Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bram Stoker's "Dracula": Audiobook Review

Dracula [Audible Edition] Audiobook | Bram Stoker | Audible.com

"More English reporting than Transylvanian action"
If you could sum up Dracula [Audible Edition] in three words, what would they be?
Menacing. Meandering. Maddening.

How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?
Shift all action onto Dracula's home turf. So much of this narrative is off-stage from the Count, in the second location of England. Characters debate how to fight the force, but from a distance. They talk and talk about Dracula, but take a long time to form a big showdown.

What about the narrators’s performance did you like?
The "all-star cast" fulfills its mission. The voice for Van Helsing is effective, and the report of the Russian sea captain and that of Mina's trance-like message both add depth and doom.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
It's faster than the novel.

Any additional comments?
Revisiting this after thirty years, the layered narratives are inventive ways to tell a tall tale. But their cumulative power dissipates as the antagonist is tucked away as it were for a great part of the plot. This diminishes rather than increases his terror. Stoker's inventive staging of the novel in many reports and letters remains admirable, but the force of it all is lessened. (Audible US 12/6/16)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Geraldine Brooks' "Year of Wonders": Audiobook Review

"Another Journal of the Plague Year"
Is there anything you would change about this book?
The epilogue could have been expanded into a sequel.

What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?
How a Derbyshire village (based on a real one) chose to quarantine itself in 1665-6. Certainly a fascinating idea, as Geraldine Brooks mentioned in her afterword. Full of dramatic potential. The herbal lore and midwifery showed her research come alive. But the plot failed too often to grip my attention. Characters did undergo change, but the daily elements were somehow less vivid despite the descriptions of the plague and the violence that ensued. It did not immerse me into the experiences as much as a better novelist could have achieved.

How did the narrator detract from the book?
Her soft voice for the protagonist was unable to convey in male characters the range of emotions and timbre necessary. While the tone grew on me for the main character, it could not capture the others in the village sufficiently, in a sing-song muted register throughout.

Could you see Year of Wonders being made into a movie or a TV series? Who should the stars be?
It could be a movie. Perhaps with Benedict Cumberbatch as the reverend, and Emma Stone as Anna Frith.

Any additional comments?
To her credit, Brooks summons the phrasing of mid-17c British diction well. The book does feel genuine in the rhetorical and tonal choices she makes. Maybe it'd work better on paper.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Boys for Pele

I was asked by a colleague who is a PhD in psychology but also a practicing curandera (learned from her grandmother) if I had an encounter similar to those I'd be asking you all.

When my older son was about four, we visited the Big Island of Hawai'i. I drove to a sacred monument site with him, to give him a chance to get away from the hotel and his little baby brother. It was very hot.

On the main highway, I passed a woman going south on the side of the road, on the left-hand edge. It was the middle of a dramatic setting, more barren, bleak and moon-like on that side of the island than you may imagine. Nobody was around. I noticed she was very striking, a middle-aged woman but very confident in her pace and spirit. She had a white flowing longer dress, her hair was salt-and-pepper wavy and thick, and the wind made it fly around her dramatically. As I passed, I wondered what she was doing there, as she was not hitching a ride but simply moving along as if carefree.

My son and I visited the sacred site up the road, where it made a fork to the left of the main highway. After we visited, we saw her again, but (it is hard to explain) she seemed coming from another direction, somehow, as if geography or the road or time did not matter. It did not seem to square with where she had been a few minutes earlier. She caught my eye and we exchanged smiles.

Later, I wondered if it was the fire goddess of the islands Pele. I know this is fanciful; she was probably just a native woman out for a walk, but the eerie isolation of the setting, the fact it was very hot and empty there, and the warmth the woman seemed to project all linger. I've never had any uncanny or transcendent experiences, but this one somehow stays with me in a way no ritual or service I have attended has done.  (This entry comes from a online discussion in my Comparative Religions course. I have never heard the Tori Amos album that titles this piece, but it seemed apt.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Jorge Luis Borges' "Professor Borges": Book Review

Professor Borges Cover
These 25 lectures from 1966, editors Martin Arias and Martin Hadis confess in their introduction, defied easy transcription. For they were taken from tapes (now erased) by students in Jorge Luis Borges' fortieth term of teaching English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. The garbled nature of the names and verses set down, especially in the Old English dominating the first half of the course, must have challenged both the Spanish-speaking audiences and the scholars searching sources. Borges, nearly blind, knew these texts intimately. Amazing to think that he lectured mostly from memory, and that quality, so memorialized in his fiction as well as his criticism, informs this.

The talks themselves vary in length, perhaps due to whomever wrote them down. The classes appear oddly tilted. For after half a dozen sessions with very in-depth coverage of the Anglo-Saxon era, we jump from the eleventh to the eighteenth century.  You get a look at Samuel Johnson, then it's off for Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Browning, Rossetti, lots of William Morris, and R.L. Stevenson.

Therefore, the Argentine audience must have come away with an intimate if skewed examination of key authors. The idiosyncratic nature of the course, as in the latter lessons when students recite portions of Morris' poetry, must have made the presentations come alive. One wishes the tapes were extant, but this anthology compiles what Borges was like in the classroom, an aspect we lack otherwise much record of. Despite some typos, this is a useful compilation. The footnotes are extensive and helpful. And even experienced students of the literature may pick up some factoids.

For me, I forgot that Beowulf comes from the typical Norse phrasing for "bee+wolf," or bear. A simple reminder, but one many professors never mention. Learning how Dr. Johnson hoisted and threw a folio volume at a bookseller, with Borges' wry aside that such a tome was indeed difficult to toss, makes the lexicographer's orneriness come alive. And realizing that such disparate texts as Morris' "The Earthly Paradise" and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" have in common the silence of respectively Chaucer and Shakespeare due to their eminence reminds us of Borges' vast knowledge. (Amazon US 12/3/16)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Dante's "Divine Comedy": Audiobook Review

"You are not a child anymore"
If you could sum up The Divine Comedy in three words, what would they be?
Inspiring, instructional, immersive

What did you like best about this story?
This encapsulates through a clever three part (!) layering the Tuscan verse of the original, the pilgrim Dante in deft translation, and the recollections of the poet Dante. It refreshes even for veteran readers key themes and characters, and it moves along with momentum.

What do the narrators bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
The tender but firm teaching of Beatrice, the dignified guidance of Virgil, the plaints of the lost, and the praise of the purged and saved souls, all are given nuanced texture. The music is aptly chosen, the sound effects are convincing, and the scope of the otherworld in this audio rendering are evoked dramatically, but soberly and sensibly, clear of unearned emotion

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The gasps as Dante sees Christ, his struggles to comprehend the Trinity, and the final scenes as his consciousness blurs with the Beatific Vision are portrayed convincingly. Not an easy feat, given the limitations inherent in even a BBC radio drama's compressed format.

Any additional comments?
The humanity of the quest and nimble explanations of how God's will is enacted in his creatures caught or liberated here by grace. love,and by choice earns respect. Whatever your own views on theodicy, this thoughtful presentation rewards reflection. A set of masterful and insightful performances allow us to enter into the mindset of eight hundred years ago. (Audible US 1/18/17)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Goldman Sachs Wins Either Way

My FB feed fills with contempt today, as nearly all my "friends" lament His swearing in. I admit to sharing this poster from the IFC broadcast of "A Face in the Crowd," which is admittedly apropos no matter which side you're on for its post-HUAC pinko 50's Hollywood spin on cornpone homespun cant. But that's it. I may send my pals commentary as messages or as e-mails, but I am not furthering histrionics or hatred. Satire, naturally, no less than for the previous occupant on Pennsylvania Avenue

Paul Street reminds us in Counterpunch how one personality cult replaces another. Goldman Sachs still wins. The departing Oval Office occupant received the most contributions from Wall Street ever. Certainly his would-be anointed successor would not rail against those who paid her speeches. "For all their 'concern' for ordinary voters and beneath all their claims of bitter, personal, and partisan contempt for their major party electoral opponents, the Republican and Democratic 'elites' are united with the capitalist 'elite' in top-down hatred for the nation’s multi-racial working-class majority."

He accurately limns how class war plays out in the workplace, an often overlooked aspect among these elites. Even if they claim solidarity and sympathy, the literati, the tenured, and the sinecured lecture the millions, who it's doubtful half-hear them beyond the mainstream media, let alone the journals, reviews, and essays of the New York-based (well, maybe Seattle and San Francisco too, if they can afford their lofts) and Ivy League-educated creative classes. Street elaborates the critiques made by John Pilger this week and three years ago by Chris Hedges. Both scolds, sure, but both daring to call out posers. All three critique the condescension given the mocked white working class, which along with its diverse counterparts, gets shafted no matter who swears on Lincoln's bible.

Dismantling the claim that the Rust Belt and Bible Belt defected, Street counters that the Dems lost more working class votes in the 2012 and 2016 elections, outnumbering the GOP gains. In brief, Bernie might well have won. Second, neo-liberals Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, like Barack Obama, presided over the shift of wealth upward to an ever-narrower strata, as happily as their rivals.

The commentator denies a 99% divide. "Among other things, a two-class model of America deletes the massive disparities that exist between the working-class majority of Americans and the nation’s professional and managerial class. In the U.S. as across the world capitalist system, ordinary working people suffer not just from the elite private and profit-seeking capitalist ownership of workplace and society. They also confront the stark oppression inherent in what left economists Robin Hahnel and Mike Albert call the 'corporate division of labor'-- an alienating, de-humanizing, and hierarchical subdivision of tasks 'in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”'

He continues: "Over time, this pecking order hardens 'into broad and pervasive class division' whereby one class — roughly the top fifth of the workforce —"controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,' while another (the working class), 'obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.' The 'coordinator class,' Albert notes, 'looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done. It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and the higher incomes needed to support more expensive tastes.'That sparks no small working class resentment."

An understatement. But I like how Street straightens out the under-reported divisions that drag down so many, even many in the non-working class system in status if not always in pay. I had a student who made over twice my pay with a h.s. degree, and he labored damn hard for that amount. Still, it sparked reflection about my years in grad school, my delayed hopes, my own struggles, and the two-plus decades in my position, about where the value lies in hard work. He earned a handsome salary but was gone often to Nevada on pipe-fitting projects, while I admittedly spent many hours then as now not only in a air-conditioned classroom, but toiling away at the relative ease of this keyboard.

Street does elide the bridge between whites and that multi-cultural majority of workers in total. Ravi Iyer at Civil Politics shows how Josh Quinn in Columbus, Ohio, one of those swing states both parties courted and both parties knew counted for the Electoral College, popular votes notwithstanding, convened his neighbors to talk it out, rather than fight it out, an encouraging move. And my wife and younger son plan to march tomorrow. Typically, she tried to join a healthcare protest last Sunday, but parking was so non-existent that it ended before she could find any. So she and my younger son in town went for tacos. Somehow symbolic of a Los Angeles liberal outing.

I am not sure how Street gets from this sort of "ought" to "is," to paraphrase my own elitist, Hume. However, Street's attention to how both parties manipulate populism to serve their capitalist ends, both sides strategically dismissing their deplorables and bitter-clingers, as one might coin a phrase or two, remains instructive. He concludes by citing Upton Sinclair, who battled for socialism in the same city where I teach working-class and immigrant students, first-generation and veterans many among them. Get away from "two wings of the same bird of prey." A few of them have still read excerpts at least from The Jungle, and in its original tabloid format, that phrase appeared. A lot of local students in my city are schooled as I write this to march and chant in two languages against the new president. I'd be happier if their civics lessons led to critical thinking and direct action beyond fealty to the other party. As it is, these children seem poised to follow the path of a maternal imprint.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Philip Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass": Audiobook Review

"Tell them true stories"
What did you love best about The Amber Spyglass?
I loved the evocation of the underworld of the dead souls. Philip Pullman may draw inevitably from Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton, but he uses these venerable sources well. He reshapes his last volume of His Dark Materials to expand his vision of the cosmology that promises a second chance at Eden, if one tempered by realities not even fantasy can avoid.

What did you like best about this story?
The boatman's warnings as he ferries certain characters across to the land of the dead remains haunting and moving. It channels classical motifs inventively and engagingly.

What does Philip Pullman and full cast bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
Again, the range of voices makes the slower parts (and there are many, alas) move along. If I'd have just read this novel, I might not have pressed on through the particularly perfunctory parts often involving a character returned from the second installment, Mary Malone. Also, the disjointed nature of much of this plot challenges patience, even if moments glimmer.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Adversary or Authority: who do you love?

Any additional comments?
Like even the beloved Tolkien, fellow don Pullman falters when he tries to wrap up his trilogy. The climax happens well before the end, and a particular character's fate is almost an aside, barely seen, when other writers would've made this a blockbuster showdown. Pullman elaborated so much earlier that too much of this feels didactic and not adventurous. Still, despite the structural clunk, his characters can tug at your heartstrings and even the walk-on parts evince the author's profound humanism and the Keatsian "negative capability" at work. (Audible US 1/16/17)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Philip Pullman's "The Subtle Knife": Audiobook Review

"Upending the Story of the Fall, part 2 "
If you could sum up The Subtle Knife in three words, what would they be?
Inventive, unpredictable, menacing

What did you like best about this story?
Philip Pullman's second installment delves into the tale of the Fall and the rebel angels, combining this with speculations about dark matter and parallel worlds, in an engaging manner. I like the intellectual underpinnings of this segment, more than the main action.

Have you listened to any of Philip Pullman and full cast ’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
Yes, and this compares equally to the first I heard, The Golden Compass. More witches this time, and we are introduced to Will Ransom as a co-protagonist in another Oxford. He seems hesitant and petulant, but we learn why this may be if we stick to the storyline ahead.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The showdowns of two main characters ending each of the two last chapters.

Any additional comments?
I liked the introduction of Mary Malone. Her demeanor changes from chipper to awed, understandably, as she learns verification for some of her far-fetched research. The return if briefly to the academic setting where the first book began is welcome. It's Pullman's milieu. (Audible US 1/10/17)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass": Audiobook Review

The Golden Compass By Philip Pullman"Against the powers that be"
Would you consider the audio edition of The Golden Compass to be better than the print version?
Did not read the book, but I reckon this works well on audio, as it's been recommended as one of the best such adaptations we have of a novel by an ensemble cast.

What did you like best about this story?
The inventive, slightly altered world. We have amberlit, chocolatl, coalsilk, and smokeleaf as indicating this realm nearly like our own, in the wake of Pope John Calvin and the lands of New Denmark and New France indicating a bit of a shift from our own time and society.

What about Philip Pullman and full cast ’s performance did you like?
Philip Pullman handles the narrative evenly. I liked the variety in the bear and human and witch voices. The children and adult roles both meshed smoothly.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
Two. The fate of the sundered daemons, and Serafina Pekkala's lonely admission.

Any additional comments?
The story has plenty of sudden turns. That kept the pace lively. But some of the latter half dragged for me, not enough to ruin the storyline, but enough to make me wonder if the next two installments will turn didactic or talky." (Audible US 12/16/16)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Mark Williams' "Ireland's Immortals": Book Review

How the Christian Irish regarded their island's pagan divinities, in medieval and modern times, comprises the two halves of Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Mark Williams, an Oxford medievalist, unravels the tangled threads in texts that challenge even the skilled interpreter. Old Irish remains formidable for scholars, and the fact that the evidence exists only in copies centuries after its first renditions onto parchment, deep within already Catholic times, complicates any explicator's task. Dr. Williams remains steady throughout this study. His accessible style remains academic but blessedly free of jargon or cant. His glossaries summarize key concepts and his footnotes address arcane debates.

His history of the gods of Irish myth examines key writings left by the monks and scribes, from the period after conversion. Williams estimates that within a half-century after the Patrician period, Ireland would have been effectively under Christian control. Although pre-Christian practices may have endured, they diminished rapidly, despite the imaginations of later bards eager to insist on secret continuity with centuries nearly up to our own. Williams separates the archaic from the innovative elements inserted into these stories and chronicles preserved within monasteries. Although these tales and accounts were tamed, a "ferocious weirdness" persists in surreal or juxtaposed scenes, distinguishing imagery from the dour scenarios in Anglo-Saxon sagas such as {Beowulf}, for instance.

These Irish pre-Christian versions resemble (as in the Book of Invasions, a chronological origin myth of successive waves of those landing on the nation's shores) the configurations of Romanesque architecture.  Williams compares the sagas to these simple, repeating structures which are decorated with teeming surface details. The medieval corpus, furthermore, rises as a massive edifice, if resting on slender foundations. Pseudo-scholarship at its most ingenious labored to match biblical lore with Celtic supposition. This tension, concentrating around the meaning of the "god-people" the Túath Dé sustains itself within the literature Williams examines. As a blend of inherited narratives with concocted alterations shaped into a Christian mindset, these tales' impact faded by the end of the Middle Ages. The Irish seemed to lose interest. Only in the nineteenth century did curiosity revive about gods.

Part two delves into more recent re-workings of the myths of the Irish gods and goddesses. Romanticism, antiquarianism and the occult all generated speculation. W.B. Yeats and George Russell epitomized the poetic turn of the Celtic Revival at the end of the Victorian period, in the wake of a British passion for the classics and the pagan to counter the tamed, the scriptural and the stolid. Gods, as redefined by the Irish revivalists, emerge as "spiritual entities." Among the Anglo-Irish gentry emerge intellectuals eager to fabricate a past for their country, rooted in wisdom of the earth and appeals to the forces lingering, despite the reign of Christendom, supposedly on fringes of the Celtic homeland.

The ninth chapter introduces William Sharp (1855-1905). Taking on the feminine alter ego of Fiona Macleod, Williams engagingly shares this fantasist of Gaelic Scotland. In Fiona, we encounter a fabled "self-sequestered Highland visionary." Williams labels her as "an imaginary personage, albeit an alarmingly insistent one." Characteristic of this author's tone, he keeps his investigations lively even as he grounds them in careful judgment. He counters the bent suppositions and fey imagination lavished upon sources that, in modern times, create a "feedback loop." Williams analyzes distortions within American anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. He adapted his Oxford dissertation oddly; this 1911 compendium persists as a New Age "crank piece."

For Mark Williams' predecessor at his university proved both an "exorbitant Celtophile" and a misled eccentric. Evans-Wentz conjured up the peasantry as informants for a pan-Celtic fairy belief system. He incorporated an unnamed mystic's testimony. Yet this was none other than George Russell. Williams reasons that Evans-Wentz betrayed a "spiritual crush on Russell." Testifying as to the endurance of this account lies beyond the scope of Williams' work, but he admits he had to cut a third of his own draft. The results remain impressive, even if the source of that apt John Cowper Powys colophon beginning Chapter Nine lacks attribution to that fabulist, as obsessive as many in this volume, of strange magic.

Nowadays, Williams tracks a second arc, again with diminishing attention to the old gods, among Irish writers. The Túath Dé and their replacements, the Túatha Dé Danann, as the Irish supernatural race, endure within the "wide uptake" by creative classes outside the isle. The fine arts alongside Celtic Paganism and Celtic Reconstructionism enshrine goddesses, notably the fire spirit of Brigit.

Unfortunately, opposition to the ancient forces still exists. Vandalism of historic sites and a modern sculpture to the Celtic sea-god testifies to the powers of these representations as feared by evangelicals. Unlike other cultures where monotheism replaced paganism, Williams concludes that in Ireland, a "restless refusal to resolve" the ambiguities of the survival of the venerable if often barely recalled deities within a Christian context distinguishes that island's literary legacy within the extant sources.

Fittingly, Williams ends his six-hundred page survey with a tribute to the late John Moriarty, a philosopher and shaman from County Kerry. Moriarty's "ecological and psychic sensitivity" to summon up again the mythic terrain's specters signifies the restoration of "imaginative vitality." In a nation divided by income inequality and sectarian squabbles, Moriarty's vision and Williams' precision combine. This learned volume contributes valuable insights that may guide all those who look to the Irish tales and Celtic heritage as a relevant force of energy.
(Interview with Mark Williams here. Amazon US 1/11/17 and Amazon British 1/12/17)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"MYFAROG": Book Review

How far the creator of this My(thic) Fa(ntasy) Ro(le-Playing) G(ame) can be critiqued as for his creation, like many controversial artists of all sorts, I leave to the inquirer. Some have slagged off this tabletop RPG on hearsay or rumor; it's unclear how many naysayers have actually played it and found it wanting. To be sure, it's challenging. These 160 closely printed pages fill with charts and directions, even if version 2.6 is streamlined. The author encourages novices to follow suit, and as with younger players, to leave off the stamina and power modules. I am in the minority, for I have nobody to play this with. But, given my research into Ásatrú and native European spiritual and cultural pursuits, MYFAROG sparked my curiosity.

For now, I'll look at the context within which this RPG unfolds. Perhaps solo practitioners may cobble out a way to invent scenarios? I also wonder how those incarcerated, or lacking a GM and others available to join in, might deploy the characters, settings, beliefs, and actions entertainingly. I welcome any suggestions as to how players have modified or customized this for such applications, even if this logically may contradict a RPG.

You can play as various types of humans, or as a wood elf, Fairling, or god-fathered or divinely born. Traditional magic followed by natives appears there on Thule to be giving way to religion as Ásatrú. Groups on the islands correspond roughly to nine nations of ancient Europe. This text refers to a map included in the book, but this is superseded by an eponymous online site where the maps of these locations can be downloaded via pdf's.

Scanning the contents, you'll see on the first page nods to Homer, Tacitus, the Stoics, the author of Parsival, Lovecraft, and Tolkien among others. That anticipates the brickbats tossed at this game for its labeling of some races along with species beyond the Thulean natives and nobles. Surely some of these venerable storytellers also stand accused under contemporary standards promoted by many as suspect of bias and imbalance? The frank fun of such narratives generates good and bad forces, those seeking to subvert and infiltrate, and those trying to resist and fight back. In other conflicts, these may take the name of vampires, zombies, or aliens. And as the writer reminds us (156): Thule can be reassembled to be what the participants want it to be. It's not historical. Perhaps those hostile to MYFAROG did not reach this penultimate page of the text proper.

It is, however, intriguingly based on a stretch of northern Norway that may have been free of glaciers even during the last Ice Age, thanks to the Gulf Stream. Thule corresponds to this territory, and suggests that its proto-European peoples may have survived from times far before. Their struggles can parallel realms as far back as the Stone Age for some, transitioning into the Bronze, or for others, the Iron Age. "Be prepared to enter a world very different from our own" (4) is advice to take to heart. It's fantasy, and exists on its own terms, which one is welcome to tinker with.

Gender, social class, birth place, life stance, tribe, age, origins, and talents all inform one's character role. Dice serve to toss in the element of chance or luck, as in every existence. Gear must be donned and skills amassed as much of the material relates in such a barbaric location to battle, quest, attack, and defense. While the laws may not be those of our own era in regards to sexual behavior, the code is based on pre-Christian and pre-Roman standards of honor above all. Fidelity is praised; non-conformity often receives the force of consequences for resistance.

Outside the Thulean circles to be guarded, bands of rivals lurk. This creates conflict, for no land in this cosmology rests unperceived by intruders. As with any contest, the enemies are subtle and their methods sinister. Betrayals can happen, but the price for exile or outlawry is harsh indeed. Animals, animated objects, nymphs, human NPC's, trolls, and the fearsome ettins (a particularly inventive set of foes) eye Thule with their motives.

Names, a calendar of festivals and feasts, deities, and samples of character sheets fill out this volume. The level of detail may seem excessive, but as with any visionary landscape populated by the enchanted witness turned seeker, this will not seem neither superfluous nor extraneous data. (Amazon US 1/7/17)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Michael Moynihan + Didrik Soderlind's "Lords of Chaos": Book Review

This book has sparked much attention, considering its volatile subject. Reading it at a distance of 15-20 years from the events, the subtitle "the bloody rise of the Satanic metal underground" betrays the gist and the gore of the account. That is, it examines the media role in "satanic panic" while it responds to it. Michael Moynihan, joined by Didrik Soderlind, extracts the roots of the black metal scene, especially in Norway. The first three chapters range widely, with surprising scholarship sprinkled into the narrative, with engaging metaphors and clever asides. Entertaining and educational, this start bodes well to expose this scene for everyday readers, who likely lack knowledge firsthand.

The authors then delve into the "bloody" events. They preface their manner of investigating this milieu in an "unflinching fashion" with a reminder some may overlook. Twice on pp. x/xi they remind us. "It is not our job to pass judgment on our subjects; we expect our readers to have the intelligence to do that for themselves." And, noting our our world needs "dangerous ideas more than ever," even if it "may not need the often ill-formed and destructive ideas expressed by some of the protagonists" in this study, nevertheless "we felt all along that this is an issue for the individual reader to decide." Intriguingly, my public library system shelves this in the Young Adult musical section.

While the central characters are well-known within the small black metal community, the authors enrich their presentation with scholars and observers less expected. For instance, Jacob Jervill, a Christian minister, laments the decline of attention paid to evil within the State Church of Norway, and he analyzes the vacuum left by the diminished force of that tradition in a system where affluence, conformity, and comfort spark not contentment but unrest among some growing up feeling outsiders.

Likewise, in Ch. 10, critiques by the members of Ulver, by Simen Midgaard, and by Pal Mathiesen deepen one's understanding of the forces tempting youth towards acts of destruction and sounds of despair. Varg Vikernes, as a lightning rod for such energies, typically avers: "I never say anything to 'provoke,' but I 'provoke' intentionally to say something." (qtd. 162) His pronouncements fill many pages of this work, and the authors editorialize vis-a-vis his "ex post facto revisionism" his habit to frame previous remarks in light of his present concerns. These do evolve or shift, as the Nordic concentration among this set turns from a youthful dalliance or dance with the "adversary" to a more folkish and saga lore-inspired Odinist or Ásatrú focused revival of the suppressed old beliefs. (213)

Michael Rothstein speaks of the willingness of certain believers to then turn to Thule and UFOs as extended forays into Northern occultism. These searchers then find authorities, however discredited, to support their worldview. (188) So, Lords of Chaos (the title taken rather anti-climatically from a clique of Ft. Myers, Florida, teens led by one of their number who called himself God) serves too as a reminder of how alternative and fringe movements gravitate towards earlier conspiracies and cabals.

For this, Hendrik Mobus' interview offers the most in-depth example. Calling himself a scapegoat like a "modern Loki," (292) he and Varg (p. 162) justify a shared ambition to recast black metal in a "militant heathen" (303) mode of attack. In retrospect, the authors place the satanic adjective of their subtitle in a time period late in the 20c, waning more than waxing by the time of the 2003 2nd ed.

But as Vikernes rationalizes, the dramatic claim of why medieval stave churches were burned across his homeland echoes, even as the mindset of the perpetrators may move with the times, new and old. "Show Odin to the people and Odin will be lit in their souls." (96) Many may scoff at this confident proclamation, but a few do seek out heathen ways as more invigorating than Christianity's claims.

P.S. This book while footnoted could have been improved by an index. The chapters skip about and transitions diminish as the pages add up. It aims for an international coverage but this weakens the later sections. As it progresses, it's as if journalism has been inserted or recycled. Women barely appear; this may not be the fault of the authors, but it symbolizes a lacuna worth questioning. The clip art and illustrations may lighten density but it lessens the impact as not all are necessary. It could have listed a discography, to supplement URLs for indie labels and told more about the music itself from leading bands as well as their deeds, crimes, and punishments. A needed if now-dated resource.
(Amazon US 1/4/17)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Brad Warner's "There Is No God and He Is Always With You": Book Review

There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places
I've enjoyed the series of engaging books by Brad Warner joining his Zen practice to his life and music. He writes naturally, in a conversational style, and roams widely in his speculations. His new book takes on the God question. He adapts "inmo" from his mentor Dogen for the title "There Is No God and He Is Always With You." Typically gnomic, the kind of challenge Warner likes taking up.

He makes intriguing connections. Stoner rock, punk, his Japanese work experience, his battles with facing a fatal disease that runs in his family all inform his reflections. Like his other works, this book does feel like a series of extended blog entries or reflections more than a coherent whole, and the informal approach may frustrate academic types of readers. But as in comparing the Buddhist concept of being reborn over eons to the Norse one of Ragnorok, he hits on a few memorable insights overall.

On p. 66, he opines that God exists because we ask questions of him. On p. 77, he cites a song by Om, "Meditation is the practice of death" to remind us of our mortality. I confess that Warner has more fortitude than me or the friend he mentions who stays awake at night fearing self-annihilation. But Warner has always championed a tough-it-out on the cushion method to staring down the truth.

He nods to others who support his own search. Christopher Hitchens' typically provocative statement that even if Jesus was born to a virgin, performed miracles, and rose from the dead, still this track record would not prove to Hitchens that "what Jesus said was valid" (129) fits well as Warner shows with Dogen's skepticism about supernatural powers. While Warner validates his form of Soto Zen, he leaves open the doubts that occupy many of us who may be less convinced by proclamations of any who deem themselves holy. As he reminds us on p. 175, God is "a dangerous word" to bandy about.

Therefore while I may not be as convinced as Warner about the usefulness of adapting this loaded word within a Buddhist framework, he does encourage one to examine the Big Questions. And that, combined with his commonsense style and accessible musings, makes for another worthwhile book, as Warner deals with middle-age, restlessness, and the continual quest that beckons for the thoughtful, contemporary seeker. It's loose and casual, but it also sums up serious, dogged inquiries.
(Amazon US 1/5/17)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christopher Hitchens' "The Portable Atheist": Book Review


As many reviews on Amazon precede mine, I will offer a sample of the places I found most engaging. Christopher Hitchens received plaudits from some and suspicion from others, even fellow travelers, for what seemed in the wake of his "god Is Not Great" bestseller a cash-in with not as much editing of the inclusions as a rapid assemblage. Too many of the 47 excerpts drag on; a careful compiler would have excised portions and given overviews, while translating passages from other languages and footnoting arcane references as so much material is drawn from sources long ago.

His introduction, on the other hand, pleases. It's a joy to read Hitchens, whether you agree with him or not. Early on his contrast between god-like cats and dogs who treat us like gods (15) establishes his point memorably. His frank question why "semi-stupified peasants in desert regions" receive revelations of their Creator vs. those among the rest of mankind resounds. (18) His humility that whether innate or inexplicable, we can still laugh at our folly of invention humbles us against such faith-claims. (25) As he cites his friend Richard Dawkins, we are all atheists of some sort, for who among us still worships Jupiter? (20) Hitchens thunders against theocracy as the original totalitarianism, the tyranny exerted against anti-theists who take on a more active stance of opposition against the despots determined still alive among us who exact punishment against thought-crime. (23)
Hitchens pithily and typically sums up the struggle: "the main enemy we face is 'faith-based.'" (29)

Among the entries, I perked up with Thomas Hobbes' examination of the four causes for the "natural seed" of religion. (45) David Hume's extended foray into the contradictory elements of a deity demanding both praise and terror serves as an early examination of the force that compels our fealty. (61) Then the poet Shelley tackles both the argument by design (89), and the fact that even two centuries ago, "men of genius and science" championed atheism (94) attests to this venerable legacy.

Leslie Stephens' name may be less familiar than the three mentioned above, but he responds to Cardinal Newman's appeal to conscience for belief in God with the plain admission that such an appeal "has no force for anyone who, like most men, does not share his intuitions." (155) Anatole France wittily captures the conundrum at Lourdes, full of crutches "in token of a cure." His friend points "to these trophies of the sick-room and hospital ward" to whisper: "One wooden leg would be more to the point." (168) Emma Goldman reasons how in every age, God has been forced to adopt himself to human affairs, a petty meddler rather than an eternal, awesome force for goodness. (186)

Bertrand Russell earns his allotted span in this anthology. He encourages the dogmatic reader to read papers of opposing views, good advice still. "If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason to think as you do. (275) Carl Sagan wonders logically why God is so visible in the biblical world while so obscure in ours. (318) Dawkins conjures up Mt .Improbable, where the seeker can climb by a gentler back slope towards rational discovery rather than a leap up the front precipice, as a way towards clarity. (387)

Victor Stenger's chapter 37 on cosmic evidence is lengthy but rewarding, as he dismantles arguments. A zero energy universe, rather than a miracle, is exactly its "mean energy density" for one appearing "from an initial state of zero energy, within a small quantum uncertainty" initially necessary. (314) While John Updike's rambling conversation in his novel Roger's Version puzzled me at first, the explanation of how quantum fluctuations or tunnels via Higgs Bosons sparked what became time and space prepared the way helpfully for the learned astronomical discussions by scientists in later pages.

Ibn Warraq's in-depth exegeses from Why I Am Not a Muslim similarly fill out a need here to get away from a steady attack on the Jewish and Christian versions of an Almighty. He also debates the principle within Islam of supersession, a series of revelations urging departure from earlier forms of belief to higher and then single ones. "If there is a natural evolution from polytheism to monotheism, then is there not a natural development from monotheism to atheism? is monotheism doomed to be superseded by a higher form of belief, that is, atheism--via agnosticism, perhaps?" (396) Wise words.

H.L. Mencken, for those contemplating pagan or pantheistic retreats, lists outmoded powers above and below to illustrate the dead voices of forgotten or outmoded forces once called upon by millions of our ancestors. Michael Shermer's discussion of the legend of the Wandering Jew seems superfluous, but Sam Harris' "In the Shadow of God" states a fundamental warning. "Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence--that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants--he becomes capable of anything." (457) A twist on the Grand Inquisitor of The Brothers Karamazov (the latter tale not here) as to God and morality?

Back to Dawkins, he notes how the Bible fails as a "truly independent guide to moral conduct," serving instead as a "Rorshach test" where people pick out what reflects their own morals and interests. (341) The God in this volume fails, he adds, to ultimately care about his creation. (336) Steven Weinberg seconds this. "But the God of birds and trees would have to be also the God of birth defects and cancer." (372) Salman Rushdie reflects: "Only the stories of 'dead' religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you." (381) A.C. Grayling denies that an atheist should label him or herself as one. "The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is 'naturalist,' denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature's laws." (475) This spins back to Hitchens' start.

That is, he broadens the other contested term. "Religion is, after all, more than the belief in a supreme being. It is the cult of that supreme being and the belief that his or her wishes have been made known or can be determined." (loc. 393) This may be reductionist for scholars of the philosophy of religion. I aver so, but Hitchens tries to focus on the disputes among atheists over an "intervening" divinity. Men and women will continue, he avers, to create such. "We are unlikely to cease making gods or inventing ceremonies to please them for as long as we are afraid of death, or of the dark, and for as long as we persist in self-centeredness." (loc. 385) One last reminder, from the introduction again. "If anything proves that religion is not just man-made but masculine-made, it is the incessant repetition of rules and taboos governing the sexual life." (loc, 418) Hitchens, for all the scattered evidence marshaled here untidely at times against the presence of such a querulous God, endures as a presence. (Amazon US 1/5/17)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Fate of my fathers

Last year, I remarked to a FB thread that the Irish might have suffered trauma in surviving An Gorta Mór. A recent study verified this epigenetic transfer to children born to parents who had endured the Holocaust, after all. I was mocked immediately as if I was trying to support white privilege, and as if I was discounting somehow the experience of the Middle Passage and black slavery and abuse.

Not sure how all this equates in the victimhood sweepstakes, but it wasn't my intent to enter that contest. I merely wondered, as Séan de Fréine did half a century ago in his little book The Great Silence, how the impact of the sudden and dramatic loss of one's identity rooted in language, culture, and family might be shattered so its effects were transferred by mores and habits from those effected.

In de Fréine's account, he focused on the nationalist legacy, but I recall hearing Garrett O'Connor speak of this in nature as well as nurture terms twenty-odd years ago. His chapter on this topic in Tom Hayden's The Great Famine collection of essays suggested from O'Connor's treatment of we Irish how this might have come down 150 years later, and left imprints on dynamics and complexes.

My ancestral region has lost 80% of its population since that mass death and emigration crippled its economy, its coping mechanisms, and its people's prospects. How might that have emanated in my forebears? How, huddled in a farmhouse rebuilt around 1851, might they have dealt with this--or not?

Psychoanalyst Michael O'Loughlin explores this, and he lists some of the research advanced. It's no longer apparently a fringe idea, despite my FB deniers. As genetics progresses, so do explanations.

Now, I write this short entry far from my expertise, but I raise it anew as I happened to see one pundit fear how this upsetting behavior undergone by millions now might echo down the DNA so to speak. The shakeup among half the nation in terms of their expectations for the election leaves many around me self-medicating with more pot, more booze, and more indulgences. I lack this reaction, but it may be indeed my inherited detachment from emotion from my own clan, who knows? An useful article in Discover Magazine in March 2013 elaborates discoveries of Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf.

Apparently I am vindicated. While my own family history is left for discretion off this day's reflections, I can see evidence for supporting patterns I have inherited from stress and separation very early on. While this does not ease my challenges directly, it does offer me explanations for why I am at least in part--is it nature and nurture?-- the way I perplexingly am, facing a topsy-turvy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Brian Eno on 2016/17

This post lacks a stable URL so I reproduce it in full for your contemplation. Happy New Year 2017. 


The consensus among most of my friends seems to be that 2016 was a terrible year, and the beginning of a long decline into something we don’t even want to imagine.

2016 was indeed a pretty rough year, but I wonder if it’s the end - not the beginning - of a long decline. Or at least the beginning of the end….for I think we’ve been in decline for about 40 years, enduring a slow process of de-civilisation, but not really quite noticing it until now. I’m reminded of that thing about the frog placed in a pan of slowly heating water…

This decline includes the transition from secure employment to precarious employment, the destruction of unions and the shrinkage of workers’ rights, zero hour contracts, the dismantling of local government, a health service falling apart, an underfunded education system ruled by meaningless exam results and league tables, the increasingly acceptable stigmatisation of immigrants, knee-jerk nationalism, and the concentration of prejudice enabled by social media and the internet.

This process of decivilisation grew out of an ideology which sneered at social generosity and championed a sort of righteous selfishness. (Thatcher: “Poverty is a personality defect”. Ayn Rand: “Altruism is evil”). The emphasis on unrestrained individualism has had two effects: the creation of a huge amount of wealth, and the funnelling of it into fewer and fewer hands. Right now the 62 richest people in the world are as wealthy as the bottom half of its population combined. The Thatcher/Reagan fantasy that all this wealth would ‘trickle down’ and enrich everybody else simply hasn’t transpired. In fact the reverse has happened: the real wages of most people have been in decline for at least two decades, while at the same time their prospects - and the prospects for their children - look dimmer and dimmer. No wonder people are angry, and turning away from business-as-usual government for solutions. When governments pay most attention to whoever has most money, the huge wealth inequalities we now see make a mockery of the idea of democracy. As George Monbiot said: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the purse is mightier than the pen”.

Last year people started waking up to this. A lot of them, in their anger, grabbed the nearest Trump-like object and hit the Establishment over the head with it. But those were just the most conspicuous, media-tasty awakenings. Meanwhile there’s been a quieter but equally powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan.

This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted - some semblance of truth in reporting, for example - can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones.

Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to.

There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.

- Brian