Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Book of Dave

by Will Self

I only just noticed the subtitle: "a revelation of the recent past and the distant future" — which pretty well sums up the whole idea of the book, although it doesn't even begin to hint at the complexity of its execution. This book's layers have layers, and those layers have layers too; hierarchy and archaeology are definite themes.

The recent past is the story of Dave, a cab driver in London who's been through a rough divorce. He's got a number of "issues," as pop psychologists like to say, most importantly his estrangement from his son, and he goes pretty crazy for a while, actually spending a short time institutionalized. To explain too much about his episode would possibly give away too much about the plot, but, yes, he does make a book of sorts, as the title indicates.

The distant future is a post-apocalyptic, post-global-warming world in which rising sea levels have made the UK into an archipelago of smaller islands populated by a feudal society of religious oligarchs, land owners, and uneducated villagers. At least, that's what you'll surmise after reading a bit, since the details are left intentionally vague. The religion of these future people has echoes of Christianity (particularly the medieval, Inquisition-y brand) but is based primarily on the worship of Dave, who gave them a book that is more or less their bible.

The restriction of access to knowledge in general, and control of Dave's book in particular, is the linchpin of the social and religious hierarchy, and the Davist belief system is particularly at odds with the pastoral lifestyle and Natural (capital on purpose) intelligence of the residents of a certain very remote island — which also happens to have exclusive access to a highly prized natural resource and is therefore subject to very rigid control by the authorities. Unbeknownst to the islanders (although the reader begins to suspect it very early on), the island is also the cradle of Davism, where the book was found. Being quite remote and having some other local cultural quirks as well, the island is a thorn in the side of the religious power- and knowledge-brokers, a persistent and recalcitrant source of heretical anti-Davist ideas. It might even be the source of a new revelation: further messages from Dave himself might lie hidden in the forbidden, unexplored areas of the island.

The book could be read as a fairly obvious lampooning of organized religions based on alleged divine revelations and holy scriptures, but to the author's credit the book really is more than that. It also grapples with the notions of historicity and personhood, knowledge, experience, faith and reason, love and anger and forgiveness, and the meaning of humanness itself.

A friend of mine who's a major history buff and nonfiction reader once mentioned that he was in the mood to read a bit of fiction, and I instantly recommended The Book of Dave without even doing a full reference interview. It's a challenging book that I'd recommend to anyone intelligent, analytical, and curious. The book is on par with one of my other all-time favorites, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and I am hereby officially putting it in my Top 10!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

by Margaret Atwood

This is a brilliant book, one that could be read multiple times and still thrill the mind, one that I'm actually considering purchasing for my home library. (Which would be a pretty big deal: I've only bought two or three books since I started working at a library; although I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 of the library's books at my home, my personal library of owned books is down to about 30 from a high of several hundred a decade ago.)

Margaret Atwood is a genius, and she's Canadian. Does it get any better? I've only read two other of her books — The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman — but I'm quite confident in calling her a genius after reading this book-length essay considering debt and credit as concepts in the spiritual, psychic, historical, symbolic, literary, fiscal, cosmological, and biological realms. You can tell she's crazy well-read, and it's astonishing how much territory she covers and how many threads she weaves in an actually rather short book. I was a tad worried, however, when I reached the last chapter, in which she conducts a thought experiment that transports Ebenezer Scrooge into modern times; I thought it would be strained and dorky, but it turned out OK.

Debt is on the minds of many in the spring of 2009, but Atwood is here to remind us it isn't just dollars and cents, however captivating and/or tragic and/or sustaining those digits are. Even in a time of financial crisis — or perhaps even more so — it's well worth taking the time to consider the deeper meaning of debt-as-archetype and how deeply embedded it is in the way we live now.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea

by Chelsea Handler

Ooh, I love me some Chelsea! Girlfriend cracks my shit up. And, she's the reason I haven't told the cable company that I'm not getting some channels I'm supposed to get — because if I tell them that, they might realize I'm getting some channels I'm not supposed to get, namely E!, which is how I get to watch Chelsea's show, Chelsea Lately. She has a sharp sense of humor, and her show is a great source for celebrity-type gossip, which she mocks mercilessly. She and I also share an affection for "nuggets," aka midgets.

I first came across this book, and fell in love with the title, before I'd ever seen the show. There was a long waiting list for the book, and in the meantime I discovered my illicit cable channels and discovered the comic brilliance that is Chelsea Lately. When the book finally turned up on hold for me, I was so excited that I jumped it to the top of my to-read list, even though I should have been finishing a different book that was already overdue. I figured I could read it pretty quickly, and boy did I ever; I basically read the entire thing in one afternoon.

Definitely some laugh-out-loud moments, but all in all I was actually kinda disappointed. I think a huge part of Chelsea's charm is in her delivery, so now I'm wishing I'd gotten the audio book instead. It's like that with a lot of authors in the "humorous personal essay" genre, people such as David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell: no matter how funny they are on paper, it'll always be funnier to hear them reading aloud.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Manga, Yaoi, and Sequels — oh my!

Here's one of the things I love about manga: last night I read three books! (Even a really, really good nonfiction book takes a couple of days at least.) Since all three are parts of series-es, two of which I've already written up, I'm going to combine them into one post.

Il Gatto Sul G., vol. 2
by Tooko Miyagi
I wrote about the first volume (here) just a few months ago, even though I'd read it quite some time before. I didn't remember it that well, although I had a vague sense of not liking it too much. But O!M!G! am I glad I decided to read the second one. The story's getting more interesting, a new character has entered the picture, the romantic-erotic tension has been taken up a notch, and the overall tone is a little more serious. Only problem is, now I want to read the third installment, but my library doesn't have it yet, and there's only one library in the UK that has it in the interlibrary loan database. Grrrr.

Boys Be, second season, vol. 14
by Masahiro Itabashi
I've already read several in this series (very short post here) and even watched a couple of DVDs. I enjoyed them, because they're cute and funny, but I wasn't invested in trying to read the whole series. After having volume 14 checked out for a long time, I finally got around to reading it — and what a nice surprise! These mini-stories of teen boy lust and longing are still funny, charming, and mostly innocent, but it may be that the series has gotten more risque as the volume numbers have climbed. Still PG-13, but closer to NC-17 than any of the others I've read.

Hero-Heel, vol. 2
by Makoto Tateno

I haven't actually written up the first one yet — it's among the 50-plus titles on which I'm behind (tee-hee! I typed "behind") — so consider this my review for both. The protagonist is a talented but inexperienced actor on a TV action show sort of in the vein of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Tormented by an unrequited lust for his co-star, he manipulates and blackmails his way into the older man's bed, only to suffer an even more crushing rejection. Thus ends act one. Still obsessed in the next installment, our "hero" begins a tortured, torrid affair with a different actor on the show; meanwhile, his on- and off-screen nemesis seems to be reuniting with an old flame. Just when it looks as if everyone is going to be mature and considerate for once, a sucker-punch ending sets the reader to wondering once again: "who is the hero and who is the heel?"

The author of this series is a manga super-star whose other series include Yellow (which I'm about to start), Ka Shin Fu, and Steal Moon. And, BTW, the Hero-Heel series is not quite pornographic, but it is as explicit as it gets without actually showing genitalia.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Descartes' Bones: a skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason

by Russell Shorto

Wow! Beautiful literary nonfiction about one of my favorite subjects. (See also my posts about The End of Faith and The Closing of the Western Mind; in addition, I haven't written about it, but not too long ago I really enjoyed a DVD lecture series called Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World through Experience and Reason.)

This book is more entertaining than academic, but it's absolutely chock full of facts — no small number of which I've made an effort to commit to memory for trivia-game purposes. It's also remarkably nonjudgmental about the "conflict" to which the title refers. The author takes an objective, journalistic approach, remembering to anticipate and present the counter-arguments, and saves his speculation for a Sherlockian flourish near the end. (And the speculation has to do with the actual fate of the actual bones, not with any grand metaphor or metaphysical conclusion.)

Ultimately, though, the book isn't about faith versus reason, or radical versus moderate Enlightenment philosophy, it's about the way the conflict itself, which results from and at the same time is the very essence of Cartesian dualism — the often misstated and misunderstood "mind-body problem" — how that duality is at the heart of both theological and secular ideas about the world since Descartes, and how the modern world — everything from scientific advances to the globalization of culture, and much more — grew from the philosopher's great quest for a solid foundation on which to build the edifices of knowledge.

Final analysis: highly readable, surprisingly smooth and quick given some of the weighty ideas it explores; short-listed for my nonfiction Top 10, if I ever get around to making such a list.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Falling Boy

by Alison McGhee

I don't know why this isn't a young adult novel. It's the right length, and it's the right kind of story. The protagonist is a teen who uses a wheelchair ever since the accident — you know, the accident he refuses to talk about. He's somewhat estranged from his father and weirdly obsessed with his absent mother, he has a wise-cracking slightly older buddy, and there's even a preternaturally wise and observant little girl who thinks he's a superhero using the wheelchair as a disguise.

Overall rating: meh.

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature

by Steven Pinker

Ahhhh, I finally found the psycholinguistics book I've been looking for! I've read a few other books on language (How Language Works, by David Crystal; and I think the other one was Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler) that were interesting in their own ways, but this was the jackpot.

You might be aware of the idea that language can limit or determine the way we think, that if a language lacks certain concepts or grammatical structures (or has ones another language does not have), the speakers of that language don't or can't have those mental concepts because they don't just speak that language, they actually think in that language too. Classic examples are Amazonian tribes that don't have words for numbers higher than two; North American Indian tribes that lack future tense; and the habitual case in Black American English, sometimes called Ebonics (i.e., He be in the kitchen, meaning he is habitually or often in the kitchen, vs. He [is] in the kitchen, meaning he happens to be in the kitchen at the moment).

At first glance, it's stunningly obvious — just try thinking something that isn't words or at least accompanied by words in your mind — and also staggeringly consequential — no wonder it's so difficult to communicate across cultural barriers! But it's also pretty pointless, in a way. Knowing it doesn't serve any purpose, doesn't free your mind from the prison of language, doesn't help the peoples of the world finally to get along and live in peace. Also, it turns out to be not really true, or at least not true in the way most people understand it.

Pinker turns the idea on its head and shows how analyzing language can reveal things about the way we think. That's where the psycholinguistics and conceptual semantics come in. There's a ton of fascinating information in this book, so I'm not going to try to summarize it. I will say, however, that I found the first two-thirds of the book more interesting; I especially liked the sections discussing grammar vis-à-vis our mental concepts of space and time, as well as the chapter on metaphor. The last two chapters deal with broader issues of pragmatics, taboo words, conversation strategies, etc.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Microcosm: E. coli and the new science of life

by Carl Zimmer

This is the greatest kind of science writing: science-y enough to satisfy the nerd in you, easy enough to be understood by the dunce in you. It will give you an appreciation of the amazing complexity of single-cell organisms, and particularly the fascinating history of E. coli, which has been front and center for most of the advances in biology over the last 50-plus years.

Did you know there are more microbes living in your gut — allowing you to digest and absorb things you couldn't otherwise — than there are cells in the rest of your body? So who's really in charge, where do you end and the bugs begin; talk about being one with the universe!

Another thing that really struck me was the complexity of the E. coli metabolism, a wicked network of alternatives and redundancies that allow thte organism to adapt and survive in harsh and constantly changing conditions. On the face of things, it seems obvious that humans and other "higher order" animals are more complex: we have more parts; we can do more (visible) things; we appear to shape and control our environment; we plan, think, and solve. But looking at a (very simplified) diagram of the E. coli metabolism, it occurred to me that a metabolism is a network, and just as the neural network of the human brain gives us intelligence, the complexity of the E. coli metabolism represents a certain kind of unconscious, cumulative intelligence at the cellular level.

Then again, some strains of E. coli can kill you, or at least put you under house arrest, in a manner of speaking.

Spud, the Madness Continues...

by John van de Ruit

(See my post about the previous book in the series here.)

Man, I freakin' loved the first book in this series. The second one is also quite good, but with some fairly major drawbacks.

I still really love the protagonist, young John "Spud" Milton, but I also found myself getting annoyed with him for not realizing that one of his friends is actually a complete tool whom I, as of the middle of this second book, cannot stand. I don't want to dwell on the why's and what-for's, but I really hope Spud will eventually recognize that this guy is a spoiled-rich-kid narcissistic bully and heroically stand up to him, in the manner of Tom Brown's Schooldays (for the record, I've only seen the movie and haven't read the book).

There are some hopeful signs that Spud himself is maturing, and I'm optimistic that the slight increase in homophobic behavior and post-apartheid racist backlash in the book is more reflective of Spud's growing sensitivity to such things, and of the time period in which the book is set, than it is indicative of what's to come.

On a related note, a friend of mine, who doesn't normally read anything like this at all, stumbled across the first book and really enjoyed it. The third one isn't published yet, and I'll probably have to interlibrary loan it, but I certainly will.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Confessions of a Mask

by Yukio Mishima

I'm not sure how to begin to tell you how gee-dee amazing this book is...but it's going in my Top 10. It's got that literary feeling. You can tell it's capital-letter Great and Classic even as you read it, but it doesn't seem old-fashioned or stuffy, and it isn't boring. It's very emotional, in fact, and it made me cry. It's also quite different from the Western canon of important novels.

Mishima was a renaissance man: poet, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, actor. In post-WWII Japan he was a well-known celebrity and cultural hero. He embraced some aspects of modernity and Western culture, but he also called for a return to traditional samurai-esque values of courage, honor, and independence — the latter being particularly important in the years after Japan's humbling defeat and disarmament. He committed ritual suicide in 1970 during a failed attempt to take over a Japanese military base, an act he had hoped would inspire a coup d'etat and return power to the imperial throne.

Mishima's second novel, published in 1948 when he was 24, Confessions of a Mask is a semi-autobiographical account of a young latent homosexual who conceals his true nature from society. The author's own sexual orientation remains subject to debate, although in some ways it was also an "open secret", as if he were the Jodi Foster of 1940s Japan. Reading the parts of the novel in which the protagonist wrestles with his desires, tries to intellectualize them away, ignores and denies them, gives in to them, it's difficult to imagine all that was written by someone who hadn't felt those feelings himself. (Then again, a lot of people were fooled by J.T. Leroy and other fakesters.) If he were a gay man determined to stay closeted, that could also explain at least part of his attraction to the rigid discipline of military life and bushido.

I also highly recommend the amazing film called Mishima: a life in four chapters.