I didn't know what to expect when I checked this out from the library, but I was pleasantly surprised, at least until the very end. Murphy takes The T...moreI didn't know what to expect when I checked this out from the library, but I was pleasantly surprised, at least until the very end. Murphy takes The Truman Show as his model, but ups the ante by making the star of his reality show a clone of none other than Jesus Christ himself. Throw in a Herod-like media mogul who has no problem killing newborns and manipulating adults to achieve his banally evil ends, a conflicted 6'7" ex-IRA terrorist-turned-bodyguard who is the crux (no pun intended) of the story, and an in-your-face punk ethos which challenges every middle-class assumption, and you have the most engaging engagement with the gospels since Jésus de Montréal. As a spiritual agnostic (and former instructor of world religion) with one foot in Chrstianity and the other in Buddhism, I found Murphy's religion-bad/science-good dichotomy overly simplistic to say the least, but I appreciated it nonetheless with my tongue firmly in cheek. After all, I'm reading a comic, and not a serious work on theology or the philosophy of science. The glibly certain and nihilistic ending undermined the overall effect of the rest of the book, and brought the review down by a star, but until that point I thought the book rocked. Many reviewers have questioned the realism of gullible TV audiences, limitless corporate power, and knuckleheaded Christian fundamentalists, and I honestly don't know what world these people live in; they must not shop at the same grocery stores as me. And while I think Yeshua ben Miriam would take exception with Murphy's atheism, I also suspect he would be down with the radical message of a punk rock Jesus: break past those aspects of religion, media, politics, etc., that enslave and seek truth wherever it is to be found. (less)
Although I don't come from a family of bibliophiles I have been an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction since I got my first library card at age...moreAlthough I don't come from a family of bibliophiles I have been an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction since I got my first library card at age 6, and for the larger part of my life I focused on what I later learned was called "genre" fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. It was only as a bookseller (and SF/fantasy bookbuyer) at a now defunct bookstore in San Francisco that I learned about the distinction between genre and "literary" (i.e., "Serious") fiction. Back in those days (before I challenged myself with genuine literary masterpieces like Moby Dick,The Great Gatsby,Don Quixote,Candide,A Confederacy of Dunces,Catch-22,Zorba the Greek,The Gulag Archipelago,The Deptford Trilogy, and The Scarlet Letter, among others) I believed the hype that the best of the SF I enjoyed was by definition inferior to all those "literary" award-winners (like this gem) over which the fiction mavens fawned, but which left me cold.
A couple years later, while working at another (less pretentious) bookstore, I skimmed with amusement this slim and articulate polemic, and I wondered if perhaps it had been those mavens, rather than me, who had been the clueless ones. After picking it up at a library sale today and devouring it in one laugh-filled session, I know there is no "perhaps" about it; truly the emperor of literary fiction has no clothes. Whereas I had only my relatively limited literary education and naive personal tastes to guide me, and so chose to read and appreciate novels based on their plots, characters, and storytelling, the "afictionados" were guided in their collective opinions by a self-selected cadre of writers and reviewers who evidently sought to convince themselves and their readers that, because they liked books that were pretentious, they weren't "pedestrians" and "philistines."
Contrary to the many negative responses this manifesto received (most of which apparently came from people who either didn't read it or can't follow an argument) Myers doesn't reflexively praise genre crap and poo-poo well crafted literature in an attempt at reactionary, faux populism. Nor does he bewail books that are challenging and that aim for more than just entertainment. Instead he points out—using the very excerpts of poor prose that have earned breathless accolades from the critics—that much of what passes for serious modern American literature is masturbatory pretension, that the contemporary American literary scene is something of a circle jerk, and that readers should trust themselves rather than outsource their opinions to these wankers.
[A]t least the "genre" readers realize that the text is more important than the writer, and they trust solely in their own response to it. Try telling them that someone may not write great thrillers but is still a great thriller writer, or that someone has earned the right to bore them for their own good, or that they should read a half-bad novel because it was ambitiously conceived, and they'll laugh. (125)
I was inspired to seek out this compendium of massive trees after reading Richard Preston's The Wild Trees, which was long on human interest but not...moreI was inspired to seek out this compendium of massive trees after reading Richard Preston's The Wild Trees, which was long on human interest but not very informative about the trees themselves.
While Van Pelt isn't as skillful a writer as Preston (no surprise; he's a forest ecologist rather than science journalist), his short descriptions of each tree in this catalog are surprisingly varied in tone and content. And Van Pelt supplements his text with excellent visual representations of these majestic dendritic creatures. Color photographs of the base of each tree (up to 29' in diameter (!) in the case of the giant sequoia) provide a sense of just how massive these trees can get, and finely detailed hand-drawn images of each tree reveal not just the overwhelming scale relative to little H. sapiens but also the highly individual nature of what are, in fact, individual living beings.
There is a palpable sense of sadness throughout the book as the reader realizes that for too long these awesome trees were seen simply as massive cash cows and their stature reduced to mere board-feet and dollar signs, resulting in the disappearance of the largest and most astonishing from the face of the earth. (OK, they didn't disappear exactly, they became lumber and toilet paper. Feel better?)
There is also hope, though, because the same species of talking apes that saw these giants simply as a resource to be exploited also recognized their inherent worth as individuals, and also as inlignate repositories of power, beauty, and spiritual nourishment.
Thanks to the efforts of Van Pelt and many others, the numinous embodied in these remaining colossi is available for all of us to share, and I can only wonder at how awe inspiring it must be to stand at the foot of one of these titans. I plan to find out in my next visit to see the in-laws in California! (less)