series of challenges for Watney to solve, each reportedly fairly true to life in both their likelihood and the solutions he finds to address them. That very feature of the story, however, threatens at times to make the plot a bit monotonous, because the reader basically follows Watney from one emergency to the next for the length of the story --- he’s alone on Mars, after all, there is little else for him to do but fight to stay alive. Weir gives Watney a smart-ass manner, though, which both helps him psychologically to carry on in the face of the unrelenting tension of his situation, and provides the reader with some comic relief from what becomes otherwise a steady diet of engineering problem solving.

Weir builds much of the story around Watney’s log entries, though a part of it also takes place back on earth and in space, as a rescue attempt is eventually mounted. He captures well the varied voices of the scientists, technicians and astronauts that work to find ways to help Watney --- some thoughtful, some introverted, some just plain nerds.  He touches also on the political and social aspects of the situation: even as the costs mount, most people cannot help but support whatever efforts are necessary to try and bring back this one man.

For those who enjoy the science part of science fiction, The Martian provides a novel-full. But the action-adventure thrills are there too, as we root for Watney to find yet one more way to keep himself alive.

Other reviews / information:
I haven’t seen it yet, but a movie of the book has recently been released, starring Matt Damon.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Book Review: "Submission" by Michel Houellebecq

Submission (2015)
Michel Houellebecq (1956)

246 pages

The on-going conflicts between Western and Muslim societies have been characterized by some as a “clash of civilizations”. Though the most visible evidence for such a viewpoint has been a series of dramatic terror attacks and protracted wars, such violence tends to overshadow the unavoidable and no less important cultural impacts these two fundamentally different civilizations have had on one another, and the cultural changes that have occurred as a result. In his novel Submission (French, Sumission), French author Michel Houellebecq imagines a France in which liberal democratic values have led to a debilitating cultural malaise, leaving French society susceptible to being deeply and radically altered by just such outside influences.

The story opens in the spring of the year 2022, on the eve of national elections in France. The two principal centrist parties --- the Social Democrats on the left, and the Union for a Popular Movement (renamed since publication The Republicans) on the right --- find their dominant position in French politics deteriorating, as increasing street violence in the big cities and economic stagnation throughout the country drive support both to the far-right National Front party, and, critically, to the nascent, but rapidly growing Muslim Brotherhood party. The Brotherhood is
careful to take a moderate line. It soft-pedaled its support of the Palestinians and kept up good relations with the Jewish religious authorities. As with Muslim Brotherhood parties in the Arab world … the real political action was carried out through a network of youth groups, cultural institutions and charities. In a country gripped by ever more widespread unemployment, the strategy broadened the Brotherhood’s reach far beyond strictly observant Muslims. Its rise was nothing short of meteoric. (39)
When the subsequent election sets the stage for a run-off between the National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two centrist parties suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in, and must decide to whom to throw their support in a coalition government.

These events play out through the eyes of our narrator, François, a professor of French Literature in Paris who, as a forty-four year old bachelor, finds himself increasingly pre-occupied by oppressive thoughts about encroaching middle age. Though he manages to seek out a young coed to date each school year, he is besieged by worries about his looks and his health, and by fears of having irrevocably passed the point of scholarly relevance. His self-indulgent introspection leaves him little time to give more than passing attention to the social and political developments unfolding around him.

When these events finally affect him personally, and so become too consequential to ignore, François filters his understanding of them through the prism of the late 19th century literary figures who have formed the focal point of his academic career. In particular he returns throughout the story to the life and work of novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was the subject of his dissertation and the focus of his subsequent scholarly work. We learn that Huysmans’ early writing followed the Naturalist tradition, but that later in life it was considered part of the Decadent movement, a key aspect of which was a rejection of modern progress. Late in life Huysmans had turned to Christianity and taken monastic vows.

François seems to identify deeply with the writing of Huysmans’ Decadent period, turning it into a kind of rationalization for his own listless, unengaged existence. When the surprising changes happening outside his door leave him further isolated, however, he attempts to follow in the footsteps --- figuratively and literally --- of Huysmans’ search for religious meaning. This proves unsuccessful, as he finds himself uninspired by Christianity as an outlet from his forlorn and dispirited view of life. Finally forced to face the new world that has seemingly overnight sprung up around him, his lack of a solid, internal moral center leaves him easy prey for the tempting allures attached to embracing the new order.

In the novel, François appears to represent for Houellebecq the larger reaction of the broad, liberal center in France to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party. Unsettled by the French nativists of the far right, and reflexively sympathetic to the concept of cultural diversity, liberal, mainstream French society drifts uncritically into support of the Muslim Brotherhood party when faced with the alternative of the National Front.  Exploiting this lack of conviction, the Muslim Brotherhood party manages to implicate itself into political power in France, and through a thoughtful and careful strategy lead French society to gradually re-align itself around the Brotherhood’s far-reaching, longer-term goals.

In what was perhaps one of the more dramatic coincidences in the history of publishing, the original French version of the novel was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the 7th January 2015. The English translation of the book was released just two months before the more recent attacks in Paris on November 13th. Rather than invalidate Houellebecq’s premise, these events in fact play into it, in the sense that a key element of his story is the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood party to quell the violence of extremists, and so ingratiate itself to a society desperately seeking security.

It seems perhaps far-fetched to imagine that a Muslim party could succeed in a Western country. Houellebecq paints, however, a damning view of Western society as weakened by its own liberal democratic values, and what he portrays as a moral relativism that prioritizes sensitivity to cultural differences and so has no firm basis for defending its own values and principles --- in fact, no concrete values and principles even to defend, in some sense. When these weaknesses combine with natural human desires for security --- economic, social and physical --- Houellebecq envisions a decadent Western society that is an easy target for a fundamentalist group with a patient, well thought-out agenda and strategy.

Other reviews / information:

In a larger article reviewing several works about Albert Camus, Historian Thomas Meaney discusses how the Algerian push for independence half a century ago tested the French belief that France provides "an exclusive, historically grounded identity for its citizens that it claimed was available to all its subjects"; in The Colonist of Good Will: On Albert Camus in the The Nation magazine, 16th September 2013.

Writing in the weeks after the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the coincident publication of Submission, Stéphane Delorme, editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma, derides Houellebecq's novel as "this fetid and incendiary book", in his article Insoumission, translated into English and re-printed in the The Nation magazine, 4th March 2015.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: "Who Owns History" by Eric Foner

Who Owns History? (2002)
Eric Foner (1943)

233 pages

In the Preface to Who Owns History?, Eric Foner notes that “each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs” (xi), and that: “In every country, versions of the past provide the raw material for nationalist ideologies and patriotic sentiments.” (xv)  Such “rewrites [of] history” can occur through intentional exaggeration and misrepresentation, or simply a genuine lack of understanding of the past, but, in either case, they often serve as rallying cries and debating points for political movements, in which groups attempt to define and promulgate a version of history that supports their particular agenda.

Foner goes on to argue that historians must enter into this fray, to deepen public understanding of the full story of the past. Who Owns History? collects nine essays in which he examines how people, consciously or unconsciously, bend history to suit their needs for the present and desires for the future. The earliest of these pieces was written in 1983, the most recent in 2001, and Foner includes short preface for each essay, to provide the original purpose, and context, within which it was written.  Several of the pieces included in the book touch on some of the more dramatic political transformations of the final two decades of the 20th century, while others examine the lives and work of historians themselves, as well as long-standing issues in American history that continue to resonate. Together they provide a fascinating review of the on-going struggle to settle on coherent and accurate interpretations of our particular and common histories.

The essays are grouped into three sections. Part I, entitled The Politics of History and Historians contains two essays; in the first, Foner describes how he came to be a historian, and more specifically how a powerful interest in the civil rights movement during his university years led him to the topic he has spent much of his career studying and writing about, and for which he is perhaps best known: the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Relevant to the broader theme of the essays collected in the book, Foner notes that the history of Reconstruction represents an archetypal example of how the history of a period can be re-interpreted and misrepresented to serve the political and social interests of a particular moment.

In that opening essay, Foner recalls the important role played by his dissertation advisor, Richard Hofstadter, in his development as a historian. The second essay provides a sketch of Hofstadter’s life and work, summarizing his education and political development, then turning to focus on a series of books he wrote that Foner notes “propelled him to the very forefront of his profession.” (39) In these works Hofstadter examined and critiqued such political phenomena as the rise of Social Darwinism, which was characterized by “the growing use such Darwinian ideas as ‘natural selection,’ ‘survival of the fittest,’ and ‘the struggle for existence’ to reinforce conservative, laissez-faire individualism.” (31) More generally, he wrote a series of works that shed light on what he felt were widespread and yet disturbing elements of American history and political tradition, such as the belief that a fundamental consensus of opinion has historically existed in American society, as well as the development of “a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and provincialism in the American population.” (42) Thus Hofstadter directly examined what he found to be mistaken views in historical understanding, and the broader social situation that allowed them to flourish.

The four essays that make up Part II of the collection each touch on different examples of how history has been re-interpreted and re-imagined by subsequent generations in the context of their present situation. The first looks at the evolution of the American idea of freedom since the early days of the Revolution, when it reflected the simple desire for deliverance from what was seen as English tyranny; over time it developed into a vision of “America as a special place with a special mission,” though, as Foner points out: “This vision required a somewhat exaggerated negative image of the rest of the world.” (60). He goes on to trace the changes in the concept of freedom through the 19th century, particularly during the long years of the abolition movement, before focusing in particular on the dramatic transformation in the 20th century, precipitated by America’s increasingly active presence in and interaction with the world beyond its borders. World War II led to a significant broadening of the “perceptions of who was entitled to enjoy the blessing of liberty … [giving] birth to a powerful rhetoric, the division of the planet into a ‘free world’ and an unfree world.” (64) The economic globalization of recent decades has again caused a re-definition of the American concept of freedom, and Foner argues that it has
been largely appropriated by libertarians and conservatives of one kind or another… [with the] dominant constellation of definitions seem[ing] to consist of a series of negations --- of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture, of restrains on individual self-definition and consumer choice. Once the rallying cry of the dispossessed, freedom is today commonly invoked by powerful economic institutions to justify many forms of authority, even as on the individual level it often seems to suggest the absence of authority altogether. (70)

Foner follows with an essay he wrote in 1980 after having spent four months in Russia. The far-reaching changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev were still playing out, and Russia was marked, he writes, by a period of optimism and openness about the future. Foner describes that this led to a sudden blossoming of interest in Russian history, as well as Russia’s relationship with to the west; this included a radical rethinking of Russian and Soviet history, including a nostalgia for the Czarist past. The essay is perhaps the book’s most dramatic example of the malleable and at times swiftly changing nature of the understanding of history in the face of present realities, for, as Foner writes in the lead-in to the essay, when he returned to Russian just four years later, the bloom was off: “Russia had been subjected to a dose of ‘shock therapy,’ and among the casualties were the utopian dreams I had encountered in 1990.” (75) The pain of the post-Glasnost years led to the earlier interest in history being “supplanted by the daily struggle for survival,” (76) and the Soviet years suddenly not seen in quite so negative a light.

In a similar vein, Foner visited South Africa in 1994, in the wake of an equally dramatic transformation in that society. He discovered that the fundamental and powerful changes that resulted from the end of apartheid led to a fundamental rethinking of South African history. Again, he encountered a country in a transition that precipitated new interpretations and re-interpretations of what had occurred in the past --- as well as what had been forgotten or ignored. In South Africa these discussions also led to a deep and emotionally fraught discussion about what should be intentionally forgotten, to allow the country to successfully move forward.

The second set of essays concludes with one whose topic continues to resonate today: Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?. Bernie Sanders campaign for president may be a long shot, but it has re-opened yet again the question of how Socialism is viewed by the US population. Foner argues that most theories proposed over the years for why socialism has failed to succeed in the U.S. tend to be either demonstrably simplistic and inadequate, or end up begging the question. For much of the essay he refutes explanations that have been put forward by historians since the second half of the 19th century, such as: the success of capitalism; the level of social mobility in the U.S.; the idea that Americans have a long history of consensus in their ideological outlook; and the diverse background of the American working class. Foner concludes the essay by arguing that the question itself in not appropriate, noting that what Americans consider to be the Socialist parties in Western Europe are actually more precisely engaged in “the equitable distribution of the products of capitalism,” and that the more appropriate question is: “Why has there been no socialist transformation in any advanced capitalist society?” (143) By changing the premise, Foner argues that the blinding fallacy of American exceptionalism is removed, and historians can focus on why socialist movements in the U.S. have failed to gain long-term traction. Left open is also the question of whether Socialism could, under certain circumstances, successfully develop in the future.

In the third and final set of essays, Foner includes three on The Enduring Civil War, the ground for which he is most well-known as an historian and writer. The first of these essays, Who is an American?, describes how the common answer to this question has changed since the writing of the Constitution, in which it was defined as “free white persons.” (153) Going beyond the simple facts, that “Blacks were added in 1870, but not until the 1940s did persons of Asian origin become eligible,” (153) Foner examines how attitudes on race evolved, a process that he demonstrates was anything but smooth, with periods of social and political progress followed by others of significant regression.

The civil war and its aftermath are the most obvious case in point, as the Emancipation proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments together formed a leap forward in the political definition of who was considered American, but were then, within a few short decades, largely curtailed and rejected in the post-Reconstruction period, thus offering a striking demonstration of the consequence of social attitudes not progressing as fast as public policy. Fonder notes that “the ‘failure’ of Reconstruction [i.e., its forced roll-back by southern Democrats] strongly reinforced the racialist thinking that reemerged to dominate American culture in the late nineteenth century, fueling the conviction that non-whites were unfit for self-government.” (160) A long, slow road followed, culminating in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s --- nearly a century later --- when attitudes shifted substantially in just a short period, both socially and politically. The definition of who is an American continues to be a touchstone of debate, as evidenced by debates in Congress and during the current Presidential primaries.

In a separate essay, from 1989, Foner focuses more specifically “on the long, complex constitutional history of African-Americans.” (167) Though he covers the entire period form the writing of the Constitution through to the Supreme Court cases of the 1980’s, the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction marks a dramatic turn in his analysis. Writing that
The Civil War and Reconstruction produced not simply three amendments but a fundamentally new Constitution. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments abolished slavery, established a national citizenship whose rights, enforced by the federal government, were to be enjoyed equally by all Americans, and protected the right to vote of black men. These measures altered the definition of American citizenship, transformed the federal system, and engrafted into the Constitution a principle of racial equality entirely unprecedented in both jurisprudence and political reality before 1860. (177)
Focusing specifically on the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment, Foner traces how these clear and broad measures would be circumscribed and circumvented in the decades after they were enacted, as successive local and national legislatures and judiciaries sought to limit their scope. He notes these battles continue into the modern era, in discussions such as those on discrimination and reverse-discrimination.

In the final essay, Foner presents a critique of Ken Burns’s documentary from the 1990’s, The Civil War. In particular he focuses on the final episode, covering the post-war period, in which, he argues, Burns glossed over the true gains made by Blacks during the Reconstruction period, and the subsequent significant set-backs that came as that period was brought to a harsh and bitter end. The topic provides a concise and telling example of the broader themes of the essays collected in this book, as Foner demonstrates how a simplified and ingenuous view of history can lead to fundamental misunderstandings about history that in turn make it more difficult, if not impossible, to clearly understand our present. To return to the quote from James Baldwin with which he open the Preface:
History … does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. (ix)

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In an article in the New York Times, When Anger Trumped Progress, Jon Grinspan recalls the rapid decline of faith in government in the years after the Civil War due to wide ranging scandals and failures, and the resulting reversal of Reconstruction policies and progress less than a decade after their introduction.  He makes parallels in that essay to present day distrust of government and the difficulties it introduces into attempts to make progress in race relations.

An essay by Timothy Shenk, What Was Socialism, describing the history of Socialism, and its evolution in relation to Capitalism, appeared in The Nation magazine in May, 2014.  The article uses the historical summary as a starting off point to discuss recent books on Capitalism and in particular income inequality, among them the then newly published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty. (The on-line title of the article is Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.)

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: "Hausfrau" by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau (2015)
Jill Alexander Essbaum (1971)

351 pages

“Anna was a good wife, mostly,” serves as both the subtitle, and the opening line, of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau. The title translates from German as housewife, and to her family, friends and neighbors, Anna does appear to be “a good wife.” Within the first few pages, however, the “mostly” aspect becomes clear: for reasons she herself struggles to understand, Anna is desperately unsatisfied with her life, and is cheating on her husband, having sex with relative strangers. She drifts impetuously into these affairs, though she finds that they bring her little real pleasure, filling her instead with a melancholy and self-doubt that only exacerbate her depression.

Essbaum sets the story in Switzerland, where Anna lives as an American ex-patriate in a small town outside Zurich, with her Swiss husband and their three young children. Despite having spent the past nine years in Switzerland, Anna speaks only elementary German, and the local Schwiizerdütsch hardly at all. She has only a vague idea of what her husband does as a mid-level bank manager, and she has made little effort to either integrate herself into the local society or make any close friends. Her feelings of loneliness and isolation are compounded by her recognition that she plays a significant role in creating the conditions of her own unhappiness. This realization fails, however, to be sufficiently powerful to shake her out of her precarious behavior; it serves instead only to tighten her spiral of despair.

As the story opens, Anna has begun taking a German class, at the urging of a psychiatrist she has been seeing in the hopes of understanding and overcoming what her husband refers to as her “melancholy huffs.” Already on the first day of class she hooks up with a fellow student, beginning an affair with him that has them meeting after class, and even skipping class altogether, to have sex in his apartment. As she swings between a self-loathing that makes her what to stop the affair, and a rationalization that makes it seem acceptable and even justifiable, the risk of discovery from her erratic behavior mounts. When her world is suddenly turned upside down by a shocking and tragic event for which she feels complicit, Anna's carefully constructed, if wildly fragile web of fiction --- both in what she displays to those around her, as well as in what she tells herself --- begins to rapidly unravel, to a dramatic conclusion.

That conclusion, I will say, felt a bit improbably when it arrived, though admittedly upon reflection it was quite clearly foreshadowed in the opening pages of the story. Without giving too much away, the novel for me did not generate enough sympathy and empathy for Anna in its first half, to allow one to convincingly follow her to the eventual conclusion of the second half.

Essbaum splits the story into three sections, labeled September, October and November. Within that overarching, linear time-line, however, she moves freely between the past, present and future, even over the course of a single scene. Thus, moments when Ann is at a party, or in her German class, or cheating on her husband, will contain flashbacks to earlier events, and will also not necessarily play out in real-time --- we sometimes learn the outcome or some aspects of a scene before we find out earlier portions of it.

Interspersed throughout the story are snippets of appointments Anna has with her psychiatrist; these discussions serve as a view into Anna’s psyche, as she is forced to confront her true feelings, at least in her own thoughts, if not always what she tells the psychiatrist. Anna’s participation in the German class provides a window into her internal struggles, as she compares aspects of her feelings to vagaries of German grammar --- a minor plot point, but an intriguing one for readers who have learned German.

The pacing of Hausfrau has a bit of watching someone construct a house of cards, though the stakes are of course far greater. The first half of the novel develops gradually, almost languidly, as the reader watches Anna haphazardly pass through her life assembling a framework of lies. Long periods of her slowly piling casual, if conflicted, deceits one on top of another are interspersed with brief moments of terror as the rickety structure threatens to collapse from close brushes of discovery. The pace accelerates to a breakneck speed in the second half of the story, however, as Anna frantically tries to hold herself together in order to sustain the untenable fiction of a life that she has created.

Other reviews / information:
The blurb at the top of the cover of the paperback version reads
“In Hausfrau, Anna Karenina goes Fifty Shades with a side of Madame Bovary.” --- TIME 
Though there are bits of similarity to each of those novels, I find the quote more than a bit overdone in terms of the plot comparisons. Just taking, for example, the Fifty Shades reference: although there are a few paragraphs of explicit verbal foreplay --- indeed with quite ‘Grey-ish’ activities mentioned --- a few paragraphs in over 350 pages doesn’t seem to warrant the comparison.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: The Perennial Life (La vida perenne) by José Luis Sampedro

The Perennial Life (La vida perenne) (2015)
José Luis Sampedro (1917-2013)

189 pages

The Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis), also referred to as Perennialism, is a perspective in the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.
Agostino Steuco (1497–1548) coined the term...
The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley … in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy.
Wikipedia; opening lines of the article on Perennial philosophy
In the prologue to Spanish economist and author José Luis Sampedro’s The Perennial Life (La vida perenne), published posthumously earlier this year, his wife Olga Lucas notes that in an earlier novel, October, October (Octubre, Octubre), Sampedro wrote “I began to lean on a very well-known work of Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy.” (“Empecé apoyándome en un obra muy concida de Aldous Huxley, La filosofía perenne.”) Sampedro pays homage to Huxley both in this latest book’s title, and through the inclusion of several passages from Huxley’s work.

The Perennial Life serves as an encapsulation of Sampedro’s life-long immersion in the philosophy of humanism, a pursuit that was clearly guided by the concepts of Perennial philosophy.  In his book he integrates together thoughts and ideas from a broad range of Eastern and Western spiritual and religious traditions, as well as passages in which he presents his own thoughts on the texts, his own interpretations and conclusions. Collectively the text represents a bequeathal of what he learned about how one might most appropriately live one’s life.

The passages range from a few lines to a couple of pages, and are grouped into fourteen chapters, each reflecting a particular theme. The opening chapter Quiet the Voices, Awaken (Aquietar las voces, despertar), for example, considers how one might best turn away from hectic, quotidian concerns, to truly see and comprehend the reality of the world. Here he quotes Huxley’s observation that the
... one [divine] Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit. Why should this be so? We do not know. It is just one of those facts which we have to accept, whether we like them or not and however implausible or unlikely they may seem.
Already in these early lines, it becomes clear that true understanding first requires a willingness to open ourselves to, and make ourselves vulnerable to the world beyond our immediate concerns.

In another chapter, Die to Live (Morir para vivir), Sampedro notes that “we live in a society that skirts around the problem of death as much as possible,” (75) (“vivimos en una sociedad que escamotea el problema de la muerte todo lo que puede”). He quotes lines from Chuang Tzu (as translated by Thomas Merton) that conclude “[A man’s] thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present.” (79), and he himself observes that in striving for immortality, human beings become “vain” (“endiosarnos”), which leads to a belief
... that we are the kings of creation, that the world is for little more than our pleasure, for our enjoyment, for our exploitation.” (81)

(... que son los reyes de la creación, que el mundo poco menos que está para nuesto goce, para nuestro disfrute, para nuestra explotación.”)
Thus, again, what prevents human beings from becoming more aware of the reality of our world is a blindness of the spirit.  In this context, it is a blindness resulting from a willful desire that lies outside the realm of nature's possibilities (immortality), and which impels us to subjugate or ignore the natural world instead of opening ourselves up to it.

In the concluding chapter, Sampedro portrays our lives as being “no more than the spark of a grand bonfire” (163) (“no es más que la chispa de una gran hoguera”). It is within our lives, ourselves, that he says we must look to understand reality. He includes a story from the Sanskrit text Chandogya Upanishad, in which a teacher leads a student toward an understanding of his place in the universe, concluding:
The spirit of the entire universe is an invisible and subtle essence. That is reality. That is truth. YOU ARE THAT.” (171)
(“El Espíritu del universe entero es una esencia invisible y sutil. Ésa es la Realidad. Eso es Verdad. TÚ ERES ESO.”)

Sprinkled throughout the book are wonderful photographs by Chema Madoz, an example of which can be found on the book’s cover, pictured above. Madoz takes common, everyday objects, both man-made and from nature, and creates subtle, yet striking images that can perhaps best be described as visual poetry. These photographs form an ideal accompaniment to the themes in the book's passages, in that they reinforce the notion that, for those prepared to learn how to seek them out, rich and unexpected wonders exist in the world around us.

In The Perennial Life, Sampedro adeptly blends selections from Eastern and Western philosophical traditions with his own thoughts summarizing what he has learned from studying these texts, and from integrating aspects of them into his own life. The result is a coherent and deeply engaging meditation on how one can approach the critical and rewarding task of living a conscious and fulfilling life. Centered around the concepts of perennial philosophy, Sampedro’s work provides a view that inherently sidesteps the (often violent) disagreements that develop between followers of particular religious dogmas, by embracing instead a broader outlook, one that seeks out the unifying principles that lie behind these varied traditions.

This is a work that you will find richly rewarding to read carefully, from the first page to the last, as Sampedro crafts his beautiful and hopeful invitation to turn away from one's daily concerns to instead behold the beauty of creation.  There are, however, also rewards to be found later, by simply turning to a random page and considering the particular reflection on life and nature that presents itself.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book Review: "California" by Edan Lepucki

California (2014)
Edan Lepucki (1981)


393 pages

In apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, the event that precipitates the apocalypse often occurs over a short period of time; it may be minutes, say in the case of an asteroid, or hours or days, in the case of a nuclear war, but a clear and evident before and after exists that separates the normal world from its dramatically altered future. What if, however, no such single, evident triggering event stands out? Suppose only in hindsight, looking back over a series of apparently unconnected events that may have spanned years, could one say “there, that was the final straw, since then everything’s been different.” Do the words “apocalypse” and post-apocalyptic” still apply?

Edan Lepucki’s novel California, set in the mid to late 21st century United States, has many elements of post-apocalyptic fiction --- but constitutes the apocalypse has played out through an extended series of natural disasters. Some of these disasters were apparently random, such as earthquakes that stagger a number of cities, such as Los Angeles, while others have the implication of human causes, such as devastating superstorms and flooding in the northeast. In Lepucki’s telling, no one of these events represents the moment marking the clear onset of a country (and by extension a world) that has succumbed to an ineluctable decline, but she clearly imagines a U.S. population and economy that has not had the capacity to overcome an escalating rash of calamites of the natural world. How many among us, observing the growing acrimony and fractionalization in what passes for public and political debate these days, and the resulting inaction and feelings of disenfranchisement, might not believe that such a dystopian future could result?

Set in the California wilderness west of Los Angeles, Lepucki’s story follows a young couple, Cal and Frida, who have fled the city in search of a better life. As the economy has collapsed, LA --- and seemingly the whole of the U.S. --- has devolved into secured enclaves of wealth called Communities, surrounded by large swaths of impoverished masses struggling to survive. Cal and Frida find that the wilderness has its own challenges, however, from bands of pirates rumored to be terrorizing the countryside, to the unsurprising but still stark reality that none of the infrastructure of modern life they grew up with, frayed though it may have become, exists to support them: no stores, no doctors, little more than what they can wrestle from the land around them.

As the story opens the pair have survived their second year in the wild, living in a small, unoccupied shed they discovered in the woods. They grow food in a small garden, supplementing it with some hunting and gathering in the surrounding forest, and items from a trader who occasionally passes by; life is difficult, but they have made a go of it.

When Frida realizes she is pregnant, however, an already solitary and arduous existence becomes overwhelming for her. Eager to find a more hopeful situation in which to raise her coming baby, she convinces her husband that they should seek out a settlement that they have heard lies just a couple of days walk to their west, and ask to be taken in. The two know little about this settlement except its general location, and that it has a reputation for being unwelcoming to strangers. Frida is undeterred by their sketchy knowledge, however, and the couple soon depart their shelter of two years in the desperate hope of find a larger group of people to join up with.

Upon reaching the settlement they are shocked to find themselves welcomed by the townspeople, though this is only the first surprise of many for them. The breakdown in authority throughout the country, and so in formal law and order, has created new norms, and vying political and philosophical outlooks on how to survive in the unstable new reality. As they build relationships and take on responsibilities in the settlement, Cal and Frida must not only come to grips with how much they value independence versus security for themselves as well as for their future baby, but also how they will balance their individual desires and fears with their love for one another.

A significant portion of the novel involves flashbacks by Cal and Frida to the time before they left LA, or had even met, years in which the crisis in the US was well underway, but had not yet reached the levels that would eventually drive them from the city. This part of the story, as well as the couple’s initial introduction to the settlement they seek out, worked best for me. A subtle yet unnerving tension fills the otherwise bucolic setting, potential danger lying around every corner, lurking in every interaction.

The final part of the novel, on the other hand, felt too compressed, as though Lepucki made a sudden decision that the story had to be wrapped up in a relatively few pages. The conclusion of the novel would perhaps seem less abrupt if the reader knew there was a sequel waiting for them to turn to, however that’s not immediately clear. In an interview Lepucki suggests that she has “an inkling of possibly writing a sequel to California, but not in a way that even really picks up where I left off."

The focus of the story in California remains tightly drawn to the immediate world within walking distance of Cal and Frida, to what they can see and hear and feel. The details of the situation in the larger, outside world remain ambiguous, no one quite certain exactly what, if any, political and legal authority still exists. This uncertainty for the pair, as well as for the reader, subverts any attempt to make sense of the rules and expectations of the wider world --- every encounter becomes potentially fateful. In the quotidian details of the couple’s lives becomes clear the harrowing reality of what it would truly mean to live without the infrastructure of goods, services and safety we, particularly in the U.S., often take for granted.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: "How Jesus Became God" by Bart D. Ehrman

How Jesus Became God (2014)
Bart D. Ehrman (1955)

404 pages

One of the delights --- and challenges --- of reading a book that explores human history, whether it looks back a few decades or several centuries, is the frequent discovery that assumptions and understandings now widely taken for granted about particular events can be discovered to be oversimplifications, if not grossly incorrect interpretations of what occurred. A second similar benefit is the realization that views now considered established and unquestionable about an historical event may have once have seemed beyond the pale, perhaps even unacceptable to consider.

In his book How Jesus Became God, Bible scholar Bart Ehrman examines one such case of evolving understanding, which he summarizes in the book’s subtitle as: “The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.” Modern day Christians view Jesus as a part of the Trinity, along with God and the Holy Spirit, and believe that Jesus is of the same stuff as God and has existed as long as God has existed. Ehrman argues, however, that these were not the beliefs of the very earliest Christians. Analyzing the words of the New Testament, Ehrman traces how early Christian understanding of Jesus’ divinity evolved during the years and decades immediately after his crucifixion. He then goes on to demonstrate how, within a couple of centuries, the concept of Jesus as part of the Trinity developed.

According to Ehrman, early Christian views of Jesus as something more than human, as in fact divine, began with the belief in the resurrection. In the book he does not attempt to prove or disprove that the resurrection occurred, noting that such discussions lie outside the realm of historical analysis, being ultimately a matter of faith and belief. Instead, his starting point is that early Christians believed that the resurrection occurred, and that subsequent understanding of Jesus’ divinity then grew from that core belief.

In the opening chapters, Ehrman recounts the ways that humans were understood by people in ancient societies to be able to become divine. Anyone familiar with the myths of ancient Greece and Rome will not be surprised by the three models he describes from these early societies, captured in sections descriptively entitled: “Gods who temporarily become Human,” “Divine Beings born of a God and a Mortal,” and “A Human who becomes Divine.” After reviewing these models, he goes on to provide examples of them, both to demonstrate their widespread conceptual acceptance in pre-Christian times, as well as to serve as a basis of comparison to statements made in Paul and the Gospels.

More surprisingly, Ehrman describes how versions of these same three models appear also in ancient Judaism, despite its monotheistic tradition; thus these concepts were present in the Jewish society in which Jesus was born, raised and preached. After a general overview of Judaism up to the time of the crucifixion, he gives examples from the Old Testament of each of the three models of human divinity. He also points out that there existed in Judaism an understanding that there could be gradations of divinity, for example the angels in heaven relative to God.

Having established the existing societal modes of thinking about divine beings around Jesus’ time, Ehrman then turns to the central question of his title: “how Jesus became God.” The key concept for Ehrman here, and throughout the book, is “in what sense”, within the gradations of divinity thought possible (from angels, say, to God himself), was Jesus thought of as divine?

He begins with a summary of the sources available to an historian examining this question: the Old and New Testaments, focusing in particular on the letters of Paul, and the Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. He describes how theological historians study these texts, and the analytical tools used to discern what historical facts can be establish from them. He includes a summary of the current scholarly consensus on such topics as when each of these sources was written, how they appear to be, or to not be, reporting similar events, how they appear to have had one or the other earlier, yet unknown, source material. Thus, he demonstrates how historians analyze these texts to tease out both an historical understanding of Jesus life, as well as the development of early Christian beliefs in the years after the crucifixion.

Based on these approaches to analyzing the texts, Ehrman first examines how Jesus most likely thought of himself; that is, whether he thought of himself as God. Analyzing what Jesus is reported to have said about himself in the earliest works of the New Testament, Ehrman claims that while Jesus called himself (and so thought of himself) as the messiah, from an historical perspective of the sources he cannot be shown to have called himself (or considered himself) God. Ehrman argues that though Jesus claims in John, the latest of the Gospels, that he is God, such claims do not appear in any of the earlier Gospels, and so “are part of John’s distinctive theology; they are not part of the historical record of what Jesus actually said.” (125)

Turning then to the resurrection, Ehrman uses the historical record available to us (that is, the Gospels) to point out key events associated with the resurrection that cannot be known. He focuses in particular on two: whether Jesus received a decent burial; and whether his tomb was later found to be empty. In both cases he demonstrates that based on an historical analysis of the Gospels, as wells as our current understanding of Roman crucifixion and burial practices of that period, these events “are subject to historical doubt” (151).

He then describes events surrounding the resurrection that he feels can be considered known, based on the historical evidence in the Gospels, of which three key points are:
(1) some of Jesus’s followers believed that he had been raised from the dead; (2) they believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and (3) this belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God. (174)
To substantiate each of these events he presents evidence from the Gospels, including evidence that aligns with what historians and scientists of other fields understand of the belief systems and behaviors of those times.

Having laid the foundation, in the opening half of the book, of the history up to the point just after Jesus’s crucifixion, Ehrman then goes on to address his primary question: how, and in what sense, Jesus came to be understood to be God.  Over the final four chapters of the book, he presents evidence from the Gospels demonstrating that in the decades after the resurrection a rapid shift occurred in Christian understanding of when Jesus became divine, as well as the extent of his divinity (i.e., how similar to God he was believed to be).

Based on evidence from the Gospels, Ehrman argues that in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion, Jesus' disciples and others came to believe that he had been resurrected and exalted to heaven by God.   Thus the very earliest Christians believed that Jesus was a human who became divine after having died on the cross.

This understanding quickly evolved, according to Ehrman, in the years after the crucifixion.  Though he acknowledges that the process was not smooth, and that it happened in different ways and at different rates across the various groups and congregations, Ehrman argues that there began a "backward movement of Christology." (236)   Thus, belief in the moment of Jesus’ exaltation moved to ever earlier points in his life: in Mark to the moment of his baptism by John the Baptist, and later in Luke and Matthew to the moment of his birth (or more precisely his conception).  The common thread in these views, however, was that Jesus was a human who became divine.

Subsequent Christians took a significant, further step, developing "incarnation Christologies, ... maintain[ing] that Christ was a preexistent divine being who became human before returning to God in heaven." (249).  Ehrman reviews evidence from the letters of Paul that describes Christ as an angel come to Earth in human form, while the writings of John describe Jesus as God come down to Earth.   This was a part of the transition in Christian belief sometime around the end of the first century C.E. to the view that Jesus was a part of the same stuff as God, an understanding that would culminate, in the early fourth century C.E., with the Nicene Creed, which effectively established the idea of the Trinity.

The path from John to Nicea was not smooth, however, and Ehrman dedicates a chapter to examining various "Christological Dead Ends."  He notes that "within Christianity ... there is a right view and lots of wrong views" (285), and he provides a sampling of some of the "wrong views" that demonstrate the variety of ways in which Christian theologians of the second and third century C.E. attempted to explain the relationship between Christ and God, and how the vast majority of these views were eventually deemed heretical.

A substantial step forward in settling the matter came under pressure from the Roman Emperor Constantine.  Ehrman notes that in the early fourth century Constantine converted to Christianity, and made it a "favored religion" (345) of the empire.  Aside from his personal religious beliefs, Constantine did this at least in part to accrue the benefits of Christianity as a unifying social, cultural and political force.  When he learned, however, that Christian views of the relationship between Christ and God were creating contentious rifts among Christian theologians and their followers, he called upon them to come together and settle their differences, leading to the declaration of the Nicene Creed by the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., and the formalization of the idea of the Trinity.

In an Epilogue, Ehrman looks beyond what was settled at Nicaea, presenting a sampling of the on-going controversies inside the Church in the years that followed concerning the finer points of orthodox doctrine. He points out repeated instances in which what was considered orthodox at one point in time becomes redefined just a few years later as heresy, in the face of a new, more developed orthodoxy.

Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill, has written a number of books on Christian history and traditions, and so is far from a newcomer to this field of inquiry. He mentions in the book that he was born-again in high school, converting into a conservative, evangelical Christianity, and that later, after having studied at a bible institute and while pursuing an advanced degree at a Theological Seminary, began to have doubts, doubts that grew to the point that he now considers himself an agnostic.

So, in a sense, he has the scholarly background as a theologian, and the skeptical aspect as an agnostic, to be able to examine the evidence, and report out his interpretation, while acknowledging that there is a critical and clear distinction between what is taken as faith and what can be analyzed from an historical perspective. He in fact points out near the beginning of the book:
I have tried to approach this question in a way that will be useful not only for secular historians of religion like me, but also for believers like my friend who continue to think that Jesus is, in fact, God. As a result, I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God. This historical development certainly transpired in one way or another, and what people personally believe about Christ should not, in theory, affect the conclusions they draw historically. (3) 
Later in the book he does acknowledge that fundamentalists (such as he himself was in the past) who interpret the Bible literally and as the infallible word of God will likely not countenance this historical approach as being appropriate.

Anyone interested in a more thorough understanding of how early Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus developed in the decades after his crucifixion will find Ehrman’s book a clearly explained and fascinating examination of the historical record that comes to us through the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Ehrman deftly combines these New Testament writings with descriptions of beliefs and practices in the Greek, Roman and Jewish societies of that time, achieving just the right balance between convincing detail and engaging overview.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Review: "The Library of Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges

The Library of Babel (2000; originally published in 1941)
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Etchings by Erik Desmazières
Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

39 pages

Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel opens
The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.
The people who live among these galleries are called librarians, and Borges’ narrator is one of them; he describes the bookshelves that line the walls of each of these hexagonal galleries, and how each gallery connects to others exactly like it, stretching out to unknown distances above, below and beyond. He tells us that over many centuries librarians have postulated and eventually accepted as true certain fundamental axioms about the Library, such as that each book is filled with a combination of a fixed set of “twenty-five orthographic symbols,” that the Library contains books with every possible combination of these symbols, and that no two books in the Library are the same.

Starting from this deceptively simple structure, Borges creates a strikingly intricate short story, filled with emotional and intellectual complexity. As generations of librarians build on their ancestors’ knowledge to develop a better understating of the Library’s structure and purpose and origin, some among them challenge the accepted understanding, and promulgate contrasting views, sometimes forcefully. The result is a messy, complicated, fabulous world, whose inhabitants experience hope and melancholy, awe and despair, as they spend their lives moving among the vast expanses of hexagonal galleries of books.

Told in compact, vivid prose, this story can be enjoyed by a reader as simply a creative piece of fantasy fiction. It becomes transcendent, however, with the recognition that Borges’ imagined library serves as an evocative allegory for our own universe, in which we, like the librarians of the story, seek to divine from our limitless surroundings some enlightenment about the structure of our reality, the meaning of our existence, the circumstances of our beginnings.

This piece was originally included in a book of Borges’ short stories published in the early 1940’s; a few years later it was included in perhaps Borges’ most well-known collection Ficciones (in English, Fictions). Though the collection has been translated into English, I encourage you to read this story in the gorgeous edition from the publisher David R. Godine (2000). It includes a series of eleven etchings by Erik Desmazières, which, as Angela Giral points out in her introduction to the book, “are no mere illustrations of the writer’s words; they are the product of a parallel imagination, inspired to create in visual images his own, equivalent universe."  (The cover picture is a partial example of one of the etchings.)

In this beautiful edition, which you will enjoy returning to again and again, the combination of Borges’ captivating story and Desmazières’ evocative etchings demonstrate the power of a book to transport readers to another world.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: 'seveneves' by Neal Stephenson

seveneves (2015)
Neal Stephenson (1959)

 867 pages

In one of my recent book reviews I recalled the 50-page-rule --- that a book should be given 50 pages before deciding whether or not to finish it. As I read Neal Stephenson’s seveneves, the rule most definitely did not come into play; I was hooked from the opening line, and when I first checked on my progress I was already 57 pages in, fully engrossed in the world he creates.

Set just a few years into our future, the book opens with, quite literally, a bang: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparently reason."

The explosion leaves behind seven large fragments, plus a cloud of smaller bits and pieces, and, once the initial shock of the dramatic change in mankind’s view of the heavens subsides, appears largely non-threatening. Within days, however, scientists begin to understand that the new arrangement in Earth’s orbit is not as stable and benign as originally thought, and the situation quickly devolves into an inexorable countdown to disaster, leaving humanity in a struggle against time and odds for survival. With a hard, if not precisely defined, deadline in place, the nations of the world organize their citizens around a dramatic build-up of the International Space Station (ISS), to create a refuge for humanity in space.

Stephenson has divided his story of the legacy of the moon’s explosion into three parts. The book opens with the initial disaster, and the reactions of the world’s peoples to the rapidly approaching deadline the Earth faces. The second part slips ahead to the moments immediately before the cataclysm, and continuing on into the first several years after it, as the contingent of humans in space attempt to achieve a sustainable existence from which the human race can again develop. The final third of the novel jumps to the far distant future, to what has developed from the humble re-beginnings of the first post-apocalyptic years.

Starting from a simple premise --- Earth’s people forced to find a way to survive an apocalyptic event by creating a viable, sustainable presence in orbit above the Earth --- Stephenson creates a truly epic vision of our future. He presents a rousing story of action and adventure, as the main characters careen from one predicament to the next, trying to avoid potentially species-ending disasters while they create their future home in space, and then, several millennia later, as they look back toward a radically altered Earth. Fortunately, however, Stephenson does not just settle for an easy, mindless thrill-ride in his novel; instead he works into his story significant detail, through descriptions of the psychological and physical realities faced by the characters. This was a choice that surely complicated the preparation and writing of the book, but adds tremendously to the drama of the telling.

The psychological aspects are perhaps the less surprising of these, given the pre-ordained apocalypse that no one on Earth can ignore. Beyond the obvious issues for those doomed to a certain death, and others crammed into a small space struggling to survive, Stephenson broadens the story to include the kinds of political and social maneuvering and intrigue apparent in even the most superficial review of our daily news, with of course the pressure cooker of an apocalypse to heighten the stakes. Human nature also survives the apocalypse largely unchanged, in Stephenson’s view of the future, complicating a future that may look on the surface dramatically different than our present, but in which not unfamiliar conflicts play out. All of this makes a spicy addition to what would otherwise have been a quite run-of-the-mill science fiction tale.

Stephenson’s novel truly shines, however, with his descriptions of the science of what occurs in the novel, the physics and engineering behind much of what happens. Not satisfied, for example, to simply describe the shifting of a space craft from one orbit around the Earth to another, he explains the many challenges that such a seemingly simple maneuver entails, the why behind the significant planning and energy required. Taking what could easily have been distracting asides, Stephenson works them into the flow of the novel, so that, even if a reader might not be interested in such details per se, the understanding provided actually adds to the intrigue and tension of the moment. And for readers are interested --- in the challenges of living and working and maneuvering in space --- the story becomes a fascinating exploration of what may be possible just short decades into our future (if, hopefully, without the need for an apocalyptic event to make them manifest.)

For most of the novel Stephenson pulls off this tricky integration of added scientific detail into the story. I will admit that one place it felt a little forced was in his description of weapons of the distant future; those few pages felt more inserted than most of the other such topics --- less seamlessly incorporated into the story. But, that quibble aside, I found the novel doubly compelling for having the added level of authenticity.

Fans of science fiction, and particularly post-apocalyptic fiction, will find a lot to enjoy in Stephenson’s engaging novel. With fast-paced action that keeps you pushing ahead for more, and nitty-gritty details that give you a feeling of intoxicating plausibility, it will be hard to set the book down once you start it.

Other reviews / information:
In an interview in the Seattle Times, Stephenson is asked the question that will be on every reader’s mind when they finish the final page of seveneves:
Q: The end of “Seveneves” cries out for a sequel. Do you have one in mind?

A: There’s nothing currently in the works. A lot depends on what happens in the next few months, how people respond to the book, if there’s any interest in doing media adaptations. All science fiction and fantasy is about building worlds. When I was a kid, I remember reading Frank Herbert’s “Dune” for the first time. (There’s) a glossary of some of the unfamiliar terms used in the book. At first it was off-putting, though now it’s commonplace … by the time I had read through the glossary, I had a picture in my head of the way that this world works. It’s not just one story, it’s a whole world. … Almost any successful fantasy or science-fiction book is going to leave you with the sense that there could be more. 

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Review: "The Influencing Machine" by Brooke Gladstone

The Influencing Machine (2011)
Brooke Gladstone

Illustrated by Jeff Neufeld

170 pages

Brooke Gladstone edits and, along with Bob Garfield, hosts the engaging and informative weekly National Public Radio program On the Media, which analyzes how the media reports stories, as well as the complex relationships between the media and its audience, advertisers, and government leaders. In 2011, building off of her many years of experience on the show, Gladstone released a graphic nonfiction book, The Influencing Machine, in which she reviews the long history of the media. She tells the story using a comic book format in which she herself appears as a character, serving as our guide as she distills down for the reader how the media has evolved, and the variety of psychological biases that challenge reporters as they do their work.

The story opens with a summary of the history of the media, starting in the ancient societies of Guatemala and Egypt, where rulers put in place people responsible for documenting their deeds. After brief stopovers in Roman Empire and seventeenth century Europe, Gladstone quickly focuses in on “The American Exception,” tracing the early development of the press in the American colonies, its growth in the newly formed United States, and on up to modern times.

As she traces the development of the press in the US, it becomes clear that this represents a kind of history of the country itself; we discover that many of the contentious issues playing out today between the press and the government have their origins in the early years of our Republic. So, for example, the Sedition Act signed into law by President John Adams in 1798 during an undeclared naval war with France empowered the government to restrict speech that it felt maligned its policies and officials. Though the act was allowed to expire a few years later under Thomas Jefferson, similar acts have reappeared every few decades, whenever the government has felt threatened by too much free speech.

Gladstone goes on to describe the conflicted relationship the press has had, and continues to have, with its audience. She points out that levels of public trust in the media have varied widely over the course of the republic, and that recently, aside from a brief spike after 9-11, have reached painfully low levels. The reason often given for this low opinion of the press is that it is politically biased --- generally expressed as being too liberal.

The real problems for the media, Gladstone claims, are a host of other biases, which she examines in successive, short chapters: Commercial Bias (novelty sells), Bad News bias (threatening events sell), Status Quo Bias (resisting change sells), Access Bias (reporters enjoy contact with powerful figures), Visual bias (pictures sell), Narrative bias (stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, sell), and Fairness bias (bending over backwards to appear balanced sells). She notes that it can be all too easy for the media to fall into these various biases, often under the claim of giving the public what it wants. As she makes clear, however, each of these biases serves only to pervert and distort the reporting being done.

In an extended section she looks at how the negative effects of these existing biases become strengthened in times of war, as reporters struggle between their role as journalist and their role as citizens, and the government and the military balance the need to get the story out that they want told, while keeping secret what they don’t want revealed. Gladstone takes examples from the U.S. Civil War up through the War in Iraq to describe how the press, the government and military have performed a complicated dance with one another, each seeking the maximum advantage. As she points out, the public often suffers from the resulting confusion and obfuscation.

Her discussion on the role of the press in war-time leads directly to her next topic: Objectivity. She calls it “an unreachable goal – because it’s unprofitable to ignore your readers’ emotions, assumptions, and values,” (98) and goes on to describe the challenges to achieving it, using examples from as far back as the early 1800’s.

A particular aspect of Objectivity that she discusses, one that has been addressed extensively by scholars such as Noam Chomsky, is that much of the press constrains its reporting to within starkly defined limits. She cites a description from ‘historian Daniel Hallin [that] divides the journalist’s world into three spheres’, with reporters limiting themselves to a narrow, doughnut-shaped region of what’s allowed to be reported on, a region bounded on the inside side by “consensus ... unquestionable values and unchallengeable truths,” and on the other by “deviance ... the place for people and opinions that the ‘mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard.’” Again citing Hallin, Gladstone notes that the mainstream media not only confines itself to these hard bounds, but also “plays gatekeeper, by defining and defending ‘the limits of acceptable political conduct.’”(105) To go beyond these bounds to be marginalized, almost by definition.

This last thought plays into perhaps the most critical role of Gladstone’s book, her debunking of the idea that there is some sort of conspiracy of the media, through which the media are attempting to control the public --- that is, that there is an “influencing machine” at the heart of the media. Already in the Introduction, Gladstone firmly declares
There is no conspiracy. Even though the media are mostly corporate-owned, their first allegiance is to their public because, if they lose that allegiance, they lose money. … Conspiratorial. That’s a joke. Craven? Not quite so funny. (xiv)

The book comes in at some 170 pages and with its comic book format one could imagine that ultimately there is not much content. Quite the opposite is true, however; Gladstone has done an excellent --- and undoubtedly crazy-time-consuming --- job of condensing a huge amount of detailed information into each page, using the strengths of the comic strip format and the wonderful illustrations by Jeff Neufeld, to reinforce and amplify her message. Someone looking for a clear and yet compact summary of the role of the media, and the issues facing it, would be well-served starting with Gladstone’s excellent book.

Other reviews / information:

For Noam Chomsky's take on the limitations within which the media operate, and which they also help to enforce, see for example Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, a thorough and pointed discussion of the history and implications of the situation.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: "The Siege in the Room" by Miquel Bauçà

The Siege in the Room (1997)
Miquel Bauçà (1940-2005)

Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent

 149 pages

When you hear about the so-called 50 page rule, the discussion seems to fall into two camps: those who tend to stop reading a book they don’t like after just 10 or 20 pages, and so use the rule to force themselves to always give a book at least 50 pages before quitting on it; and those who generally always finish a book they start, even if they have to struggle through it, and use the rule to give themselves the excuse to sometimes quit a book early. My tendencies place me firmly in that second group: I try to be selective when I choose a book (so probably miss out on some good ones --- there’s no perfect solution when time is limited), but once I start a book, I feel a commitment to the author to finish it. Even when I was in principle following the 50 page rule, I only seldom invoked it; nonetheless there were a few books I gave up on.

Then, some years ago, I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World. As I approached the 50 page mark, I found myself on the verge of setting it aside --- there were another 500 some pages to go, and I wasn’t finding myself engaged. Suddenly, on page 48, Vargas Llosa’s story reached out and grabbed me by the neck, and it didn’t release its grip until I had finished the book. I recall the moment when it took hold of me very clearly, including my realization that, if the typeset or the structure of the edition had been ever so slightly different, and what I read on page 48 had been instead on page 52, I may have quit too early, thus depriving myself of an amazing, thrilling, engaging story. From that point on, my use of the 50 page rule went from seldom to essentially never.


The idea of it, the option, has still been there in the background. And I must admit that, as I struggled through the first of the three novellas by Miquel Bauçà collected into The Siege in the Room, I was tempted to set the book aside. Ultimately I persevered --- in part because the 50 page mark was already a third of the way through the book anyway--- but it was a dogged fight on to the end.

That said, I don’t necessarily want to scare you off from giving these novellas a try. The first, Carrer Marsala, won literary prizes in Barcelona, and brought Bauçà some amount of fame; the fact that, according to the translator’s introduction, Bauçà steadfastly refused to acknowledge these honors, and the resultant renown, may ultimately not be wholly unrelated to his challenging writing style. Picking up this book, you just need to enter with an understanding of Bauçà’s style in these novellas, and your own preference as a reader.

The three stories are each told in a first person, stream of consciousness style, though in each case by a narrator who doesn’t bother to fill in any background, and who is unable to maintain a coherent train of thought for more than a few successive sentences. That is not to say that our narrator’s ruminations are random; rather, he follows a line of thought for a couple few sentences, then suddenly keys in on some element of what he has just told us, and allows it to take his thoughts into a new direction, only to diverge yet again onto another path a few sentences later.

The result is a surreal mixture of introspection that sometimes can seem on the verge of a profound conclusion, before veering again and again into the banal. The overall impact of his style is best comprehended by simply reading several pages of one of the stories, but, to give a hint of what to expect, here are the opening paragraphs of the first story:
Maybe the world hadn’t always been sad. When we say our words are dragged down by inertia, we mean that what we learn as a pup stays with us. The same applies to other things. Girls, for example, use the phone but don’t know its precise function.
I spread my fingers. Carefully I study the outline of their bones. Who can deny me this innocent activity? More than one person might be annoyed by it. Many people believe that it’s impossible to agree with all your neighbors at the same time. Faced with this situation, isn’t it only fair to choose what best suits me? (5)

This first story continues on in this manner, with no definable plot, or even a recognizable order to what we learn about the narrator and his world. The effect is one of tapping into the mental ramblings of a somewhat paranoid loner, who is looking out at a frenetic world, unable to find a stable place within it.

The second novella, The Old Man, is told in a similar style, though it at least contains a single, tiny plot point, around which the narrator’s thoughts revolve. Specifically, he recalls having moved into an apartment building to which came an “officer who, on the first Wednesday of every month, climbed the stairs to give the old man on the first floor a beating.” (67) Curious to learn why this happens, but hesitant to become involved in the loathsome gossip-mongering of the menagerie of his fellow residents, our narrator drifts along on the edge of resolution, and of coherent thought.

In the final novella, The Warden, our narrator is apparently the charge of a female warden, though the precise relationship between the two appears more complex than simply that of a prisoner and jailer. The narrator describes moments of apparent (or imagined?, or past?) freedom, but his thoughts always return to the enigmatic connection he has with his jailer.

In each of these three novellas there is the indication of the passage of time; in the first story, for example, the narrator mentions at one point that “Today … is … Thursday,” and, a little later, that “Tomorrow is Saturday.” But these statements provide no firm handle for the reader to grasp onto. If anything they imply, or perhaps reinforce, that we only get pieces of the narrator’s thoughts, stitched together. The point of the stories seems to be the particular style and structure Bauçà created; the plot remains unimportant. A potential analogy in art, for example, would be the movement from paintings that tell a specific story --- historical or biographical or religious --- to Surrealist art, in which a coherent story can be difficult to fathom.

If you appreciate the surreal, or simply like to experience unusual forms of storytelling, give Bauçà’s three novellas in The Siege in the Room a go. Just prepare yourself for a strange ride.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: "Our Only World" by Wendell Berry

Our Only World (2015)
Wendell Berry (1934)

 178 pages

… the industries of landscapes: agriculture, forestry, and mining. Once they have been industrialized, these enterprises no longer recognize landscapes as wholes, let alone as the homes of people and other creatures. They regard landscapes as sources of extractable products. They have “efficiently” shed any other interest or concern. (p. 6)
With this emphatic statement Wendell Berry introduces his central theme early in Our Only World, a collection of ten recent essays in which he returns to and further refines ideas with which he has been involved for many years as an author, activist and cultural critic. Over several of the essays Berry highlights the damage done to the land by our modern, industrialized approach to agriculture, which focuses largely, if not exclusively, on the efficiency of farming operations while ignoring the impact of this focus on the land and the people who live on it.

Berry goes on to deeply implicate our modern lifestyle as a key underpinning for the powerful grip that the industrialized approach holds on agriculture. Despite the grim picture he paints of the current state of affairs in our rural areas, however, Berry does also give examples of people developing and implementing ways to return to more sustainable methods of farming and working the land. He argues that these approaches most coalesce into a broader movement, if we hope to survive over the long term.

Reading these essays by Berry, I was reminded of a statement made by Colin Tudge in his 1996 book The Time Before History: 3 Million Years of Human Impact: “… the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people.” A simple sentence on the face of it, but reading it I had both the feeling that it was an obvious and fundamental truth, and that I had a sudden, new-found understanding of reality; it radically altered my view of the world, well beyond agriculture. Tudge, like Berry, did not mean to imply that a particular farmer does not take pride in the food his work provides; his point was instead that agriculture as a system, as an industry, exists not to feed people, but rather, as Tudge goes on to say, “[has] been designed primarily to fit in with prevailing economic norms, or to justify some political conceit or other. Thus, western agriculture [for example] is designed in the end to maximize profit.” (p. 325)

Berry draws the same conclusion in his essays, but as part of a broader point. He argues that prioritizing profit-driven crop selection and efficiency-driven farming techniques, while ignoring the fitness of a particular piece of land to support these choices, causes modern industrialized agriculture to destroy the land, and so, ultimately, all of us. Fritjof Capra makes a similar point in his book The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living: “our complex industrial systems … are the main driving force of global environmental destruction, and the main threat to the long-term survival of humanity.” The destruction may be more gradual in some places, more rapid in others, but the end result is in either case inevitable.

Berry notes that this destruction occurs both directly, say in the erosion of the soil through industrialized farming practices and the degradation of surrounding waterways and forests from the run off of the herbicides and fertilizers needed to sustain these techniques, and also indirectly, through the loss of the historical knowledge of place fundamental to both good land management and a close monitoring of the health of the land. He borrows from the environmentalist and author Wes Jackson the concept of the “eyes-to-acres ratio.” Thus, Berry observes, as farms become more industrialized operations requiring far fewer workers, both farmers and those who support farm-work leave their rural hometowns to find work; and, as these small towns decline in population, they also lose the knowledge that had protected the land for generations. This removes yet another restraint on the implementation of efficiency-focused improvements that result in destructive farming practices, and thus further hastens the ruination of the land.

To counter this growing calamity, Berry calls for a return to a less industrialized form of agriculture, to farming done with an understanding of which crops and techniques best suit the particular land being farmed. This would lead to a shift from a regime in which profit stands alone as the sole priority, to one in which sustainability --- of the land and the people on it --- plays a significant role. He describes nascent, locally-centered approaches to growing food that he says mark a return to smaller farms and markets that operate through a deep knowledge of the land being worked, and he calls for these efforts to be supported and expanded. He describes the 50-Year Farm Bill, legislation that he notes currently has little chance of passing in Congress, but has as its goal a complete revamping of our agricultural systems into a more sustainable direction.

The challenge, as Berry recognizes, is to create the space to implement these more locally-organized, and so sustainable, approaches --- the economic space not present in modern, industrial agriculture. Berry’s solution, in proposals described across several of these essays, is a return to an earlier form of working and living on the land. He acknowledges that for this to be possible, however, we must all of us turn away from a profit-driven society and toward a much simpler way of life, with the ultimate goal of having a significantly reduced impact on the world, and a much closer connection to the land. This ultimately means leading a less energy intensive way of life, one more centered on our local communities, our neighbors and the land on which we live.

At one point he concedes that
It may be that we can keep without harm some industrial comforts: warm baths in wintertime maybe, maybe painless dentistry.
One can read this as a bit tongue-in-cheek, but certainly it’s intended to confront us not only with the extent of his proposal, but also the generally unacknowledged, and often unrealized breadth of connections between our industrialized society and our daily lives, and so the impact of our life-styles on the world. It is not just in the ever more wondrous techno-toys offered us; our industrialized society touches nearly everything we do in a day, unless we are simply out for a walk near our homes, or working in our gardens. His prescription can seem, and in fact is, a tall order. But, as his review of the ecological damage wrought by industrialized agriculture --- on our land and so on us ---- makes clear, such a change of living standards may eventually be “forced upon us” by environmental events. (p.150-151)

One essay in this collection deviates from the topic of land use and sustainability. In Caught in the Middle, Berry opens with the observation that
in the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be of one of only two sides, liberal or conservative, … [that] we appear thus to have evolved into a sort of teenage culture of wishful thinking, of contending “positions,” over-simplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.(p. 73-74)  
He then goes on to write a brilliant and stirring plea for the recognition of a middle ground, a place where complexity is embraced, and easy, thoughtless answers are shunned. He grounds the discussion in what have been, and remain, two highly controversial subjects: abortion and homosexual marriage. On abortion he points out fallacies and inconsistencies in the arguments on both sides of the debate, and, after clarifying his own personal view, makes a strong case for a clear political solution to the issue. On homosexual marriage, too, he debunks the most commonly heard arguments, and concludes by going back to the Bible to define and defend the rights that, two years after his essay was first published, have now been secured by the Supreme Court.

Largely, however, these essays examine the damage our modern way of life is doing to the land, and as a consequence to all of us as individuals on that land and in society. Together Berry’s writings make a forceful call for each of us to embrace a simpler, quieter life, to become more attuned to the land we live on and its needs, and so to play a critical role in stopping the destruction that we, most of us, now contribute to when we ignore the impact our lifestyles have on our planet.

Other reviews / information:

Along with the Colin Tudge quote I referenced above, reading these essays reminded me also of something from an article  by Bill Kauffman, for the Utne Reader (linked to here),
For almost 60 years, the placeless have waged war on the rooted, stealing their children, devastating their neighborhoods, wiping out local peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. … What we have is class war --- though this war has never been acknowledged because the casualties are places and attachments and sentiments, nothings really, everythings, in fact --- waged by the mobile against the rooted, and the winners are the professionals, people so depraved that they would actually move to a different place for mere money. How bizarre.

I recently saw a bumper sticker relevant to this topic: “There is no Planet B”

I have also read by Wendell Berry --- though before I began writing this blog of reviews:
  • In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World [2001]: essays that touch on our modern corporate and political society, and also on the importance of moving to more local economies.
  • Citizenship Papers [2003]: 19 essays on a range of topics from the national security response to 9-11, to issues related to the agrarian and local economy themes of Our Only World.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf