Ok, show of hands. How many of you have uttered these exact words? (or words to that effect). Not everyone? I see we have some
I’m pretty much fucked.
Ok, show of hands. How many of you have uttered these exact words? (or words to that effect). Not everyone? I see we have some liars out there. How many have said them at least twice? Three times? Four? Those with hands still up, you probably need to make some adjustments to your approach, find a safer line of work, hobbies that do not entail long drops, stop trying the weekly specials at McBlowfish, or seek out people to date who are into less extreme…um…sports. These are the opening words of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is definitely more screwed than most of us have ever been. Dude missed his ride and there will not be another along for, oh, four years. Supplies on hand were only meant to cover a few weeks, maybe months. And that Martian atmosphere is definitely no fun, lacking stuff like, oh, breathable air, and a reasonable range of temperature. It does, offer, however, extremely harsh (good for scouring that burned on gunk from sauce pans) and long-lasting (as in months) dust storms. And if that was not enough he faces an array of other challenges.
No, Kibby (the 12-year-old kibitzer who infects my brain), no Mars Attacks brain beasts, or that other guy, even though I know he is your favorite. Real challenges. For example, the music he has for his stay consists of disco. The viewing options include 70s TV. Most of us might give serious consideration to minimizing the guaranteed pain, frustration, starvation and inevitable death by, maybe, taking a short hustle outside sans that special suit. It would be a very, very short last dance. Watney is either a cock-eyed optimist or an idiot. I am going with the former, as he is indeed made of tougher stuff. He is armored and well supplied with the sort of can-do designer genes that might make the rest of us feel like the can’t-do sorts we are. He is the poster boy for positive attitude. It does not hurt that he is way smart, with expertise in a wide-enough range of things scientific to matter. It does not hurt that he is an engineer who gets off on taking apart, putting back-together, figuring out, thinking through, testing, trying, and pushing envelopes. But his crew is headed home, and what hope is there, really?
The Martian tells of Watney’s attempt to survive in a literally alien environment, using only the tools on hand and his wits. It is a gripping story with one of the most adorable heroes you are likely to encounter, on this planet or any other. (No, Kibby, not a kitten) How could you not root for a guy who scrapes through Thanksgiving dinner for potato parts to plant for food? Of course, one might think “been there, done that,” particularly as 1964’s Robin Crusoe on Mars offered a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale in a more contemporary notion of a remote locale. A 1905 novel used a different classic traveler in the same sort of format.
Of course those tellings had a lot more in common with the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs as seen by Frank Frazetta than they do with the vision we have of the Red Planet today, or, say, reality.
Or is it?
One of these was a shot of you know where. The other was taken at Death Valley, which was used, BTW, in the filming of Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Most of the tale is spent on Watney’s very compelling attempt to survive, going through all the challenges he faces trying to make air, preserve and maybe generate water, make his food last, get some sort of communication set up, deal with things like exploding air-locks, biblical level dust-storms, toppling ground-transport vehicles, you know, stuff, most of it life-threatening. The other end of things is how the folks on the ground deal with this GInornous OOPS. There are technical elements, of course but more interesting, for me, were the political considerations. To tell the crew or not? Imagine how bummed out, embarrassed, and guilty you might be on that ship (the Hermes) returning home, knowing you had left one behind. Might it affect your ability to take care of necessary business for the next bunch of months? Another question is whether to tell the public, and if so, when. How about getting help from other space-capable nations? Are any international dealings simple? There is also some in-house (NASA) staff maneuvering that is wonderful to see.
In her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes
Having a likeable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud…
Probably the greatest strength of The Martian is the narration of Mart Watney. He is engaging and funny, optimistic and capable. I suppose there are some who might find him lacking in sharp edges, but I thought he worked great. And here is what he will look like, more or less, in the upcoming film.
Matt Damon – from Interstellar
Gripes Yes, really, there is too much scientific detail. It is not that it is beyond the comprehension of a lot of readers (although it will skip by a fair number) it is the share of time, the number of pages, the sheer volume of obstacles to be overcome, and the very detailed explanation of so many of them tilts the book a bit too much towards the MacGyver demo. Weir writes very well about the other elements of the story. Repetition of DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, with the subsequent amazingly clever repair du jour, does get a bit old after a while. I had to fight an urge to scan at times.
But that is really it. Otherwise, The Martian is an absolute delight to read. Watney is lovable as well as capable, and makes excellent use of his sense of humor to look on the bright side of life, in a very dark circumstance.
Whether he makes it out on time or not (not gonna spoil that one) you will cheer him on, hope for the best, and fly past those pages with considerable, if maybe not interplanetary, speed. Is there life on Mars? There will be while you read this book.
Review posted – 1/16/15
Publication date – self-pub in 2011 – Bought, edited and published by Crown 10/28/2014
=============================EXTRA STUFF Links to the author’s personal and FB pages. Weir’s site, at present (1/16/15) is very much a work in progress. But I expect it will ramp up in time for the film, for sure.
For a real Martian experience check out NASA’s Mars page
For a realer Martian experience, and ideal for those trying to keep one step ahead of creditors and/or the law, you might want to consider applying to be on a Mars mission, no joke. There is more on this project below but the above link is for the selection process, just in case you don’t mind a strictly one-way journey.
I bet you thought I’d forgotten these guys. No chance! I just ran out of time to figure out how to stuff them into the review. So, sorry, I am stuffing them here. That sounds so wrong.
If you want to experience Mars while still on earth, it is indeed possible
When you are checking your ancestry some of that unusual DNA might come from a place, far, far away. Two scientists look at the unfortunately named notion of Panspermia, (view spoiler)[(the natural result of guys watching really good porn?) (hide spoiler)] which addresses the possibility that the genesis of life on Earth had its opening act elsewhere.
If you want to know Who goes to Mars for the waters, the answer is yes
All right. We’re all done now. You’d better get going or Marvin will lose his cool
Oh, sorry Marvin, just one more thing, lists.
FILMS Abbott and Costello go to Mars The Angry Red Planet Bad Girls From Mars The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars Capricorn One Devil Girl From Mars Doom Empire of Danger Escape From Mars Flight to Mars Ghosts of Mars Invaders from MArs The Last days on Mars Lost on Mars Mars Needs Moms Mars Needs Women Mission to Mars Race to Mars Red Planet Red Planet Mars Robinson Crusoe on Mars Rocket Man Roving Mars Santa Claus Conquers the Martians Stranded The Terror from Beyond Space Total Recall
He pointed out that “a strong lack of conscience” is one of the hallmarks for these individuals. “Their game is self-gratification at the other person
He pointed out that “a strong lack of conscience” is one of the hallmarks for these individuals. “Their game is self-gratification at the other person’s experience,” Hare said. “Psychopathic killers, however, are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards. The acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilly inability to treat others as thinking, feeling humans.” - the author quoting Robert Hare, author of a book on Psychopathy
Call me Will. Some years ago, a lot, don’t ask, I thought I would see a bit of that northern rival city. It was wintry, snow on the ground. Accommodations were meager. No, I was not there alone, and the journey was not without portents. But I was spared a room-mate of the cannibalistic inclination. I still feel the pull, on occasions. Maybe stop by to see relics of Revolution, fields of dreams crushed and fulfilled, walk spaces where giants once strode. So I was drawn to Roseanne Montillo’s latest. In her previous book, The Lady and Her Monsters, she followed the trail of creation blazed by Mary Shelley as she put together her masterpiece, Frankenstein. In The Wilderness of Ruin, Montillo is back looking at monsters and creators. This time the two are not so closely linked. The monster is this tale is all too real, the youngest serial killer in US history. The artist in this volume is Herman Melville (and, of course, his monster as well, but the killer is the primary monster here) . Montillo treats us to a look at his life, or at least parts of it, and offers some details on the elements that went into the construction of his masterpiece, Moby Dick. A consideration of madness, in his work and in his life, and public discourse on the subject of madness links the two. A third character here is Boston of the late 19th century, as Montillo offers us a look at the place, most particularly in the 1870s. I am sure there are parts of the city remaining, in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, for one, where a form of madness is regularly experienced.
Before the infamous serial killers whose names we know too well, before BTK and Dahmer, before Bundy and Gacy, long before the Boston Strangler, Bean Town was afflicted by a particularly bloody small-fry with particularly large problems. Jesse Pomeroy was a sociopathic little beast who, as a pre-teen, preyed on small children, kidnapping, assaulting and cutting them. He was even known to have taken a bite. As a teen, after a spell in juvie, he graduated to murder. The book calls him America’s youngest serial killer. A drunken, abusive lout of a father played a part, but was Jesse born a monster or was he made? Of course, he would probably not fit as an actual serial killer, as currently defined, but he was definitely a multiple murderer, generated considerable terror in the area, and was certainly sociopathic.
The young Jess Pomeroy and Herman Mellville
Montillo offers us a look at the mean streets of Boston in the 1870s. Her descriptions are filled with illuminating, and sometimes wonderful details. It was a very Dickensian scene with poverty widespread and in full view. Child labor was usual, housing was cramped and susceptible to conflagration. Class lines were sometimes demarcated quite clearly. Montillo tells of one in particular, Mount Vernon Street, that marked where well-to-do South Slope ended and working class North Slope began. It was also known as Mount Whoredom Street for its concentration of bordellos. My favorite period detail concerns a World Peace Jubilee that took place in 1872, following the end of the Franco-Prussian war. (The mayor was trying to spruce up the city’s image.) Johann Strauss played Blue Danube, and one hundred fifty firemen took the stage of the newly constructed Coliseum to perform a piece of music by pounding on 150 anvils, which probably makes Boston the birthplace of heavy metal (sorry).
alt="description"/> The Coliseum in the World Peace Jubilee
Montillo also tells of the sort of political shortsightedness which has plagued governments everywhere. The Fire Chief had taken note of the unpleasantness endured by Chicago in 1871 and urged the city government to do some infrastructure investment to prevent a similar outcome. Think the city did it? Of course, after the conflagration, the media, indulging in their usual investigative acuity, somehow focused blame on the one guy who was trying to prevent catastrophe. Same ole media.
Baked Beantown - from Library of Congress
Melville had to endure some troubles of his own. We in the 21st century may regard Moby Dick as one of the masterpieces of American literature, but it sold like three-day old fish. Melville earned less than $600 for his effort, which labors took a considerable toll on his health and maybe on his sanity. Imagine you are Herman Melville and are working on your Opus Magnus, in a place (Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MA) that is heavy with family, visitors, screaming children, constant distraction, and your family is trying to get you to stop writing, because, of course, it is the writing that is making you nuts. It is amazing to me that Melville did not take a page from Pomeroy’s book and reduce his distractions a notch. It will come as no surprise that he was quite interested in the notion of madness. It was a widely discussed issue of the day. There was direct applicability of the madness discussion to matters like sentencing. If a prisoner is considered insane, would it be ok to execute him? Montillo goes into some of the thought at the time and the thinkers making their cases. Melville’s interest in madness was certainly manifest in his book. Ahab has…issues.
Another treat in the book is some more back story on where and how Melville got some of his material. I had thought it was the tale of the Essex that had been the sole white whale inspiration. Turns out there was an earlier one. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the whaler…. I am not aware of the name of the aged whale that took out the Essex, but the earlier one was named Mocha Dick, Mocha for the island near where it was sighted, and Dick as a generic appellation, like the Joe part of GI Joe. It does, however, sound like an unspeakable beverage not on sale at Starbuck’s, so far as I am aware.
Cover of J. N. Reynolds story Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific
Due to the joining together of a city and a multiple murderer, The Wilderness of Ruin does bear a base similarity to Erik Larson’s outstanding book, The Devil in the White City. Both tell of an awful killer, and depict a major American city at a time of great change. However Wilderness… does not deliver quite the punch of the earlier book.
First, the link between the killer and Melville lies not in their having anything to do with each other. It is in the fact that madness is associated with both of them. And that is a fairly thin tether with which to connect the two. There are added links having to do with perception of relative skull size and skin color, but I thought those were a stretch. Given how magnificently Montillo had delved into the underpinnings of Mary Shelley’s great work, I believe she would have been well served to have offered up another on Melville. It is possible, of course, that she did not have enough new material with which to populate an entire volume. And there is no shortage of material on Melville out there already. (a Google search of “Melville biography” yielded 9,460 results) Of course, I expect the same might have been said for Mary Shelley. Don’t know, but the linkage felt forced.
Second, there is not really much of a hunt for Pomeroy. He spends most of his time in the book well contained behind bars, attempting to escape his come-uppance legally, and with digging tools, unlike the devil in Chicago, who remained at his dark task for most of that tale.
Third, the title may suggest something to the author, (terminology used to describe the aftermath of the Chicago fire, perhaps) I did not really get a clear image of the stories being told from the title. I suppose Pomeroy creates his fair share of ruin, and Melville endures far too much, and, of course, the city goes all to blazes, but the title just felt off to me.
However, there is still plenty to like in The Wilderness…. That one can come away from this book with a Zapruder-like mantra, “There was a second white whale,“ is almost worth the price of admission on its own. For those who have not already availed of material on Herman, there is enough here to whet one’s appetite, without going overboard. Some of the details of 19th century Boston (Yes, the parts may not have been legally part of the Boston of the era, but they are part of it today) are fascinating. There is a nugget on the origin of a famous Poe story, from when he was stationed in Boston. The discussion on madness is certainly worth listening in on. As is an exchange of ideas about the benefits of solitary confinement. Finally, there is cross-centuries relevance to how government and media function. It will certainly come as no surprise to anyone living in 21st century America that lily-livered politicians would rather take a chance on their districts burning to the ground sooner than spend public money to protect them. And were you aware that Boston had suffered a catastrophic conflagration only a year after Chicago? (excluding you folks from the Boston area. You know about this, right?) And it will come as no surprise to anyone with a radio, television or computer that substantial portions of the media are dedicated to dimming the light by increasing the temperature. The book may not be equal to the sum of the parts, the linkages are a bit frayed, the hunt for and serial designation of the killer may have been exaggerated, but the parts are still pretty interesting. It is always a good thing to visit Boston.
Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is makin
Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.
Detective Bill Hodges is 62, overweight, divorced and retired. He lives alone and has an uncomfortably familiar relationship with his father’s pistol. The two spend long hours together in front of the tube, taking in the sort of Maury-Povich-mind-poison that is probably grown in basement vats to be sold to post-lobotomy viewers for the price of a gazillion commercials, disposable hours of a pointless life, and a willingness to cash in one’s remnant humanity for a permanent gig as a morality-blind multi-eyed sofa spud.
Hodges had been on the job when a particularly heinous crime had been committed, but was out before he could find the evil-doer. His pre-suicidal reverie is disturbed by the non-postal-service delivery of a printed message. The nut job who did the crime taunts Hodges for his failure, and encourages him to take his suicidal contemplation a step further. Fat chance.
As far as the term hard-boiled goes, I feel pretty comfortable applying it to eggs (cooked in water until the yolk is firm). As for hard-boiled fiction, there are probably as many different definitions as there are diverse sorts of egg-layers. So I will offer no litmus test here to measure whether Mr Mercedes satisfies a certain set of definitional criteria. Is it truly hard-boiled or not? Is it truly noir-ish or not? To which I can only reply. Sorry dear, did you say something? Could you pass the bourbon, please. There are many sub-categories of the mystery genre, 14 of which are noted for your pleasure on the web site of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop . And I am certain that Mr Mercedes fits nicely into one of them. But whether you prefer your mystery tales hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or over-easy, the one thing that counts here is the chef author. Whatever he does with and to the genre, Stephen King will take you for a ride that includes at least a bit and maybe more than a bit of a scare. And scary is scary whether the source is a haunted house, a psycho alien clown or a very sick puppy.
Said sick puppy opens this story by driving the large Mercedes of the title directly into a crowd of the hopeful and desperate at a job fair in an unnamed Midwest town, killing eight and seriously injuring over a dozen more. (King talks about the genesis of this scene here, in a video clip from TV station WABI in Maine.) Not a recreational activity most of us might indulge in, but for Brady Harstfield murdering and maiming constitutes good times. He makes ends meet as a house-calling IT guy. His second job is as an ice-cream vendor. And, while it is fun to see Brady in his white truck gig, it did feel rather forced. If you are expecting Raymond Chandler here, or Dashiell Hammett, you will have to holster your expectations. There will be no trying-to-figure-out-whodunit in this story. The looney tunes with the diminished conscience and enlarged mommy issues is presented straight away as our psycho-killer. So, more Columbo than Marlowe. The trail we follow is in how the goodies discover and find their way to the baddie.
Erstwhile Detective Hodges takes the lead. King spends some time with introductions, as Mr Mercedes is the first of a planned trilogy. So we get to know a bit about him and his partners in anti-crime. Jerome Robinson is 17, black, 6’5”, a computer whiz, within reason, and Ivy League bound. He has been doing some lawn work and occasional IT assistance for Hodges, and is the closest thing the old guy has to a friend. Holly Gibney, 44, has issues, having spent a few sessions in institutions for the very nervous. She is a cousin to the late owner of the Mercedes that was used in the carnage. Hodges met her as he looked into the death of her cuz. Her mother Charlotte is an awful human being, controlling, greedy, and incapable of seeing Holly’s better qualities. She has some, intelligence and tenacity being high on that list. This oddball trio (the Harper Road Irregulars?) work the case, without, of course, involving the police any more than absolutely necessary. I found them extremely engaging. Jerome is probably too perfect, and Holly may be a bit too twitchy, but they are fun to follow.
King shows his playfulness with the genre, whatever genre it actually is. Of course, Hodges is just a retired detective not a PI, but when Holly’s aunt, Janelle Patterson, (named, surely, for a certain author King has called “a terrible writer”) hires him he takes a step in the genre direction. (I have vowed not to make any jejune comments regarding private dicks) Janelle even buys him what she calls a Philip Marlowe fedora. Janelle is, of course, the mandatory femme fatale, but if so, she is on the light side, lacking some of the attributes normally associated with that type. Could Hodges’ Harper Road address be a nod to Ross McDonald’s Lew Harper? The baddie references several cop dramas, NYPD Blue, Homicide, and The Wire, for example. Luther and Prime Suspect are noted as well, in a disparaging way. Mentions of Wambaugh and Grisham appear, and King double dips by naming a records department cop Marlo. There are undoubtedly many more, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.
King lets us look over Brady’s shoulder as well as over Hodges’, and tosses in some third-party views as well. Parenthood comes in for a difficult time. Only Jerome, of all the major, or even secondary characters, has a decent parent-child relationship with his actual family. Of course bubly family life is not exactly a staple of detective fiction, so that fits well enough.
Madness is the doorway that writers step through when they want to introduce a bit of fantasy to an otherwise real-world scenario. And SK simply could not help himself. Mr Mercedes is most definitely a non-fantasy novel, but there are a few (really, only a few) moments when familiar King woo-woo material appears. It will be interesting to see if this is a recurring feature in his trilogy or if SK can stay on the non-fantasy wagon for the entire ride.
So what’s the bottom line here? Stephen King cranks out novels, it seems, like Hershey produces kisses. They are all tasty and appealing, but there is a definite sameness to the product. King can draw readers in. He offers engaging characters, and understands the mechanics of tension and release as well as any living writer. Put a red wrapper on it and it remains a tasty treat. Blue? Same deal. I bet if King wanted to write a historical romance it would have engaging characters, some danger, some resolution. It would pull you in and hold on like a succubus (no, not public transportation through a red-light district) (view spoiler)[ or like a succubus on a private dick. Sorry, I just could not stop myself. But at least I put the offending material under a spoiler tag, so that makes it ok, right? (hide spoiler)] or, in this case, a femme fatale. I thought the anti-religion musing in which the killer indulges seemed like an interesting theme to explore further, but it seemed to fade.
You will rip through Mr Mercedes faster than the posted limit. There are some scary moments as you careen through, and you will care whether this one or that one comes to a bad end. Some do, some don’t. It is probably a good thing that King is looking to write things other than straight-up horror. He has to amuse himself somehow, keep those possessed typing fingers of his out of trouble. But overall, while Mr Mercedes will get you from here to there and show you a thing or two along the way, it felt a lot more like basic transportation than a true luxury ride.
“…Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps bet
“…Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction. We have to stand up to that, and say, at least to ourselves, that what he’s done before is still with us, still right here in this room until there’s true remorse. Nothing will be right until there’s that.” “He looks so, sort of, weakened.” “Weakened is not enough. Destroyed isn’t enough. He’s got to repent and feel humiliation and regret. I won’t be satisfied until he knows what he is.” “Do we know what we are?” “We know we aren’t him. We know that to that degree we don’t yet deserve the lowest circle of hell.”
Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres takes most of its inspiration from King Lear, but works that soil with bountiful quantities of modern nutrients.
In the original, the elderly Lear, wanting to retire from his royal duties, seeks to distribute his kingdom among his children, with the largest share going to the daughter who loves him most. (makes you want to smack the guy) However, there is no fool like an old fool and Lear, offended by the simple, if unadorned, honesty of his youngest, Cordelia, and manipulated by the flattery of his elder two, Goneril and Regan, disinherits Cordelia. The play portrays the elder sisters in a very dark light. But how might that tale look through their eyes? Are they really that awful? Maybe Lear had it coming. Maybe Willy the Shake is a bit too locked in to a misogynistic, patriarchal world view to give the ladies a fair…um…shake. Enter Jane Smiley, stage left, to introduce King Lear in the Great Plains.
She parks the kingdom in Iowa. Unlike Kinsella’s vision of the place, this version ain’t heaven. Larry Cook is both old and a fool. In a fit of one-upsmanship in the face of his highly manipulative and competitive bff, Harold, Larry decides to step back from his work and hand the farm over to his children. This seems ok, I guess, to the oldest, Ginny (Goneril) and her younger sister Rose (Regan), but the youngest, Caroline (Cordelia), a lawyer, expresses her reservations about how it is being done. This is enough to set off the old guy and he writes her out of the deal, even at one point literally slamming the door in her face. (Don’t let it hit you on the nose on your way out). Caroline is not exactly interested in farming, so the insult is more about personal rejection than lost acreage.
Smiley does not offer an exact correspondence of her characters to Shakespeare’s. There will be no Cordelia dying in her father’s arms here, and this Lear appears to gain no wisdom or compassion from his experiences. Ginny is our narrator through the story. She loves her Daddy, and tries to make allowances for his constant verbal abuse and irascibility. In fact she is incapable of standing up to him. Rose despises Larry, and for good cause, as it turns out, but the two sisters had protected Caroline from Larry’s worst inclinations, so her affection for her father is untainted by Ginny and Rose’s darker experience of him. There is major departure here from the source material. Rose and Ginny hardly suck up to pops to gain advantage like their Elizabethan counterparts had. Their husbands do a good job of that though. Ginny genuinely, if misguidedly, loves her father. And even if Rose had been plotting against Larry, well, he really deserved it. But in fact, the sisters are more bewildered recipients of Larry’s surprise largesse than anything else.
I set about correcting my friend William Shakespeare—something no sane adult would attempt. I gave the royal family a background and a milieu. I gave the daughters a rationale for their apparently cruel behavior… - Austin Allen quoting Smiley in an article in BigThink
If Lear were guilty of Larry’s sins, it would certainly alter our view of his daughters’ behavior. And that is one of the points. The Elizabethan sisters are presumed to be incompetent to run anything, because they are female. Smiley points out some of the potential horrors of running a profitable farm, and it is clear that farmers of either gender would be challenged to make a go of it. However, Ginny has always been prevented from doing much with the farm, kept in domestic service her entire life. Rose is a tough cookie, who has endured an abusive husband, but is very much a competent, no-nonsense sort, to a fault. She proudly proclaims that when she wants something, she takes it. Both Rose and Ginny have been poisoned by their environment, both natural and familial. The poisons used on the farm, it is implied, are the reason why Ginny was never able to bring a pregnancy to term, and why Rose has breast cancer. (she has had a mastectomy) How awful is it when one’s identity involves land and the very land that reflects the self has been poisoned?
There is something to being rooted to a place. There is comfort in the solidity, reliability, history, pride and maybe even beauty of a place. Generations past may have established a home, a residence, property in a particular location and invested years and lives both molding the land and taking sustenance from it. Their efforts planted the seeds which became the roots from which we spring. But what if the land, the roots themselves are no good? What if the means used to sustain the human/place relationship has fouled both? What if the place that is expected to sustain life drains it instead? Poisoned land = poisoned lives.
Does the land define a person? The book opens with a quote:
The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other.
The landscape is mostly flat, with a central mound from which all can be seen, the division of local land among rival families, yet for all the visibility it is what lies unseen that devours the characters. The difference between appearance and reality, between what is visible and what lies hidden permeates the novel. Ginny talks with her husband about dealing with Larry:
“You’re right. I don’t understand him. But a lot of the taking issue that you see is just us trying to figure out how to understand him better. I feel like there’s treacherous undercurrents all the time. I think I’m standing on solid ground, but then I discover there’s something moving underneath it, shifting from place to place. There’s always some mystery. He doesn’t say what he means.”
Larry presents to the world as a successful farmer and family man, when in fact, he has been destroying his own land and abusing and, effectively, killing his family at the same time. That he has taken unfair, predatory advantage of his neighbors only adds spice. Ginny recalls a sane childhood with her father, but the reality lies in another field. There is enough mendacity in the air to warrant an EPA alert, and I could not help thinking of another fictional patriarch every time the daughters call their father Daddy.
This is a place in which family is held as the pinnacle of human value, but when the Ericson family moved away, when Ginny was a kid, she desperately wanted to leave with them. It is only when Ginny is able to separate herself from the land that she can be her own person.
Motherhood and apple pie do not go together much in this view of the heartland. Rose and Ginny’s mother dies young. Rose is afflicted with a dread disease at a very young age and her ability to complete the raising of her children is not certain. Ginny, who takes on some parental responsibility for her nieces, is not as close to them as a real mother might be. In fact, the greatest maternal love Ginny experienced was from Mrs. Ericson. And poison in the well water, it is suggested, prevents her from completing a pregnancy. Not many cards being sent on Mother’s Day in this place.
Like Lear, Larry goes a little funny in the head, and doubling down on foolishness, insists on wandering about on his own during a large thunderstorm. (Dick Cheney, anyone, doubling down on torture after the report on its ineffectiveness came out?) He will not listen to reason. Further misery stems from this unfortunate outing. In fact there is an awful lot of misery in this tale, of the short-term, long-term and terminal sorts. Unlike Lear, who at least picked up a bit of compassion and humility from his excesses, Larry learns nothing from his errors.
I did get the impression that in presenting what is certainly a feminist look at Lear, the guys come off pretty badly, tarred with a dark brush the way Willie the Shake treated the elder sisters in the original. Harold is totally poisonous, as is Larry. Ginny’s husband seems pretty reasonable a lot of the time, but we are given a much darker view of him later in the tale. In one scene, eager to gain both land and Larry’s blessings, Ty talks to Ginny about dealing with Larry:
…you women could handle it better. You could handle him better. You don’t always have to take issue. You ought to let a lot of things slide.
which sounds to me a lot like “just lie back and enjoy it.” Ginny thinks of Ty as dumb and passive, whatever his better qualities might be. Rose’s husband is a drunk and an abuser. Even the returning prodigal, the handsome and charming Jess, the one who wants to farm organically and restore some purity to the land, engages in a bit of shtup-and-tell, and ultimately proves less than reliable.
So what are we to make of all this? Lear offers a structure but the story seems to be about both feminism and America. The women here, even the tougher and more perceptive ones, have to put up with an unspeakable amount of crap, and are castigated for griping about it. The parallel is to the treatment of the land, which endures a similar abuse, as farming becomes more of a heavily mechanized food production system than something that allows one to feel a connection to the earth.
What about readability, characters, does it make sense, can you engage, will you care? A Thousand Acres is a very readable book. This darkly dramatic story flows along at a rapid clip and it will definitely hold your interest. Ginny is our guide through this particular part of Iowa, and will engage your sympathy, although you will want to roll your eyes at some of her behavior. It is understandable how she came to be the way she is, for the most part, and we want her to come out of it all ok. There is a revelation about Ginny’s history that makes one wonder how she could have blocked a particular memory. I suppose it is possible, but it was a stretch to accept. Battles are engaged, dirt is done, plots are hatched, backs are stabbed, poison is prepared, truths are told, cars are crashed, lightning bolts flash. There is plenty of drama to be experienced here, as plowshares are beaten into swords. If there are giants in this maybe-no-longer-good earth, they are pissed and taking revenge. Watch out! A Thousand Acres is powerful stuff. No fertilizer needed.
They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.
Geek Love is an amazing book
They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.
Geek Love is an amazing book, audacious, moving, beautiful, substantive, creepy, upsetting, tragic and dark.
So you think of yourself as different, an outsider, a freak in one way or another? Well, maybe you are, but your differences would likely fade were you to compare yourself to most of the characters in this best-selling novel from Katherine Dunn, so best-selling in fact that it has never been out of print. And, in addition to being a popular success, it was a critical one as well, earning a spot as a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award.
A word of warning (several, actually) for those who are familiar only with the contemporary meaning of the word “geek.” Before the word had its DNA mutated to mean “an expert,” particularly of the techie variety, before serious people proclaimed that the geeks will inherit the earth, the word referred specifically to carnival performers who engaged in the very un-nerdy practice of biting the heads off live chickens for paying audiences. Let's see a show of hands. How many of you folks out there, how many nerds in particular, would be interested in returning to etymological roots and getting your McNuggets started the old-fashioned way? Not many. But you, in the back, with your hand up? Do me a favor please and read some other review. Thanks. Of course this was not a problem for Crystal Lil. Somehow it did not freak her husband out that she got off on using her teeth to remove small heads from quivering bodies.
“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon travels the Podunk USA circuit, offering pedestrian locals a peek at the extraordinary. The Binewski family will remind no one of Ozzie and Harriet. More the Addams family, sans the smirks. In fact, they may be the ones who put the nuclear in nuclear family. Frustrated by the frequent loss of carnival performers, Aloysius Binewski and his wife, Lilian Hinchcliff Binewski , (the Crystal Lil of the geek mention above) opt to craft their own, applying measured doses of sundry illegal substances, poisons, and radioisotopes to ensure that their progeny emerge special. The efforts that do not make it through to live birth, or who meet an unhappy end soon after their emergence, are displayed publicly in large glass jars. The survivors include Siamese twins, Iphigenia (Iphy) and Elektra (Elly), Arturo (Arty), the malevolent and megalomaniacal AquaBoy, Fortunato (Chick), who manifests telekinetic power, and Olympia (Oly), our narrator through this family saga. Oly relates the tale of the family to us as an adult. She makes a living as radio personality Hopalong McGurk, which is a good venue if you are a bald, albino dwarf with pink eyes, a sweet voice and a hump.
Reading this book you will forget the boy who lived under the stairs and latch on to the girl who lived under the sink. Oly’s needs are few, but a connection to family is chief among them. She is our insider, observing and reporting the goings on that seem normal to her, but maybe not so much to us. What is normal, anyway? To you and me, norms for the most part, average height, weight, a typical number of standard-issue limbs, no particular magical powers, we stroll the not very broad midway of the straight and narrow. But to Olympia Binewski, having a brother with flipper-shaped limbs, twins sharing one pair of legs, among sundry other parts, and a brother who can move matter with his mind, and a sense of place defined by the nearest road sign defines normal.
I was full-grown before I even set foot in a house without wheels. Of course I had been in stores, offices, fuel stations, barns, and warehouses. But I had never walked through the door of a place where people slept and ate and bathed and picked their noses, and, as the saying goes,”lived,” unless that place was three times longer than it was wide and came equipped with road shocks and tires.
When I first stood in such a house I was struck by its terrible solidity. The thing had concrete tentacles sunk into the earth, and a sprawling inefficiency. Everything was bigger than it needed to be and there were so many shadowed, dusty corners empty and wasted that I thought I would get lost if I stepped away from the door. That building wasn’t going anywhere despite an itchy sense that it was not entirely comfortable where it was.
Sometimes that family connection can be problematic. Oly is in love with her brother, Arty. AquaBoy is exceptionally bright and tuned in to what works on audiences. He expands his performance from a display of his unusual form to an interaction, as he finds success answering audience questions. He builds this into a very big deal
For a while, he answered only generic questions distilled from the scrawled bewilderments and griefs that piled up on the three-by-five cards. Then he stopped answering at all and just told them what he wanted them to hear. Testifying he called it.
And a cult is born, Arturism, in which the Admitted, seeking to find the peace that Arty has persuaded them he possesses, allow their bodies to be whittled a piece at a time.
Chick was thought to have been a dreaded norm when he arrived. Al and Lily decided that, as he was of no value to the show, the proper course was to leave him at a gas station. Turns out he has a special gift which manifests in the nick of time. He is absorbed into the family, and put to profitable use as soon as he is able to understand commands.
We follow the family as the children grow, and as will happen, sexuality swells the narrative mix. Complications ensue.
These are not exactly the nicest people, but Dunn offers nuanced portrayals of most of them. We never really find out why Boston Brahmin Lily chooses the low road, but we do see both the dark and the light sides of their children. Or in the case of Arty, the bright side illuminating his dark side. Oly is a sympathetic character and you will have little trouble appreciating her concerns, particularly when she is an adult. Her role, though, is primarily as an observer. Chick is like a wounded animal, who, despite his prodigious power, suffers as he feels the pain all around him. The twins have the same problems other twins experience, on steroids. There are a few outsiders who join the Fabulon, and offer a perspective other than Oly’s.
The narrative follows two time lines. The bulk is following the traveling Binewkis over a decade or so. The smaller narrative is Oly as an adult, living in a boarding house in which her mother and her daughter, Miranda, (a Tempest reference if ever there was one, resonant with the opening epigraph, taken from that play), reside. In that stream Mary Malley Lick is a wealthy heiress who professes a desire to liberate young women from the burden of being attractive so they can make their way in the world on their merits. Of course, the very large and not very attractive Ms Lick may be using her great wealth to take beauty away from those who have it, in a form of one-percenter jealousy. Oly takes an interest in her when Lick targets Miranda.
The tales of love, greed, power, envy, powerlessness and rage seem the stuff of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, particularly those centering around Arty. Hubris, abuse of power, fate and comeuppance are most definitely on display.
There are really two primary preoccupations of mine involved in this book. One of course is this concept of the cult, and the how-come of that. And the other was the long debate of nature vs. nurture. So those two things linked and seemed to be in an odd way part and parcel of each other, I guess.
We are asked to look at questions about the definition of normalcy. Most of the time in literature the freaks want to be like everyone else. Here the norms seem to pine for freakishness. Dunn offers a fascinating comparison between the oddness of the Arturists and what society considers appropriate.
It’s interesting that when these individuals choose—and it is their choice always—to endure voluntary amputation for their own personal benefit, society professes itself shocked and disapproving. Yet this same society respects the concept that any individual should risk total annihilation in war, subject to the judgment of any superior officer at all and for purposes ranging from a promotion for the lieutenant to higher profits for the bullet company. Hell, they don’t just respect that idea, they flat expect it. And they’ll shoot your ass if you don‘t go along with it.
At what point does cultishness, do the needs of the pack, become the norm?
In addition to the startling tale of the Binewskis, Dunn demonstrates a particularly powerful and poetic command of language. Here is a small sample:
The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube, grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho—the patented electric dance step of the Binewskis. We made it. Like the mucoid nubbin that spins a shell called “oyster,” we Binewskis wove a midway shelter called “carnival.”
There is plenty more where that came from. There is also serious structural craft on display, as Dunn, in this modern fable, wields parallelism deftly, particularly as applied to how people are formed and changed, and the diverse motivations, self and external, involved in the formation of who we are and what we are capable of, for good and ill. There is a particularly poignant look at innocence in childhood vs adulthood.
Appropriately for a book that concerns freakishness, Geek Love is notable for its packaging. Quick, name five books that are renowned for their covers. Right. Dead air, that’s what I thought. Ok, Ok, Gatsby, and we all have personal favorites, but how many are really different, and universally regarded as groundbreaking? The Knopf wolfhound on the bound edge of the original hard-cover printing somehow sports five instead of the usual four limbs. And the letters used in the cover title are all mutations. It was considered pretty daring cover art for the time.
One of the inspirations for the story took place in Portland, Oregon. The International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park is home to a wide variety of rose variations. Dunn wondered how it might play out if people were applying genetic control to making people, not in some sort of Aryan quest for perfection, but in trying to design for different. She was also inspired, if the word can be used here, by the awfulness of Jim Jones, and puts some of Jones’s words into Arty’s mouth. Dunn is from Kansas, originally, but her family moved around a fair bit when she was a kid. She has lived in several European countries, having her son in Ireland, but lives in Portland now, where she has become a renowned writer on boxing.
As for film plans for Geek Love, rights have been sold and sold again, but now reside permanently with Warner Brothers, who may or may not ever get around to producing it.
Geek Love has been continuously in print since its’ 1989 release. In fact she earned more money from it in the last year than she ever had before. The author was given a contract for a second novel, for a sum well into six figures. But the book has yet to appear. Perhaps it is in a glass jar somewhere.
You don’t have to be a teenager or twenty-something to appreciate the pull of Geek Love. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and I am well on my way to geezerhood. Reading Geek Love may not alter your DNA, give you unusual physical characteristics or make sleeping under the kitchen sink seem appealing. But it will definitely alter your view of what is possible in literature, will make you think about some core subjects in ways that might not have occurred before and will make you perk up whenever you spot one or more of the many references to it that pop up in our culture from time to time, like a travelling carnival. It may be too out there for some readers, but I suggest that if it feels that way to you, take an excursion and go out there to see this amazing show. It is one of the best freakin’ books ever.
this is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.
There is a somew
this is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.
There is a somewhat leisurely feel to Stephen King’s latest, Revival. Dramatic events are sprinkled throughout the narrative, but the story moves along at what seems a deliberate pace. I am reminded of Ted Williams’s advice for batters, “wait, wait, wait, then quick, quick, quick.” The final, high voltage scenes of Revival pay for the whole.
Our narrator, Jamie Morton, is playing with his toy soldiers at age six when a new, young pastor arrives.
Plenty going on, but at that moment everything seemed to fall still. I know it’s only the sort of illusion caused by a faulty memory (not to mention a suitcase loaded with dark associations), but the recollection is very strong. All of a sudden there were no kids yelling in the backyard, no records playing upstairs, no banging from the garage. Not a single bird singing.
Then the man bent down and the westering sun glared over his shoulder, momentarily blinding me. I raised my hand to shield my eyes.
Uh oh. Not exactly meet cute. But new pastor Charlie Jacobs soon charms the residents of Harlow, Maine. He is particularly interested in electricity, and couches many of his sermons and his religious instruction classes for the congregation’s kids in terms of science. His wife and young son are also beloved in the town. But after he suffers a great tragedy, Charlie has a Road from Damascus moment and finds his polarity reversed.
SK - From his site - Photo Credit: Shane Leonard
We follow Jamie over the circuit of his life, with its significant ups and downs, getting reports on his family over those years as well. At crucial moments in his journey, Jamie encounters Charlie Jacobs again.
Sometimes a person…comes into your life…the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis. In the movies this sort of character is known as the fifth business, or the change agent. When he turns up in a film, you know he’s there because the screen writer put him there. But who is screenwriting our lives? Fate or coincidence? I want to believe it’s the latter. I want that with all my heart and soul. When I think of Charles Jacobs—my fifth business, my change agent, my nemesis—I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things—these horrors—were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill. And not alone.
If this reminds one of the sort of opening you might read in a tale by H.P. Lovecraft, it is probably no accident. King uses a Lovecraft quote to open the book
That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons, even death may die.
There will be more references to HP in the pages to come, particularly of the Cthulhu sort. King notes this in an interview he did with Goodreads, citing among his influences
...Lovecraft … and my own religious upbringing. And I've been wanting to write about tent show healings for a long time. I wanted to write a balls-to-the-wall supernatural horror story, something I haven't done in a long time. I also wanted to use Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, but in a new fashion, if I could, stripping away Lovecraft's high-flown language.
Thar she blows! or It’s Alive! - you choose
Jamie seems another avatar for the author as substance-abuser. He works as a musician and finally hits rock bottom. This is a theme that has been frequent in King’s recent writing. But there are bigger bowls to cook in Revival. It is the very nature of reality, of death and the afterlife that is at issue, as Charlie pursues understanding of what he believes is the greatest power in the universe, the current that underlies everything, the Potestas magnum universum. In seeking this knowledge Charlie joins with other such questers from literature. Victor Frankenstein challenged death itself. King lets us in on the link by splicing together a few familiar names:
“Once upon a time, in the seventies, a man named Franklin Fay married a woman named Janice Shelley. They were graduate students in the English Department at Columbia University, and went on to teach together. Franklin was a published poet—I’ve read his work and it’s quite good. Given more time he might have been one of the great ones. His wife wrote her dissertation on James Joyce and taught English and Irish literature, in 1980, they had a daughter.” “Mary.”
and Mary goes on to bear a child, Viktor. Another godly challenger is powered up as well.
He was staring out the window, hands clasped behind his back like a ship’s captain on the bridge.
King is not referring to the Love Boat. And he gets overt about his reference a short time later.
In a recent Rollingstone interview, King was asked when he first got the idea Revival .
I've had it since I was a kid, really. I read this story called The Great God Pan in high school, and there were these two characters waiting to see if this woman could come back from the dead and tell them what was over there. It just creeped me out. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about this Mary Shelley-Frankenstein thing.
As King gets on in years, it is not surprising to see him write a story that spans a lifetime, seeing the growth, the change in people, family, friends.
this is, at least to a degree, about getting old and the rapid passage of our lives. "It's a damn short movie," James McMurtry says, "how'd we ever end up here?"
Frankly, I did not get a huge charge out of most of the book, but when sparks fly at the climax, you may find your hair standing on end. King does not short-circuit the story with too much emphasis on the recovering-substance-abuser element. There are some obvious correlations. One must expect that the blackouts experienced by many in this story echo blackouts experienced by real people, living at a much lower voltage. In which case, religion, in the form of Charlie’s revival-tent antics, is truly the opiate of the masses. That there are long-term after-effects from exposure to Charlie’s highly charged healing also speaks to the similarity religion has to addictive substances. King’s consideration of science versus faith is definitely worthwhile, as is his look at how people with power and/or influence abuse their abilities and position, and how people in need look to externals to solve their problems. If you are looking for non-stop thrills, you will not find that here. But I suggest you overcome your resistance because the there is thematic substance here, engaging characters and because the payoff is so electrifying.
PS - This book might explain why soldiers near death are so often heard to use the word “Mother.”
Review posted – 11/27/14
Publication date – 11/11/14
This review has also been posted at Cootsreviews.com, or soon will be
As the review was getting a bit quote-heavy, I left this out of the review proper, but here is a taste of Arthur Machen’s story, The Great God Pan:
You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things—yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet—I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these 'chases in Arras, dreams in a career,' beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know, Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another's eyes. You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan."
Dan Harris is a bit of a jerk. You don’t have to take my word for it. He says it himself, more than once, in his book. A lot of 10% Happier is about HDan Harris is a bit of a jerk. You don’t have to take my word for it. He says it himself, more than once, in his book. A lot of 10% Happier is about Harris trying to be less of a jerk.
Among his other journalistic accomplishments, which include more than a few in-country assignments in hot-fire war zones, hosting gigs on Good Morning America and Nightline, and scoring interviews with some very scary people, Harris is known for a live on-camera meltdown that was seen only by close family members, co-workers and oh, maybe 5 million viewers. I have added a link at the bottom.
This is a road trip of self-discovery tale, and the path Harris takes is extremely interesting. Of course the self he discovers is still a self-centered jerk, but a jerk who can really, really tell a story, fill it with fascinating, meaningful information, add in considerable dollops of LOL humor, much at his own expense, and emerge with what, for himself and many others, is a life-changing way of going about his life.
Dan Harris - photo from ABC news
One of the nifty things about the book is that Harris is a seasoned media pro and can deliver a snappy line with the best of them
I might have disagreed with the conclusion reached by people of faith, but at least that part of their brain was functioning. Every week, they had a set time to consider their place in the universe, to step out of the matrix and achieve some perspective. If you’re never looking up, I now realized, you’re always just looking around.
Of course this presumes that everyone who is looking up is seeking something celestial and not doing so merely to fit in with the pack, or being distracted by a passing drone. Still, my cynicism notwithstanding, the man has a way with words. And that makes this a very easy book to read. He is a charming guide on this search for a better way and you will meet some familiar names and learn of some others who should be.
Harris offers small bits on Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer, among other ABC news folks. No surprises are to be had there. Jennings assigned the young Harris to the religion beat, over his (silent) objections, just in time for the post 9/11 world to give a damn about religion as news fodder. Harris covered a range of stories while on this gig, and met many interesting people, but was very impressed with Ted Haggard, who, off-camera, comes across as a pretty reasonable sort, which was surprising. Of course Haggard, who publicly preached against same-sex relationships, was practicing the fine art of total hypocrisy, as he was enjoying the company of a paid male escort. But he comes across as having much more substance than his gawker-headline downfall would lead one to suspect. Harris meets with a few more folks in the self-help biz, whether of the religious, secular, or woo-woo sorts. The up-close and personal here is riveting.
But the business at hand is not just about getting a fix on people like Deepak Chopra, it is about Harris trying to find his way past his personal limitations. He does a bit of a pinball route, bouncing among several of today’s self-help gurus in search of a way to quiet the inner anchorman who offers running commentary during every waking moment. The first step, of course was to realize that the ego was on camera all the time, offering a live feed, an internal, personal, and less than wonderful 24/7 personal news channel. One of the first people whose work he found illuminating was a weird but compelling German, Eckhart Tolle, who offered a take on how to live in the now.
It was a little embarrassing to be reading a self-help writer and thinking, This guy gets me. But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.
He finds elements of Deepak Chopra illuminating as well, but with reservations.
Chopra was definitely more fun to hang out with than Tolle—I preferred Deepak’s rascally What Makes Sammy Run? style to the German’s otherworldly diffidence—but I left the experience more confused, not less. Eckhart was befuddling because, while I believed he was sincere, I couldn’t tell if he was sane. With Deepak it was the opposite; I believed he was sane, but I couldn’t tell if he was sincere.
What he arrives at is meditation. In particular a state called “mindfulness”, in which one observes the thoughts and feelings that are occurring, but at a remove, so that one can respond without relying on immediate, visceral and ego-driven reactions. There are different forms of meditation, but he finds one that does the trick for him. And puts it into practice. How he goes about this is sometimes LOL funny, particularly when we are privy to the snarky ramblings of his ego while he is attempting to not lose his mind during a lengthy meditation retreat.
At end he learns a very useful skill, and even offers a very accessible step-by-step set of directions for having a go yourself. No beads, sandals, incense or robes required, really. Corporations and even the Marines are promoting meditation among their people. Turns out there are real-world benefits. It is probably worth at least a try.
There is an old saw that goes “Sincerity, if you can fake that you’ve got it made.” I do not think that Harris is faking anything here. He is definitely into meditation, and tells lot about the very real benefits to be had. Of course, as a self-centered jerk, it is the self-benefits that get the air-time in his book. There is another realm, which involves compassion. While Harris does talk about this, it is pretty clear that meditation is a way for Dan Harris to do better in the world for Dan Harris. And while there are collateral benefits for those around him as a result of his evolution, the whole compassion thing remains for Harris a means to an end.
In 10% Happier, a term he came up with to explain the benefits of his mindfulness practice and stop people from looking at him as if he were an alien, Harris offers a revealing portrait of himself as far, far less than perfect (his meltdown, for example, was made possible in large measure by considerable intake of cocaine and ecstasy), tells a tale of personal seeking and growth, and shares with us the very concrete techniques he has gleaned. So, while self-interest remains the beneficiary of his new knowledge, and while Dan Harris remains, IMHO, a jerk, he is a curious, articulate, and entertaining jerk who has shared some useful experiences and knowledge with the rest of us. Nothing jerky about that.