Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best of 2013, Part One

Year’s end is upon us, and with it, the need to evaluate twelve months’ accomplishments. After sorting one year’s literature, dividing worthy from unworthy to help you make informed decisions, some books linger in my mind longer than others. If you’ve read my reviews, but delayed purchasing anything, here’s your chance. Month by month, I sort which books weren’t just good, but actually stayed with me long enough to matter.



January: The Age of Anti-Anti-Americanism

Recent events in India, including protests outside the American embassy and burnings of the American flag, have awakened old accusations of global anti-Americanism. But what’s really happening in India? While nationalist politicians agitate the crowd, realistic complaints against American diplomatic heavy-handedness keep the protests alive. Cable news bromides only confuse an already dark debate.

Max Paul Friedman’s Rethinking Anti-Americanism examines a durable accusation, recasting populist (and anti-populist) rhetoric in a multinational context. America’s unique geographical situation—no enemy can really attack us—and extreme wealth keep citizens unaware of fraught global situations. We often mistake opportunities for threats, to our own detriment. Simply broadening our outlook may improve our own, and international, peace.



February: Gillian Philip's Bleak and Godless Fantasy

JRR Tolkien's unquestioned status in fantasy fiction hasn’t immunized him from criticism. Many authors denounce his explicitly Roman Catholic ethics in Lord of the Rings. And authors like Philip Pullman and George RR Martin have written counter-fantasy based on secular ethics. Scottish author Gillian Philip’s debut, Firebrand, eschews Pullman’s didacticism, and Martin’s wordiness, creating a taut, muscular fantasy that challenges Christian triumphalism while telling a cracking good story.



March: What Happens In Fantasyland, Part 2

When American news sources recently lost their noggins over krokodil, a Russian hybrid drug that peels and necrotizes users’ skin, I remember thinking: “They should read more paperback fantasy.” Vicki Pettersson's The Lost warned of this drug’s possible encroachment months before it hit American shores. Pettersson predicted both the suffering this drug causes, and the despair that makes users embrace a suicidal high.

Book Two in Pettersson’s “Celestial Blues” features protagonists living outside their time, and thus open to influences to which contemporary hipsters are already jaded. By pitting her heroes’ Eisenhower-era innocence against Las Vegas’ seamy primordial sin merchantry, she makes readers question why we take modernity’s truly awful side effects for granted. Vicki Pettersson is raising urban fantasy to high art, whether it wants to evolve or not.



April: Daniel Palmer's Cathartic Torture Epic

After a frankly inauspicious career start, Daniel Palmer has found his feet. Palmer’s third novel, Stolen, has a familiar thriller premise: an ordinary person stumbles into a vast, brutal conflict, and must adapt or die. But Palmer salts his story with contemporary twists, including health care abuse, Internet celebrity, and postmodern poverty. His comfy thriller tropes let Palmer thrust a mirror in our faces, saying, “This crime is about you.”



May: First Contact and Nightfall

SG Redling’s Damocles seems to reverse familiar science fiction boilerplates. You’ll recognize Asimov, LeGuin, and Silverberg among Redling’s influences. But by making humans land on a distant world, she upends decades-old conventions. Regular human xenophobia looks very different when we’re on the receiving end. Fans of paperback space opera (like me) will find their cozy prejudices challenged.

But that’s just the surface. Redling does something few SF authors have done before: she makes interstellar exploration into a job. Her humans maintain technology, look for food, and struggle to parse native languages. Her earthbound aliens point guns at the discoverers because this is their home, dammit. Redling strips space opera of its high romantic overtones, making starships into blue-collar enterprises occupied by ordinary people like, well, us.



June: Gay and Christian in a Changing America

The only Christian book on this list, Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, distills several important voices in one of today’s most important religious debates. The Phil Robertson controversy has spotlighted one of modern Christianity’s most pervasive problems, its loyalty, both within and without, to sexual ethics which it has forgotten why it first adopted.

Blind, and selective, obedience to Levitical law has earned Christianity a reputation for benighted intolerance. But a significant minority of Christians have come to believe that, if Jesus died for our sins, he died for all sins, not just the ones majority moralists find acceptable. Chu doesn’t purpose to resolve this debate. But he agrees that we must take steps to find homes for all Christians, regardless of their particular sin.

Part Two: July Through December

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Amputee's Dream

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 27
Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes: Poems


Jillian Weise is an amputee. Let's discuss that first, because her altered body, and its attendant demands on her spirit, recur early and often in her verse. Does her prosthetic leg make her disabled, disfigured, different? Like the best poets, she resists answering her own questions, preferring the process. After all, her leg isn't her only interesting trait, just the one outsiders see first, and judge.

And that dominates the greatest portion of her verse: not how she responds to her own disability (if that's the word), but how others respond to it. She appears to take it for granted. Poems like "The Ugly Law," about how cities formerly used legislation to keep undesirables out of sight, or "Elegy for Zahra Baker," about a murder victim similarly transformed, unpack how others perceive women with prosthetics.

Therefore, Weise crafts remarkable voice poems, creating wholly realized identities who judge and criticize, dissecting herself vicariously. Sometimes Weise slips among voices, sudden and unannounced, mid-poem, creating a dreamlike texture where everything and nothing coexists simultaneously. At times, it's impossible to determine exactly who's speaking, as in her thirdhand self-examination, "Café Loop":
She had it easy, you know. I knew her
from FSU, back before she was disabled.

I mean she was disabled but she didn't
write like it. Did she talk like it?

Do you know what it is exactly?
She used to wear these long dresses

to cover it up. She had a poem
in The Atlantic. Yes, I'll take water.
But despite this motif, Weise doesn't write a book about her amputation. She's written two previous books; perhaps she's already come to grips with this theme. Instead, she expounds how her condition colors how she receives others, and how others receive her. Friends, lovers, lost loves: this is a book about people communicating, or failing to communicate, with one another.

Recurrent throughout this collection, Weise revisits Big Logos, a mysterious, self-destructive figure and apparently burned-out poet. Weise calls herself Big Logos' mistress, and speaks of his other woman as his girlfriend, lover, wife... Just as other voices meld into a dreamlike gestalt, one suspects Big Logos is an amalgam of men who have hurt her, as in "Semi Semi Dash," which I quote in full:
The last time I saw Big Logos he was walking
to the Quantum Physics Store to buy magnets.
He told me his intentions. He was wearing

a jumpsuit with frayed cuffs. I thought the cuffs
got that way from him rubbing them against
his lips but he said they got that way

with age. We had two more blocks to walk.
"Once I do this, what are you going to do?"
he asked. "I wish you wouldn't do it," I said.

Big Logos bought the magnets and a crane
delivered them to his house. After he built
the 900-megahertz superconductor, I couldn't go

to his house anymore because I have all kinds
of metal in my body. I think if you love someone,
you shouldn't do that, build something like that,

on purpose, right in front of them.
Big Logos arrests Weise's attention: his massive generator, his struggles with ancestry, his apparent violent streak. But who is Big Logos? Weise is inconsistent, probably because she has combined many men to create this monument to her pain. Big Logos becomes, not an individual, but a prism through which Weise examines her own Todestrieb. Consider "Poem For His Ex," where she enumerates her perceived unworthiness:
So what's up? Where are you these days?
Last I heard you worked at a bakery.
Last I read your poems were lower case

with capital content. I used to like
to read them in the dark. It's weird
you're not his girl anymore.

You were the picture in a snow globe
on his desk that I'd go to, shaking,
when he left the room. That room.
Weise's catalog of disappointment could easily slip into a self-parodying dirge. Indeed, she dances close to the maudlin more than once. But she retains her essential humanity, and her readers' loyalty, by keeping her gaze clear during her long, minute self-autopsy. She doesn't make herself either a romantic hero or the dregs of something lesser; she's just herself, capable of emotional extremes like you or I.

Weise might call herself a partial woman. She might call herself a disabled soul. But her ability to know herself, and show what she knows, makes her greater, and more direct. This isn't easy reading. But it is very, very honest.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jacques Lacan, Secular Apostle

Jacques Lacan, On the Names-of-the-Father

Want to start a fistfight in a university humanities classroom? Just name-drop Jacques Lacan and watch the feathers fly. No single thinker of modern (slash-post-modern) times polarizes opinion so starkly. Academics love or loathe Lacan; only those who’ve never encountered his densely allusive theories remain neutral. That’s why this extremely concise book makes a good introduction to Lacan studies, and a précis of current critical theory.

Lacan (1901-1981), like most postwar Freudian theorists, was personally atheist. But unlike Freud himself, Lacan believed religion embodied human attempts to comprehend the ultimately incomprehensible. Though that in itself is hardly controversial, Lacan viewed this insight through a psychoanalytic filter that perceived Father as an Oedipal foe we must vanquish. How can this jibe with faith in a beneficent, all-knowing Father whom we petition in love?

The Name-of-the-Father evolved within Lacan’s thinking over decades, overlapping other important concepts, coloring how Lacan and his followers perceived central human interactions. But Biblical influence signifies a multiply named Father, a patriarch whose panoply of titles reflects an ever-changing relationship with His people. Spiritual transcendence distorts conventional psychoanalysis. Lacan begins here to address this apparent paradox.

Begins, I say, because though Lacan introduces the principle here, he begins the idea in a symposium abruptly abridged by his frequent conflicts with the establishment. Lacan’s literary executor, Jacques-Alain Miller, notes that this symposium, once abandoned, never resumed, and the transcript languished for decades. Lacan didn’t want the manuscript published during his lifetime. He believed the world wasn’t ready for his newfangled grandeur.

Lacan’s twofold approach requires he first reiterate one of his common creeds, the subdivision of perception into the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. By recognizing the difference between the real (biological) father, the imaginary (loved) father, and the symbolic (law-giving) father, we can commence understanding the multiple, transcendent Father. Thus the book commences the modes of a theological creed, though it flinches before bringing the idea to maturity.

Psychoanalysis often displays unacknowledged messianic inclinations. Freud believed he could heal humanity’s lingering suffering with his “talking cure,” while Carl Jung’s experiments with alchemy and mysticism eventually convinced him of his own holy mission. Lacan’s “Return to Freud” statements, here and elsewhere, suggest himself as the Apostle Paul. But he sometimes ventures into disquieting trinitarian veins: Freud as Father, Lacan as Son, and their books as indwelling Spirit.

Not for nothing did Deleuze and Guattari condemn the dogmatic inclinations of postwar psychoanalytic theory.

Yet this modern creed’s willingness to engage with older cosmologies explains psychanalysis’s ability to survive changing science. New neurological breakthroughs have forced re-evaluations of existing psychoanalytic doctrine (particularly that which rests on Freud’s or Lacan’s personal authority). Yet Lacan’s intellectual catholicity absorbs challenges in ways Christianity substantially has not. This resilience keeps psychoanalysis germane to lived society, and sustains its vital core, even when workaday applications must adapt or die.

This slim book, running barely ninety pages plus back matter, began life as two speeches Lacan gave in 1953 and 1963, is certainly more comprehensible than his immensely compressed prose. As spoken language does, this runs more open and lucid, permitting audiences to hear and grasp it immediately. Not that anyone will mistake it for breezy beach reading: even Lacan’s apparently extemporaneous speech is complex, Latinate, and specialized.

But his impermeable dialectic only serves to emphasize his true approach. A notoriously erudite speaker, Lacan’s long, wordy, frequently tangential approach passes through opaque arteries in pursuing its goal. Some portions appear unrelated to Lacan’s ultimate point, revealing their pertinence only in retrospect, if ever. One doesn’t read Lacan straightforwardly; like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or the Bible, one immerses oneself in the structure, wrestling to be transformed.

Rest assured, this book will generate more controversy than it resolves. He demonstrates his propositions using mathematical models that, absent identifiable numeric foundation, permit plural, contradictory interpretation. Lacan loves assertions predicated on personal authority, and often forestalls doubt by proclaiming: “It cannot be otherwise.” His first lecture herein concludes with a lengthy Q&A, but ever resistant to friction, his second lecture commences with an injunction to siddown and shuddup.

Lacan, like Darwin or TS Eliot, forms a bottleneck which all thought must traverse in approaching modernity. Scandal is the point of his work, not an accident of form. And his often arcane language lets ideological enemies use the same quotes to opposite ends. But new readers will find herein a concise introduction to Lacan, while longstanding believers will find an intriguing, uncompleted avenue of thought. This difficult book deserves a dedicated audience.

Friday, December 20, 2013

King David, Unholy Warrior

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 26
Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel


Sunday school teachers and mitzvot scholars have loved King David since… well, since David’s reign. His resistance to tyrannical King Saul, zeal for justice, and harmony with G-d have made him central to two world religions, arguably three. But reading his real story in the Books of Samuel, David appears deeply flawed, his reign a study in unfulfilled potential. Who is David, whose line will supposedly reign forever?

Robert Alter brings a necessary outsider’s perspective to reading David. Trained in comparative literature, he made his name with celebrated studies on secular authors like Stendhal and Kafka, before applying literary standards to exegetical translation. Besides the Books of Samuel, Alter’s award-winning translations of the Torah and Psalms have blown centuries of worshipful dust off books that, when read in their original context, prove disquieting, even scary.

Hardly the gentle, almost girlishly fair depiction favored in children’s books, Alter paints a ferocious David emerging from savage times. Israel is a mountain-dwelling people besieged on all sides by bloodthirsty nations and barbaric warlords. The agrarian Israelites lack iron weapons and stone fortifications. They survive by their willingness to die defending their tribes. Unlike today’s ethereal oil paintings, early Israel was a harsh, muscular people.

From this milieu arises the prophet Samuel. Raised by Eli the priest, Samuel witnesses the hereditary priesthood’s decline into sybaritic rot. Eli’s wanton sons hasten war with the Philistines, losing the Ark of the Covenant and ending the Judges’ early, pastoral domain. This loss, and the people’s outcry over their Neolithic inability to face advanced enemies, pushes Samuel to do the unthinkable: anoint a human king over all Israel.

Samuel first crowns Saul, an army captain who doesn’t want power, but whom Samuel favors, apparently because Saul is very, very tall. But greedy, temperamental Saul proves unready, so Samuel anoints an alternate king: David. As Saul secures military victories but permits lawlessness at home, David gathers a rebel band. The dynastic struggle, bordered by constant war with enemies beyond number, makes A Game of Thrones resemble a bedtime story.

Alter's Samuel text seeks a broad audience with applications distinct from religious translators, who sometimes perform remarkable literary gymnastics to sanitize scripture for pious readers. Alter is unashamed that David is not some well-scrubbed young folk hero, but is a deeply conflicted and troubling figure. This translation uses multiple sources to reconcile the sometimes troubling Hebrew, and Alter’s extensive footnotes highlight how much information has been lost to the millennia.

The biblical historian describes the fall of Eli, Samuel, and Saul in lurid tones likely to shock the excessively pious. But if churchgoers blush at this, they’ll surely know fear at David's decline into bleak self-parody. Blinded by power, he turns monomaniacal, unable to rule his own house. Ultimately his eldest son rebels. Even for readers little interested in theological issues, the literary study in this translation is fascinating, controversial, and a real education.

David, Saul, and Samuel become truly fascinating characters in this translation, but the most interesting figure may be the author who crafted the text we now celebrate. Alter's attempts to trace multiple emendations of the master text will provoke controversy, but he shows just how conflicted the scriptural process inevitably must be. Alter traces the literary and theological choices which that author made in recording this powerful story for posterity.

Giambattista Vico, three centuries ago, noted that philosophers attempt to project themselves onto the past. But we can’t do that. Rome and Athens weren’t rough drafts for the present; past civilizations were just different. If that’s true about Greece and Rome, how much more does it apply to Bronze Age civilizations that lacked metal plows? Robert Alter reclaims ancient Israel from our modern romantic and religious notions.

Some readers will likely balk at parts of this translation. The supporting critical literature Alter chooses is more utilitarian than encyclopedic. Due to some linguistic gaps in the master text, there are several conjectural leaps on the page, which Alter acknowledges in his copious notes. Alter’s Samuel is literature, not pietism. Anyone who takes a dogmatic attitude toward the translation of scripture will probably reject some of this scholar's less-than-pious decisions.

But for improving comprehension of the original Hebrew literature for English-speaking audiences, Alter is a valuable addition to most libraries of study. His snappy, readable translation pairs well with his educational notes to create a book that will surely spur discussion and more intense thought about scripture. And it also makes the ancient epic into a fun read.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Eternity Runs in the Blood

Amy Boesky, editor, The Story Within: Personal Essays on Genetics and Identity

Female cancers run in Amy Boesky’s family. After her mother and aunt died young, Boesky and her sister chose elective surgery to forestall their own early deaths, a decision with ramifications not only for themselves and their childbearing potential, but for daughters who face the same grim choices. This painful personal history led Boesky to organize this collection, wherein people facing genetic diseases discuss what their genes say about them.

Many authors have spilled much ink over genetic science, and its medical and ethical implications for modern society. Less has been written about genetic patients’ lived personal experience, and little has received widespread attention. Thus, many patients suffering inherited illnesses, and parents passing such illnesses to their children, feel needlessly isolated. This collection should alleviate that loneliness, laying foundations for a community of dialog surrounding genetics’ costs and opportunities.

We’ve long known genetics exists. People comment on which parent a child more resembles, and warn kids about illnesses running in families. But developing science makes absolute knowledge possible where once we had only probabilities. Alarmists bleat of genetic discrimination and eugenics, while optimists praise the dawning era of treatment and prevention. But Boesky’s authors demonstrate the lived truth, for ordinary people, is more complex and subtle than that.

Boesky divides her collection three ways. Her first section focuses on discovering genetic inheritance and science’s broadening diagnostic capabilities. We’ve become increasingly able to identify Alzheimer’s, cancer, Huntington’s, and other illnesses long before symptoms manifest. Does knowing equal a death sentence? When must we test ourselves for difficult, debilitating genetic illnesses? Alice Wexler, whose sister discovered the Huntington’s gene, makes a persuasive case that knowledge isn’t necessarily “the truth.”

Her second section analyzes treatment. Genetic diseases that once spelled inevitable mortality, like cystic fibrosis or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, are now survivable, if recognized early. But treatments require not only solid science, but a welcoming community. Illnesses like schizophrenia, with its significant genetic component, never get treated, or even diagnosed, when surrounding cultures refuse to discuss them openly. We cannot treat what we cannot acknowledge.

Finally, Boesky turns to inheritance. What does it mean to have children, knowing they’ll inherit illnesses that have no cure, and may suffer physical pain or social stigma? Authors write about the difficulty of having children, knowing they’ll inherit disabilities and terminal conditions. And in one of this collection’s most heartrending essays, Laurie Strongin describes the painful decision to bear another child for the purpose of treating her dying firstborn.

Essays span the ideological map. Many authors come from Jewish backgrounds, unsurprisingly, since Jewish heritage has many diagnosed genetic anomalies. But one of this collection’s most hopeful essays comes from Mara Faulkner, who has learned much about survival and perseverance from her life in a Benedictine order. Authors are rich and poor, theist and skeptic, liberal and conservative, educated and self-taught. Their experience with genetic illness, not ideology, binds them.

Despite this collection’s scientific underpinnings, not every essay approaches its subject equally. Misha Angrist, a working genetic scientist, and journalists like Charlie Pierce and Patrick Tracey, approach their subjects with appropriate precision, and though they don’t do “dispassion,” they certainly emphasize the facts. But Emily Rapp, Michael Downing, and others have little patience for unbiased detachment, spotlighting individual experience. Kelly Cupo most embodies this latter trend, eschewing science altogether.

This collection’s one misfire comes in Joanna Rudnick’s essay about her struggles with BRCA, a female cancer gene. Basically, it isn’t an essay; Amy Boesky interviews Rudnick about her efforts making a PBS documentary about BRCA. That documentary sounds interesting, but the interview feels very Entertainment Weekly-ish. Editor Boesky, who has BRCA herself, returns to this gene as the foundation of her interest, but this article feels misplaced and intrusive.

Boesky’s best essays strike a balance between objective science and workaday participation. Much as we like the idea of knowable reality, reality exists in the tension where we lack knowledge, but must act. And that’s what Boesky’s authors do: they act. They get tested and seek treatment, or embrace unknowing for solid, defensible reasons. Nobody here is a mere passenger on life’s currents; they take command.

Where science treats in testable knowledge, Boesky’s authors offer lived experience, with its sloppy, chaotic tendencies in domains where nobody’s ordeal exactly repeats anybody else’s. Everybody facing genetic illness must reinvent the wheel. While this reality seems imposing, and we water our garden with tears, this collection reassures us that real humans have the ability to face that new reality with dignity and triumph.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Man Talking To God Talking To Man

Bruno Latour, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech

Try this thought experiment: can you believe and not believe simultaneously? Now notice your speech, your morphology, your interior monologue. How do your faithful and rational sides communicate? French sociologist Bruno Latour attempts exactly this, unpacking human religious motivation and linguistic intent, arriving at some unexpected conclusions. Though not everyone will embrace his dense, theoretical discursus, his conclusions are remarkably timely and revealing.

The Apostles commenced their missions when, on Pentecost, they spoke to everyone in their own language. Latour loves Pentecostal imagery, because it demonstrates an outward orientation: we speak to others, we don’t force them to conform to us. Supposedly. Too often, though, adherents and agnostics alike would freeze language in amber, compelling everyone to speak our language, never speaking theirs. We kill language by separating it from its audience. Then we act offended when others walk away.

Latour attempts to bestride the debate, seeking not any facile resolution, but to define the terms. He perceives the struggle between religious and secularized language as essentially contested: that is, the sides take definition from the debate, and therefore cannot win, since resolution robs them of meaning. To communicate with others, we must sacrifice certainty for context. All truth becomes a lie, Latour says, when we try to fix meanings decisively.

This approach requires all readers, believers and unbelievers alike, to sacrifice sacred cows. Latour uses important philosophical concepts in unconventional ways: his definition of “God” will make most theists squirm, and his definition of “belief” runs almost diametrically counter to Bentham and Locke’s usage. He thus implicitly rejects both anti-modernist beliefs in linguistic continuity, and Enlightenment belief in temporal triumphalism. Latour doesn’t let us consider any concept unquestionable or sacrosanct.

Bruno Latour
By prodding religious language from both ends, Latour uncovers a profound gap between how devout and secularized people use seemingly interchangeable language. Specifically, he contends, religious language doesn’t have what secularized ontology would call “meaning.” That is, we don’t use liturgy to transfer literally knowable information; we use liturgy to transform ourselves. Arguers straddling today’s religious divide get frustrated, because they don’t realize the same vocabulary serves incompatible purposes.

Apparently, Latour considers this conclusion subversive, to believers and skeptics alike. Maybe it is, to readers unfamiliar with contemporary philosophy. Latour conflates ideas familiar from authors like Foucault and Bonhoeffer, in a way that more highlights previously unrecognized concurrence than really adds anything new. Basically, he spotlights what seasoned readers didn’t realize they already knew. (Lacking either bibliography or index, it’s hard to say how deliberate Latour’s coevality is.)

Yet it explains contemporary American religious trends. While many Protestant and Evangelical churches embrace Enlightenment rationality, or some derivative thereof, several centuries late, many rank-and-file believers defect to Catholic and Orthodox worship, citing specifically the experiences’ antiquity. And though Latour’s approach treats “religion” and “Christianity” synonymously, it explains the Pagan resurgence, purporting as it does to restore humanity’s oldest, most undiluted worship practices.

Latour attempts to analyze religious discourse from a complete outside perspective, neither believer nor smug academic atheist. He pursues complete agnosticism, meaning he tries to avoid allying himself with any existing religious (or irreligious) doctrine. Thus, he describes attending Mass and following the liturgy without investing any belief in it. He purposes to discuss religion without recourse to God. He thinks this “shocking,” but I’ve read Émile Durkheim.

He achieves this putative agnosticism sometimes better than others. He treats religious credulity more fairly than, say, Freud. His approach invites comparison to Durkheim and Giambattista Vico, and more recent thinkers like John Polkinghorne and Stephen Jay Gould. But his mask periodically slips, permitting glimpses of a limp demi-Marxist undercarriage, laced with open distaste for anti-modernism. He avoids that annoying postgraduate password, lumpenproletariat, but only just.

This book sets new benchmarks for the expression “not meant for everyone.” Latour eschews such conventions as chapter breaks, and organizes his ideas in free-association panorama, meaning he runs 174 pages without letting readers pause to collect their thoughts. His dense école normal prose requires extreme dedication. Take copious notes; you’ll consult them often. Only truly resolute readers should undertake this book, and only with great forethought and caution.

Yet for Latour’s intended readers, this intriguing thought experiment will undoubtedly encourage spirited debate and much-needed introspection. It will force marked re-evaluations of dogmas and golden calfs, of both sacred and secular belief. Nobody will embrace Latour’s conclusions altogether, but most honest readers will recognize themselves in his polemics. Once we own our limitations, and only then, we become able to speak across the divide.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Identity Vendors



Kelley Lebrock's classic Pantene ad. Click
to enlarge and read the smaller text.
I never know how to process advertisements that claim a social conscience. Sure, in the video above, Pantene accurately spotlights the double standards that hamper high-achieving women in today’s business environment. Women shouldn’t feel impeded by judgments that only apply based on their chromosomes. But Pantene still wants to sell you shampoo. Would their sudden feminist turn have occurred if women worldwide felt okay with their hair?

This campaign is of a piece with Pantene’s classic 1980s “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” ads. Kelly LeBrock claimed she shampooed and blow-dried, same as any other woman, and therefore didn’t deserve women’s envy. Yet LeBrock’s highly styled ad, slathered in cosmetics, nevertheless reinforces the archetype that women should spend copious time on their appearance. Time they shouldn’t spend on jobs, or family, or… y’know… a life.

Such messages enforce class-based judgments on women—on people, really. Early male style icon Beau Brummell claimed he spent five hours daily getting dressed, which implicitly declared that he had five hours daily to waste on clothes. Many female beauty accessories, like high heels and concealer, originated at the court of Louis XIV, who was short and had smallpox scars. People mimicked these accoutrements in an attempt to look courtly.

Time hasn’t dulled beauty’s economic subtext. Pantene’s ad, above, correlates physical beauty, in the form of lustrous, full-bodied hair, with executive authority and wealth. In Pantene’s glamorous parallel universe, corporate accomplishment apparently includes a make-up team to smooth lady bosses’ skin tone and ensure they have no powder on their blouses. “Accomplish your utmost,” this ad whispers alluringly, “provided you never neglect your outward appearance.”

Promo still from Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty "Sketch Artist" ad.
Note how the "beautiful" image, right, looks more stereotypically Caucasian.
Attentive readers might recall Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which distributed an online ad recently comparing how women described themselves to how others described them. A police sketch artist created matching images. Not surprisingly, to anybody who knows women, the subjects described themselves plainer, dumpier, and less attractive than others described them. Barraged by unrealistic images of “normal” beauty, women become their own worst critics.

But the Campaign itself came under fire for spotlighting fair-haired, fair-skinned visions of beauty. Despite brief flashes of good-looking Hispanic and African American women, more than three minutes of this three-minute-thirty-second ad foregrounded white women, mostly blondes. The ad was as diverse as a Viking raid. Instead of subverting mainstream beauty ideals, it reinforced significant traditional attitudes, in a putatively empowering package.

Then, in the most appalling turn, it finished with an attractive middle-aged Caucasian woman stating that a woman’s perception of her own beauty colors her every other perception. If she doesn’t consider herself beautiful, it’ll drain her confidence, impede her career, and submarine her romantic prospects. So love your outward appearance, ladies! It’s the new, secular salvation! Wow, what a bitchslap to women not born with Baywatch looks.

Dove and Pantene don’t exist to uplift women or instill redeeming values. If you want that, buy a book or go to church. These corporations exist to sell you product, which they accomplish in part by first convincing you that you need what they sell. Your hair lacks shine! Your lizard-like skin needs moisture! We’ll fix it if you give us money! But if they said that aloud, they’d face outraged blowback, and for good reason.

This Eisenhower-era cosmetics ad is hardly a model
of enlightened gender roles. But at least it doesn't
pretend to feminist ideals it doesn't really possess.
Consider all the companies that actively tell women they’re currently inadequate. Hast thou uneven skin? L’oreal gives you that unblemished complexion. Saggy boobs? Victoria’s Secret will turn you into a runway model. Vera Wang and Calvin Klein will highlight your legs, butt, and whatever randomly selected feature fashion designers claim needs attention this season. And Prada accessories will make you appear wealthy and ambitious, independent but a good catch.

If women truly appreciated themselves, they could blow a hole in America’s economy overnight. American women spent over $33 billion on beauty supplies in 2010, according to the Commerce Department—enough to provide clean water, decent nutrition, and a high-school education to the entire developing world, twice. Yet according to my doctor, most women could achieve similar beauty effects by exercising, watching their diet, and drinking adequate quantities of water.

I like and admire women. So when major American corporations try to pitch uplifting messages, I want to thank them. But I can’t separate the moral lessons Pantene, Dove, and other corporations peddle, from their deeper business model. Even in telling women to seize their own destiny, these companies ultimately profit by selling dissatisfaction and want. Sometimes the message matters. But sometimes we can’t divide the message from the messenger.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Yuletide Gifts To Suit the Senses

Vision

I don't understand the science behind the Verilux Happylight. However, I understand how diminished access to sunlight can have an effect on people's psychology. The manufacturer markets this powerful, focused light for Seasonal Affective Disorder, but as a graveyard shift worker, I get limited sunlight year-round. And I've learned there's a concrete reason why shift workers often shuffle around like the undead.

And I also know that, if I sit for one hour bathing in this light, I have more energy going into the shift, emerge feeling much less depleted, and have sufficient wherewithal to keep accomplishing things rather than going straight to bed. I don't even have to stare into the light like I feared; I get the benefit if I have the light on while I reading or cooking. (Don't use it with anything that generates contradictory light, like watching TV of noodling on the computer.)

The light produced by this device is much whiter and warmer than that produced by supposed full-spectrum lights you can buy at the store. I've gone to the kitchen with this light on, looked back, and thought I'd left the drapes open. It really looks like sunlight. And it has the lingering effects you'd get from a picnic in the park, especially handy when your work schedule, or the season, limit your available sunlight.



Hearing

When I pulled the Turtle Shell 2.0 Wireless Bluetooth Speaker from its package and noted how small it was, my heart sank. How could something so tiny have decent sound? But I gamely paired it to my smartphone and fired up Pandora, and it filled my living room with warm, full sound. Compared to my phone's onboard speakers, which sound like someone playing 78s through a cardboard tube, this arrangement sounds like an actual home stereo system.

Besides its complete, rich sound and compact size, this speaker has a durable outdoorsy construction, hardy yet flexible, which makes it great for yard work, cycling, or just chilling on the porch. Its rubberized base makes it shock resistant, and the speaker grille has holes small enough to resist accumulating grit. And by attaching it to a compatible bike mount (sold separately), it travels well. Take your streaming players, YouTube, or other media with you.

Most laptops, smartphones, and other streaming devices these days have lousy speakers. The first time you tried to play your favorite web radio station on your laptop, you hated the sound, right?. But not only does this speaker improve the sound of prerecorded media, its integrated microphone lets you get more life from live media, like Skype. Though it can't access your media, it brings new richness and depth to the media you already have.



Taste

Who woulda thunk the shape of the ice in your drink matters? Surely ice spheres are just plain frivolous. But when I popped the first ice ball from my DeluxIce Premium Ice Ball Mold, it was only slightly narrower than a standard drink tumbler, meaning that even if I pour water, juice, or liquor into my glass warm, I’m still guaranteed a nice cool sip when it hits my lips.

Not to disparage the novelty value. Spherical ice makes for added value in swirling your cocktail, adding debonair points to your next party. (Dear Santa: I prefer Wild Turkey.) And because spheres have less surface area by volume than cubes, your ice will melt slower and last longer. One ice ball lasted me through two big glasses of water and three fingers of whiskey.

These molds come in pairs, so make ahead before your party, or order multiple sets. Their flexible structure absorbs ice’s natural expansion, and their two-part design snaps together snugly for easy use. They’re made of food-quality silicone, used in making pans, oven mitts, and spatulas, so you probably already have this material in your kitchen.



And finally, your fashion sense

If you're anything like me, your collar stays have an annoying tendency to curl with age, crack, and finally die quietly when you forget to take them out before tossing your shirt in the dryer. Because typical plastic or cardboard stays age badly, your shirts often look old and cheap despite your best efforts to keep them fresh. I really appreciate NeoStays’ durable, age-resistant, and economical stays for multiple shirt sizes.

NeoStays Magnetic Metal Collar Stays are made of metal, so they won't curl or split with time. They weigh no more than typical store-bought collar stays, yet resist age and deterioration and continue lying flat, even if you accidentally run them through a wash cycle. I can wear them to work, church, or out on a date, and my collars look as crisp and businesslike at the end of the day as they did when I got dressed in the morning.

For most purposes where you have occasion to wear a collared shirt, this simple addition will keep you looking good throughout the day, with a precise, businesslike edge that won't wear off just because your stays aren't new. If your appearance matters, and you want to keep that crisp, fresh-ironed look through a long day, these are the fashion accessory you've looked for.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Jenga Horror

Kate Maruyama, Harrowgate

Let us pause in reading’s pleasures, and toast publishing’s most underrated writer: the guy who does dust-flap synopses for mass-market novels. This uncredited mensch must tell just enough of somebody else’s story to make us want to buy the book, but not so much that we feel we’ve already read it. Particularly when novels like Kate Maruyama’s debut balance on a lattice of secrets, it’s tough not to divulge everything.

Michael Gould was stuck in Canada when his wife suffered premature labor in Manhattan. Arriving late, he finds his wife Sarah and son Tim waiting at the Harrowgate apartments. But why won’t his formerly gregarious wife leave the flat? Why does she appear distraught every time he fetches groceries? And who is Greta, Sarah’s new friend and mentor, whose cheerful smile hides a personality like a carnivorous twelve-step coach?

Maruyama superficially co-opts Stephen King’s classic family horror model, though she attempts something far more complex, with mixed results. She launches with the sort of hallucinatory twist that M. Night Shyamalan would use to clinch his films, but then she keeps going. I thought I’d spotted the big climactic reveal on page 29 (seriously), only to discover, this was only Act One; Maruyama had bigger plans afoot.

Describing her plot, though, feels risky at best. Ever play Jenga? If you have, you’ve spent time prodding pieces, knowing that touching the wrong one would cause a collapse both calamitous and embarrassing. This book is like that. Maruyama cantilevers numerous narrative bricks into an edifice so intricate and subtle that it’s hard to determine which is the central plot. She handles conventional stories in unconventional, cliché-defying ways.

Michael wants to commence normal family life. He wants to change diapers and rock the baby. But having their son brings out Sarah’s dark side: alternately outraged and tearful, baby Tim colors their relationship. And when Michael ducks out for supplies or mail, he inevitably returns to find Sarah tear-stricken, fearing she’s been abandoned. Michael’s confusion only deepens when Greta apparently has his flat key, and hijacks his marriage.

But while Maruyama’s plot suddenly reveals multiple facets and upends readers’ expectations, her prose lumbers solemnly, sometimes failing to notice important moments. Like a diesel engine in February, Maruyama’s writing awakens by degrees, not so much seizing readers as slowly building power. She has no climax as such, but builds an overwhelming sense of dread. Whether this constitutes incremental Shirley Jackson-ish horror, or merely bores, readers must decide individually.

Where horror happens, it happens because Maruyama submarines common white bourgeois expectations of family and domesticity. Rather than settling comfortably into incipient middle age, Michael finds everything he thought he knew about himself challenged. His marriage, his aspirations, and even the ground beneath his feet become questionable. If the American dream is comfy hominess, American horror arises from discovering home is founded on a lie.

Not everyone will appreciate this novel. Maruyama’s languorous prose requires an investment from readers, which not everybody will appreciate. She doesn’t really gain traction until nearly page 100, and I contemplated stopping, though I’m glad I didn’t. Maruyama deliberately courts an audience willing to sit patiently, observing events unfold. Anyone looking for airplane reading will find her leisurely pace and lack of spectacle tiring.

More prominently, Maruyama’s narrative proceeds in a juddering, episodic manner. On her website, Maruyama describes herself as “raised on books and weaned on movies,” but her pace more resembles Dark Shadows, Twin Peaks, and other semi-horror TV classics. She never really achieves that HP Lovecraft moment of overwhelming agony; instead, it feels like she’s withholding something special for the next episode. I found this limitation harder to work around.

If Maruyama’s story makes sense, it makes sense for readers who eschew that “holy trinity” of rising action, climax, and denouement. It’s more like listening to Philip Glass: we don’t seek blatant themes, we absorb patterns below the level of consciousness. Maruyama gradually erodes our foundations, until we realize we’re standing on sand. This novel lacks a succession of big, dramatic moments; it’s the Chinese Water Torture of contemporary horror.

Rereading myself, it appears I’ve been awkwardly cagey about Maruyama’s actual story. Like the back-cover copywriter who misrepresented this novel by omission, I want to avoid spoiling her story. Because despite Maruyama’s severe limitations, this is a good novel for its intended audience. Cerebral horror has become much harder to find these days. If Maruyama’s debut succeeds, hopefully it will usher in more that share her sense of compounding dread.

Friday, December 6, 2013

They All Fall Down

The Fall, Series 1, BBC Northern Ireland

The first episode opening shots in the BBC’s The Fall show Gillian Anderson as DS Stella Gibson wearing flannel pyjamas and a clay beauty mask, scrubbing the bathtub with no bra on. Casting an actress famed for physical beauty and poise, then immediately stealing both, presages what this series offers. It’s a dark-hued, unromantic explosion of police efficiency and criminal precision, making us question who’s the real villain here.

When a murder goes unsolved one month on, Belfast police contract London Metropolitan legend Stella Gibson to audit their system. She quickly notices the connections between this and another unsolved murder, but Belfast refuses to acknowledge a serial killer. That is, until dispassionate, meticulous Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) takes his third victim, and begins stalking his fourth. Suddenly, police must dodge blame while tracking a killer who knows their strategies.

Anyone watching this series expecting Anderson to reprise her classic X-Files role will feel acutely disappointed. DS Gibson lacks either Dana Scully’s early reasoned efficiency or later credulous zeal. Gibson is professionally ruthless, intellectually aggressive, sexually voracious, and masks an vengeful core beneath protocol and dispassion. If you were a crime victim, you’d want her on your investigation, but you’d never buy her a drink.

In a parallel narrative, serial killer Spector leads a dual life. By day, he has a beautiful young family, exercises obsessively, and counsels bereaved parents. By night, he stalks dark-haired thirtysomething professionals. He has perfected the art of scaring his victims in ways police can’t prosecute. And he’s meticulous in keeping an impenetrable wall between his bucolic middle-class life and his midnight murders. Spector and Gibson never meet.

Gibson and Spector’s mutual hunt unfolds against Belfast’s brick-paved backdrop, where lingering sectarian divides mean standing on the wrong street could get you killed. Police must weigh every action, not just via the law, but against political ramifications that could start riots. Though The Troubles are long over, factional divides survive, and two arrests on the same street can resemble political oppression, as Gibson learns only too late.

Audiences unaccustomed to British TV conventions might find this series’ pacing offbeat. The languid narrative tempo more resembles French horror films than American cop dramas. Events unfold with Andrei Tarkovsky-like lack of haste, punctuated with sudden stabs of action so abrupt, they touch deep, primal, pre-evolutionary fears. But this better emphasizes the show’s innately horrifying themes, for viewers who can adjust themselves to its idiosyncratic rhythms.

Director Jakob Verbruggen cherry-picks his favorite components from thriller formulae, crafting an arc that sometimes obeys audience expectation, sometimes subverts it. From sooty streets to CSI nerd-talk to police infighting, many scenes will appear downright comfortable. But nobody saves the puppy in Act III. Every time we attempt to predict the story’s twists, Verbruggen submarines us, rekindling the sense of dislocation that first attracted many audiences to classic crime thrillers.

While Spector’s crime spree permeates this five-episode series’ core, subplots develop as police involved with the investigation, or involved with Gibson, prove darkly corrupt. Gibson has an incautious liaison with a Belfast detective who gets assassinated less than twenty-four hours later; and as Detective Olson’s sordid side business becomes visible, Gibson finds herself tainted. The two plots form a self-feeding cycle of crime and sleaze.

The camera loves both Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. Though Anderson’s beauty is already renowned, Verbruggen never squanders an opportunity to showcase her with blouse open, or in a swimsuit, or charmingly unkempt. Dornan, a former Armani model, is less famous, but about the third time he does shirtless chin-ups, you’ll understand his casting as Christian Grey. Fair warning: despite minimal violence, this series’ frank sexuality may curl parents’ hair.

Even Belfast itself plays a remarkable character in this story. The contrast between the slick, glass-and-steel city centre, and the cobblestone residential streets, is frequently jarring. Gibson’s hotel has no trace of anything antique or genuinely Irish, while Spector has the kind of Victorian rowhouse that Americans consider quintessentially British. But Gibson and Spector’s pursuits take them into crumbling Shankhill and Falls Road areas where poverty has a manifest odor.

Dramas like this seldom play well on American TV. The closest I can recall is Steven Bochco’s Murder One, which never found its audience in the mid-1990s. This more resembles a novel than a bog-standard cop drama. But the audience seeking that level of intricacy, that deep investment in character, will find it here. But prepare yourself for a level of intensity to make typical American TV audiences cringe.



More like this:
Did You Fall For a Crime Down Under?
Waiting For Sherlock Season 3?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Best American 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert (editor), The Best American Travel Writing 2013 and
Siddhartha Mukherjee (editor), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013


The most interesting essays in each year’s Best American Travel Writing usually address some place no sane person would go. This year includes visiting a faith healer in Tanzania’s deep interior; sharing tea with Bedouins known to kidnap Western tourists; meeting an aspiring teenage poet in an illegal wildcat gold mine high in the Peruvian Andes. The authors make their settings, distant as another planet, seem humane and nearby.

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat Pray Love fame, in her introduction says: “I read great travel writing to feel, at the conclusion, I have now been there.” But she doesn’t hold herself or her authors legalistically to this standard. Daniel Tyx and Ian Frazier, for instance, don’t travel anywhere during their essays. Tyx discusses the momentous decision to stay put, while Frazier reminisces how travel psychology has changed in his lifetime.

Most essays, though, consider some place, particularly the people who make this place so fascinating. David Farley, in “Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets,” describes the family who makes a unique rice noodle considered a delicacy, but so rare that you can only purchase it in one Vietnamese village. Christopher de Ballaigue’s “Caliph of the Tricksters” describes Kabul plutocrats who endure Afghanistan’s generational violence by betting on gory, interminable cockfights.

This year’s selections run short and concise. Many essays run under four pages; only two exceed twenty pages. Yet these authors pack their narratives with such incisive, engaging detail that one feels refreshed after reading, like returning from a much-needed vacation. Celebrity authors like Frazier or David Sedaris rub shoulders with wise but unfamous professionals who tell tales well. These compact, elegant essays transport eager readers outside their humdrum existence.

Gilbert succeeds in her stated mission. I really feel I’ve visited Sinai, or coastal Maine, or Britain’s ill-starred Dickens World park. Having never seen these places myself, I feel I could knowledgeably discuss them with natives, or anyway ask smart questions of seasoned travelers. These essays make engaging, uplifting lunchtime holidays, restful breaks from the non-literary world. I feel rested, restored, and more cosmopolitan for having read this collection.

Elsewhere, oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee aggregates twenty-seven essays from across scientific and naturalistic disciplines. Some are written by scientists and researchers, including one Nobel laureate. Others come from journalists, novelists, and other writers with strong interest in developing science. Some discuss single, specific discoveries; others have more eclectic scope, describing entire ranges of new thought or developing disciplines of science.

A rare Mediterranean jellyfish doesn’t die of old age; it just reverts to childhood and relives its life. I learned that in one essay. But in another essay, at almost the far end of this collection, an oceanic researcher, one of the first women in a formerly all-male field, laments that the beautiful ecosystems that first made her love the ocean sixty years ago, are now severely depleted, in danger of imminent extinction.

Our real joy comes in the unspoken relationships between essays. David Deutsch and Arthur Eckert, for instance, describe implications of quantum physics for molecular-level computers, potentially defining processing capabilities grander than anything we’ve previously considered. But Michael Moyer describes how, approaching the Planck Length, the smallest possible length in existence, reality itself appears granular, binary, almost computerized. The potential interplay between these two realizations is chillingly beautiful.

Likewise, both Jerome Groopman and Katherine Harmon describe how recent developments in immunology offer new hope in fighting invasive cancers. But while Groopman examines the science, hopscotching among personalities, Harmon intensively focuses on one man whose discoveries let him treat his own cancer, with remarkable consequences. The shifting focus between ideas and personalities reveals unspoken truths about how science makes its advances.

Unlike other Best American selections, this one resists celebrity authors. Sure, Oliver Sacks and Kevin Dutton include excerpts from their latest books, and authors famous from other fields, like Mark Bowden, contribute to the collection’s overarching movement. But this specific collection rewards profound ideas, explained well, rather than authorial virtuosity. I contend this makes it easier reading, since the product, not the personality, defines quality.

I abandoned my childhood ambition to become a scientist when I discovered it’s hard to make test tubes explode. But I never quit my love of science and discovery, and continue enjoying new insights into how our universe works. This collection, laced with eye-opening expositions in the latest science, reminds me why I love science, and why our society, plagued by anti-intellectual thinking, needs science so badly. Read this book, and relearn the joy of discovery.



For reviews of other collections in this series, see:
The Year's Best Alice Munro and
Proving Personal Writing Still Matters

Monday, December 2, 2013

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Personal Shameday



By historic standards, Black Friday 2013 was fairly mild. Though reports of shoplifting, incivility, and even a knife fight have trickled through with tedious predictability, we haven’t sat transfixed by news reports of employees trampled to death by rampaging shoppers. (I’d have expected we’d hear the end of “doorbusters” by now.) We’ve heard nothing as dramatic as soccer moms pepper-spraying each other over PlayStations. This year was remarkably tame.

In news-cycle terms, violence is passé. Paid opinionators have moved onto telegenic umbrage over retailers commencing sales on Thanksgiving Day itself. While retailers open earlier every year (K-Mart opened at 6 AM this year), and shoppers reward this move by buying, professional worriers get exercised over what this means for our economy, society, and values. Such naked mercantilism must, must, betoken a failure of common American ethics, they say.

A friend demonstrated such arguments’ vacuity by noting that bar and restaurant workers, who generally get paid much worse than retail clerks, already work on Thanksgiving, and often Christmas too. Families which consider themselves too time-strapped to cook at home, or sufficiently flush to outsource food preparation, take holiday meals out regularly. If you want to reverse the peonage of underpaid workers, start by cooking your own goddamn dinner.

Yet the complaints about merchant encroachment on holidays don’t mainly come from workers. Many people doing restaurant or retail work, especially adults, need the time-and-a-half that holiday hours provide. The anti-holiday-shopping complaints substantially come from people sufficiently well-heeled that they use accumulation of stuff as emblems of personal or social status. That is, people with holidays free to shop, complain about their peers shopping on holidays.



This socially expedient self-flagellation serves to deflect from what Black Friday, and its kissing cousin Cyber Monday, say about shoppers. Wal-Mart and Bloomingdale’s welcome Black Friday, and advertise substantial discounts in hopes of moving sufficient volume, but they didn’t invent the event. The massive shopping day directly after Thanksgiving has existed since at least 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving itself to expand the lucrative Christmas shopping season.

Common American shoppers remain blasé about Black Friday excesses because we’ve internalized the belief that our ability to acquire stuff signifies our social worth. We come to blows over plastic trinkets and publicized gewgaws that, sometime after Christmas, we’ll recognize as instrumentally worthless. Consider all the Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-Me Elmos collecting spiderwebs in attics nationwide. This year, it’s the X-Box One and PlayStation 4.

Importantly, we can’t lump this behavior under the conventional vice of “selfishness”—at least not directly. Even the poorest laborer wants to give their loved ones gifts commensurate with their love: I care about you enough to risk bodily injury to retrieve this thingamabob. But nearly every adult I’ve spoken to, when asked what they want for Christmas, suddenly reverts to stammering infancy: they don’t know their own desires.

Our ability to purchase do-funnies thus becomes a direct manifestation of inner virtues. Where once we demonstrated love by providing a decent standard of living, undertaking onerous enterprises, or fighting off Vikings, we now substitute ability to buy stuff. When Jacob loved Rachel in the Bible, he served her father for fourteen years to demonstrate his worth. Purchasing the iPad Air or suitable Batman memorabilia now serves that role.



Old-line liberals and anti-capitalist activists might complain that aggressive retail advertising created this unsatisfying substitution. As a Wendell Berry devotee, I can’t disagree that advertisers structurally create a sensation of want, which they subsequently offer to assuage. Yet that explanation rings hollow: we wouldn’t look to retailers to plug the holes in our spirits if we didn’t first acknowledge that such holes exist. Some deeper problem holds sway here.

James Twitchell asserts, in Lead Us Into Temptation, that modernity successfully produces copious quantities of stuff, but strips that stuff of interior meaning. We accumulate and discard at rates our ancestors would consider appalling, not because we’re wasteful, but because we have no relationship with our work or its product. Hoarding on others’ behalf supplants action as the way we maintain relationships, which we hoard as surely as we hoard things.

We rush retailers on Black Friday, and vilify others doing likewise, for the same reason: because both buying and umbrage create the temporary illusion of meaning. We disregard the contradiction of complaining about others’ holiday shopping while dining out on holidays because our complaints are mere stories we tell ourselves. Until we find meaning internally, such unintentionally hilarious discrepancies will remain our society’s tragicomic emblem.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scott Lynch's Exposition Epic

Scott Lynch, The Republic of Thieves

Career swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have made many enemies in the city-state of Camorr. But a junta of wizards offers them sanctuary if they help throw an election. Ancient Kashain’s rulers maintain power by keeping secrets and buying massive conspiracies, so Locke and Jean shouldn’t act surprised when the city proves to be a dagger pointed at their hearts. What kind of dagger, though, is an ever-shifting mystery.

If I had to describe Scott Lynch’s third Gentlemen Bastards novel in one word, I’d pick “long.” It’s physically imposing, at over 650 pages, but that’s fine. As James A. Michener observed beaucoups years ago, books’ ability to tell epic stories with generational scope remains their chief advantage over cinema. But while it starts strong, it eventually resembles an uphill slog through a molasses swamp, in Wellingtons full of superglue.

Locke and Jean are resilient losers, the Captain Mal and Zoe of heroic fantasy. Their sheer refusal to surrender to normality makes them staunchly heroic, especially when the law proves arbitrary and oppressive. Locke, always shrewd and quick with a sarcastic rejoinder, thinks he’s grown scars over his heart, but remains capable of humane insight. Jean restrains Locke’s often fatalistic tendencies; between them, he’s the one who wants to live.

Lynch’s writing has drawn comparisons to, and praises from, George RR Martin, in both its sweeping scope and foreboding tone. But Lynch’s actual prose more closely resembles British author M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, and he also includes occasional nods to other renowned fantasists, both point-blank and obliquely. I counted Fritz Leiber, CS Lewis, and Joss Whedon, among others. He’s a portmanteau of historic and contemporary sword-n-sorcery fantasy.

Unfortunately, Lynch’s storytelling style visibly mimics daytime television and X-Men comics, stumbling forward episodically, propelled by successions of cliffhangers and shocks. He intersperses the characters’ present, which unfolds with remarkable lack of haste, with scenes from his heroes’ history, contextualizing the suffering they now endure. Which would be fine, but he lampshades his big reveals so blatantly that, by the time they arrive, we’ve grown bored waiting.

When Lynch appropriates narrative cues from existing stories, he takes necessary gambles. Seasoned genre readers may recognize hints of Leiber’s Grey Mouser or Harrison’s Lord tegeus-Cromis, and cheer the knowledge that we can join a story contiguous with existing fantasy. But we pay for that familiarity when his narrative divulgences don’t differ sufficiently from his archetypes. This book openly courts readers who don’t like surprises.

Which is a shame, because for all his predictable plotting, Lynch’s prose is remarkably good. Locke Lamora uses impudent charm and gallows wit to extract other characters’ deeper secrets, while Jean translates suppressed rage into compelling action. Lynch’s incisive, dynamic writing propels action with such understated drive, and surprising humor, that even this jaded reader didn’t notice how many pages had passed without anything actually happening. At first.

Until I did. Somewhere around this massive, brick-like book’s one-third mark, I noticed Lynch was still setting the scene. Really. Well past page 200, Lynch kept spooning out exposition so slow and erratic, we practically hear the soap opera organ music. Yet his actual story remained in future tense, while the flashback scenes portended revelations in Locke and Jean’s present. Free semi-spoiler: love which goes unrequited long enough becomes hate.

Remember, in episodic drama, if characters mention some dead companion often enough, events will prove that character still alive. Or, since this is fantasy, undead. If characters hate some villain with sufficient passion, the person our heroes absolutely need to turn the tide will have some unacknowledged connection to that villain. And every question the MacGuffin character answers will omit some information our protagonists desperately need.

Lynch, sadly, exploits all these tropes. Amid his funny, grim, energetic flourishes, Lynch and his characters do little we haven’t seen before. Which perhaps isn’t bad; some people like the package tour, where everything’s pre-screened to guarantee customers find nothing shocking or unnerving on their trip. If that’s you, Lynch wraps a relatively familiar fantasy in eloquent prose and delivers it, like the stork, ready-made to your doorstep.

But that’s not me, and maybe not you. To paraphrase Doctor Who, I want to get lost on foreign streets, use wrong verbs, kiss the wrong people. Lynch keeps promising such jarring exhilaration imminently, but always shifts it into the future. His actual product cloyingly resembles every paperback fantasy from the last half-century, never really shedding its prototypes. And we never end up feeling we’ve really gone anywhere.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Prayer For Jerry Falwell

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 25
Michael Sean Winters, God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right


Perhaps nobody in 20th Century politics polarizes responses more completely than Jerry Falwell. Five years after his death, nobody who came of age during the 1980s or 1990s can hear Falwell’s name without strong reactions, pro or con. Yet because he cultivated such strong reactions, he remains essentially enigmatic, more a pioneer or scoundrel than a human with comprehensible motivations. Perhaps it’s time to evaluate Jerry Falwell’s complicated legacy.

Michael Sean Winters combines biography with political history to contextualize Falwell firmly within his time. An adult Christian convert, Falwell initially avoided fame, and apparently never wanted any life other than a moderately ambitious country preacher. But while he quietly constructed a remarkably forward-thinking, innovative ministry, outside forces increasingly encroached on evangelical Christian turf. In forming the Moral Majority in 1979, Falwell merely recognized the signs of the times.

Following the PR nightmare of the Scopes “monkey trial,” evangelicals thought they’d struck a new bargain. They’d abstain from politics, and society would leave them alone. But postwar America didn’t honor its bargain. By 1979, cultural trends that remain conservative rhetorical staples—liberal media bias, secular vulgarity, government intrusion into church ethics—occurred, in ways they hadn’t before or since. Evangelicals felt compelled to act, and Falwell took point.

Before Falwell, public Christianity honored progressives like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dr. King. Falwell’s Moral Majority movement changed that dynamic. By spotlighting sexual ethics, especially abortion and homosexuality, Falwell broadened the scope of possibility in political ethics, a broadening made especially complex by his open alliance with one political party. He recast ethical issues as moral crises, urging his delicate alliance of evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews to the battlements often.

Falwell read American culture with remarkably savvy aplomb. He used changing media to motivate supporters, register voters, and attract money. Though his business management skills often fumbled, Falwell’s ideological leadership kept his constituents’ issues in the public debate. Before him, American Christians voted with both parties impartially. But Falwell so skillfully packaged private ethical issues alongside economic and policy concerns that he essentially realigned political parties along religious lines.

But, contra his critics, Falwell didn’t try to silence critics or enforce state-based religion on America. As Winters deftly demonstrates, Falwell relished electoral challenges, and wanted to win debates, not squelch them. Media moguls loved his affable folksy charm. And he remained visible in part behind his pathological inability to hold a grudge; some of his strongest ideological opponents, including Ted Kennedy and Larry Flynt, became close personal friends.

By his own admission, Falwell faced even sterner charges from the extreme right than the left. He disavowed extremists who wanted theocracy, opposed demagogues who advocated death for homosexuals and abortionists, and condemned Reverend Fred Phelps. Falwell’s liberal opponents may be surprised to learn how much criticism Falwell endured for not being conservative enough. But Falwell had real human goals, and couldn’t stomach unthinking doctrine, even from nominal allies.

Winters’ biography, though, is hardly a hagiography; a Christian himself, he spotlights many costs Falwell inflicted on American Christianity. In fighting secularism in political debates, Falwell needed allies, which required him to soften doctrine. Essentially, he reduced Christian beliefs to mere public ethics, diluting Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. This became especially pointed during the Reagan Administration, when Falwell enjoyed intimate access, and molded spiritual concerns to match party orthodoxy.

Essentially, Falwell wanted to pastor a church, and his political involvement stemmed from his ministerial goals. But he also wanted human recognition, and other people often look more concrete than God. In his desire to be liked, Falwell compromised important religious positions, often scoring short-term gains, but by by weakening his Scriptural foundation. He eventually found himself less defensible, less popular, less equipped for vital public debates.

Worse, by making Christianity look rich, white, and polarizing, he made his faith unappealing to anybody who didn’t share his Eisenhower-era heritage. By 2000, atheists and religiously unaffiliated persons became a significant bloc for the first time in American history, and they mostly voted against Falwell’s positions. Though he admits such developments generally arise from multiple causes, Winters lays part of the blame squarely on Jerry Falwell.

Two generations after hitting the national stage, and five years after his death, Jerry Falwell’s legacy remains distinctly mixed, a jumble of sweeping accomplishments and missed opportunities, electoral triumph and theological debacle. Winters provides the clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis Falwell’s legacy deserves. If religious and non-religious Americans want rapprochement, it’ll come only through Falwell’s shadow. And that means we must understand this complex, powerful man.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dear Sebastian Thrun

An open letter to Sebastian Thrun, former Stanford professor, CEO of Udacity, and pioneer in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Thrun announced last week that his company would de-emphasize providing online course content for universities, which has worked poorly to date, and turn its focus to specialized corporate training. Thrun's announcement has met cheers and mockery from predictable circles.
I blush to admit, I was one among the cackling chorus of educators dancing circles around the mouldering carcass of your high-minded promises. Your utopian vision of digital education is expensive, resists meaningful measurement, and suffers ebola-like attrition rates. It encourages an essentially private, passive relationship to education, with bleak implications for life and career. We who teach for love of students dreaded the failure of empathy your model betokens.

But once the giddy exhilaration of vindication wore off, I paused to ask myself why I felt so strongly. As a fan of Neil Postman, I initially attributed my doubts to the medium. Like TV, the online environment rewards entertainment, short attention spans, and spectacle. It doesn’t reward independent thought or context. But that doesn’t hold water, or I couldn’t write this blog. Online education’s well-documented limitations must run deeper.

Professor Thrun, you come from an industrial research background. Your contributions to exciting new programs like Google Glass and Google’s newly announced self-driving car approach legendary. I applaud your accomplishments, because they transform our relationship to information and knowledge. But your public statements reflect your industrial background, openly treating school like a machine shop, and students like interchangeable parts.

Not that you’re alone in such opinions. Many writers utilize industrial metaphors to describe schooling in the coming era. I’ve reviewed some of these books here. But consider what this metaphor implies. You’ve redefined humans to have worth only instrumentally; that is, we derive meaning from our ability to work and make money. This contravenes the reasons we tell students to study liberal arts, because education makes our souls free.

Online education advocates have been appallingly unalert to the limitations inherent in their model. From government studies to academic guidelines to the popular exposés linked in the prior paragraph, authors excitedly espouse classroom-free learning as education’s liberation. Even before these mass-market analyses, I remember an awestruck series of MacArthur Foundation white papers breathlessly expounding how digital technology would imminently render classrooms, institutional schools, and professional educators obsolete.

These books and studies all share one limitation, however: they evaluate digital learning venues according to responses from people who finished the courses. Even the US Department of Education, a fierce cheerleader for new technology in education, concedes when cornered that these courses feature an attrition rate approaching ninety percent. These courses particularly disadvantage poor students, minorities, and men—the populations already disadvantaged by the current system.

In an interview last week, Professor Thrun, you openly disparaged poor students for entering your company’s courses unprepared. But nobody is born knowing how to “do school.” Children model what they see growing up. I was fortunate enough, as you presumably were, to grow up in a household brimming with books, where my parents modeled self-improvement as a cardinal virtue. Therefore I started school already attuned to the learning process.

Your model places 160,000 students under one or two teachers’ guidance, as occurred with your celebrated Stanford Artificial Intelligence class. But teachers cannot guide 160,000 students. You cannot possibly read 160,000 papers, conduct 160,000 personal counseling sessions, or know 160,000 names. You can only offer standardized tests, which evaluate students’ rote memorization ability, and never determine whether they’ve thought about what you taught them.

Education is not about conveying information from one mind to another—or, it shouldn’t be. We don’t invite students to sit down and passively receive data into their otherwise blank minds. Such behavior invites helplessness and confusion—and, oh look, that’s how most students greeted your classes. Students may parrot your lessons without ever gaining significant understanding. Inexperienced students, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, need personal guidance to make the intuitive leap from fact to insight.

Let me state that another way: ours is not an information economy, because economies rely on scarce and desirable commodities. Information, today, is common as dirt. Rather, ours is a processing economy, where our ability to synthesize separate knowledge increments into greater wholes creates value, as you, Professor, did with Google Glass. Such processing requires guidance, mentorship, and nurturance, not an undifferentiated fact dump.

If I’ve learned anything at the factory, it’s that technology makes human discretion more valuable, not less. Machines are ultimately helpless without humans to guide them. But students entrained to passively receive information cannot guide anything, because they need guidance themselves. You yourself, Professor, have created a world where free-thinking minds making profound logical leaps are more valuable than ever. And you cannot create such minds by making students stare indifferently at a screen.