That piercing stench is the aroma of failure and betrayal lying in a dumpster outside a lobbyist’s condo....moreUpdated - 11/8/11 - see bottom
That piercing stench is the aroma of failure and betrayal lying in a dumpster outside a lobbyist’s condo. Chris Hedges, toting his kit, approaches the body and examines it for evidence of foul play. A uniform steps aside, giving Hedges room. He bends down and opens the surprisingly fat wallet. It is clear that the vic was once a powerful presence, as Hedges can see from the wallet’s contents, scattered about the corpse. The Social Security card is worn at the edges, but it remains whole, although oncoming rain is likely to fray it even more. A union membership card has been cut to bits and scattered. The victim was no kid. He had clearly been around a long time and had more than his share of scar tissue. A closer examination would later reveal several very old fractures from when the vic was a much younger fellow, maybe from the 50s. They had healed badly, leaving bones that supported his body, but with the right leg shorter than the left and so a tilt. If the vic had had any more tracks in his arms he would have been Grand Central Station. Whatever he’d shot up left a green tinge. Had he kept it up, he might have been confused for the Hulk’s skinnier, weaker cousin. His shoes, found nearby, were a travesty, holes completely through the bottoms, with the uppers clearly separated from the soles. It was clear from the condition of the vic’s feet that he had ignored their care altogether. Nails like seashells, filthy, ridged, untrimmed. The vic had a name, Liberalism. Now Hedges had to put the pieces together, examine the clues and see just what it was that dragged this once-hardy character so low. He calls on his team and together they set about the task.
And that is what Hedges does, pokes through the corpse of contemporary American liberalism for reasons, and ultimately, implications, bringing in considerable analysis and quotable extracts from some of our leading minds.
So what is the “liberal class” on which Hedges performs his post mortem? It is a media that purports to support middle-class people but reports lies and propaganda that help build support for our invasion of Iraq, and promotes our corrupt financial system as a safe place for families to park their savings. It is religious institutions, churches and synagogues that fail to criticize the extreme right wing of America’s churches, the ones that foment greed, racism and violence, while encouraging their members to look solely inward, instead of engaging in a mission of holding evil-doers morally accountable. It is the universities that minimize dissent from the established range of political views, in order not to antagonize their corporate supporters. It is labor unions, which once fought for worker rights, for social and political rights of working class people across the board, but which now “have been transformed into domesticated negotiators with the capitalist class.” It is the Democratic Party that sells itself as the voice of the people, but that instead abandoned working people by passing legislation such as NAFTA, that offered support to Republican plans to shred the social safety net, that goes along with corporate looting of the national treasure, and that refuses to stand up to right wing assaults on civil liberties. Those people.
He looks into the history of what we think of as liberalism, noting its heyday from the late 19th into the early 20th century. Hedges sees a major turning point in government control of speech during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, when opposition to American entry into World War I was faced with legislation like the Espionage Act of 1917, which criminalized not only espionage but also speech deemed critical of the government.” A year later, the Sedition Act was passed, expanding governmental interference with free speech. The president also established the CPI, or Committee for Public Information, or propaganda central. The Ministry of Truth with stars and stripes. This is fascinating material and was news to me. The CPI was shut down after the war, but the era of mass propaganda had arrived. Certainly there had been plenty of attempts to control public opinion through media manipulation in the past (Remember the Maine) but advancing technology made it increasingly powerful. The near collapse of the economy in the Great Depression, also largely due to corporate malfeasance, led up to liberalism’s last great stand, the New Deal, which succeeded in saving capitalism from its own excesses.
The body of liberalism has always been susceptible to the external assaults of fear-mongering, racism, and nationalistic saber rattling by the right. Hedges sees the willingness of the left to kowtow to the crazier elements of the right as being based on the fear, by those who have attained position of privilege, that standing up for what is right might endanger their position in society. I suspect that many who sell us out to the corporatocracy never really had our interests at heart, only our votes. This shows up in the willingness of organized labor to purge their ranks of people deemed out of the mainstream. Of course, in doing so, they minimize pressure on themselves from within their own organizations to fight harder for their members. But they also out chest-pound the militarist, or anti-communist, or anti-islamic chest-pounders they see as external threats to their power. See George Meany allying labor with support for the Viet Nam War.
I was of two minds about this book. On one hand I found much here that makes sense. I have read Hedges before so know that he is an exceptionally bright guy who uses his prodigious critical faculties to figure out and report to us what is actually going on out there. I am mostly simpatico with his political leanings. On the other hand, I reacted to the book, at first, as I might to a cranky uncle, who rants incessantly about the failure of this or that politician. You know the one. Whatever your politics, left right or whatever, there is always a cranky uncle who just goes on and on about this or that failure or betrayal. The proper thing to do is to smile, excuse yourself from the room, and find some other air to breathe. It took me a while to get into the book, because I needed to breathe other air. It is not that the cranky uncle is necessarily wrong, just that the drone of what sounds like complaining starts to erode patches of skin after a time.
Universities no longer train students to think critically, to examine and critique systems of power and cultural and political assumptions…
Really? All of them? He also spends a chapter on the futility of war, with a focus on Afghanistan. I wonder if Europe felt it would have been a better approach to Hitler to have laid down their arms. Clearly there are times when the use of weaponry to preserve one’s existence is justified. Was the American Revolution won by mass demonstrations? The union preserved? While I agree with his positions re Iraq, and how the US mission in Afghanistan has become something other than what it was sold as, I take issue with his portrayal of war as completely indefensible. But once one gets over the tonality, and generalizations like the ones noted above, it becomes clear that there is actual coherence to what he has to say in Death of the Liberal Class. Just because Hedges might benefit from de-caf does not mean that he is wrong.
Underlying all is the notion of permanent war, used as an excuse by government to do whatever the hell they please, the Constitution be damned. And once rights are abridged too far during real (WW I, WW II, et al) or even a faux wars (Cold War, Global War on Terror) they rarely make it back. Another major theme is the creation and growth of the cult of the self. Americans are raised to be, above all, consumers, and this has observable roots, and extreme implications.
Hedges brings in many sources to back his analysis of liberalism’s corpse, on almost every page it seems. One may agree or disagree with his analysis, but he has plenty of company to buttress his take on things.
Hedges paints with a very broad brush and in so doing, I think he overlooks some bright spots in the liberal world. For example, after years of Fox going unchallenged as a purveyor of lies and misdirection, MSNBC finally entered the fray, with at least some people there willing to point out where Fox lies and why, a task that was clearly beyond the three major networks. Of course, one must truly wonder how long a leash the politicals on MSNBC will be allowed, given that its ownership is as corporate as the network it counters. There is way, way far to go, but there are now states in which same-sex couples may legally wed, and that is most definitely progress.
Of course there are so many areas in which we are heading, no racing, in the wrong direction that occasional victories often seem Pyrrhic. Even after the mess Wall Street made of our economy, hell, the world’s economy, the government has done almost nothing to prevent them from doing it all over again. Unionization continues to plummet. The radicalized Supreme Court keeps broadening corporate rights and narrowing personal liberties. The wealth of the nation continues to flow to the incredibly wealthy at the expense of all of us, and the minions of the rich convince the victims of this economic rape that they had it coming. So if Hedges winds up seeing a dark age ahead, he has a pretty good basis. For the latest betrayal just take a quick look at the latest steaming turd the current administration is about to serve up to the American people as a reasonable compromise with the sociopaths of the right.
Death of the Liberal Class is a grim read, but it is an enlightening one. It makes it clear why those of us on the left feel so betrayed by our leadership. It is because we have been, over and over and over. There is much detail in Hedges’ book that is worth knowing. Hopefully, some people will find a way to beat back the darkness. Maybe we can take some encouragement from recent uprisings in the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in Wisconsin. But while more and more people realize just what is going on, while more and more people feel the pain of growing concentration of wealth and rights, we are still afflicted with media that sets its own agenda, sells the corporate Kool-Aid about deficits and taxation, and depicts almost all who object as extremists. Hedges does not offer much in the way of tactics for resistance or even ways to evade subjugation. He seems to be despondent about the prospects for actual democracy going forward, but at least he has outlined the shape of the beast.
Whether it was a lifetime of that special wartime hooch or corporate sweeteners, it was clear that the vic had issues with substances. But the body met its demise from a combination of external assaults, personal weaknesses and self-inflicted injuries. Skin that had turned blue from lack of oxygen, now, under the darkening sky of impending night, as a result of multiple stab wounds to both the front and back, shone a dark and sickly red.
7/11/11 - An interesting article regarding censorship
**spoiler alert** UPDATED - May 15, 2012 - at bottom
In 1952 Ralph Ellison's seminal novel, Invisible Man, was published. No, not the one that was made...more**spoiler alert** UPDATED - May 15, 2012 - at bottom
In 1952 Ralph Ellison's seminal novel, Invisible Man, was published. No, not the one that was made into a film with Claude Raines. Ellison's Invisible Man was about how the black man in America was invisible to the wider culture. His towering novel looked at a very troubling aspect of mid-20th century America. Russell Banks has cast a bright light on a segment of our society that 21st Century America not only wants to remain invisible, but which it is actively trying to erase.
The Kid lives under the Causeway in a coastal Florida city. He is 22 years old, small, unambitious, and largely destroyed. His knowledge of his father was no more than a snippet of conversation. The Kid was raised by a mother who engaged in serial relationships. He saw far too much of her at-home activities, and was home far too often unattended. Always small for his age, he was a bully-target and lacked sufficient self-esteem to form much by way of friendships. So, a loner. What he found himself doing to pass the time and, in a drug-like way, to numb the pain of his existence, was to watch porn. When Mom made no objection to his using her money to pay for his essential entertainment, damage was ensured. Eager to finally meet someone real, he looks on Craig's list and enters into an ongoing on-line exchange with a girl a few years his junior. When he finally comes to her house, he is met by the police and his life, at 18, is effectively over.
There are plenty of sex offenders in the world. Some are dangerous. Some are not. Some are tarred with this brush for thoughtlessly urinating in a public place. We might as well cancel the St Paddy’s Day parade. There are criminals of many sorts who serve their time, spend a period on parole, and eventually find their way back to some semblance of a normal life. But for those labeled sex offenders, punishment almost never ends. Even after being released from prison, they are placed on public lists and are subject to limitations that require them to remain specified distances from places where children do or may congregate. The result is that they have become 21st century lepers, relegated to locations at the fringes of society, unable to use public libraries, unable to even exist within large swaths of the territory of the modern world. Political predators who feed on public fear seek favor with the voters by targeting sex offenders, regardless of the expected efficacy of their actions. That is addressed here as well.
Banks looks at the world that the Kid inhabits. A community of offenders comes together in one of the few locations within the fictional city of Calusa, Florida where they can be without violating the law. Enter the Professor, also nameless. He is our window into this world, a sociologist doing research on homeless offenders. He patiently forms a friendship with the Kid, intending to use him for his research, but offering assistance along the way. He comes to care for the young man.
The kid reminds the Professor of Huckleberry Finn somehow. Here he is now, long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go, camped out alone where the continent and all the rivers meet the sea and there’s no farther place he can run to. The Professor wants to know what happened to that ignorant, abused, honest American boy between the end of the book and now. After he ran from Aunt Sally and her “civilisin,” how did he come years later to having “no money, no job, no legal squat”?
But the Professor has issues of his own. He is a huge man of maybe five hundred pounds, and spends long hours feeding his own addiction, eating. While society may regard his addiction with increasing disdain, no one suggests that fat people be shunned into leper colonies at the edges of town. The Professor has some rather darker secrets as well, which play into the final stages of the book. I will not reveal that info here, but the fact that he has a secret past helps link the Professor thematically with those he is researching.
When my youngest was still in elementary school, I often came along on class outings, usually on foot, trying desperately to keep up with the teachers who all seemed to me to be in training for the marathon. I suppose the pace makes it tougher for eight, nine or ten-year-olds to wander from the assigned route. On one such outing, we walked from a subway station in Brooklyn onto the Brooklyn Bridge. En route, we passed a bus stop which had on its side a larger-than-life-size image of a young, scantily clad female, an inducement to buying some product, underwear, beauty product, goat cheese, something. As we passed this, one cheery young boy turned to me and said “I bet you’d like to tap that, huh Mister Byrnes.” I was horrified. But ours is a culture that worships at the holy altar of profit and if getting from product to profit means coarsening the culture, even to the point of publicly exposing passing children to salacious images, just do it. Sexual content is pervasive in daily life. Billboards show models that have to be considered jail-bait primping about in all manner of undress. And don’t get me started on Brats dolls.
When a society commodifies its children by making them into a consumer group, dehumanizing them by converting them into a crucial, locked–in segment of the economy, and then proceeds to eroticize its products in order to sell them, the children gradually come to be perceived by the rest of the community and by the children themselves as sexual objects. And on the ladder of power, where power is construed sexually instead of economically, the children end up at the bottom rung.
I do not want to give the impression that this is a bloodless lecture on a social issue. Banks is a great novelist and he has given us relatable characters. The Professor struggles with his secrets and addictions. The Kid recognizes that he has done something wrong, but finds some light, instead of succumbing to the sort of dark depression that anyone in such a situation might experience. There are some fog-thin background characters, and some who step a bit out of that mist into further clarity, but the humanity of the Kid and the Professor are primary. There are even non-human characters who work incredibly well as emotional foils. Iggy is the Kid’s rather large pet iguana and bff. Later Einstein, a parrot with a few pretty good lines and Annie an elderly dog add to the warmth factor.
Banks displays his gift for imagery and description as well. He makes use of the local climate as an outward expression of plot and internal character conflict, but offers a wink and nod to the reader while doing so.
The eye of the hurricane: it’s a metaphor for the mental and emotional space where he’s lived most of his life. He thinks this and smiles inwardly. Never quite thought of it that way. Nice, the way the world that surrounds one, the very weather of one’s existence, provides a language for addressing the world inside.
Our secrets and lies make for us a skin to protect our inner selves from the world. What happens when that skin is perforated, or removed? Are we freed or endangered? And what is the truth anyway? The book takes a bit of an existential turn. A new character, the Writer, is introduced late in the game to insert the author into the story. A conversation between the Kid and the Writer embodies this.
If everything’s a lie and nothing’s true like you said, then it doesn’t matter if the Professor’s story is bullshit, right? Is that what you’re saying? What you believe matters, however. It’s all anyone has to act on. And since what you do is who you are, your actions define you. If you don’t believe anything is true simply because you can’t logically prove what’s true, you won’t do anything. You’ll end up spending your life in a rocking chair looking out at the horizon waiting for an answer that never comes. You might as well be dead. It’s an old philosophical problem
Early on, the Professor uses a treasure map to inspire the Kid, and the inspiration is drawn from belief, not from the reliability of the map. While I take Banks’ point that belief can go a long way toward inspiring one to success, that opens access to a very slippery slope. Not all beliefs are equal, and many are downright dangerous. Putting the contrast between a faith-based worldview and a scientific one in such black and white terms, with the corresponding judgment, is insulting and dangerous. It offers sustenance to those who would seek to inflict their personal beliefs on people who do not share them. There is plenty of room for both science and feeling in this world.
There is a bit of fun to be had with imagery. A giant python crossing a road could easily have Eden-ic implications, but while there are dark and dangerous aspects of life that thoughtless people have inflicted on us all, those on a literary treasure hunt will mostly go home unsatisfied.
I expect that Lost Memory of Skin will not be kindly received in some quarters. The subject matter might make some folks uncomfortable. Good. It should make people uncomfortable enough to take a fresh look at what is largely a very limited view of people who have been painted, en masse, with the same scarlet brush. Like a pointillist image there are enough elements that make up our image of what society calls “sex offenders” to warrant a closer look at what the term actually means.
Jack Plum was disfigured from birth, macro-cephalic. He takes care of his crippled mother, who blames him for her miseries. His father, a butcher with...moreJack Plum was disfigured from birth, macro-cephalic. He takes care of his crippled mother, who blames him for her miseries. His father, a butcher with ambitions to raise pigs instead of slaughtering them, vanished when Jack was a child. Jack is a familiar sort. He could be Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the author’s favorite books. He is a social outcast, keeping himself away from a society that heaps nothing by ridicule and scorn on him, and is engaged by Holly, the Scout of this scenario. Or he could be the Frankenstein monster, a creature apart, learning the language of people without interacting with any but his maker, in this case his long-gone father and his mother, and yearning for a companion, but shunned for his ugliness. Unlike Shelley’s creation, this “monster” has constructed a subterranean space carved out of a field, a home for himself and his four-legged friends, relating to them as a tribe, finding purpose and comfort in their company in what he calls his “Pig Palace,” a safe, loving refuge that serves as the “Pigtopia” of the book’s title. He also has a rock to which he has attributed religious significance. He could be Benjy from The Sound and the Fury, a source of familial shame, but possessing a gift of being able to see into people more than others. Here, Jack sees the truth behind a malevolent character’s actions. These literary similarities made Jack seem familiar to me despite his outward strangeness.
Also setting Jack apart is his language. Jack’s voice is in a pig-dialect, indicating his lack of formal education. It takes a while to adjust, but once one gets used to it, his language is quite understandable. Jack does see himself as a pig, for that is his only real social group until he and Holly find each other. How would a person speak, and think, whose only human contact was a mother who hated him and whose only friends were non-human? I found this an effective device for the most part.
The book is structured as alternating narratives, Jack’s and Holly’s. Holly is a bright, articulate prepubescent teen, with an interest in botany. She is a pure soul, besieged by a fair-weather friend, Samantha, and is less than thrilled by the boys in her circle. Jack, watching the world from his refuge in Pardes Wood, takes an interest in her. (as Shelley’s big guy is attracted to innocence) It is not long before they meet and become friends.
Pigtopia is primarily the story of Jack and Holly’s friendship, two isolated souls who see the magic in each other, despite their “outsider-ness,” and separation from the world. Jack is of indeterminate age when we first meet him. But he possesses a child-like innocence, so the two are temperamentally, if not chronologically well-paired. Both live with their mothers. Jack’s mother is a gorgon who abuses him while at the same time relying on him to take care of her, as she is a wheelchair-bound alcoholic in failing health who never misses a chance to blame Jack for her miseries. Holly’s father took a powder years ago. Her mother is dating again and that freaks her out, as she fears she will be abandoned if mom settles in with a new husband. Jack is afraid he will be institutionalized should anything dire happen to his mother. This gives the friends common ground, and their shared fear binds them even closer.
Samantha is the dark spirit here. She pesters Holly to be her friend, even though Holly does not really want her around. Then Samantha hounds Holly relentlessly, trying to discover the nature of her relationship with Jack, who is generally regarded as the town freak. (Boo)
It does not take a lot to imagine that things will get rocky. But amid all the abandonment fears, and concerns about potential exposure of their association we get to see both Jack’s and Holly’s true beauty, what makes them unusual and wonderful people. Jack is well aware that if the outside world becomes aware of his friendship with Holly she will suffer for it. Holly sees past Jack’s outer form to his inner beauty, strength, intelligence and kindness. That makes this a very moving story, for we know that their relationship is doomed.
Fitzgerald adds a nice touch with the use of several Tarot card scenes to prepare one for upcoming events. That works well. We see, through Jack’s eyes, what ails Samantha, giving her character depth, and Jack is also our conduit to a fuller look at Holly’s mother’s new boyfriend Antony.
While I did enjoy the book, I was not hog-wild about it. There was the odd twist and turn, but the plot seemed to plod, with too few surprises. It was also a bit of a stretch that Jack had the reading ability portrayed. It seemed to me that his father left the scene too early in Jack’s life for him to have achieved mastery. Of course Frankenstein’s monster made do with eavesdropping, so I guess this is consistent if one focuses on that parallel. I did like that Jack had his own form of religion. What subgroup, whether of small or huge numbers does not? Holly seems to parallel this with her faith in tarot cards. Finally, I was not thrilled with the ending. I got the impression that the author had run out of steam and needed to shut down the story. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Holly at the end. I found Jack’s ultimate pronouncements a bit jarring and the author’s resolution to the burgeoning crisis unsatisfying. So, I liked the book. There is much of value here. But there are elements that leave one wanting more. Overall then, my reaction to the book was sow-sow.
PS – here is a small interview with the author. It casts a little light on this particular work
I was of two very different minds about this book.
Australian Paul Raffaele is a feature writer for...moreWhat could be worse than a dog eat dog world? Oh.
I was of two very different minds about this book.
Australian Paul Raffaele is a feature writer for Smithsonian. He has covered many parts of the globe in his work for that venerable institution. And he travels far for this work, looking into that darkest of human activities. He investigates special meat-eaters in New Guinea, India, Tonga, ancient Mexico, and Africa. We have a certain image in mind of what cannibals might look like. I mean in the real world, not the dark imagination of Thomas Harris or the psychosis of some of our more aberrant criminals. They would probably live on Pacific Islands, or remotest Africa or South America, use primitive technology and have acquired a taste for missionary over easy. Mostly, but not entirely the case.
Cannibalism of one kind or another had been common around our globe through the millennia, and yet the classic Western image of cannibals is a terrified white Christian missionary in pith helmet crouching in a large outdoor cooking pot, the logs burning fiercely as wild-eyed African warriors in grass skirts dance about him shaking their spears. Their glinting eyes show their eagerness to tuck into their human meal. In truth there is not one record of a missionary ending up in an African cook pot. The cannibals invariably ate one another.
The book offers interesting, surprising, and very disturbing information about a practice most of us (certainly me) thought had vanished from human behavior. The reasons for chowing down on such forbidden fruit vary. High on the list is to degrade and strike fear into one’s enemies. Another is to honor close relations. Some even consider eating human flesh a form of religiousity. The Korowai people of New Guinea justify their practices by maintaining that victims had already been killed by evil spirits and it was only the evil spirits that had taken over the body that was being devoured.
Kilikili says he has killed no fewer than 30 khakhua (male witches) - from Smithsonian.com
The practice is supposedly a thing of the past in New Guinea, but I would not like to place too high a wager on that. Raffaele’s looks at the practice in Tonga and Aztec Mexico are more firmly planted in the past. Unfortunately, there are still people-eaters today. There is a Hindu sect in India, the Aghoris, whose holy men chow down on you-know-what “as the supreme demonstration of their sanctity.” They even sit atop rotting corpses as a show of devotion and Raffaele reports some particularly unspeakable acts in which they engage, that I will not report on here.
An image of this cheerful Aghori is sure to help you sleep at night
And no, wiseass, it is not a self-portrait. I cannot really fold my legs like that for any length of time, and I keep my hair and beard much shorter these days. But there is worse to come. His report on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army of northern Uganda takes the eating of human flesh to whole new level of depravity, a true heart of darkness. This information is the stuff of nightmares. Very disturbing.
I have a major gripe with the book. The cover is sprightly. It shows a hand reaching up out of a large cooking pot writing the book title. Lower down on the page is an icon that repeats inside as a section divider, a skull and crossbones in which the crossbones have been replaced with a knife and fork. One might get the impression that the information contained within would fulfill the silly graphics. We know that even such darkness can produce smiles. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (the stage version, not the very disappointing film), for example, is probably the only Broadway musical to have cannibalism as a central focus. Devouring scenery does not count. And while my personal favorite all-time Broadway show was rather dark, it still maintained a significant level of humor.
Todd: What is that? Lovett: It’s Priest. Have a little priest. Todd: Is it really good? Lovett: Sir, It’s too good, at least. And of course it don’t commit sins of the flesh So it’s pretty fresh Todd: Awful lot of fat Lovett: Only where it sat Todd: Haven’t you got poet or something like that? Lovett: No, you see the trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased? Stick to priest.
And so on…
The light touch promised by the cover art for this book does not deliver as promised. There is nothing at all amusing about children living today who are forced to eat human flesh under pain of death. In that way the book offers a bait and switch, promising a light touch, but delivering a deep gouge.
I also found the author at times personally off-putting. While in Tonga, he felt it necessary to comment on his translator’s physical attributes in a way that came across as salacious.
Waiting outside and holding aloft my name printed in marker pen on a pad is a round-faced, bright-eyed girl who looks to be in her early twenties. She is clad in a Congo-style ankle-nudging cotton dress that fits tightly about her neatly rounded thighs, and a short-sleeved top printed with a spray of red orchids that clings to her firm high breasts. She has woven her hair in to strands festooned with colored beads. Unlike most of the women at the airport who are laden with fat and boasting the enormous bottoms that most African men are said to lust for, she is sleek and silky.
Either his editor was not doing a good job, or the author exercised an ill-advised veto.
Raffaele does not come across as a particularly deep thinker and this is not a scholarly investigation of a very dark side of humanity. There is only passing mention of the Catholic sacrament of Communion, in which practicing Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ. There is even less on the sundry cannibalistic psychopaths who have come to public notice. Are there any studies indicating when and where it might have begun? Raffaele does note that it existed in prehistory. Records go back at least as far as Herodotus (well before Soylent Green) of such culinary preferences, and it lasted into the 19th century, at least. How about a comparison with other species? How widespread is the practice in the animal kingdom. Are we really different from what we consider lower orders? For a more analytical look at the subject you might consider Carole Travis-Henikoff’s book, Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Tabboo. An NPR interview offers a taste of what she has to offer.
Among the Cannibals definitely offers new and intriguing information. Be forewarned that you will need a strong stomach to get through it all. But, because it was so much not what was expected, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
To remove the taste, you might consider taking in a bit more of Sweeney. Another gem from the vaults is a song by Sheb Wooley that was actually a #1 hit when I was a tyke.
And of course, every abomination must have an advocate, so you might want to see the modest proposal the folks at Zebra Punch offer, while humming their particular version of Barbara Streisand’s classic tune, about why we should eat people.
There is an interesting item on cannibalism in Wikipedia
Living what appears to be an exceptional reality, with financial and career success, access to the good things in life, and a world of hope for the fu...moreLiving what appears to be an exceptional reality, with financial and career success, access to the good things in life, and a world of hope for the future, the Bergamot family discovers that the royal flush they had been dealt can easily be transformed into, or shown to be, a house of cards.
When 15-year old Jake Bergamot passes on a chance to hook up with an eighth-grader at a party, telling her she is just too young, she tries to show him she is very definitely not too young by sending him an explicit video of herself. Jake foolishly passes the video on to his friends and it goes viral.
This Beautiful Life is a beautifully written book about an ugly event. It looks into how a family copes with the exposure to which they are subjected as a result of a bad adolescent decision, the repercussions of their actions on each other, and what the event reveals about the family’s strengths and weaknesses. Does stress form character or reveal it?
Over-achieving dad, Richard, is on the verge of closing a huge real estate deal for a major Manhattan institution when his high-octane career is impacted. Jake’s pretty decent adolescence and sense of self is given a huge blow. Mom, Liz, having moved from a preferred upstate environment because of her husband’s career, must consider what she really wants in life. Even little eight-year-old sister, Coco, is not untouched.
One of the mixed blessings of our age is our profound interconnectedness. It also is a reminder that, in situations both public and private, just because one can does not mean one should. What does it mean to know that every aspect of one’s life can be shaken by such capricious events? How can one have any sense of security in such a world?
This is a fast-paced book. Schulman is very skilled at portraying conversations between family members. All her primary people are believable, if not necessarily sympathetic. She looks into the details of what might happen under the situation this family endures and paints a convincing portrait. She not only shows the workings of a family’s dynamic, but offers a spot-on look at a segment of American society.
There is little need for a literary treasure hunt here, beyond this Daisy wreaking havoc as her literary predecessor had also done. The images Schulman offers, the actions and emotions she depicts are more than sufficient to show how fragile our lives can be in the early 21st century, and how important it is to build solidly.
7/28/11 Janet Maslin wrote a pretty good review in the July 24, 2011 NY Times
8/4/2011 Mary McGarry Morris wrote a very good review in the Washington Post.
The most persistent aspect of this intriguing book is the questions it raises. Why do we age? Can we do anything...moreUpdated - 8/8/13 - see link at bottom
The most persistent aspect of this intriguing book is the questions it raises. Why do we age? Can we do anything to halt or at least slow the aging process? What might be the implications of extending our time on Earth?
Jonathan Weiner builds his look at the science of immortality around Aubrey de Grey, an odd duck of a British theoretician, a sort of Methuselahn gadfly. De Grey, who looks like he might either play back up with ZZ Top or live in a moss-covered cabin in the depths of a Middle-Earth forest, has big-picture notions of what it would take to significantly increase the human lifespan. He has written professional papers in the gerontological field, although he was not professionally trained, and his wide knowledge of fields related to aging make him one of the planet’s experts on the subject. He has also established an organization, SENS, (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) to promote research into extending human life.
Using Aubrey as his central trunk, Weiner branches off to a variety of fascinating subjects. He gives us a look at how people have viewed the notion of immortality through our history, in religion, literature and mythology. I was most surprised by a biblical account of a city named “Luz” in which the residents remained immortal. It was news to me. He writes about the history of theories of aging, and interviews several scientists working in diverse aging research projects.
In the last two hundred years the human lifespan has approximately doubled. Who’s to say that it might not double again? Improvements in child health were responsible for much of the earlier gains, but lately the focus has shifted to extending life for those who have already achieved maturity. Why are we so plagued today with late onset maladies like cancer and heart disease? What is the role of natural selection in longevity?
Why do our bodies do such a good job of building through our youth, then slow down? Are we really rusting from the inside out? Like a city, our bodies generate considerable quantities of garbage. Thankfully, our bodies also include a sanitation squad that takes care of most of that, but in time the garbage trucks begin to fail and the sort of garbage we leave out on the curb doesn’t catch the crew’s attention. Clog up, shut down, game over. Why does the clean-up crew fail to keep up? Can the technology that uses designed microbes to detoxify contaminated soil be applied to the human body’s difficulties identifying and composting or taking out the internal refuse?
Technical advances over the last century have allowed researchers to see deeper than ever into the operations that go on inside cells and even molecules, giving hope for new understanding and new ways to remain healthy.
Weiner does not look into potential global hindrances to life extension. Things like global warming, resource exhaustion, overpopulation. He does recognize the potential for longevity to be applied to the wrong sort, cautioning that extended lives might produce thousand-year Hitlers, Stalins or Maos. One could certainly see implications for westernized societies, in which those who routinely reward themselves at the expense of everyone else, (think Wall Street and corporate execs) buy themselves onto the beginning of that line. It would not be a huge leap to envision extensions to the existing class divides, with longevity as yet another privilege of wealth, eternal masters and expendable proles. How many Ghandis, Aung San Suu Kyis, or Mandelas would likely gain access to life-lengthening treatments?
In a world of widely available life extension, would we all become risk-averse to the point of stasis?
There are so many questions raised here, that it might take an extended life to consider them all. But I would not wait too long before reading this intriguing book. You don’t have forever.
The May 2013 issue of National Geographic featured a cover story on longevity. Definitely worth a look. But hurry. You know why.
Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras.
Welcome to Wally World. No, not the one with Chevy Chase and a stiff relation on the car roof, the one that is a place of real literary wonder. Wallace Stegner is one of our great national treasures, and Crossing to Safety is a very rich read, a surprising look at the friendship between two couples, four friends. Stegner opens with Charity, a wealthy New Englander in the last stages of cancer, bringing the foursome back together for one last hurrah. He dusts off this fossil and shows us where it came from. And in the process ponders the craft he is using to tell his story.
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?
Stegner is up front about the challenge he has presented himself. How does one write an interesting book about friendship? I suppose one begins with being able to create real people with words. But Stegner might disagree. In the book he says
you’ve got the wrong idea of what writers do. They don’t understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask questions they can answer. Those aren’t people that you see in books, those are constructs.
And yet his characters do seem real and that is why we come to care about them.
Larry is a young teacher arriving at his first job in Madison Wisconsin. He is the hard-worker, always writing, articles, stories, a novel, using every spare minute to put words to paper. His wife, Sally, had given up her college career to help Larry through his education, and is pregnant when they set up shop in town. She and Larry barely scrape by. She is probably the least defined of the four, supportive to all, but ultimately the one most in need of the support of her friends. She appears early on with canes and leg braces. We learn later how she acquired them. Sid and Charity are at the very opposite end of the financial spectrum. Sid, from Pittsburgh, inherited considerable family wealth. He is a dreamer, wanting to write his poetry, ponder the land, more of a transcendentalist than anything. Charity came from old New England money. She is the organizer, the one who must be in charge. This unlikely foursome become fast friends almost immediately, finding an Eden of mutual acceptance and admiration. The notion of Eden is one that recurs with some frequency.
From the high porch, the woods pitching down to the lake are more than a known and loved place. They are a habitat we were once fully adapted to, a sort of Peaceable Kingdom where species such as ours might evolve unchallenged and find their step on the staircase of being.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained arrive towards the end. In between, Sid and Charity’s first time together at her family retreat in northern Vermont, Battell Pond, is like a stroll through the first garden. An aspect of Charity’s personality is even referred to, during a multi-day hike the foursome take while in Vermont years later, as the “serpent in paradise.” Clearly the Eden of the two pairs’ friendship is not without its dangers.
Although his setting is the Northeast, mostly, instead of his beloved West, Stegner pays close attention to place.
The hemlocks like this steep shore. Like other species, they hang on to their territory
much like Charity is grown from her New England soil. Larry hankers for his birthplace in the Southwest and winds up there, but Stegner satisfies himself with some description of Wisconsin and much of Battell Pond. As the land does in his other tales, this one challenges his characters. A long hike, perhaps standing in for a life journey, is fraught with unexpected impediments, an unmapped beaver pond, storm-downed trees that force unfortunate detours. In Wisconsin, a stormy lake threatens all their lives.
Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature.
But Charity takes it as her mission to prevail over entropy.
Soon spring would thaw the drifts and reveal the disorder and scarred earth, and she would set to work to transform it into a landscape.
We shift between the present and the past, following the friends through the stages of their lives. The two men, both teachers, struggle with getting tenure, finding professional fulfillment and success. We also get a look into the struggles each couple experiences within their relationships. Although all four are offered the stage it is the pairing of Sid and Charity that most lights it up. Stegner offers small details that illuminate and portend. Here Larry describes an interaction with Charity.
the kiss I aimed at her cheek barely grazed her. She was not much of a kisser. She had a way of turning at the last minute and presenting a moving target.
And what happens at the end of our lives, when this friendship comes to its final chapter?
Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don’t warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn’t differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.
Stegner shows that there are always more shoots ready to seek the light as ancient woods bow with time, but we cross our lives to safety with the memories of our brief time here, the treasures of love and friendship. One of those treasures is having read this book. (less)
Whereas Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes were pop stars of the first scientific revolution in the 17...moreUpdated - July 31, 2013 - added a link at bottom
Whereas Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes were pop stars of the first scientific revolution in the 17th century, Richard Holmes looks at what Coleridge called a “second scientific revolution,” the era of scientific breakthrough between Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation in 1768 and Darwin’s journey on the Beagle in 1831. He does this by a sort of relay, beginning with Joseph Banks, a botanist on Cooks’ ship, Endeavor, connecting him to William Herschel, an astronomer who with his sister, Caroline, revolutionized how we look at the heavens, building the first huge telescopes, including a 40 foot reflecting telescope. He discovered Uranus (insert jejune joke here) which had another, less entertaining, name before the final one was universally agreed upon. He and his sister mapped a host of comets, planetary moons and other astronomical phenomena. From the Herschels we ascend to the world of ballooning, quite a big deal at the time, and mortally dangerous. The Montgolfier Brothers put in an appearance as do other daredevils of both scientific and adventuresome bents. Mungo Park was a world class explorer who combined a daring spirit with a medical degree and an interest in exploring unknown Africa. He sought the origins of the Congo and Niger rivers with encouragement from Banks, by then head of the Royal Society. Humphrey Davy figures large in this tale, sharing most of the real estate here with the Herschels. Davy experimented (on himself as often as not) for years with gases of various sorts. He was successful in the short term in creating a lovely form of intoxication, but in the long run, had hit on a safe way to anesthetize medical patients. Later, as a sort of superstar science stud of his day, Davy was asked to come up with a way to make mining safer. He designed the first safe-to-use miner’s lamp. It cut down on fatalities dramatically, and earned him the gratitude of the nation.
Not only do we have scientific advances, we have the arts of the time. These scientists were not lab-bound nerds. Herschel was a working musician, head of a band, a fellow who dashed off 24 symphonies. Caroline sang at a professional level in addition to becoming the first woman to be a paid, professional scientist. The scientists, portrayed here in mini-biographies for the primary characters, also wrote and often sold poetry. This combination of interests and the personal passion to persist against sometimes daunting odds gave the era its character. It is from this time that we get the notion of a Doctor Frankenstein (based on a real person, who was attempting reanimation) the mad, obsessed scientist, alone in his castle. Could one revive dead tissue? If one did would it have a soul?
There was animated discussion going on about what makes us human. Is man merely a product of chemical interactions or is there some vital force, some chi that exists outside the scientifically observable plane, that makes us human, a soul maybe? It became a major political acid test at the time, probably equivalent to the abortion issue today.
These are all fascinating people, with great accomplishments and plenty of quirks to their credit. The period is dazzling in the mixing of art with science, artists with scientists and the renaissance character of many of the figures portrayed here. It makes you want to know more about them and about the era, as well as providing a contrast to our current age of hyper-differentiation.
Holmes writes with great affection for his subjects and with a charming sense of humor. The golden age of ballooning certainly did include the first members of the Mile high club. It is a fun read with new information around every turn, and offers us an appreciation for what an amazing age that was. It won the National Book Critics Circle award for 2009, among other awards. It deserved to win a lot more. There is only one word that can sum up this book, wonderful.
Bringing home mass quantities from storage, in the hopes of becoming unburdened by that obscene cost, I opened a box of National Geographics. And being the sort I am, could not help but skim through. Came across an article from the November 1996 issue, by T. H. Watkins about Joseph Banks, a significant person in the story told in The Age of Wonder. The article is titled The Greening of the Empire. Sadly, the available on-line archive from NatGeo extends only back to 2005. But I did find a smaller version of the article, at the website StranceScience.net. It is a quick and fascinating read. And if you have boxes of National Geographics tucked away in a garage or attic, you might want to go exploring and dig this one out. Your journey will be well rewarded.
Louie Zamperini was quite a character, wild, given to mayhem and thievery, but he straightened out enough to become a world-class runner, joining the...moreLouie Zamperini was quite a character, wild, given to mayhem and thievery, but he straightened out enough to become a world-class runner, joining the US team in the Berlin Olympics. He continued his athletic career at USC, setting running records there, preparing for the next international competition. But the world would skip that event, leaving Louie adrift. He joined the military and washed out, but he was drafted back in after Pearl Harbor, as a bombardier. When Louie’s plane went down in the middle of the Pacific, while on a bombing run, his great adventure began. Unbroken is Louie’s tale of survival.
Louie and two other crew members would drift for an unthinkable duration before sighting land, struggling to collect potable water, desperate to catch fish and birds for food and terrified of being devoured by the constantly marauding sharks. Once they finally landed it was out of the frying pan and into the rising sun, as they were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Enduring years of the beatings, deprivations, forced labor and humiliations that were daily fare in Japanese POW camps made their ocean voyage seem like a pleasure cruise.
This is not only an amazingly researched book, with details that clearly took serious, serious digging to unearth, but Laura Hillenbrand is a gifted story-teller, as any who have read Seabiscuit can attest, and she brings her narrative skills to this remarkable, real-life tale. Having introduced Louie in the early chapters and providing reasons to care, she documents a relentless sequence of trials that he and his mates had to endure. It does get a little repetitive, but there were times when the hairs on my arm stood up and saluted and I had to put the book down because the horrors these men faced were so frightening and upsetting. Think Jaws vs a rubber raft. But I was so captivated by the story that I dove right back in after a short break. The unpleasantness of the Geneva-challenged WW II Japanese military was not news to me, but the details Hillenbrand provides gave that vision considerable depth. There is a psycho-guard character in this story who would fit in well in many a horror film. And yet, with all the monstrtosities of the camps, there is also Hogan’s Heroes-type humor that will make you laugh out loud.
Louie’s life post-liberation was no picnic either. PTSD was not in the lexicon at the time, but anyone today would recognize the symptoms. Even though the unspeakable horrors he endured had not killed him, the internalized terrors he brought home might have finished the job. Hillenbrand takes us through those trials and tells the surprising story of how this incredibly strong, but seriously damaged man, was mended.
Unbroken offers an important portrait about a dark time, but shows how strength, courage, incredible determination and a dose of faith can overcome any obstacle. You will weep, rage, laugh and cheer. What more can a reader ask?