I enjoyed Harris' book and I appreciated the concepts he brought to the discussion, but after reading it I remain quite unconvinced of his argument th...moreI enjoyed Harris' book and I appreciated the concepts he brought to the discussion, but after reading it I remain quite unconvinced of his argument that free will is an illusion, and the author fails spectacularly to address questions of complex behavior and decision-making in light of the assertions he makes about the impulses that he claims control us all.
Harris certainly has a lot of noteworthy concepts worthwhile to readers, including the idea of the many ways in which "free will" can be a false premise from the get go. When it comes to the neuroscience, I also found much insight into just how much our brain and body "act" without conscious thought or action (and I of course mean "act" to be complex actions and not simply autonomic nervous system functions). Encapsulating this idea that much goes on that we attribute to our choices or our preferences but are in fact unknowable brain impulses, Harris succinctly summarizes: "You are not controlling the storm," he writes, "and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.
But are we a storm that is ultimately at the mercy of the vicissitudes of the neurological wind, or is there something in us (something that, as an atheist, I believe need not be explained by religious or spiritual bullshit) that directs the wind? (However imprecise that direction may be.)
In Harris' book, I don't find a compelling argument that there is no "I," no "self" exerting some kind of preference, choice, restraint, etc. to decisions. And Harris uses alarmingly facile arguments and examples to try to erase the locus of control from the individual.
In addressing the difference between voluntary and involuntary actions (page 12-13), Harris says they are admittedly important distinctions that can be seen as different within the brain ... before blithely dismissing them. "But where intentions themselves come from, and what determines their character in every instance, remains perfectly mysterious." Does it? The last 50+ years of cognitive sciences would like a word; to dismiss the importance cultural programming (in the form of linguistics, philosophy, morality, norms, etc.) has on behavior and thought is absurd. Even if we simply swap out the "unknowable storm of impulses" that create the sense of free will, as Harris would prefer, with a web of merely robotic acculturation (both of which leave us little more than puppets, I admit), the latter holds a lot more water, and reaches toward a better understanding of human behavior, than Harris' mute shrug on the issue.
Those ideas aside, I also found Harris unwilling to put forth meaningful examples for his arguments: the quandary of "why did I just drink that glass of water (as opposed to juice, coffee, beer, etc.)?" being about as far as he was willing to go. One such hilariously inane example came on page 42-43, when Harris explains his proclivity for martial arts as a young man, a long span where he did not practice, and then a decision to take the practice up again as an adult. I quote:
"For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me ... However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me?"
Seriously? He answers his own question and rejects it, without explanation, as not good enough. He offers a perfectly good reason for consciously stopping and then restarting a practice, and he tries to claim it's incomprehensible? He splits hairs and asks why a family, a career, writing books, etc. became more important at that point in time, and I can only laugh. Perhaps because you're aware you'll die someday, and it's either get busy living, or ... ? Does this man find himself paralyzed by thought every time he's eating a meal? "WHY STEAK?! WHY NOT CHICKEN?!" It's absurd and childish to not plumb these ideas deeper, or to simply outright dismiss them.
This is about as complex a decision as he tackles in the book; all of his examples he uses to prove or disprove the idea of free will are as simple as a one decisions=one action. It's always a question of glasses of water being drunk or a training regimen being undertaken. Where is the extrapolation of those ideas? Where is the conflict between lust and fidelity? Nerve and fear? Why does Harris never even attempt to address the clash of two equally important ideals and what one's ultimately actions have to say about the idea of free will? In the grisly descriptions of the two men who go on a violent and horrible crime spree Harris uses to open his book, he says "I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people."
That "atom for atom" replacement is reductive and absurd and misses the entire point of the argument, and I am unconvinced Harris ever addresses the idea that those men, and their atoms and their past and their experiences could have acted differently. That is the book, and the argument, I wanted to read; Harris never touches on those bigger ideas, and in that respect, his book is a profound disappointment.
Finally, I can't help but note Harris reduces his own argument to trivialities and absurdities when he goes on to add (again on page 43) that perhaps his reading of a book on martial arts, Rory Miller's Meditations on Violence, was an influence on his renewed interest in martial arts. "But why did I read this book? I have no idea."
Really Harris, REALLY?! You are utterly astounded why you, a former student of martial arts with 15+ years or study under your belt, was attracted by a book on martial arts? And then he's equally astounded it reignited an interest in the topic? I can tell you why I read YOUR book, Harris: I wanted to understand free will in light of the advancements of neuroimaging and modern neuroscience, not to hear vacuous garbage like this passed off as coherent thought.(less)
I could barely make it half-way through Pollan's self-indulgent culinary stroke session before putting the book down in a mixture of bafflement, regre...moreI could barely make it half-way through Pollan's self-indulgent culinary stroke session before putting the book down in a mixture of bafflement, regret, and disgust. How could a man who so eloquently probed the systemic problems at the heart of modern industrial food systems produce such a vapid, self-absorbed mess that doesn't even attempt to touch on issue of importance to most readers?
Opening the book, and seeing the first part was all about "real" BBQ and southern food ways? You got me, I'm a carnivore, let's do this. A couple dozen pages in and, like bad BBQ, it's all sauce and no meat: weak character sketches, barely enough "meat on the bone" (if you'll forgive me the phrase) to maybe flesh out a magazine piece, useless autobiography, and it's over. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess. Onward.
Then it's on to the the chapter about pot dishes, which is just ... what? A chapter discussing Pollan's home cooking adventures with a student, pure pop pseudoscience as to why certain aromatics work well in stews, more ponderous autobiography (it's here where I sensed a pattern emerging), all built around this quiet cult-worship (from Pollan and his student "mentor") of exceedingly twee Berkley bistro Chez Panisse. Oh well, at least I was bothered to look up the correct pronunciation of mirepoix.
Into the third chapter on bread, and we're instantly in the realm of masturbation again, Pollan tossing around terms like "alveolate interior" and "the crumb" and all this other half-assed expertise. I couldn't get through five pages.
The more I read, the more I realized, this is not Pollan falling down, not a mighty Prometheus who has failed to once again deliver fire from the gods. No, this book is Pollan simply being Pollan. Remember that last third of The Omnivore's Dilemma? Yeah, the one you're almost embarrassed exists, where Pollan, after presenting solid reporting and cogent facts to excavate some kind of understanding about our modern food system, resorts to a pointless final act of hunting and gathering an entire meal? Yeah, *that* chapter, the one that you try to shrug off and even now can't quite place as worth reading in the first place? This is a book of that. You know the absolutely horrid barely-worthy-of-a-high-school-term-paper "book" Botany of Desire? That is the form Pollan returns to here: orbiting something interesting, getting bogged down in whimsical tangents and apocryphal history, bringing you back long after you've stopped caring to a point that's not all that interesting to begin with.
Let it not be said I don't have the patience for this "kind" of book. I'm a homebrewer with no small number of batches under my belt. I know the importance of re-connecting with and better understanding the food and drink that nourishes us day in, day out. Unfortunately for Pollan (or, more accurately, for me), none of that understanding is in this book.(less)
After reading something huge like 2666, I needed a palette cleanser. A literary sorbet. So I finally got around the reading these Hunger Games books.
O...moreAfter reading something huge like 2666, I needed a palette cleanser. A literary sorbet. So I finally got around the reading these Hunger Games books.
Odd that both look at the unending cycle of violence at the heart of humanity. But surely that's not important.
The first two books were fairly straightforward. Nearly identical to what was put on screen, as well. The third was a profound tonal shift that stopped skirting the edge of what I'd expect in a book that's written for young adults and accelerates well over any kind of line into a fairly visceral kind of post-traumatic war narrative.
As a story, I found the books satisfying enough, but the third was going off the rails from the start. Even after the horrors and losses of the third book, the whole thing ends with a hopeful note that I didn't see coming but knew intuitively would happen, because it's a young adult novel. But what was a straightforward scifi story in books 1 and 2 has snowballed into a rather schizophrenic final act, with a smattering of politics and factioning and double-crosses that doesn't ever seem to fit or unfold as well in the world and storytelling dynamics Collins has put forth so far. The world of Panem was relegated to background as Katniss was our eyes, ears, and minds in the arena. The story of "Districts vs. Capitol" was an added layer, an interesting narrative frame that we only saw glimpses of. But when that off-camera story starts taking center stage, the story suffers and the foundation starts to shake. It's a story too big to be told in just how Katness sees it unfold; and the loss she had suffered by the start of book 3 makes her an unreliable narrator and as much a victim as heroine in the final act.
The book also makes some bizarre choices, even in a world admittedly already quite mad, like putting children soldiers at the forefront of a war and the hyperawareness and mediation of all images for the camera. It's a nice primer for a younger audiences but too simple and clean when dealing with the larger issues the book attempts to raise. And by book 3, Katniss is a very shattered heroine at the heart of the narrative, and so far gone by the time the third book starts (and only seems to get father gone as it progresses) that she's less a character and more of a plot-moving-along device. The rather thin characterization she already had, which was already fading as she lost focus in book 2 and become less a player and more of a piece to be played, gets totally buried under immense internal grief and narrative chaos. As the scope of the narrative increases dramatically, Katniss' singular broken view of it all becomes less and less satisfying.
(An aside: I also found the relationships Katniss has with Gale and Peeta oddly asexual. As if we can handle death and murder and torture and psychological horrors of all kinds, but we couldn't handle a 17-year-old Katniss doing anything more risqué than kissing the "boys"-that's the author's word choice, not mine-that she's seen fighting and killing for. I certainly wasn't expecting or even desiring a sexual element to the story, but its all the more notable for its absence.)
Though flawed, the books are a quick, fun read, offering a consistent if not all too coherent fictional universe, and Collins should be commended for connecting with so many fans, opening a window into science fiction as a way to explore new ideas, and for being unafraid to venture into larger territory and more sophisticated themes in this third book. That being said, the weight of the story and the larger topics Collins tries to touch on just can't be supported by the characters and the narrative that is still so firmly entrenched in the small, introspective voice and limited point of view of a young girl vying for survival in the titular "games." It was effective in Katniss' first trip to the arena, and even worked in her second trip as well, but it's not enough to carry the weight of the story Book 3 is telling, and Katniss, as written, is far too broken of a character to carry that weight.(less)
I've attempted several books by "literary giants" that I just could never finish. Books by Pynchon, Melville, and, sad to admit, Joyce. I thought Bola...moreI've attempted several books by "literary giants" that I just could never finish. Books by Pynchon, Melville, and, sad to admit, Joyce. I thought Bolaño was to join that elite group of personal failures, after I twice read through the first three parts of 2666 ("The part about the critics," "the part about Amalfitano," and "the part about Fate") and was derailed by the fourth and perhaps most disjointed part of this colossus of a novel, "The part about the crimes."
I enjoyed the first parts: the funny and vapid world of European scholasticism, the life of fear and failure painted vividly through the eyes of Amalfitano, the brief and confusing glimpse at Sonora through Fate's eyes. All like the early tremors and vents beneath the caldera of a volcano, just a pin prick or slight uptick in pressure from spewing forth lava, heat, fire, carnage, death.
I just couldn't get past the fourth part. The crimes were too awful. The violence too real. The light, airy satire from Part 1 gone, the detached incomprehension of Fate having disappeared. But each time I got to the fourth and largest portion of the book, I waded in deeper. And by the third time I read through to that part, after having the book sitting on my shelf and surviving the culling of several moves, I rolled up my sleeves and finished both it and the book as a whole. The fourth part is the true heart of the novel, and after several times through it, it's become my favorite, despite its stoic and emotionless telling of horrendous acts of violence. The world of Santa Tersea, the violence, the tendrils it sends out to the rest of the world, a spider's web of human hope and misery, becomes as powerful and vivid as Joyce's Dublin or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
The final part of the book, "The part about Archimboldi," struck me as my least favorite, digressing into a world that was itself far too "novelistic." The entire character of Archimboldi was a cypher, one of those characters that exist only in literature, too mute and incomprehensible to know, so unlike the real people that populated the novel's earlier parts. But Archimboldi's shadow, of course, hangs over the entire book, and there must be something I missed about why this one man and his experiences in the war resonate so much with people, why he is so vital to the world of 2666. Is it simple world building? Is he a harbinger of some cataclysm, some shared fate that awaits a world so rotten and violent and irredeemable? Is he a watchman who is there to witness the systemic horror of the Nazis and who will be there to see the totally unorganized horror of humanity unleashed in Santa Teresa?
I would hope a horseman of whatever seemingly inevitable apocalypse that's coming to a head in Santa Teresa would at least be a littler more comprehensible than Archimboldi is; or better yet, would be exceedingly more incomprehensible, so alien and gruesome that he horrifies, rather than simply baffles.
Having finished the novel, its parts are deeply planted in my brain. I nourish them as I think about what they mean, how the parts fit together. What sticks with me beyond the story, beyond mulling what it means, is the writing. Bolaño's prose has a lucidity, a verve, a power to it that speaks of a master at work on a masterpiece. The elements may not be congealing into a satisfying whole yet, but the parts all have a power and magic and resonance that I rarely feel after finishing a book.
The draw of a book that was at times unreadable was strong enough to make me come back and finish it. That it has stayed with me these past few weeks, and will be tempting me back in for another read, is the mark of a great novel. It's not for everyone, but there is fire here that will ignite something in every reader.(less)
For all the power and truth Harris' slim volume contains, there's not much I can find to say on it. Having heard the man address live audiences with h...moreFor all the power and truth Harris' slim volume contains, there's not much I can find to say on it. Having heard the man address live audiences with humor, patience, and measured tones, this "letter" really unloads with both barrels into the idea of religion, dogma, and more. I don't think it's as effective as it could have been for that reason alone.
As someone who has read Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins and other advocates for science and reason over religion, there was little new for me in this book. Harris' attacks on the dysfunction of religion in the modern age are true if familiar. His meticulous decimation of religion as the source for goodness and morality are similarly well-worn paths. The scope is broad with the details slim, but I think he does a good job of tying it back to reducing suffering and increasing health and happiness. By those metrics alone he successfully shows how preposterous so many tenets are religion are.
I can't expect the man to reinvent the arguments, but no matter how much I identify and agree with them, I can say he bludgeons in this book where a softer, more inclusive touch would have been better, especially in a "letter" ostensibly to an ardent believer. We don't get a letter meant to persuade and engage a Christian, we got a polemic for atheist and anti-religious people to rally behind.
The truth is, thought, we really do need a letter like the one Harris claims he set out to write. We need a better "welcome to examining your beliefs" primer than this, which is as often as subtle a sledgehammer. True as I find it all to be, I can't help but think this letter won't reach the American Christians who need to read it and instead comes off as preaching to the atheist choir.(less)
The writers and the quality of the stories in this book aside, it's an excellent collection of work spanning an dizzying number of years to show how s...moreThe writers and the quality of the stories in this book aside, it's an excellent collection of work spanning an dizzying number of years to show how science fiction began, what its capable of, and where it may be going. You could love or hate each and every story between its covers, but this is an essential road map for this interesting and increasingly common corner of literature.(less)
I'm a fan of Philip K. Dick Philip K. Dick, and have absolutely loved some novels like Radio Free Albemuth, Valis and others. While Dick's writing is...moreI'm a fan of Philip K. Dick Philip K. Dick, and have absolutely loved some novels like Radio Free Albemuth, Valis and others. While Dick's writing is as strong as ever in this novel, it ultimately fails by attempting to straddle the line between being serious autobiographical fiction and a piece of genre science fiction.
As sci-fi, this is certainly one of Dick's milder attempts. The drug-induced schizophrenia of the various characters involved is interesting at first but becomes tedious after a while. The paranoia is there with drug use, so why does Dick need to amplify it with sci-fi? The scramble suits are more genre ephemera that ultimately add little to the story. The intrusive surveillance in the book falls back on sci-fi pseudo-technology when even in the 70s wasn't really necessary (and certainly doesn't feel necessary in 2014). In short, this book would have been better to cleave the sci-fi tropes off completely and just tell its story.
As a commentary on the drug trade, the novel again takes as many steps forward as it does backward. The interplay of police and junkies, the paranoia of users and narcs alike, the needless hassle and abuse of junkies by those in power, it's all here. The next-level storytelling of Substance D and where it really comes from is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and the (oddly Christian-oriented) machinations of another police agency attempting to chase the deadly drug to its source elevates the story above the street-level ho-hum of the first 90% of the novel. Unfortunately, this idea is merely glimpsed at the very end of the book, and though that tactic has worked for Dick before--characters only glimpsing, often before it's too late, the larger game being played--here it left me unsatisfied. If the humanity of the characters were stronger, perhaps this wouldn't have been a problem.
And about that humanity ... it's in oddly short supply in this supposedly highly autobiographical novel. The main cast of characters are junkies, but Dick paints them with sadly tame brush strokes. They can be funny at times, but that's beside the points. Donna is a cipher, a phantom were know of more through Arctor's thoughts than any action of her own. Most interesting is the decidedly baleful Barris, whose flowery, exacting speech and sinister ploys were darkly funny even as his malevolence grew. Sadly, just as the novel reaches some climbing action, Barris is leashed and never heard from again. Arctor is fairly plain, as if his other self Fred. Even amid this world-shattering realization of his mental deterioration, there's little more than anger at bounced checks. Luckman his just a hapless junkie bohemian.
Dick writes strongly enough to sell this world and paint a vivid picture of sad drug addicts chasing a high that just has them running around in absurd, dangerous circles until addiction or deterioration or disease destroy them. It's tragic, and the heart of that tragedy beats somewhere beneath the floor boards of this stilted little story. In trying to tell his honest and heartbreaking tale of addiction and the destructive scene of the 70s, Dick builds toward the sky with tools from his sci-fi toolbox, but he buries the poignancy of the story under half-hearted and mildly executed layers of sci-fi and plot.
It's not a bad book, and if you like P.K. Dick you'll enjoy it. But I wish Dick had the confidence to tell his story without watering it down with genre conventions. It's a story he was more than capable of telling, and one that, if this novel is any indication, would surely have been able to stand on its own. (less)
I was a big fan of When Women Were Birds, T-T-Dubs other great book, and even when I read this while camping and tromping through the red rock canyons...moreI was a big fan of When Women Were Birds, T-T-Dubs other great book, and even when I read this while camping and tromping through the red rock canyons of Zion and Utah, this book left me a little colder than WWWB.
The narrative on a whole is a lot more anthologized, piecemeal elements of articles, testimony, short stories, and more. Not that this is inherently bad, but it's also harder for me to pull some great elusive meaning from.
I liked her musings on why she writes, on the sensual and erotic aspects of nature, of her deference to the history and the people who have been in the lands she loves for so long.
But the language that straddles in ineffable and the material, the spiritual aspects of her desert temple, affected me less in this book than they had in the past. Even amid the slick rock and the impossible lifts of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, I didn't feel the power of the words as keenly as I had heard them before.
Maybe because I was living it, and didn't need a book? Maybe TTW's words didn't nourish as well as I had hoped? Either way, I simply liked this book. Nothing more. (less)
As a listener to the Savage Lovecast, I've long been a fan of Savage's sex-positive attitudes, his humanizing of the broad spectrum of sexuality, and...moreAs a listener to the Savage Lovecast, I've long been a fan of Savage's sex-positive attitudes, his humanizing of the broad spectrum of sexuality, and his polemic rants about equality, reproductive rights, LGBT issues, and more. (When I get tired of the sometimes-too-whiny callers on the podcast I sometimes just listen to Dan's rant and call it good).
There's a lot to love about this book, including Dan's historical perspective of the gay rights cause, his understanding of the key political players, his sense of humor, and more.
Sadly, a lot of it feels like preaching to the choir. I'm up on most of this stuff because I listen to the man's show. I didn't learn much new from delving into the book. That's no fault of Dan's, but those familiar with the man and his work should expect more of what they know from this book.
But it's funny, insightful, and informative, which all makes it a worthwhile read. (less)
When I discovered Calvin and Hobbes when I was 12, I felt like I found a portal into a secret world, or perhaps more accurately, that this comic strip...moreWhen I discovered Calvin and Hobbes when I was 12, I felt like I found a portal into a secret world, or perhaps more accurately, that this comic strip had found a secret portal into my brain. I could wax rhapsodic as to the emotional and nostalgic connections this fully-realized archive stirs within me, but I'll leave all that out.
Instead, I'll just say, in the decode since I've sat down and torn through any sizable number of Calvin and Hobbes strips, this book proves to me the strip still stands up. It's writing is still sharp and very funny; Calvin's imagination is undiminished even in a world full of HD videos, near-realistic video games, and CGI movies; Watterson's tender, deft touch on more serious topics is just as elegant; and the art--oh, the beautiful, lovingly-rendered art--is still some of my favorite.
This is an excellent collection of a true work of art.(less)
I've read the Satanic Verses and I remember it more for being wildly inventive in form that for being a good yarn. I had also heard of the fatwa and t...moreI've read the Satanic Verses and I remember it more for being wildly inventive in form that for being a good yarn. I had also heard of the fatwa and thought it was some kind of bizarre footnote of history until I realized (as Rushdie makes clear at the end of this memoir) that it was truly the prologue to 9/11 and the growing power of Islamic fundamentalism in the 21st century.
As I read this book, I was constantly torn. On the one hand, there was a strong sense of bewilderment that a writer of a novel could roil so many, that the world's governments could be so passive in the face of something as inherently lawless as an international contract killing. I empathized with a writer simply trying to write, an artist expressing himself, and the turmoil and fear of the inverted world he was forced to live in when others decided they would seize on his novel. (That Rushdie knew Islam from his youth is, to me, all the more reason he should be lauded for writing about it and not, as many seem to suggest, be condemned further for that fact that "he should have known better" than to write anything critical of Islam.)
But like I said, I was torn while reading, because within the same pages of those high ideas is a very unflattering and unpleasant portrait of Rushdie himself. Not an article, not a failed project, not a spat with the wife goes by that he doesn't record and (even when he seems to be in the right) petulantly refute. The marriages and children that make up this mans life get so much less play than the dropped names of authors/artists/politicians, the scathing rebukes from some long-forgotten op-ed, the quarrels with security forces. We learn in great detail about efforts to publish The Satanic Verses in paperback, and yes, the struggle perfectly illustrates the inherent weakness of the many big publishing houses in the face of an insane, irrational threat; but at the same time, what is the name of Rushdie's second son? What do we learn of his relationship with his first son, and how the fatwa ordeal impacted him, beyond a few Hallmark-caliber scenes of struggle that all end in warm embraces and promises of redemption? Rushdie seems far more interested in getting in the last word against a long enemies both real and imagined that giving us any great detail of who his family is and how they were truly living during these times.
I value the book for giving a first-hand account of an insane situation. But in telling his own story, Rushdie revealed much of the ugliness and pettiness within. It doesn't make up for the lost decade of this man's life, nor does it diminish the warning shot that was the fatwa that so many should have heeded. But this novel does make me think Rushdie, as often as he was a champion of free speech and ideas in the face of reactionary fundamentalism, he was also at times his own worst enemy. (less)
Carrier's second book opens with a whimsical little short story, a vignette that bookends the whole bit (to unknown purpose, at least to this reader),...moreCarrier's second book opens with a whimsical little short story, a vignette that bookends the whole bit (to unknown purpose, at least to this reader), before delving into a round-up of his reporting work since the beginning of the American war in Afghanistan. His first story sees him aimlessly wandering a recently shattered Afghanistan, and I was annoyed by his reporting "style" of wandering around without knowing anything and offering no insight into what was going on, merely recording his chaotic and (from his distance) often bizarre observations.
But I came to realize, as his reporting went deeper in depth a little more and he was able to examine issues related Afghanistan and Pakistan, and America's broader actions there, he was actually doing a fairly accurate job of conveying an American's perspective abroad: first eager to blindly crash land in the middle of a country, the perceived "land of the enemy," and then a slow realization of what a misguided mess the whole thing was turning into. Whether that's just how Carrier's writing and thinking evolved, or if I was just willing form on the formless, I don't know. It became clear by his later writing and his wanderings that he does have some background knowledge of the countries, the tribal communities that make up the region (in defiance of any lines of a map), and the attitudes people have there.
The books shifts in the latter half to examine Mormons in his native Utah, and I did find Carrier's connections between Mormons and Islamists apt. They both see themselves as wielders of The One Truth, religious certainty they obviously take to different ends these days, but as Carrier relates in his retelling of their history, there was more "use violence against the government to get what we want" overlap that most Mormons should find comfortable. And like the young men in Afghanistan and Pakistan who want to kill Carrier just for being American, his classroom is full of young Mormon students who hold his non-Mormon opinions in similar low esteem.
In the end, I find Carrier's "outlast them, not attack them" parable of Mormon history to be the most important thing to take away from the book. After years of frustrated teaching, he eventually sees even devout Mormon students begin to question their church leaders when their anachronistic ideas start to demonize friends and loved ones and needlessly hold back people (especially women) for no legitimate reason. Those small but important changes at a bigger, more global scale seem to be nudged once-ironclad Mormon zealotry in The One Truth off it's pedestal, and allow human reason to come into play in shaping the community's ideals, goals, and laws.
If Carrier is able to see that change in Utah in his lifetime, maybe applying those attitudes at a global scale around the world might let America enjoy something that resembles peace, rather than endless war.(less)
I don't know if I can divorce myself from the knowledge that this is Rakoff's last book; from the emotion of knowing I can't bear to listen to the aud...moreI don't know if I can divorce myself from the knowledge that this is Rakoff's last book; from the emotion of knowing I can't bear to listen to the audio book, and hear that pithy, keen, lively voice I loved on This American Life shriveled into the breathy, cancer-sick narrator of this final volume. I'll gladly settle for the dead-tree version, and hear the timeless vigor of Rakoff's voice in my head.
And what a voice! I never would have imagined I'd enjoy a book in rhyming couplets, but Rakoff pulls it off marvelously. He paints so many loving, heartfelt portraits of so many characters in this book, people both inflicting and suffering emotional stings and long-lasting pain; lives short and long, lives lived and others merely existed, working with such attention to words that the act of reading is as joyful as it is following the thread of these characters and seeing the portrait of the world the author is creating. The couplets add greatly to the entire experience, complimenting stories about America and Americans that ring as true and full as anything Joyce wrote in Dubliners.
What gets me the most about the book, though, is the quietly draining hourglass feeling I get reading it, a sadness stemming from the if-but-for-a-minute-more-ness to it all. Many of the character arcs are tragic, death or a quiet empty future or another form of oblivion, and I'm left wanting Act VI, where tragedy + time transmutes it all into comedy. I'm left desperately wanting the author to come back and shine his smile and light and wordplay just a little bit more to show us a happier ending for these wonderful characters, these wonderful poems. But like the author himself, and the mortal deadline he was writing under, that's just not possible. It's ending, so bittersweet and sad, so wonderful and witty and fleetingly happy, it's ending and it's over, and to find a book that captures all of that with such grace, wit, charm, and heart, makes the world a better place, even though we're all the poorer without Rakoff in it.(less)
Chris Hitchens is a smart guy. In this book, he tenaciously draws up a list of religion's sins, shortcomings, and outright defects, and (using scienti...moreChris Hitchens is a smart guy. In this book, he tenaciously draws up a list of religion's sins, shortcomings, and outright defects, and (using scientific secular humanism as his base) proceeds to eviscerate religion and (though less frequently) faith. He argues that religion and god are ideas that belong to the childhood of our species, vestigial concepts that were once useful in the course of humanity's social evolution, but now, like the appendix or the coccyx, parts of our distant past that should rightly be discarded.
Hitchens accomplishes this with a bit of humor, though he never fails to let his intelligence or vocabulary get in the way of a great number of good jokes. From the absurdity of the religious revulsion to pork, to the banality of heaven when compared to the vigorously described torments of hell, Hitchens uses a witty, playful tone to knock down some of the absurdities of religion. He doesn't shy away from serious topics, either: he examines Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, finding them all tied to the same persistent myths of a bronze-age war god cooked up around campfires of desert-dwelling tribes; and he extends his recrimination of religion (though far less extensively) to eastern faiths like Buddhism (as seen in the imperialism of Japan during the second World War). Coupled with powerful rebuttals that so-called "faithless" atheistic regimes like Nazism and fascist were in fact approved by the Catholic church and other churches of the time (even as they moved to co-opt their traditions and replace them); and he shows how Stalnism and communism (from the Russian to the Cambodian varieties) merely replaced the cult of the church with the cult of the leader (often with a bit of state-approved religion in there for good measure). All together, it's a damning indictment of religion and how it continues to hold back the human species.
As an atheist struggling to get a better understanding of moral philosophy, however, I found that Hitchens' attacks on religion were just that: attacks on *religion*, the earthly structures and institutions that are so obviously man-made, corruptible, and fallible. Hithcens produces an indefensible attack on nearly every religious institution out there, and that's good; he begins to claw back some of the ground on morality and philosophy that rightly belongs outside the limited scope of any one religion, and that, too, is good. But the book comes up just a bit short on talking about where we go after faith. I know this book is about "how religion poisons everything," but as that's handily proven, what next for people now willing to discard that religion? I know, from personal experience and other readings, just what a desiccated husk organized religion is. I suppose what I wanted more from Hitchens was a better answer of why faith itself is unnecessary, and where people who may be starting to cast of the oppression of their religion can go. I have found some of those answers on my own, and continue to search; I hope others leave this book at least awake to the dangers or religion, and at best, hungry for more answers beyond these pages.(less)
Terry Tempest Williams writes prose that is oblique and poetic, nebulous and yet with a certain internal gravity that keeps it all together. This is t...moreTerry Tempest Williams writes prose that is oblique and poetic, nebulous and yet with a certain internal gravity that keeps it all together. This is the first work of hers that I've ever read, and the autobiography and awakening that slowly unspool in this volume is almost maddening in its beautiful simplicity. With a few deft words Williams is able to convey thoughts as enormous and profound as the desert landscapes she cherishes. Yet, at the same time, her writing often morphs into poetry, so personal and so interwoven into her own life's story that I feel her sparse words on the page survive more than anything else; like desert slicrock and looming orange and red canyons, her prose has been picked clean, scoured and withered into cryptic shapes that only hint at what has come before.
All of that is to say, I really enjoy her writing. Thankfully, she writes about ideas worthy of her skill. Her meditation on sex, birth control, and the right for a woman to control her own body are some of the most heartfelt and elegantly impassioned pleas I've ever read. Her continually growing awareness of herself, her writing, and her life's direction share a unique spirit yearning to find it's place.
For the life of me, I don't know what secret message law within the empty journals of the author's mother. Rebellion? Truth? A gift of a blank slate? All of these and more are mused upon in the book, and I'm no closer to "knowing" now that I've finished it. (I'm mostly inclined to believe the larger truth is that they are simply empty books, nothing more, nothing less.) I like that TTW doesn't settle for any one answer to the question, though, and instead brings us all the way to the end with a world made rich, by sharing her thoughts and retelling her actions, with possibilities. (less)
Another slim volume by Martin, I was able to ignore the characters in my head from years ago when I saw the film, and I enjoyed re-creating a vague fa...moreAnother slim volume by Martin, I was able to ignore the characters in my head from years ago when I saw the film, and I enjoyed re-creating a vague familiar world as I read. The narrator has a great voice in this book, at times playful and funny, other times terribly sad and heartfelt. Mirabelle's tender heart is painful to see broken so often, and Ray's nonchalance and even ignorance of why he hurts her make for a sadly real tale. Despite their age difference, I felt the connection between the two characters, and its strength despite its feet of clay. While I still don't know if the character of Jeremy does anything other than to exist for Mirabelle's inchoate happy ending, I felt like the two characters I liked most--the couple of Ray and Mirabelle--were touchingly and loving rendered. Probably my favorite work by Martin.(less)
ZAMM was a tough read. Of all the words used in its title, of all the epitaphs plastered on the book's covers and initial pages, I don't think any of...moreZAMM was a tough read. Of all the words used in its title, of all the epitaphs plastered on the book's covers and initial pages, I don't think any of them describe the contents of the book as well as the subtitle, and inquiry into values. The frame story of the motorcycle trip, the Sutherlands and their attitudes toward technology, the journey west, the long and strange journey of Phaedrus ... none of these were solid enough for me to love, but they each echoed the philosophical principle of the book, a look into what quality actually means. That's what I took from the book: an idea of how I can look for quality in my every day life, how I can look to find peace in quality even amid chaos, how you can see and enjoy and appreciate quality during difficult times by looking for it where it might otherwise be difficult to find. That quality can come from the rational and scientific, the mechanical and the modern, as well as from nature and irrationality and romanticism ... that's a good idea to keep in mind in a world where so many viewpoints have to co-exist.
Sometimes the writing was beautiful and elegant, sometimes Pirsig labored the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance well beyond the straining point. Sometimes the story of Pheadrus was interesting, a dexterous balance of ideas and actions and thinking, while other times it was incredibly dull, dense, dry, more like a philosophy textbook, writing that truly felt like it had completely lost it's own footing in this alleged "novel." (An aside, it was astonishing how often Pirsig tried to write classroom discussions and changes in thought as if they were duels; rarely can I tolerate a writer so in love with explaining his own thought process.) Sometimes the story of the narrator and Chris was touching and real, other times hopelessly disconnected from the "story" and pointless. But the thread of understanding quality and how I might be able to apply it to my own life was something that stayed with me after I had finished the book.
I didn't love this book, but it made me think about some things in new ways, and any book that can do that deserves to be read.(less)
Penn Jillette is a funny man whose life has given him a lot of stories. Despite the book's playfully incendiary title, there's not much about atheism...morePenn Jillette is a funny man whose life has given him a lot of stories. Despite the book's playfully incendiary title, there's not much about atheism in this book you haven't heard from Penn before. In fact, there's not much here you haven't heard from Penn before ... full stop. As a regular listener to his podcast, I realized while reading this that his stories are better heard than read, and you can hear them all for free via his podcast. So while certainly not a bad book--it was fun, made me smile if not laugh, and had some good stories in it--it was still disappointing to realize I had heard 90% of this material before, and enjoyed it the first time.(less)
Wow. A reality-bending mix of drug use, consumerism, an alien god, immortality and transcendence. That Dick can mix these all together into anything c...moreWow. A reality-bending mix of drug use, consumerism, an alien god, immortality and transcendence. That Dick can mix these all together into anything coherent is a miracle; that he can weave a genuinely good story around it that makes you think is divine. One of the sci-fi greats effortlessly doing what he does best.(less)