There are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed...moreThere are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed on with loving grace and books that are clung to relentlessly for years. There are books of which we hear much yet never open and obscure books that catch our eye in a musty booksellers that swiftly become those items with which to cudgel our own friends. There are books that you forget minutes after reading and books that haunt your steps for years like a ghost of memory. Those are the books which I am always in search of, the always rare tomes that live on inside of you long after the final page is turned and inform your worldview for years, either consciously or not. Without realizing the import at the time, picking this lengthy read from atop my ever-growing to-read pile was the defining moment of my entire year.
Mario Vargas Llosa is an author of whom I had heard much, yet, for one ill-conceived reason or another, had never picked up any of his works and read them. All throughout my hodgepodge affair with Latin American authors there he has sat, waiting patiently as I endured the brilliant-but-meandering Garcia Marquez, the imaginative-yet-overblown Allende, the deliberately obtuse Bolano. Finally on a cold morning in February, as I cursed at my stacks of books purchased in haste and then left to linger for months, the spirit of inspiration that first moved me to acquire this structurally unsound stack of literature lit once more upon my shoulder and whispered at me to pick that beautiful red cover featured above from the neglected horde. Nothing has been the same since.
It is remarkably easy to dive deep into the world of post-Monarchist Brazil, populated by a vast coterie of the wretched and the ignorant and torn apart by the shifting winds of change and the turning of one epoch to another. Brazil has won its freedom from the monarchs of Portugal and is constructing its first civil government- with all the implements of the State which we take for granted now: marriage available for the first time outside of a church, a census to better know the nascent country's people and its needs, taxes to be paid for the creation of new roads and railways to better connect this country of nigh unfathomable size. Things that we, little more than a century later, take for granted (though we still seem to be having some delay with that whole Civil Marriage thing).
Not so in turn-of-the-century Bahia, a state midway along the coast known today primarily for its vast cacao plantations. In the backlands of this state wanders a man known as The Counselor preaching the Gospels to the illiterate, rebuilding churches fallen into disrepair and, everywhere he walks, showing love and acceptance for the most miserable and misshapen (both physically and mentally), some for the first time in their lives. He builds quite a dedicated following out of the dregs of society, winning over cangaceros (bandits), merchants, beggars and mutants as he travels for many years around the interior. Until one day he is shown a proclamation from the Republic informing the populace that civil marriage is now allowed and a census is to be taken regularly. Seeing this as a full assault on the church to which he is beholden he realizes that the faith is under assault by this new monster called the Republic, who must surely be the Antichrist in disguise. There is nothing to be done but to find some land and build a true city of god where his followers may live in peace. The fledgling state sees this as an open revolt to be quashed immediately lest other regions follow the example of the faithful of Canudos and proceeds to send out that true Antichrist, the Brazilian Army to ruthlessly put down this secessionist movement.
And so begins the tumultuous The War of the End of the World, based on true events but given poetic timbre by Vargas Llosa's pen. A cast of hundreds filters through, all with their histories and viewpoints, none purely evil and all conflicted by the demands this new age makes upon them. The beauty of Vargas Llosa's writing really comes through here as each, rebel and soldier, takes their minute upon the stage and illuminates very clearly the trying nature of these times. The doomed European idealist Gallileo Gall who believes quite fervently in both the ideal of Revolution and the disproved tenets of phrenology. The Dwarf, a member of a traveling circus fallen upon hard times. The near-sighted Journalist who plays the role of a faithless Job here, plagued by misfortune again and again. The retired cangacero Pajeu who has found grace in the Counselor's teachings and makes up for his bloody past by becoming a guerilla leader against the Army expeditions that assault Canudos again and again. The cast is vast but, so consummate is Vargas Llosa's skill, it never becomes overwhelming or difficult to keep straight.
Like the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa creates a whole world around the blessed miscreants in Canudos, but also improves upon it by pulling back on the scope of his ambitions and focusing instead on just those events that are germane to the story at hand. Where Garcia Marquez can tend to become overblown and distracted by whatever thoughts pass through his, admittedly admirable, head, Vargas Llosa uses his digressions to better tie his story together. This is performed so perfectly that when, near the end of the tale, a character says that "Canudos isn't a story; it's a tree of stories" you can't help but nod your head in agreement and marvel at Vargas Llosa's deft skill in crafting such an impeccable novel. Having been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature one can only hope that this brings his works to a new generation of bibliophiles for he is, without a doubt, one of the finest wordsmiths that I have ever had the privilege of reading.(less)
Having been a huge fan of Catch-22, I had been curious to read more of Heller's work for a long time. Something Happened, his follow-up to Catch-22, i...moreHaving been a huge fan of Catch-22, I had been curious to read more of Heller's work for a long time. Something Happened, his follow-up to Catch-22, is the book that I had heard the most about- mainly that it was a challenging read that left many of his fans reeling and wondering whether he had lost his knack for finely honed satire. I had never even heard of God Knows until it was placed in my hands last week with the recommendation that it was "like Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal for the Old Testament set."
I guess that is an apt description as far as the content is concerned. The tale consists of the late life reminiscences of King David, the mighty slayer of Goliath, as he reflects upon his successes and (far more) failures and tries to decide which of his two remaining sons, Solomon or Adonijah, to pass the throne of Israel to upon his death. Where it differs from Moore's classic biblical farce, however, is that it's just not funny. Period. There are moments where I admit that I tittered, but for the most part it was just an old man grousing about all the fine tail he used to get back in the day, ruing his impotence, and trying to take credit for writing Hamlet and inventing microwave ovens (anachronisms run rife throughout the pages of this book). If you like your curmudgeons with little-to-no redeeming qualities, then you may enjoy God Knows far more than I ended up doing.
Still, I actually finished this book, which is a mark of accomplishment when considering just how little patience I've had for trying books this year. For all of its faults, and trust me when I say there are many, I was still drawn into the story. It's been a long time since I have read the Bible and I've made no secret of the fact that I just don't care about religion, but I enjoyed the refresher course. I didn't realize that Aldous Huxley's book Eyeless in Gaza was a reference to Samson's death, or that Tommie Lee Jones Iraq War film, In The Valley of Elah, was a reference to the valley in which David fought Goliath. Regardless, when the only good thing I can say about a book is that it helped me flesh out my understanding of cultural referents, chances are the book wasn't worth the time I spent on it.(less)
Can I just admit something straight off the bat? I. Don’t. Care. I don’t care whether you want to participate in ritualized cannibalism. I don’t care...moreCan I just admit something straight off the bat? I. Don’t. Care. I don’t care whether you want to participate in ritualized cannibalism. I don’t care whether you think the soul resides on the top of the head. I don’t care whether you want to rub blue mud in your navel, ingest some psylocybin and commune with Gaia. I don’t care whether you want to build temples to a god who, at best, is enormously small-minded and petty or, at worst, is a genocidal tyrant bent on undoing the mistake of free will. I especially don’t care whether you do or don’t believe in any bi-polar sky god. I’m just done with it. It’s a discussion I’ve had more times than I can count and one where I’ve already heard every justification for and against. I just don’t care.
While I am undoubtedly an atheist, there’s something very off-putting about this new wave of skeptics that makes me want to distance myself from them. Something about the missionary zeal with which this new group of atheists approaches religious discussions smacks too much of “we will save the heathens from themselves or they’ll die trying.” Tellingly, it is normally those who have recently lost their faith that are the most vocal challengers of deists, there is no fervor as powerful as that of the recently converted, be it to Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous, or atheism. Yet what is the point of replacing one doctrine of ideas with another if it does nothing to change the tone with which we discuss things? People are still going to be assholes, regardless of which creed they are espousing today.
Either all the accumulated evidence (and lack thereof) is correct and there is no god, or there’s a pantheon of every belief system floating somewhere in the ether. Either way it makes no actual impact on my day to day living, other than through interactions I have with a creed’s adherents. God is not going to do anything to either lessen my burdens or smite me with righteous fury. All we can do is live our lives in the manner that we feel is best for us. Any deity worth its salt should be able to recognize that, and any deity that does not recognize it is not deserving of anyone’s worship.
That is not to say that I do not have severe issues with the ways in which people use “it’s just what I believe” as a justification for completely irrational and harmful behavior, and there is no faster way to earn my enmity than to try to write your morality into law. Do what you will, but keep it to yourself- live by example but without self righteousness. In his short polemic Harris lists point by point his, rather convincing, arguments against deism and the various reasons why coddling people’s faith and placing it beyond debate is both harmful and intellectually dishonest, in far more clear terms than I can ever manage. This is definitely a contentious book, but one that will make you think, regardless of which side of this argument you may sit. My main complaint with the idea of people moving beyond religion is I don’t think that Harris is taking into account humankind’s need for illusions.
We all tell stories to ourselves to better understand the world and our place within it. For a majority of the world, this story involves a divinely imparted code of rules to adhere to or else. If we stripped away the belief systems of all of these people then what is left? Living without illusions is hard work, having to bear the responsibility for your choice on your own is a constant struggle. Some days I don’t think I would wish that on my worst enemy. Too much existentialism for a Thursday morning? Probably. It still doesn’t change the fact that I can conceive of no swifter way for the world to descend into chaos than to rip away the support structure of people’s existence. Slow and steady will win this race, the best we can expect is a holding action to keep God out of our statehouses and legislature. (less)