Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ag smaoineamh faoi Prág

Bím ag léamh an h-úrscéal nua Ceardlann le Diabhail le Jáchym Topol le deánaí (mo leirmheas anseo). Is scríbhneoir na Seice é. Bhí maith liom a bhun-úrscéal ach go raibh an-deacair: Cathair Deirfiúr Airgead (mo leirmheas anseo).

Ar ndóigh, is cuimhne liom faoi ag dul go Prág i 2003 agus 2005. Chuaigh mo teaghlach ár chéile an chéad uair ansin. Fuair muid árasán deas ar thuas na Cearnach Sean-Baile ar an tstráid stairiúl ach callánach Husova ag trasna na teach tabhairne ársa U Zlateho Tygra (An Tíogair Órga).

An dara huair, d'fhán mé in óstan simplí ag thuas ar lár. Shíl mé go caitheamh sé a bheith ar an tstráid Dlouha. Is é mo chuimhne is fearr leat ag breathnú mír na clár leis cartún níos álainn (sa tSeicis nádúrtha) ar an teilifís sa stocaireacht nuair ag fanacht ar an seomra bricfeasta a oscailte.

Ní raibh mé ar ais go dtí Husova nó an ceantar thuas ar feadh mo chuairt chugainn. Theastaigh uaim ag feiceáil áiteannaí difriúlaí. Chuaigh mé go dtí músaeim go leor. D'ith mé dinnear Mháraco fós.

Ar mo aréir ina n-aonar, chuala mé Don Giovanni ina ionad céann áit a raibh sé don chéad uair i 1787. Shiúil mé ar ais go dti an t-óstan go tapa mar fearthainne a rith sé ar mo clár as an céoldrama. Ní raibh mé a fháil beagnách caillte mar a mo chéad chuirt ar an stráideannaí dorcha foiceannaí méanoiseannaí in aice láimhe chomh an grianghraf seo suas, mar sin féin.

Thinking about Prague

I've been reading a novel The Devil's Workshop (my review here) by Jáchym Topol lately. He's a Czech writer. I liked his first novel but it was very difficult: City Sister Silver (my review here).

Of course, there came to mind going to Prague in 2003 and 2005. My family together went the first time there. We got a nice flat south of the Old Town Square on historic but noisy Husova street across from the ancient U Zlateho Tygra (The Golden Tiger) pub. 

The second time, I stayed in a simple hotel north of the center. I think that it must have been on Dlouha Street. My favorite memory is watching a bit of a very lovely cartoon (in Czech naturally) on the lobby t.v. while waiting for the breakfast room to open. 

I did not want to go back to Husova or the district southwards during my next visit. I wanted to see different places. I went to many museums. I ate Moroccan food too.

On my last night alone, I heard, Don Giovanni in the same place where it was first performed in 1787. I walked back to the hotel rapidly as it rained on my program from the opera. I did not get a little lost as on my first visit on the dark winding medieval streets nearby as in this photograph above, all the same.

(Grianghraf le/Photo ina Sean-Baile in aice leis Eaglais Tyn/in Old Town near Tyn Church, by Kakna's Prague.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

John A. Long's "The Dawn of the Deed": Book Review

The title lured me in, and the subtitle, "The Prehistoric Origins of Sex," seduced me. But, as with an an alluring dress that cloaks a bony body, when I received this title to review, I opened the package to find a surprise. Two dinosaurs, their offending parts with a black bar across their midsections, graced the cover. Opening the book, I learned that it dealt not with the pecadillos of our randy ancestors, nor the lurid rites gleaned from centuries of anthropological adventure, but that it detailed the genitals and mating mechanisms of arthopods, tetrapods, and most of all placoderms--extinct armored fishes.

John A. Long, an Australian paleontologist and naturalist, tells his data-rich tale with verve and aplomb. He integrates his scientific study of his team's "2008 hunt for the world's oldest vertebrate willy" with a diligent account of insect, reptile, amphibian, fish, dinosaur, mammal, primate and, eventually, human stimulation, copulation, and fertilization. His discovery of the earliest evidence for an embryo placed within a female by copulation, rather than egg-laying or another method, shows that 380 million years ago, a bony cartilage tube extended from a male placoderm fish. This, inserted into the large cloacal cavity of the female, then grew more. After four to five minutes, the team calculates, the seminal transfer took place; up to three hundred embryos, Long reminds us, have been found in a later pregnant female equivalent. This safe womb enabled protection of the young from predators.

The ancient results, a fossilized umbilical cord wrapped around an embryonic fish, proved that seminal transfer had occurred successfully for the first time excavated within the body of an organism. Verifying internal fertilization, given the rarity of tissue and the predominance of calcified remains of such evidence, presented a challenge for Long and his colleagues. This documented leap to sexual intercourse began the pattern followed by 99.9% of creatures (larger than bacteria) today. 

While reproduction sexually began between 1.78 and 1.68 million years ago, it took time to evolve into more sophisticated methods such as the placoderm demonstrates. Pleasure may be implied if not proven until studies of later animals, birds, and insects--which Long gleefully recounts. Two reasons favor sex. It allows a quicker adaptation to environmental changes, and it diminishes "accumulation of deleterious mutations" in an organism's genes.

Chapters in this brief, well-illustrated book tend to begin with current creatures and then regress to their primitive forebears, discussing their sexual proclivities and apparatus. Long keeps the pace lively, but as in the "willy" phrase, such casual prose can be followed, two paragraphs later, by a few sentences embedding "elongated basysterygium," "holocephalans," "arthrodires," "ptyctodontids," and "phyllolepid placoderms" in turn. So, this narrative, despite the publisher's enticing promotion, may daunt those picking this up for a casual evening's entertainment.

Well-chosen colophons and citations from Darwin, T.S. Eliot, and Shelley mingle alongside nods to Bukowski, Warhol, and Zappa. Even The Bloodhound Gang (lyric ranked #49 on the list of 100 worst, Long duly annotates) gets a shout-out. Long shows how his researchers also furthered pop culture by the first animated paleo-porn-- to explain how if not the birds and the bees than the how the placoderms did it.

When it comes to us, however, I felt let down. Long summarizes in bite-size paragraphs intriguing findings on human sexuality near the conclusion of his presentation. We find out that the "clasper" anchoring a shark's penis inside its mate led in the building blocks of "Hox" genes to our own bifurcated legs and equipment, but the casual way that this crowning moment of evolutionary solidarity, traceable down to us after millions of years, is transmitted leaves it anticlimactic.

"Sperm competition" among what scholars diplomatically classify as "extra-pair" copulations (i.e., in which at least one of the partners report action on the side at the same time) presents another related issue that needed more elaboration. Similarly, Long in latter sections lacks transitions and connections to previous chapters asserting what has been verified about primate sex, and why or why not these findings can help humans figure out our own sexual proclivities. For all its inherent interest, these portions purportedly tying us back to creatures languish, sections as cut, pasted, and left alone.

As a come-on, this may stuff the stocking of a scientifically minded loved one neatly. For the less paleologically or biologically obsessed, it may resemble a blind date. Long labors long in a lifetime of love with fossil fish to capture the appeal of his research, but despite the catchy cosmetics, this covers up a more sober, less giddy romp among our soaring, cawing, grunting, or soggy ancestors. (PopMatters 12-4-12 + Amazon US)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jim Holt's "Why Does the World Exist?": Book Review

After reviewing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" a few days ago, and feeling that despite their erudition, they did not satisfy my lifelong curiosity about this Big Question, I awaited Jim Holt's take on Hawking and other thinkers. I am on the wait list for the more cosmologically inclined Lawrence Krauss with his new "A Universe Out of Nothing," but as a decidedly lay reader who finds astronomy and philosophy both challenging to wrap my head around, I figured Holt would prove an assured guide for this "existential detective story".

I used to enjoy his end-page science columns in the late, lively academic magazine "Lingua Franca." Here, as in his reviews and journalism, Holt takes a brisk clip to survey the earlier attempts at figuring out what Leibniz asked and what for the teenaged Holt Heidegger repeated as the "ultimate 'why' question". Leibniz' answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident "well, we have to exist, don't we?" retort. Andrei Linde's scheme of a clever hacker from another universe suggests one scenario. Out of a hundredth-thousandth of a gram of matter, a universe can be concocted, and balloon outward.

Mixing his personal quest with philosophers, mathematicians, clergy, theologians, physicists, and some combinations of these, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present. Interludes flash by, and epistolary ones follow. The pace of this will be daunting, but as with his readership for the "New York Times" and the "New York Review of Books" as well as "Lingua Franca," Holt expects his readers to be smart, able to grasp the history of ideas and quotations left in French. It's that kind of book, one that in a soundbite, pull-quote age will still find its audience, undoubtedly a self-selecting small one able to take on serious intellectual investigation along with Holt, as he relates the material to the demise of his dog and the death of his mother, and Sartre's Café de Flore hangout. It moves rapidly (lots of quick citations and parentheses and rapid transitions) for all its citations (endnotes if no bibliography) and rewards reflection, even if it will not solve mysteries.

Roger Penrose and colleague Hawking assert the Big Bang's singularity, out of quantum fluctuations, as astrophysicists such as Krauss appear to back up, as the logical if not "determined" beginning to the universe, without any other cause. Holt opens up another response via Penrose and physicists open to finding a reasonable pattern in creation--that we can examine the universe to solve its own reason, so we need not accept God's uncaused cause or the self-created but purposeless absurdity of our existence as the polarized choices.

But, we seem programmed, as Adolf Grunbaum shows, to seek that the "why" presupposes a teleological goal set in motion from the start of something even if out of nothing: what Mlodinow and Hawking call a "top-down" rather than a cosmologically sophisticated (if maddeningly counter to theologians) "bottom-up" model that explains it all. Platonic forms might construct the universe, Penrose avers. The sheer odds against us, many theologians understandably insist, rule out chance. Richard Swinburne's musings lead him to consider how unlikely God himself is, compared to nothingness. This humbling perspective permeates this challenging representation of some of the world's most intelligent minds facing such perplexity.

I was pleased to find included Matthieu Ricard. I've profited from this French biologist-turned Buddhist monk's collaborations with his father, French political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel ("The Monk and the Philosopher") and with Vietnamese-born astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Tranh ("The Quantum and the Lotus")--see my reviews. Godel, Russell, Anselm, Voltaire, Feynman: Holt's range of reading meets what I'd anticipated. But we also hear from Woody Allen, James Joyce, John Updike, and Gaunilo the Fool.

Do laws themselves require a prime mover, a grand designer? Is "almost nothing" a better rationale, or a diversion from the ultimate question? Holt appears to be frustrated with this evasion, and "nothingness" itself evades our conception, of course.

David Deutsch here defends the multiverse. Mlodinow and Hawking insist in "Grand Design" that M-theory remains the most logical explanation. Holt's examination appears to, as Steven Weinberg's bleaker insistence repeats, to lack a single theory we can apply to unify the universe into a tidy cause-effect solution. Weinberg, as in his own work, finds no teleology suffices, but this refusal to allow for the "why?" of Holt's title may not please those looking for science to answer what remains (as we "discover" the Higgs Boson?) the most nagging of questions. Well, that and life after death. (Amazon US 7-17-12 in slightly altered form. To PopMatters 10-11-12 in a much expanded form, in-depth and more detailed. See also a NYT interview with Holt here)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Stephen Hawking + Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design": Book Review

Noting how Pope John XXI was killed by gravity--the roof of his palace fell in--a few months after he condemned the "heresy" that "nature follows laws" instead of an omnipotent God is a typically bold way these authors favor to contrast the traditional with the progressive view. (loc. 233 e-book) Hawking and Mlodinow emphasize in the second paragraph, unsurprisingly if perhaps rashly, that philosophy is dead. They cheer on what began with the Ionian thinkers who started to investigate what led them beyond a "human-centered" understanding towards what M-theory now hints at may be a "grand design"-- but not necessarily a grand unified theory. I write this a couple of days after the Higgs Boson is said to be verified, and we may be inching closer, 2500 years later, to discoveries anticipated here.

I'm no scientist, but I do enjoy popularizations of cosmology as well as rational vs. theological accounts of the Big Questions. I keep an open mind and I sought out "The Grand Design" to see if I could handle this version--of how progress began and where it's led us--better than the math in "A Brief History of Time," which simplified as it was overwhelmed me. My review sets the main points out and I will convey (if as a layman) how well they are explained.

During chapter two taking you along the history of physics, as to how laws of nature were defined despite the papacy, we learn how those advocating miracles, the suspension of laws, insisted the exceptions to these universal rules. Laplace, removing God from the picture Newton had drawn, formulated "scientific determinism." Cartesian philosophy sought to find out if free will persisted for humans, or whether determinism ruled. The authors side with a neural origin for behavior, not an outside agency such as a divine power. What is less easy to verify is a prediction, given multiples of trillions of variables, however. This combination of confidence and caution again is far from unexpected for a physicist to assert.

Hawking and Mlodinow commence their in-depth advocacy from the concept of determinism, with no miracles or exceptions to the laws of nature. They present how the laws arose and consider if they are the only possible ones. Chapter Three asks "What Is Reality?" "There is no picture- or theory-independent conception of reality." A "model-dependent realism" gives a framework of math-based model and a set of rules to observe. Reality of a model is not the point, but whether a model agrees with observation, our perception of objects. They use the evolution of theories about light to illustrate this.

Chapter Four, "Alternative Histories," enters into quantum mechanics. and the now-familiar co-existence with Newtonian laws. The double-slit experiment works at a sub-atomic level, sure, but it does not have much of an immediate impact on everyday life. Quantum physics by reflecting a "fundamental randomness in nature" allows probabilities "of various futures and pasts" instead of determining them "with certainty." It's shorter than Brian Greene's detailed version in "The Fabric of the Cosmos," but Mlodinow and Hawking feel less convincing than Greene about driving home why this discovery matters so.

Mlodinow's legendary predecessor at Caltech, Richard Feynman, invents a theory of "sum over histories" to show how particles can take all paths at once, if the slits are open. It also shows how Newtonian physics can arise from quantum physics. All possible histories thus construct the probability of an observation. This leads to no single past or history for the universe itself.

Chapter Five applies this concept to everything. Electro-magnetic forces enter. Maxwell's equations that govern the modes of transmission of this message from me to you then open into Einstein's relativity, into gravity and space-time. The challenge a century later comes in how to find field theories: "quantum versions of all the laws of nature." QED's processes via Feynman diagrams assist scientific calculation of how electrons can play off each other with an electromagnetic force. But, "this plague of infinities" can be hard to handle. QCD comes in to help; Grand Unified Theories appear so far not to pan out in tiny details, so a standard ad hoc model's accepted. Supersymmetry and supergravity are posited as scientists try to work around the impasse.

Then, string theory arrives, if in five versions. M-theory may help, but we may be stuck with theories for different versions of reality by "model-dependent realism," and some overlap, as with a Mercator map of regions combined to cover the whole globe in a flat dimension, to use the authors' earlier analogy. M-theory lets us have different (10 to the 500th power) universes with their own laws, "depending on how the internal space is curled."

"Choosing Our Universe" for the sixth chapter looks closer at our origin story, the Big Bang. Creation for cosmologists cognizant of quantum theory cannot match Einstein's general relativity, as the breakdown back into Planck size of the universe just after the Bang must be accepted. Time vanishes then, and only 4-d space existed. (For all the otherwise refreshing lack of formulas, figures of Planck time vs. Planck space would have assisted this necessary distinction of the two states. Oddly, both terms are absent from the glossary.)

Therefore, if time behaves like space, "it removes the age-old objection" to not only a beginning to the universe, but it shows how the laws of science and not a prime mover as God account for the origin. (I am on a long wait list for Lawrence Krauss' 2012 "A Universe from Nothing," which may take a similar rationale, although many religious believers assert that this thinking merely replaces one Mover with a set of Moving Laws, and leaves the question unresolved if the origin remains a "spontaneous" event.) Hawking and Mlodinow take this on with less vigor than I expected, frankly, and remain content to attest that given the lack of a "single definite history" for the universe within Feynman's limitless array of probable multiverses, the replacement of a "bottom-up" model with a "probability amplitude" suffices as a simpler (!) explanation.

They segue 3/4 of the book through into a "top-down" provocative application of the Feynman sum and the denial of independent existences outside of observation as "We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us" without sufficiently elaborating the multiverse approach as better than a single history one for cosmology. I get their point, but it seems to lack emphasis. Teasing out the "probability amplitude," they argue that each universe has different laws and values with allowance for "all possible internal spaces." Fine, if our universal laws "are not uniquely determined," but this seems strangely anticlimactic, if no GUT is to be found after all. Logic may insist we aren't so special after all, and we have no grand gift awaiting us to unwrap.

"The Apparent Miracle" as a seventh chapter places us in a "Goldilocks zone" where temperatures are "just right." Mlodinow and Hawking discuss the weak and strong anthropic principles, therefore, that attempt to elucidate our serendipity. What they call "fine-tuning coincidences" in physical laws may never convince believers who assume a divine plan. But as astrophysicists, the authors remain content to replace "providential design" with a calm if understated (despite the hostility with which many receive its arguments) insistence that if cosmology lifts boundaries and allows multiverses, then this only underlines how many such solar systems exist by the billions out there. We aren't that special after all.

The final chapter asks if we must rely on M-theory for the Grand Design. Why is there something and not nothing, what is the meaning of our existence, and why do we have this set of laws and not another? The laws of nature don't miraculously ring out and satisfy these enduring queries. Hawking and Mlodinow predictably deny the Big Questions at least in the answers preferred by Aquinas. They refuse to invoke divine beings. We're trapped in our mental concepts. They use "The Game of Life" logical set of laws to determine a 2-d universe invented by John Conway in 1970 to demonstrate an analogous situation. "Your reality depends on the model you employ."

They leap from this game, which gains considerable commentary, back into our world (which created that game!) to show how universal laws (in our universe) spring out of "spontaneous creation" when gravity's followed back to its origins as a shaper of space-time, and as a balance of positive and negative energy of matter. M-theory remains as the consistent model of "the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity." It's as close as Einstein sought to get to a unified theory--I am not sure if it's "grand." Abstract logic leads back to the world we see. That's it. This explanation's itself very compressed, however, and raced ahead of me even if it was articulated in basic English.

I wanted more, but it appears this is all I'll get. M-theory is asserted as the best explanation; multiverses exist where laws will explain what our universe cannot for it's our universe, after all. Can profundity can exist alongside simplicity? (Amazon US 7-6-2012)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lawrence Krauss' "A Universe From Nothing": Book Review

I waited eight months for this from the library: was it worth it? Krauss handles the physics for poets approach with expected results--I assume if Ian McEwan provides the top-of-title cover blurb and Richard Dawkins the pithy and profound afterward, that Krauss aims at a general audience. It's how we came to know about the Big Bang, to "weigh the mass of the visible universe" against what we know now as nearly 30% dark matter and 70% dark energy, and how cosmic background radiation proves the expansion of our universe, along what appear to be "flat" directions for light, rather than a closed or curved model. 

Featuring early on Fr. Georges Lemaitre--whose theories helped establish the Big Bang, along with Einstein, Paul Dirac, and the familiar Copenhagen crowd who discovered quantum physics provides a broader survey than some other books. Krauss takes on the anthropic principle that we are in the universe we were meant to appreciate, and he accepts the limits of what we can know even as he insists that there's no way other than the Big Bang, the flat universe (at least for now), and verifiable particle physics to document the truth. 

Despite his subtitle "Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing," rather than ask "why" as that implies a purpose, we need to accept "how" we and all came into being. Nothingness itself, as Aristotle and Aquinas could not realize, contains potential for power, for energy, for creation. As with snowflakes and rainbows, so with all of energy and matter, seen or unseen, it's not a miracle. Like it or not, this is the universe we're faced with. 

He presents more thoroughly why the hot and cold spots found in background radiation helped measure the age of the universe to 13.72 billion years, and why the lumps resulted in "quantum nothingness" (98) full of "virtual particles" (69) that thanks to inflation inherent in quantum physics--this verifiable to one part in a billion!--created all we see and are. No First Cause needed. Out of random fluctuations, we inhabit the visible universe. 

This universe, ironically, now exists in a perfect phase for analysis. It's expanded enough to measure, but not enough to lose sight of the other galaxies. Eventually, this will change, and they all will recede, leaving far-future astrophysicists unable to outrun light, and to conjecture that they live--as was thought a century ago by earthlings--in a stable galaxy that spontaneously appeared, surrounded by blackness. In the last forty pages, Krauss' emotion infuses the science movingly. 

He concludes with a nod to the decay into negative energy of this universe. It will collapse into itself again, he conjectures, inward to a point returning to the "quantum haze" (180) which birthed us. Understandably, Dawkins reiterates in a short afterword the "devastating" end to our existential tale.

But, Krauss as a popularizer now and then fumbles. A cameo by Steven Pinker with an analogy to a God bound or not by condoning rape and murder appears off-topic, and even there, why not cite Scripture when Yahweh called for such violence against His enemies? This would have tied together the idea Krauss considers of whether or not the laws of nature are bound by themselves. 

The concept Adam Riess found of a "cosmic jerk" that accounts for about five billion years ago the shift from matter accelerating to empty space for energy density to accelerate and not decelerate needed elaboration. Krauss slips off into Feynman sums without sufficient guidance for a lay reader, whereas Hawking + Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" explained this better. Similarly, Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" delved far more deeply into string theory, understandably. (For a philosophical twist, see Jim Holt's new "Why Does the World Exist?" These titles reviewed by me July 2012.) Even if Krauss suspects some of M-theory, not even labeling it here appears odd indeed. 

I expected more than an aside to branes, but Brian Clegg's "Before the Big Bang" is excellent on this, and the Big Splat: a conjecture Krauss never mentions. He does discuss multiverses but lacks enthusiasm for this model; I get the impression he finds it a cop-out, lacking (inevitably, perhaps?) the proof of his Big Bang and open universe design. John Gribben's elegant study "In Search of the Multiverse" is recommended for those needing to know more.

The book's compact, far more than, say, Greene, and this may or may not prove as a recommendation depending on how much you want to learn. As a layman, I liked best its attention--and the addition of true feeling--to the end of the universe. Although I would have appreciated a reading list, and some charts or illustrations unevenly elucidated his sometimes recondite arguments, I did learn more about cosmic expansion and our universal fate. For, Krauss ends this short book sadly. If string theory holds, our universe being unstable by nature, it will fade away and blink out as suddenly as it sparked.

(Amazon US 8-19-12; P.S. I think this is the most complete of the versions of a 2009 video that convinced Krauss to put its gist into the first 2/3 of his book, before he peers into the future of the universe for his final stretch.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos": Book Review

I wanted to applaud Michael Pritchard's avuncular, assured audiobook reading. I listened to all 19 discs, more than a day and a night's total recital, over a long summer commute. A poet-friend of mine who shared my hankering for a "physics for poets" version of cosmology recommended this. I figured hearing it would prevent me from flipping pages too rapidly when daunting concepts arose.

So, hearing this massive book word by word helped my slower pace. I had to rewind it often, as of course many ideas are challenging to the most brilliant of minds. That's the whole message of this book, beginning with the history of how we've figured out our place in the universe, and then how we have come to progress from Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics, string-theory, and multiverses as models of refinement and amazement.

I note that the book has lots of line-drawings. I may therefore have missed out on some refinement of the principles as conveyed elegantly by an affable Greene--he shares a welcome sense of humor with his colleague in popularizing such theories, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. (See my review of Dion Graham's perky reading of Tyson's "Death by Black Hole" from earlier this year, as I tackled that soon after "Fabric of the Cosmos.")

All the same, this compendium cannot be faulted. I learned more from its analysis of quantum entanglement and multiple dimensions than Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's primer on M-theory, "The Grand Design" (see my July 2012 review). For depth combined with insight, despite or because of the effort this scholar takes to elaborate at such length on such complex material, as a foray into deep space and in-depth investigation, Greene prepared the way well for me. I recommend this, as a deservedly popular introduction, and as a fine tribute to a masterful audiobook presentation. (A short one, after 274 earlier reviews 7-31-12 on Amazon US, the first mentioning the audiobook.)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thomas Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge": Book Review

The older Pynchon gets, the more enjoyable his sprawling, sly tales. Whether his later, affable fiction, or his earlier, hermetic epics, they reward attention and invite immersion (if you quail, visit the annotated and informative Pynchon wiki). V. and Gravity's Rainbow established him as one of America's boldest writers. I found his 1963 debut more scintillating, if reliably ambiguous, than that ominous, obsessive follow-up a decade later conjuring up WWII. Gravity's heady heft and conspiratorial content (blended with satire, snark, and strangeness) appears nevertheless embedded, as our canonical postmodern monolith.

By Vineland (1990), Pynchon eased into a quirky, indulgent look back at the Reagan years (and before) in the decline of the Northern California counterculture. Pynchon appeared happier to let a less imposing narrative reveal his rambling characters roaming American fringes. Mason & Dixon (1997) questioned historical veracity in its colonial, mannered pastiche of a past frontier. My weeks immersed in the vast saga of anarchism and adventure a conniving century ago as Against the Day (2006) and my weekend racing through the genial, if addled, potheaded detective yarn (convoluted and shaggy-dog as ever) Inherent Vice (2009) generated joy. Not a mood I've have instantly associated with Pynchon from his formidable, labyrinthine plots of encoded lore.

The difference lies in his letting go of such dogged density, and letting chatter spew and float about. Humor jostles the pages of all his fiction, but his recent work, to me, engages affably. It requires concentration, but it flows more accessibly.  Readers who may have put aside or put off Pynchon might begin here, and then drift backwards into his back catalog. He engages our concerns. He combines casual commentary on mores with clever asides about first-person mom-approved shooter games, nasal forensics, IKEA, foot fetishes, and a strip club named Joie de Beavre. He movingly evokes a Jersey landfill and uptown Halloween. His rapid-fire patter playfully taps into how we talk and think, encouraging reflection, as well as reaction. I rarely laugh when reading, but I did here, more than once in these nearly five-hundred pages. This story begins the first day of spring, 2001.

Manhattan during an "Eternal September" season lasting from spring to fall foreshadows what we know follows. Decertified, now rogue, fraud examiner Maxine Tarnow investigates bookkeeping by hashslingrz. Claiming to be a computer security firm, it's a shadowy entity exerting pull over dot.commers. Maxine chats up a few, hustlers for venture capital after the recent start-up downturn. A similar protagonist enlivens Inherent Vice: a gumshoe guides us, an everyday sort pursues corruption.

But Maxine's not the caricature Doc Sportello was. His quest played out as the Manson Family trials shook up Los Angeles, as la-la land shakes off hippie dreams or daze for a charmless, calculating 1970s. Maxine's ambitions to uncover the truth, as with Sportello's, spark the presiding spirit of each cusp of a new decade. Dreamers burst into a scene, eager to improve it. Con artists and charlatans rush past. Cynical tycoons jostle for power. It's a new take on the old threat--the corporate and banker "jocks" push aside the idealistic "nerds"-- akin to what Doc found in his own less than laid back city.

Amidst a divorce from her ex-, Horst, Maxine deals with a breakup as many do. "The past, hey no shit, it's an open invitation to wine abuse." One of the few perks of running her own offbeat enterprise (Tail 'Em and Nail 'Em): she can arrive at the office to open her stash of Pinot E-Grigio. Tipped off by contact Reg Despard about hashslingrz, Maxine jumps at the chance to expose them. Is she afraid? "Not me, paranoia's the garlic in life's kitchen, right, you can never have too much?" Like many characters, not limited to her hapless pal Vryva McElmo (a trademark Pynchonism, these satirical names) from California, Maxine has a tic of raising the inflection of her voice within many sentences.

Pynchon notices East Coast-West Coast markers; after three novels set largely along the Pacific, this move from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley demonstrates his knack at blending regionalisms into his  America, a place nearly but not yet homogenized. Vryva's married to Justin, who met his business partner at Stanford. At the "bleeding edge", they capitalize on a program that erases its entry points in a chain of packets. "No proven use, high-risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with." By the millennium, as in so many boom times, the pioneers have staked the best cyber claims.

These pioneers design "a virtual sanctuary to escape from the many varieties of real world discomfort. A grand-scale model for the afflicted, a destination reachable by virtual midnight express from anyplace with a keyboard." The two creators differ on its direction. "Justin wanted to go back in time, to a California that had never existed, safe, sunny all the time, where in fact the sun never existed unless somebody wanted to see a romantic sunset. Lucas was searching for someplace, you could say, a little darker, where it rains a lot and great silences sweep like wind, holding inside them forces of destruction." The result, named "DeepArcher" twines these twin paths for wired departure.

But, this being not California but New York, old school (as in WASPs, Mossad, Skull & Bones, CIA, and Beltway) associations linger. In one prescient glimpse, TWA Flight 800, blown out of the 1996 sky over Long Island Sound, suggests a currently simmering conspiracy at the nearby Montauk Project. Not all such government schemes are "warm and comforting", where our wish to see bad guys get theirs comes to pass. So warns March Kelleher. Her son-in-law, billionaire Gabriel Ice, runs hashslingrz. She hints to Maxine: "If you were doing something in secret and didn't want the attention, what better way to have it ridiculed and dismissed than bring in a few Californian elements?" I may be accused of tugging on this plot thread since I'm a native Angeleno, but I select this strand out of many--this being a Pynchon pattern--to highlight the skill with which he weaves it.

Naturally, such a mystery means that fewer plot points can be divulged from about halfway into a contemporary version of Bluebeard's Castle. Here the heroine, despite the threat, enters a fortress, by a tunnel into the "terminal moraine". Superficially, urban myths get dismissed, as Cold War vigilance seems a dusty relic. Beneath, servers stretch. Within, servants to a new world order seek control.

"Presently they're linked and slowly descending from wee-hours Manhattan into teeming darkness, leaving the surface-Net crawlers busy overhead slithering link to link, leaving behind the banners and pop-ups and user groups and self-replicating chat rooms." What Maxine and her guides reveal shunts away from the crowds and, as with so much of Pynchon's fiction, near an abyss his protagonists seek.

Space looms, a long way from San Narciso's industrial slums street-numbered in the 80,000's, so far were they in miles from city hall in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). A generation later, Pynchon pursues a last frontier. Maxine races ahead of (or after) tamers who seek to subdivide it and fill it full of conformity. It's "down to where they can begin cruising among co-opted blocks of address space with cyber-thugs guarding the perimeters, spammer operation centers, video games one way or another deemed too violent or offensive or intensely beautiful for the market as currently defined..." Those last modifiers repeat Pynchon's wonder: he shares awe through his pilgrim Maxine. She's one of us.

Maxine's ties to her family and friends, keeping her sane during her pursuit, enrich the compassion in this novel. Pynchon keeps his humor abundant, but he tempers it, in this look back at our very recent national past, with serious contemplation of what we do when we log on. Ernie, her father, muses how the Internet was, as DARPAnet  during the decade of Ike, "conceived in sin, the worst possible" to keep the U.S. military armed after a nuclear attack. He predicts how soon cellphones will tighten this surveillance leash around us, as "the rubes'll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future".

9/11 comes and goes, with neither irony nor sentimentality. Jingoism accompanies fear as cowed Americans beg for protection. The media's Cold War context christens the devastation as "Ground Zero". Coverage controls popular reaction. "The purpose is to get people cranked up a certain way. Cranked up, scared, and helpless." Regression to the mean occurs: the security state looms. (Nobody calls the date "9/11" in this novel.) Maxine reflects how "11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood." Arabic Leet, a keyboard language enabling data transfer to the Emirates, appears early. This hint of collusion lures us down the trail Maxine blazes. She leaves our "meatworld" behind for an interior dimension: partly mapped and coded, partly codeless. A void stretches beyond her own imagination or, perhaps, Pynchon's own.

Bleeding Edge floats around. Pynchon likes to fill his pages with imaginary songs. Conversations yammer on, as busy meals out fill Maxine's Filofax. Her modus operandi finds her schmoozing and prodding many fellow noshers, if less exaggerated than typical Pynchon figures, still recognizably odd, or plain annoying. Reminiscent of Don DeLillo's reactions to national security and personal insecurity, the scenes when Maxine enters DeepArcher display best its promising premise. "It should be just one more teen-sociopath video game, except it's not a shooter, so far anyway, there's no story line, no details about the destination, no manual to read, no cheat list. Does anybody get extra lives? Does anybody even get this one?" Open-source expanses beckon, as if William Gibson's wired, arid, and wary realms re-boot for a feisty novice. Who turns out to be a Jewish mother-in-the-making rather than a cyberpunk. Then, the pace shifts as bodies blink out. True to the genre, false flags and red herrings distract Maxine. The ending (as common with Pynchon) emits not a bang but a whisper. 

For fifty years, Pynchon's tales tell us, sinister or suspect specters manipulate our "meatworld". Reflect on the enigmatic titular emanations of V., the enduring postal service of Lot 49, the secret plants enabling the sinister arcs of Gravity's Rainbow, the downfall of utopia as engineered in Vineland, the shifty anachronisms chronicled in Mason & Dixon, the hidden tentacles of Against the Day, and the foggy notions controlling Inherent Vice. Bleeding Edge represents another (if partial) exposure of occluded, relentless, corroding forces constructing and constricting our virtual reality. (As above to PopMatters 9-17-13; in shorter, rewritten form 9-17-13 to Amazon US)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ag foghlaim faoi Galicia

Faoi deireadh, bím ag léamh mír faoi na Gailíse sa Spáinn. Deirtear finscéal go raibh ndúiche Cheilteach fadó. Ach, níl mé cinnte mar scoláire, ar an drochuair.

Mar sin féin, thósaigh mé fuarthas ar iosacht leabhar leictreoneach le David Hoffman. Is treoirleabhar aísiúil é. Scriobh sé go soiléir agus gonta.

Tá mé ag gheofar ar iosacht leabhar eile leis filiochta aistrithe ó Gailísis go Béarla-- agus roinnt Gaeilge. Beidh mé sé ag thaispeáint ar bealach spraoiúil a foghlaim beag as Gaeilge agus Gailísis a chéile. Is cosúil Portaingéilis go fírinne.

Is maith liom an suíomh seo ar an nghréasán Turgalicia freisin. Tá tú in ann ag dul ag imeall an réigiún agus ag fheicéail an tír féin. Tá bealaí taistil eagsulaí ann.

Go minic, d'fhéadhfadh go mbeadh mearbhall nuair a lorg de reir "Galicia" i mBéarla. Tá sé freisin réigiún arsa sa Pholainn. Bhí conái Giúdaigh ann, go dtí go chéid seo caite. Fada ó shín, rinne Ceiltigh ansin.

Learning about Galicia

Lately, I'm reading a bit about Galicia in Spain. It's said in legend that it was a Celtic heartland long ago. But, I'm not sure as a scholar, unfortunately. 

All the same, I started with borrowing an electronic book by David Hoffman. It's a useful guidebook. It's written clearly and concisely.

I am borrowing another book about poetry translated from Galician to English--and some Irish.  It will show me a fun way to learn a little in Irish and Galician together. It's like Portuguese, certainly.

I like this site on the web Turgalicia too. You are able to go about and the region and to see the land itself. There's various itineraries there.

Often, there may be confusion when searching regarding "Galicia" in English. It's also an ancient region in Poland. Jews lived there, until the last century. Long ago, Celts did.

(Photo/Grianghraf: Cristina Pato leis bratach na Gailíse agus píopaí/with a flag of Galicia and pipes.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Death by Black Hole": Book Review

After a hundred reviews, what can mine add? I've finished Dion Graham's audiobook version. Having seen Neil deGrasse Tyson on "The Colbert Report" promoting his newest book last week, he has the ability to charm audiences with his own wit and knowledge. I wondered why he did not read this audiobook, but Graham's delivery shares its author's talents at getting across to listeners the often challenging (how can it not be?) material of daunting astrophysics--for the rest of us.

As previous comments tend to focus on the printed version, and only a few allude to the audiobook, I'll elaborate a bit. I'd finished the admirable Michael Pritchard's patrician, assured recital of a book nearly twice this length, 19 discs of Brian Greene's 2004 "The Fabric of the Cosmos," recommended to me by a friend who has an interest in astronomy and who's a poet. She admired Greene's ability to use metaphor to simplify complexity. While Greene's book is far more ambitious than Tyson's, both translate advanced research and correct what we think we know about science as it tackles the mysteries to make them less so all around--and especially above--us. Their delight in the stars reminded me of childhood wonder.

Similarly, I found Tyson's approach understandable for myself, who has read far more poetry than physics. Tyson's cleverness, as others note, in this essay collection of 42 articles lightly edited and arranged as the preface explains, tends to delight many and make a few weary of his repeated anecdotes and often, I admit, one-liners and asides, half-great half-groaners.

Tyson prefers a conversational, casual approach. It can ramble, but part of this style can be attributed or blamed on its origins as magazine columns.A few jokes repeat and a few anecdotes do too. Still, anyone who can sum up the vagaries of what's "between our legs" as "an entertainment complex built next to a sewage system" (this book does cover a lot of ground, this analogy in the end section about God vs. Science!) deserves acclaim. Unfortunately, the audiobook skipped at one of its best parts: when Tyson "corrects" movie mistakes about science.

Graham's delivery is entertaining, too, but he does mispronounce some words repeatedly. Yet, in his likable tones and steady but somewhat wry pitch, he is well suited for the role, overall. There's a dash of the vaudeville comedian or talk-show performer in Tyson's style, and this has its advantages when getting across funny or silly moments, which feature far less in more serious elucidations such as Greene's! However, I found I could follow both astronomers with interest, on my commute. "Death by Black Hole" did drift, as with Greene (where I expected it) into spectography and the history of science more than I'd anticipated, but Tyson argues that radio astronomy and spectral studies merit as much popularization as do the more familiar imagery of the (doctored for our eyes) Hubble Space Telescope's observations.

Some [Amazon US] reviewers were upset by the polemical shift in the closing section, but given my own classroom experience, I found Tyson's advocacy of not a "God in the gaps" via "intelligent design" as sensible. He rises to rhetorical flourishes, rather than one-liners, in a conclusion advocating a fearless, rational, and logical approach refusing to give over to a Creator what we humans cannot figure out on our own. I predict, after reading or hearing this, most of his audience will agree. (Amazon US 3-2-2012)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Umberto Eco's "Inventing the Enemy": Book Review

Eco explains "occasional writings" as its proper subtitle: he had no interest on the topics herein at first, but being commissioned or encouraged to contribute these pieces as essays, he reflected more on them out of necessity. Over the past decade, so they emerged to entertain himself and his audience as "an exercise in baroque rhetoric." Like that style, its ornamentation may intrigue some and lull others.

Any reader coming to Eco not for the first time expects erudition and range. His medievalism engages us in many entries. The titular one considers how his native Italy lacks enemies for the past sixty years, and how this undermines a national identity. So, enemies if not real must be invented, against which a people test their self-worth. Eco uses an array of classical, medieval, and fascist examples to prove this point, as well as Shakespeare, Sartre, and Orwell. He conveys with well-chosen excerpts, as throughout this collection, the lively spirit of rhetorical and intellectual excess.

"Absolute and Relative" takes on the present pope as well as Nicholas of Cusa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Lenin and Aquinas. These enliven the more bookish analyses of logic he applies. Fire in "The Beauty of the Flame" uses its metaphorical themes, with a dutiful citation from Bachelard before going back to hellfire, heavenly light, alchemy, luminosity, destruction, ekpyrosis, and even Joycean epiphany. This exemplifies Eco's range efficiently.

So does "Treasure Hunting," allowing him another romp into medieval relics displayed all over the Christian world. As with fellow scholar Piero Camporesi, a wonderfully eclectic investigator of odd lore, Umberto Eco in his tribute to this "gourmet of lists" as well as tastes and smells finds a fitting subject. Same for the stolid but offbeat "No Embyros in Paradise," to find what Thomas Aquinas thinks (as opposed to Catholic orthodoxy today!) about stem cells, embryos, abortion, and "the so-called right to life." Eco finds, no surprise, that the Angelic Doctor differed from the modern Church in when ensoulment entered the fetus.

Victor Hugo's "sublime excess" and that of the gothic (the original version!) novel slots Eco into the grotesque adroitly. Even if I lacked knowledge (as often in this wide-ranging book) the source texts quoted often at wonderful length and astute choice, Eco's pleasure is infectious. "Censorship and Silence" takes a more serious turn, if Italy's "television showgirls" can pass as that via the term "valina" or "veline." He moves this discussion into current fears of censorship, and the ethical problem of how in a media-drenched world "to return to silence."

"Imaginary Astronomies" benefits by its charts and maps; how the earth and sky were charted by our ancestors segues into Jules Verne and science fiction and finally "true history." A "spurious review" titled "Living by Proverbs" follows as the first of three pieces of "real entertainment." The next on "sentimental digressions on early times" expounds (tediously at times for my tastes) on "anagnorisis" or "the change from ignorance to knowledge." These two felt fustier if perhaps intentionally so, more a drawing-room exercise by a wit. But, they preface my favorite, hauntingly and disorientingly composed of seventeen real excerpts from 1920-30s Italian reviews of James Joyce's "Ulysses" by fascist critics.

The penultimate essay looks at why utopia is lost and its islands never found, in visual and textual illustrations. The last, from December 2010, combines two articles on WikiLeaks as a "false scandal"--one that becomes public but which was known widely and whispered about in private long before. While subsequent events perhaps show the power of the authorities bent on taking its mastermind down, Eco leaves us with another smart remark: "technology moves like a crayfish, in other words, backwards." That is, compromised spies and duplicitous diplomats may have to retreat from electronic databases and networked communiques to the days of "meetings in the steam room of a Turkish bath, or messages left in the alcove by some Mata Hari."

Richard Dixon translates these assorted essays with vigor. It's fun to learn so much from 222 fast-paced, smart, and thoughtful pages. Intellectuals can have a blast too, and Umberto Eco in his lectures and discussions teaches us how to look fresh at the world of the past as well as the foibles that literature and history and philosophy (and theology and alchemy and astronomy) dutifully investigate, satirize, and pontificate upon. (Amazon US 7/23/12)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Jáchym Topol's "The Devil's Workshop": Book Review

Jáchym Topol deserves your attention. Through a punk-inspired, postmodern energy erupting from his Czech homeland against its oppressors, he conveys verve, intellect, and, beneath the trot of his clipped or galloping prose, tenderness: if in Central European precedent rationed out to each according to his or her own needs. From a dissident family, a poet and a reporter for a samizdat newspaper, he helped his nation topple totalitarianism, finally doing so in 1989 by the gentle but insistent Velvet Revolution.

Topol's debut fiction conjured up diabolical vignettes memorably. He started as a rock lyricist in the 1980s, so his affinity for potent imagery shows. Out of five hundred pages of closely printed, dreamlike, and dense scenes, Mr. Novak and his heap of bones at Auschwitz loomed largest in his hallucinatory, bewildering 1994 trilogy City Sister Silver--translated ably by Alex Zucker in 2000. Even in the original language, that first novel confounded native speakers with its disjointed assault. It lashed out at materialism.

Attacking both state socialism and market capitalism, expressing the rage of those growing up in one system and suddenly under another, its urgency reminded me of Joyce and Pynchon more than his Prague predecessor Kafka. Think of the linguistic upheaval of A Clockwork Orange and the demotic fury of Trainspotting: in both film and fiction. (You can sample its first chapter translated here.) Topol returns to English audiences for his fifth novel (it appeared in Czech in 2009), with his much more matter-of-fact, unnamed narrator's voice channeled again through his Brooklyn translator, who captures Topol's conversational, insistent tone intimately. Zucker dedicates the work to the author, "my brother from another mother".

This short novel extends Topol's political direction adroitly, and more calmly. It starts in the teller's native town of Terezín, constructed in 1780 under Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who named its formidable redbrick, stolid fortress after his mother. (While the narrator's father claims Maria-Theresa, the last of the Habsburg rulers, "founded" the massive installation, that attribution is open to qualification; she died the year it was built.) Under the Nazis, this became the "city for the Jews"-- to show off their supposedly humane treatment to the Red Cross. After Soviet "liberation", Lebo, himself born in the imposing camp just prior to its downfall, survives as its guardian, to protect the humbler garrison town against obliteration by the post-Soviet government, who compromises by preserving only the camp. Lebo and those who've grown up there, many children of the camp survivors, rally. "Lebo didn't want to see Terezín reduced to a Monument and a few educational trails. None of us wanted that."

A commune rises, a loose camp of its own. (As Zucker notes in an afterword, this anticipates Occupy and other movements: he translated this in the fall of 2011 in New York City.) This attracts "bunk seekers", the second and third generations who search in the camps and bleak villages for traces of their forebears who had outlasted the genocide, or more often, that vastly larger contingent: those who had died. Haunted, their descendants must ask: "If it happened here, can it happen again?"

When I visited Terezín a decade ago, my then-young sons came along. Just before I read this novel, they told me that their most vivid memory was a placard at the real camp's ticket booth portal for ice cream. The juxtaposition of a place of endless deprivation and a symbol of quick satisfaction matched my own recollection; its interiors had been nearly emptied, after a flood of the River Vltava, and the emptiness of the cells and the lack of signs, furniture, or even other visitors added to its silent impact.

In The Devil's Workshop, a similar lack of specificity or detail leaves the foreign visitor to the camp vicariously in these pages filling in imagined scenes, as the equivalent gap in interpretation remains. The narrator does not play the role of a tour guide. This may stem from the familiarity of this site to Czechs; it may deepen the detached nature of the narrator's recollections about refusing to play to sentiment, as well as Topol's preference for efficient, even dry, reporting rather than effusions.

Concerning love, pursued by the narrator on fortress slopes where he once herded goats and now takes up with Sara, a Swedish granddaughter of a child transported away to freedom from the camp: "a roll in the grass was simple enough. And that's all there is to say about it." Levity or gush comes rarely to those raised here and those who peer into the shadows, one senses. Some sober pilgrims, descendants of the Czech patriots and Jewish masses kept and killed there, turn communal dwellers. "They knew they weren't in a medieval castle, but in an abyss where the world had been torn apart, a place without mercy or compassion, where anything was possible."

The narrator--back from prison--and his comrades aid Lebo by appealing to the conscience or the bank accounts of the wealthy to sustain Terezín. They amass valuable contacts. For a while, this grassroots experiment in self-sufficiency flourishes: goods are sold to tourists and ingenuity brings in cash. Sara designs a popular t-shirt, altering a certain Czech writer's image with a gallows and a stencil. "Theresienstadt: If Franz Kafka hadn't died, they would have killed him here." (This is as lighthearted as the suitably titled The Devil's Workshop gets.) By such enterprise, and by restoring the mentally ill and recuperating the bunk seekers, the modest commune succeeds.

But, its commitment cannot fend off the jealousy of bureaucrats. Scandals around Lebo are concocted by an envious press. The narrator flees, soon after meeting an older arrival at the campsite: Alex from Belarus, often called Europe's last dictatorship. Alex wants to turn the clout of Terezín's online support network against the despots of his own post-Soviet homeland, still fighting amongst itself.

Sneaking away as Terezín succumbs to "cops and doctors all over the place on account of a couple of grannies" (shades of Occupy), the narrator escapes via Prague and flies to Minsk. There, Belarusians clash as the president declares martial law. In Khatyn, Alex, leading a team of seekers more feral and less coddled than those who could afford to frequent Terezín, unearths catacombs packed with corpses. Matuška, who had ferried the narrator to safety across borders, urges him to do the math.

Stalin's henchmen murdered ninety percent of her nation's intellectuals. Czechoslovakia and Belarus have equal populations, but over ten times as many of the latter people were killed by the Nazis--and their Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian collaborators. Alex informs the narrator: "The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them. That's why you're here." Publicity and donors will enable Khatyn to outdraw tourists to Auschwitz. 

The battle over who controls the remains of four million Belarusians, what such numbers mean to a divided and shamed country where some assisted and some resisted, and who grabs their share of the tourist trade and international assistance elicits Topol's understated but firm pressure as he explores a touchy subject. This is one subject that all Belarus can agree on, and besides the income, this may achieve what a wounded nation needs for the living: the ability to finally let the dead rest in peace.

But first, their stories must be recorded, lest we forget. Topol dramatizes this in the latter half of the novel. Under the determined vision of Kagan, who as a boy made it through the ghetto and the mass grave, and Alex and their team of excavators in a land where all are bunk seekers, we see the results. Alex constructs what will be a museum unlike any other, out of a "Jurassic Park of horror".

I leave the reader to uncover the resolution. Topol integrates real accounts of barbarity skillfully into the quick snatches of testimony, and to his credit for this difficult theme, he does not revel in the re-creation of suffering. Yet, this novel proves grim. The narrator stays fresh in Zucker's translation through his everyday language and Everyman persona. But he must scurry about the settings the author designs for him as if fated. Topol turns an approachable character into a portentous archetype. 

As with his debut fiction, Topol wants to merge ideas and symbols into his perspective on the current Central and Eastern European predicament, dealing with the aftermath of of pain and deprivation. In a literary tale as short as this, while the results are more accessible for first time readers of his work, the meanings threaten to loom too large for it to carry. As the narrator finds: "soldiers come into the village and kill, houses and people burn--repeating over and over" the terrible stories then and now.

(Amazon US 8-18-13 in shorter form. As above 8/27/13 to PopMatters. See my brief take on City Sister Silver 6-19-03 at Amazon US)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Terry Eagleton's "Marx": Book Review

In 53 pages of actual text, this tiny booklet takes on an enormous topic. Terry Eagleton starts off and dives in without hesitation or background, for that matter. He expects the reader to be familiar with the basics of Marx's theory, and he divides these compressed chapters into philosophy, anthropology, history, and politics. Eagleton packs a hefty load of thought-provoking applications of a humanist Marx into this pocket-sized introduction, yet not that, more a small monograph, for Routledge's series "The Great Philosophies."

I'm unsure who may be the ideal reader for this ambitious condensation. I have some familiarity but far from in-depth expertise with the formidable Marx; Eagleton wisely selects early on enticing excerpts from primary texts to illustrate Marx's insistence that ideology based in material conditions must emerge from the ability of people to create a space in which to flourish which enables thought and reflection. This space cannot be gained until material advances occur. Therefore, radical change must happen, and Eagleton insists that such progress emerges more from a benign, "somewhat anarchistic" commonwealth of a cooperative band of "free associations," rather than the institutional tyranny many associate with the state socialism imposed and rejected since Marx himself.

As the thinker's "final vision," I wonder if his interpreter gives enough scope to allow this explanation the room it needs to expand. Eagleton crams so much in such small space that this booklet's more an inspirational text than an analysis. He does not direct us to any secondary material and the firsthand citations don't leave a reader with much of a context for their disparate concerns over a few decades.

Still, the paraphrasing stays lively, no small achievement.
"In trying to understand myself and my condition, I can never remain quite identical with myself, since the self which is doing the understanding as well as the self understood, are now different from what they were before. And if I wanted to understand all this, then just the same process would set in. It is rather like trying to jump on one's own shadow or yank oneself up by one's hair. And since such knowledge also moves people to change their condition in a practical way, it becomes itself a kind of social or political force, part of the material situation it examines rather than a mere 'reflection' of or upon it. It is knowledge as an historical event rather than an abstract speculation, in which knowing that is no longer clearly separable than knowing how." (4) 
That is only part of the second paragraph of the book, to exemplify the concentrated effort filling this study of the "superabundance" that creativity unleashes when materially essential goods and needs find satisfaction.

Eagleton continues in the philosophy section to expand this concept, and he warns that "[w]hen philosophy becomes ideology, it tends to distract men and women from historical concepts by insisting on the primacy of the spiritual, or by offering to resolve these conflicts at a higher, imaginary level."(14) His anthropological section looks into Marx's grounding of the theory of labor in the human body from where social life emerges: he notes difficulties with this action-oriented, bodily-centered philosophy, and where we draw the line between individual and communal selves.

He cites a wonderful passage from the early writings to show how when capital employs labor and not the other way around, capital as "dead" assumes a "vampiric power" (32) from stored labor that a miser then hoards, and how this withholding accelerates alienation when one holds on to money and goods rather than spending one's earnings on theater, dancing, music, love, books, food, and fun. It's a fresh look at Marx and a valuable perspective against reification of the "dead" embodied in capital.

Eagleton realizes Marx is not primarily a philosopher, so the critic sums up historical materialism. While Eagleton locates in class definitions problems as we try to define "workers" in Marxist terms. the appeal of "this audacious, imaginative theory" remains, even as Eagleton ends this chapter with more questions that he, we, or Marx can answer.

The conclusion takes on politics. Eagleton agrees that Marx meant respect to remain inherent as a basis for the proletariat's rise to power, and Eagleton sympathizes with a reading of Marx open more to self-fulfillment as leisure would increase as energy "to cultivate our personalities in whatever way we choose" would result in the communal communist vision. He shifts in the closing paragraph too rapidly towards what a "[g]enuine socialist democracy" (55) would bring as to an improvement in civic participation on the "purely abstract citizens of liberal representative democracy," but the elided point appears to be that people count for Marx more as individuals while their collective action matters. It's a bit too compacted down for understanding unless you read between the lines, but this is the approach taken by a book that may keep stimulating more questions than solutions about Marx. (Amazon 6-6-12)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Paul Kriwaczek's "In Search of Zarathustra": Book Review

Well-written and intricately assembled, this tale by the author, who as a child left Vienna for England as a Czech Jewish refugee, integrates his story with other encounters and exiles when ideologies and itineraries generate the force of a concept made real. He hunts down the impacts of a faith preaching one god, conflict between good and evil, a judgement day, an afterlife of the damned and saved, and a messianic savior. This ancient faith, nearly dead in its Iranian homeland and surviving somewhat among the Parsis who emigrated to India in the 8th-10th centuries to evade Islamic imposition, fascinates Kriwaczek.

From the Oxus River and the Hindu Kush, to Hadrian's Wall and Mithras' temple in the heart of the City of London, from the last fortress of the Albigensians in the Pyrenees to the destruction wrought by Alexander the Great of Persia, from Roman legionaries to a poignant portrayal of Nietzsche: Kriwaczek connects events and places to the spread of Zoroaster's prophetic preaching.

The chronology of his 2003 work, accumulating incidents and travels over many years, does not follow conventional linear narration. One shortcoming, perhaps due to the seemingly eternal strife in many of the regions Kriwaczek roams, is that you meet far too few Zoroastrians. While a remnant survives in intolerant Iran, and while they may fear a foreigner's intrusion, I wondered why he did not balance this with a stay among the Parsis, or followers who attempt to perpetuate their culture abroad; one wants more, given that converts to today's Zoroastrianism are forbidden.

It's instead an engaging history of ideas combined with a brisk journey to places where some connection however tenuous with Zoroastrianism might be argued. I found this travelogue engaging; the asides by Kriwaczek reveal a fresh perspective on familiar topics. "Belief always takes on the face of its environment." (18) A desert faith's landscape evokes severity amidst sparseness; dales, vales, and seas welcome spirits and gods into a richer terrain for the imagination of those at ease. 

The contrasting emphasis of Christian "evidence" vs. such a mythic rather than "literal" memory encourages the convert to Christ. Kriwaczek reasons that the appeal of the Gospel lay in its insistence that Jesus lived recently among us. A "gospel truth" may have swayed many away from paganism or Judaism due to this relevance. He also notes how a lunar calendar fits a nomadic culture and the pilgrim's wanderings, while a solar one matches the imperatives of tillage and settlement. (168)

Another ancient impact shows as Satan grows from prosecutor or antagonist to policemen or "agent provocateur"; "Evil" enters via the Assyrian conquest of Judea and Babylonian exile which enables Zoroastrian suppositions to filter into the Tanakh as it gets written down. (198-199) This leads to another insight. Oral tradition gets inscribed, Kriwaczek reminds us, only when crisis comes. (207)

Ezra for the Bible, the Talmud for the teachings after the final destructions of the Temple and the Jewish nation, and an orthodox reaction that fixed the version of the Almighty, theology, and the afterlife as known but not seen: this characterizes the approach of monotheisms. (207-209). The Qur'an shared this conception. The fratricide following the Prophet's demise impelled its recording.

Finally, the problem of evil and its persistence sparked different monotheistic responses Kriwaczek attributes to each major variety. Jews blamed themselves. Christians agreed but added that all of Adam's progeny inherited this flaw. Muslims wait for the afterlife's recompense for their theodicy.

These religions unwittingly pass on core teachings traced (if in too brief a fashion at the end of this narrative on pg. 228) to Zoroaster and the followers of Mani and magi. Good and Evil as archetypal foes, "named angels," the Devil, a binary otherworld, and a messianic deliverance at the world's end define the persistence of a faith small in size today but enduring in ideas. (Amazon US 6-30-13)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Douglas Murray's "Islamophilia": Book Review

Douglas Murray offers a brief but certainly timely overview of the problem with Western responses to Islam. Fearful of vitriol not to mention violence when anyone objects to the "religion of peace" being credited for a suicide bombing, an atrocity, or a backwards call for suppressing human rights, the reaction by the media, academia, publishers, celebrities, filmmakers, politicians, and even strident anti-religious dissidents in Murray's jaundiced but humanist perspective reveals "kid gloves" applied. Inconsistently and maddening, this reaction to Islamic action infuriates Murray, a veteran British journalist well-placed to dissect the follies of his Fleet Street peers as well as many prominent voices who lavish praise on an anti-humanist faith as fellow Westerners.

Their hypocrisy puzzles Murray. The likes of Justin Bieber on a March 2013 tour can pose as rebels in Western Europe but capitulate when they play in an Islamic nation. Similarly, Richard Dawkins excoriates the Jewish and Christian beliefs but soft-pedals when it comes to Islam. The embarrassing retractions of his colleague the outspoken Christopher Hitchens gain detailed coverage here, as do the honest complaints about the Qur'an originally uttered by Sebastian Faulks. Murray shows in the latter case how a quick but craven early warning system as a "pre-emptive backlash" signals a new kind of blowback protection as jittery journalists seek to shield themselves and publishers against the fear, unspoken as it may lurk, of violent retribution let alone boycotts and multicultural cant directed against anyone daring to criticize a book's statements attributed to a desert prophet's utterances from nearly fourteen centuries ago.

Melanie Phillips, the publisher of this in her emBooks imprint, earned her own share of opprobrium for her Londonistan a few years ago, and Murray as a like-minded observer incorporates current events, attesting to the speed with which this enterprise covers this topic. The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London, is reviewed, as is the election of Pope Francis I and the Benghazi attacks last autumn. One slight drawback is that with so many events to integrate into such a short book, this stimulates the reader to want much more insight and elaboration.

But, Islamophilia serves a purpose. It calls for equal, consistent, and principled treatment for Islam the same as afforded other beliefs which certainly earn their share of harsh treatment in the name of liberal critique and rational truth. Prominent critics as authors, creators, and speakers often condemn Israeli policies in Palestine, or the Crusades, inquisitions, and recent abuses by Christians, but when it comes to Islam they obediently turn cringing and fawning in the name of tolerance, diversity, and integration. They call for humanism and freedom from oppression, but they bow to Muslim sensibilities as somehow these are mightily offended in ways that apparently demand capitulation. The free pass given Islamic audiences, for Murray, reveals the double standard that leads to a gushing love and fulsome praise for ideas and practices that if another faith or ideology promoted them would receive justified contempt and demands for reform by Western, secular progressives.

In the sense of fair play, then, Douglas Murray calls our attention to this disparity. With wit, wryness, and acuity, Murray shows the West a face it may shrink from. As Murray notes from an Irish friend turned English resident, the truer test of integration and acceptance is when a outsider, newcomer, or immigrant finds him or herself having to put up with the same [*^$#] as everyone else in a diverse society. (Amazon US 6-18-13)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot": Book Review

"No lord but God" echoes as still relevant among religious radicals, or reactionaries. That was the Zealot party's battle cry. An Iranian immigrant, Reza Aslan as a new Californian briefly left behind his Shia heritage for a teen stint as a born-again Christian. Now a professor of religion at UC Riverside, and long interested in ecumenical as well as jihadist studies, Aslan freshly times his lively look at Jesus. He mixes scholarship with social media; as a Muslim and a CEO of a studio covering Middle Eastern issues and the diaspora, he shows awareness of how to package a very familiar subject in attention-getting ways. N.B.: If you come to this review ready to attack Aslan before reading the book or my last paragraph, kindly reconsider, as this careful study deserves a patient reading; my already long review elides much. I emphasize that that nearly a third of Zealot is endnoted; Aslan, a UCSB Ph.D. in the sociology of religion, has done his homework in two decades of meticulous investigation. Here's my summation.

At least since Ernest Renan sparked controversy with his 1863 life trying to make Jesus more human by making him less Jewish, so as to be more "Aryan" Christian, learned biographers seek to understand a Jesus making sense to today's rational, contextual, and text-based mindset. The "higher criticism" of the mid-19th century popularized (more in seminars than seminaries) this. Aslan emphasizes a rebel alongside the two "thieves" really assassin-revolutionaries ("lestai") crucified: a trio condemned for resisting the Roman empire and its Jewish collaborators. Reminding us that the Sicarii were "daggermen," he places Jesus within a cabal closer to today's insurgents in this same region than with honey-voiced peacemakers, or wistful redeemers with flowing locks and fair or dark eyes that follow you across a room. What follows is my paraphrasing of Aslan's brisk re-reading.

While this version of the Son of God as warrior has been preceded by liberation theology with a Galilean upstart rallying peasants and workers to an uprising, Aslan in presenting a vibrant, tense depiction for today appears to want to wake us up out of complacency, vividly. His appended annotations support his interpretation but this scholarship is subtle, to opt for verve. For instance, the narrative proper starts not with a manger scene or Annunciation, but a well-paced informative depiction of the Temple, ending with the assassination of High Priest Jonathan in 56 CE by a zealot.

The Zealot Party did not exist until a generation after the death of Jesus; Aslan after taking us forward to show their revolt and defeat (Masada as the last stand) moves backwards then (not sure why this provides the book's structure, but he keeps this often-told tale quite entertaining, precise, and provocative, certainly its best feature) to the Gospel narratives. He cautions readers who expect the historical Jesus to match the mythic Christ; he explains the backdating of all new testaments about Jesus functioning as an heroic tale so that even those in the know or closer to the real events that may have supported the Church's revisionism would understand. As these Christian scriptures are not meant as eyewitness accounts but fulfillment of prophetic "truth," this literary activity makes whatever can be extracted out of the accounts (and those which fill in the story outside the canon) tendentious. Rather than cherry-pick chapter and verse (although I suppose any biographer of Jesus or biblical critic may fall into this occupational hazard), Aslan strives to frame his arguments 'in situ.' (Again, I anticipate disputes may arise from those who do not ponder his endnotes within their own context, or recite rote objections or quibbles without the academic training of Aslan and colleagues.)

He tries admirably for an accessible prose style, not to mention keeping his narrative free of academic contention, while integrating many ancient sources smoothly and modern scholarship tacitly. Aslan argues for a "Fourth Philosophy" (i.e., after Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) zealot-friendly Jesus. "Give back" what is Caesar's by linguistic study becomes the telling phrase, and this is not "render unto" the imperial powers in submission by the downtrodden Jewish nation, but a defiant in your face sort of response to that tricky question. As a defiant Jew, Jesus is shown as telling his disciples in guarded analogies and curious parables his messianic "secret" when he would rule his homeland, for these "aspirations" persist as the "singular fact" that led to his crucifixion, with "The King of the Jews" posted above him not as a taunt but as was Roman custom, the reason for his conviction.

The Kingdom of God challenged the Temple authorities. He detested the scribes as well as moneychangers; quislings like Caiaphas in league with Pilate (revealed as a ruthless ruler, not the hesitant caricature) represent the Caesar whose imposition of taxes and servitude rankles Jesus and his careful group of chosen apostles. He asks them who people say he is but cautions them to keep quiet. Aslan interprets this as subterfuge until Jesus can come to Jerusalem to take on his opponents. Until then, as an "itinerant exorcist and miracle worker," the real difference of this purported carpenter (that steady line of work is so doubtful in mud-brick Nazareth it's likely apprentice Jesus and his brothers had to labor to rebuild the resort city of Sepphoris): he offered his magic for free.

Rather than a "utopian fantasy," the Kingdom of God "vindicates the poor and oppressed. It is a chilling new reality in which God's wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful." While some parse turning the other cheek or loving one's enemies as assurances of pacifism, Aslan rejects this. He reminds readers (unlike Renan's work) that Jesus is a Jew, and has the back of his own people, as any faithful Jew would in occupied Palestine as in defeated Judea or ancient Israel. "He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of the messiah understood: God's sovereignty could not be established except through force." John the Baptist and other rebels set this in motion.

The curious title "the Son of Man" Aslan shows as part of the necessary secret. Jesus promotes this as a sort of overt identity to cover the messianic title that his followers bestow upon him. "This man is the messiah" as confirmed by early hearers of his message betrays the tension: this equates (in my phrasing) to a deadly terrorist threat today spoken against those in charge. Sedition=death.

Novelistic touches, as in the high priest's assassination or the prayers in Gethsemane, reveal Aslan's talent for enlivening with careful detail the greatest story ever told over and over for two millennia. Why Jesus when arrested stays largely silent seems logical: three years of a ministry bent "on destruction of the present order and the removal of every single person who stands now in judgement of him" speaks for itself. Aslan reasons that later Christians glossed over much of the radical context he extracts as to the rebellious nature of Jesus as fractious Jew before he was elevated to Christ for all Gentiles. If you remain curious as to how the passages he must select have been judged by scholars as more trustworthy than others, this appears embedded in his appended research but submerged in the main body of narrative. (I have an e-galley proof to rely on; at 70% Aslan's afterword and annotated endnotes begin, to document his range of scholarship, nearly a third of the entire text under review.)

He does often show how "patently fictitious" certain iconic sections are. As with the "trial" offered by Pilate to the rabble, often Mark and later writers (aimed at certain audiences) distance themselves safely from any sympathy with the rebels in the wake of the destruction of Herod's Temple. Such back-dating must always remain foremost in mind by any educated reader of the Christian scriptures.

This revision for non-Jewish readers meant the Gospels had to be sanitized of "revolutionary zeal": Jesus had to be recast (in each succeeding gospel in more outlandish form) as peacemaker and the Romans as free of what now the Jews were given full blame for: his death. Caiaphas proves the heavy; Pilate plays his pawn. In "passion narratives," for "liturgical purposes," a ritual sequence of events arises that early Christians can re-enact. The end is a given: Jesus as crucified messiah. Aslan strips accretions off and looks at the crucifixion for sedition, but then jumps ahead to the first martyr.

Stephen, as imagined soon after Jesus' death, learns his resurrection is attested as confirmation of him as the messiah. But this does not jibe with Judaism, "awaiting a messiah who triumphs and lives." Yet, as Stephen does not live in Jerusalem, is not a scribe or scholar, and so does not know the prophecies that Jesus' followers reinterpret, Aslan figures "he was the perfect audience" for a new pitch "being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they preached it." 33-35 CE, Acts reimagines Jesus' trial (while repeatedly misappropriating Jewish scripture) as Stephen's speech to his persecutors before he is commemorated as the first one to die for his savior. He makes the speech recasting the resurrected, messianic "god-man" in otherworldly, apolitical fashion: blasphemy to the Jews. Then the stones fly.

For Aslan, this marks the end of the historical Jesus and the start of the Christian cult: Jesus as God.  Nobody who knew Jesus (don't trust names titling Bible books) wrote anything. Illiterate apostles, while Jesus' family waits for his return, hunkered down rather than evangelize as Paul did: this limited who defined Jesus' message. Greek-speaking Jews and then non-Jews in the diaspora wanted not a "revolutionary zealot" but "a Romanized demigod" who preferred to stay celestial. The veil of the Temple rent, direct access to God's Son ended any need for Jewish ritual or Torah-true teachings.

Yet, why did Jesus persist among his followers as the accepted messiah, when rival claimants did not? Aslan credits "fervor." A true messiah could not die by Mosaic Law. So, "a stumbling block to the Jews" as Paul notes let alone a contradiction, return from the dead had to be claimed so as to establish a risen Christ's victory. Verifications "according to the scriptures" ensue: "they are carefully crafted rebuttals to an argument that is taking place offscreen." Earthly rule faded; heavenly rule rose.

Diaspora Jews relying on Greek were more open to arguments that appealed by metaphor and symbol beyond the Hebrew-based, less sophisticated community in Jerusalem of Jesus' family and followers. After Stephen's death, intriguingly, the Hellenized community was sent away, and they increased the ranks among urbane, Greek-literate Jews who would be the first to be called Christians in Antioch. Rather than fulfilling the Law, Jesus did away with it. National concerns of reforming the priesthood in Jerusalem did not matter compared to the doing away with the Temple ritual entirely, and then incorporating the Gentiles within a missionary movement for non-kosher, uncircumcised converts.

There's less concentration in Aslan's survey on the Gospels, for his analysis takes up only about 20% of this book. Zealots for the first 30%, and then halfway on, the post-Resurrection reactions to Jesus. Paul, a repentant Pharisee, claims himself as the first apostle. He justifies his outreach rejecting Torah as "a ministry of death, chiseled in letters on a stone tablet." While Jesus can be held (depending on which verses: refer to endnotes) as upholding the Law, Paul abandons Jewish history. Given Paul's extremism, creating a Christ mattered, not a human Jesus or Roman rule during that violent century.

James differed; Paul dissented. Rival versions of the message angered Paul, and after meetings in 50 and 57 CE with those in Jerusalem, his former enemies, Paul finds trouble. The latter visit is poorly timed, for he is mistaken in the crackdown after Jonathan as a rebel leader of 4,000 Sicarii, "the Egyptian." Meanwhile, this chaos leads James' Hebrew sect to anticipate the Second Coming. This unrest leads to Paul being extradited, supposedly under house arrest, to Rome. There, Gentiles listen. Peter seems to have preceded Paul to preach there; both are said to have been killed under Nero in 66.

For James, 62 CE marks his stoning by the Sanhedrin amidst Roman reprisals in Jerusalem. His unjust fate, not that of his brother, is the main focus of Josephus' quick glimpse, the first non-biblical mention of Jesus "the one they call messiah" extant. Aslan reads this as evidence of James' stature (rather than Paul's) as leader of the Jesus movement. Why James gets short shrift may be due to later promotion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, and distrust of dynastic inheritance by the early Church.  Priestly power--expanding by a Christian, Romanizing empire through Constantine and his Rome-dominated council of clerics--fits well into Peter's papal placement as "bishop of Rome." The Nicene Creed set down Jesus always as God, and not as once human, codifying imperious tradition.

Aslan does not editorialize about his presentation. He leaves it up to us to judge the efficacy of such a bold messiah. He expects a mature readership able to handle revisionism and historicity. Certainly any new book examining this most debated of all figures will spark denial or dissent. I leave experts to parse claims advanced in the narrative; suffice to say Aslan's endnotes strive to support what my summation above and his main-text presentation must simplify for clarity. Whatever scholars say, providing this very readable and engaging set of reflections on Jesus, his times, and his impact, Aslan deserves an attentive audience willing to reject tendentious Sunday school tales, for a rigorous study.

(P.S. I reviewed this carefully for Amazon. As Aslan explains: "Anybody who thinks this is an attack on Christianity has not read it." Note sadly this "ad hominem" attack by a Fox News interviewer: she clearly had not read it, nor many on Amazon who attack this. I tried to be fair, but many are closed-minded to a scholar's right to write about religion objectively. 7-16-13 to Amazon US)