Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book Comment: Remembering Hypatia

Remembering Hypatia, by Brian Trent, was entertaining and easy to read, but I find it difficult to classify it as historical fiction. It is loosely based on an historical person and historical events, but that is where all semblances of historicity end. Upon finishing this book, it would be a grave error for the reader to assume that his or her understanding of Hypatia, the significance of Alexandria's famed library, or the religious and political currents that were current in the late fourth and early fifth centuries has been enhanced. That's okay. Reading does not always have to be for functional or informational purposes; it is an activity that one should do, whether occasionally or often, just for the sheer joy, pleasure and fun that reading can bring to one's life.

I appreciate this book's focus on an historical woman whose scholarly achievements have received far too little attention through the ages. I'm ashamed to say that I don't recall ever learning about Hypatia, or even hearing or reading her name, until I read Jennifer Hecht's fine book, Doubt (which I highly recommend to all readers who are looking for a book that is both historically sound and a pleasure to read). On the other hand, I disliked the fact that the characters were either Good Guys Wearing White Hats or Bad Guys Wearing Black Hats. I get frustrated, sometimes to the point of rage, when people of a particular faith tradition, and even those of no faith tradition, portray people who don't adhere to their particular beliefs as thoroughly amoral, immoral, opportunistic sleaze bags. Trent's lopsided portraits of his characters filled me with a strong desire to encounter people that seemed less like comic book heroes and more like human beings.

Having read this novelization of Hypatia's life, I may turn my attention to a more scholarly examination next time around. Michael Deakin's book looks like it may be a good place to start.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Book Review: The Philosopher's Apprentice

Author: James Morrow
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-135144-0

Londa Sabachthani is seventeen, brilliant and thoroughly amoral.

Mason Ambrose is a twenty-something philosopher who, on the occasion of his dissertation defense, has recently flushed his promising academic career down the toilet.

Londa’s mother, Edwina, believes that Mason is the perfect candidate to instruct her daughter in moral reasoning and she is willing to pay him handsomely to assume that responsibility.

Mason arrives at Edwina and Londa’s home, located on a lush tropical island, and quickly discovers that this apparent paradise is the setting for some deeply troubling mysteries. Nevertheless, he throws himself into the task of educating Londa via role play. As they work their way through the teachings of Kohlberg, Jesus Christ, the Stoics and others, Londa gradually develops her personal ethical system. She also becomes privy to Mason’s discoveries regarding the family’s secrets. What she learns changes her life and significantly affects her later actions.

Approximately ten years later, Londa is the head of a philanthropic organization that is set to launch an earth-changing charitable initiative. To Mason’s chagrin, she has adopted an end-justifies-the-means ethic by which she defends her plans to boldly commit several illegal acts in the cause of creating a tremendous social good. When her plans go awry, Londa and her mother pay tragic prices for Londa’s ambition.

Morrow’s tale explores a range of ethical theories and issues in an inventive, engaging manner. The dialogs and role plays between Londa and Mason are effective devices for transmitting what would have quickly become dry philosophical content had they been presented less creatively. The plot is filled with surprises that add fascinating, and always relevant, layers of mystery and complexity to the story. The characters are unique, to say the least. Sometimes they arouse the reader’s empathy and sometimes they infuriate the reader, just as real live acquaintances do every day. The story’s greatest weakness is that Edwina’s wealth, ambition and activities make her character seem more like a James Bond villain than a realistic person in a plausible real-world scenario. The story has a strange air of science fiction about it and seems to vacillate between fantasy and a novel set in a recognizable venue that explores familiar moral and social issues. All in all, The Philosopher’s Apprentice defies classification as literature of a particular fiction genre. It is not quite science fiction, it is not quite fantasy, it is not quite a romance novel – it is all of these things and more. It is also a stimulating, thought-provoking book that is worth reading if one enjoys fiction that rises far above the pulp level.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Chloe Liked Olivia A Room of One's Own, published in 1929, is an expansion of two lectures that Virginia Woolf delivered at Newnham and Girton colleges on the topic of women and fiction. Woolf's overarching theme is that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." She supports this assertion by examining the economic and social constraints under which women lived for centuries. In addition to discussing the lives and works of such notable authors as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, Woolf examines the way women were generally portrayed in literature. Woolf's thoughts about this issue were prompted, so she reports, by reading the simple sentence, "Chloe liked Olivia." Woolf goes on to say,
I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.

A little later on, Woolf says,
Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have a good deal of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques - literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.

According to Woolf, not only were women proscribed from writing throughout much of human history - the literary roles they were alloted (by male authors) were rigidly constrained. Off the top of my head, I can think of two current fiction series that feature groups of women or female buddies: Lisa Scottoline highlights a female law firm in several books and James Patterson has a series that features a Women's Murder Club. If you're familiar with other female buddy fiction series (and you probably are), mention them in the comments.

Moving on from women's roles in literature, let's look briefly at women's roles in movies. Specifically, taking my cue from the ideas that Chloe liked Olivia, that Chloe and Olivia were friends who had interests other than romantic intrigue and child-rearing, I want to consider the "buddy movie."

The first buddy movie that I remember in any detail was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I had previously seen some of the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movies on TV reruns, but I can't recall anything about them except that Martin was the straight man and Lewis was the buffoon. In the years since Butch Cassidy hit the screens, I've seen countless other buddy movies, such as 48 Hours, the Lethal Weapon series (I believe there were 4 of them), The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men, The Last Boy Scout and Men in Black (I think there are 2 of these). As you've no doubt noticed, all of these movies feature men. Furthermore, you can probably name many others that I've omitted. As always, you may note them in the comments.

Now, let's look at female buddy movies: Thelma & Louise, Outrageous Fortune, Big Business, Fried Green Tomatoes and, if we're willing to enlarge the circle of buddies from two to three, perhaps 9 to 5, are the only ones that come to mind immediately. Of these, only Thelma & Louise is listed as one of Amazon's 25 Best Buddy Movies. Think about that. 25 movies. 24 of them feature male pairs. The last time I checked, men did not outnumber women 24 to 1. What is going on here? Do Hollywood writers believe that women are not friends with other women? Do they believe that women's friendships with other women are far less interesting than men's friendships with other men? Are moviegoers so uninterested in women that they prefer movies about men to such an outrageous degree? Why? As one who enjoys reading books and viewing movies about both men and women, I'm perplexed by the lack of attention that women continue to receive in film and literature. It's the 21st century! By all means, let's continue exploring the multiple facets of men's lives. But, please, let's also start viewing women in roles other than wives, mothers and jealous lovers. I know for a fact that women make fabulous friends, and I, along with Virginia Woolf, want to read their stories.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Quick Comment: Not the End of the World

Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0-87113-787-9

Steff Kennedy is an unlikely hero for an action thriller. One thing's for sure: he's no James Bond (nor even a Jason Bourne). Which is okay, because the villain in this piece, Rev. Luther St. John, is no Dr. No either. And author Christopher Brookmyre is no Ian Fleming.

I love a good thriller as much as the next person. There are many nights when I go to bed at 2 or 3 a.m. because I can't put down the book in my hands. There are many mornings when I arrive at work bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed because I didn't put down the book in my hands until 2 or 3 a.m. the previous night. Not the End of the World did not live up to the publisher's promise (inscribed on the dust-jacket) that this book would "keep [me] furiously turning its pages." In fact, it took me nearly a week to plow through it, reading perhaps 75-80 pages at a time before finally calling it quits for the night.

What's wrong with this book? The plot for one thing. It reads like something that was inspired by some of the lesser James Bond films: a lunatic Christian evangelist schemes to bring America to God by causing a tidal wave to engulf Los Angeles and its environs at a time of his choosing. (Okay, this isn't the plot of Licence to Kill, but that Bond film does feature a villainous evangelist.) This dastardly plot is foiled, after some twists and turns, by an unlikely team comprised of a photographer, a porn star and a policeman. Maybe it would work on film - where it could be enhanced by special effects and beautiful people (I'm talking lots of effects and the most beautiful people on the planet) - but it misses the mark, badly, on paper.

What's wrong with this book? The characters for one thing. The villains are all religious kooks. The villains' disciples are all kooky religious dupes. The heroes are all atheists whose experiences with religion have been unremittingly negative. The primary villain, Rev. St. John - surprise, surprise - was raised by his sexually dysfunctional mother. The secondary hero, or heroine (is that term still acceptable?), porn star Madeleine Witherson, was - surprise, surprise - sexually abused by her father, who is - surprise, surprise - a hypocritical Republican in the United States Senate. And, just in case you haven't guessed it already, the hypocritical Republican Senator is a good friend of the right-wing religious fanatic villain, who is, in turn, a supporter of the Republican Senator. Good God! Brookmyre compounds his sin of religious stereotyping with that of political stereotyping! Did I miss Wal-Mart's three-for-one special on cardboard characters? Brookmyre obviously didn't.

I haven't read any other books by Brookmyre and, based on my experience with this one, I'm not likely to do so. My recommendation is that you avoid this book and read something else. It won't be the end of the world if you do so.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Quick Note: Bill of Wrongs

If you haven't read Molly Ivins' last book, Bill of Wrongs (which co-author Lou Dubose completed after her death), you need to do so. Now.

Ivins' longstanding opposition to the policies of George W. Bush is well known. In this book, she and Dubose complete the work they began in their earlier works, Shrub and Bushwhacked, and provide insights into the many ways that American freedoms have been deliberately eroded by the Bush administration. None of what Ivins and Dubose describe in this book is news. All of it has been documented elsewhere. Nevertheless, the compilation of these diverse stories into one tome is effective.

You're probably aware that, when President Bush speaks in public, his political handlers and security forces ensure that dissenters are herded into "Free Speech Zones," which are often located several blocks away from the event they are attending. Those who manage to avoid isolation in the zone are hustled away from the view of the president and the news cameras as soon as they are discovered. If they refuse to move, they are arrested. How is one identified as a dissenter? A T-shirt or lapel pin is usually all the evidence the Secret Service needs to justify hustling one away to the Free Speech Zone. If one refuses to be hustled away, the local police will hustle one to the nearest jail. Read the book for details.

So much for Freedom of Speech.

The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of the press. Tell that to the San Francisco reporter who, notwithstanding the fact that California has one of the strongest journalist shield laws in the USA, spent 199 days in jail for refusing to provide investigators with either the names of people who attended a protest or videotapes he had filmed at the rally. Read the book for details.

So much for Freedom of the Press.

The Bush Administration's Constitutional violations do not end at amendment number one. Federal agencies also have systematically and deliberately violated the fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution thousands of times over the past eight years. Ivins and Dubose tell some of these stories in their book. Many other authors have done the same. Do a quick Amazon search of the term "patriot act" and check out some of the hits you get. Also, check out my review of Walter Brasch's book, Sinking the Ship of State. (Check out his book too. Warning: Brasch's book is published by a small press and has several editorial errors. Nevertheless, the substance of the material is good, if one is willing to overlook its stylistic shortcomings.)

I firmly believe that the upcoming federal election is one of the most important elections in American history. Ivins' book has reinforced that belief. The Republicans have taken this country down a dark and dangerous path throughout the past eight years. This election will be our opportunity to change course and start undoing the damage that Bush, Cheney and an untold number of "loyal Bushies" have done to the USA and the world at large. Read Ivins' book. Get mad. Then go do something about it. At the very least, vote for ABAR (anyone but a Republican) in the upcoming primaries, caucuses and elections!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Two Complementary Views of American Christianity

Several months ago, I reviewed Shopping for God, by James Twitchell. A few days ago, I read a book entitled, I Sold my Soul on eBay, by Hemant Mehta, which comes from a completely different perspective, yet covers much of the ground that Twitchell covered.

Twitchell's book was scholarly and Mehta's was personal. Twitchell examined questions about the relationship between Christianity and advertising in American culture. Mehta, who was raised in the Jain faith, explored personal questions about Christianity and the relationships between Christians and non-Christians in American culture. Mehta's book began with an experiment in which he allowed the highest eBay bidder to buy his time and church attendance. He posted an ongoing account of his visits on a web site, then decided to expand his study and publish his findings in a book. His book, which is published by a Christian publishing house, aims to help Christians understand how non-Christians see them, and to help Christians understand how they can speak more effectively with those who don't share their beliefs.

Both authors visited churches across the USA and interviewed numerous pastors and parishioners. They visited large churches, small churches, and 'tweener churches. They visited urban and suburban megachurches with multiple pastors and money to burn, and country churches that barely pay their bills and their pastors; if there is only enough money to meet one of these obligations, the bills get paid first.

Twitchell's book is well-written, but, since it is a scholarly work, it takes a bit of time to digest its contents. Mehta's book, an equally well-written personal narrative, is easily digested. In keeping with the styles and intentions of both authors, Twitchell's analyses and recommendations tend to focus on global communications issues, while Mehta's findings and suggestions focus primarily on personal and local communications strategies. Twitchell's book is richer in historical context than Mehta's book, but Mehta compensates for his lack of historicity by providing rich contextual insights. For example, Mehta records his emotional reactions to the rituals, worship choruses and scripture readings he encounters, as well as the questions that church rhetoric and practices raise for him. Twitchell, if he has any similar reactions and questions, does not record or address them at all.

Twitchell and Mehta both began their studies as non-Christians and they ended their studies in the same spiritual state. Both books offer interesting analyses of outsider views of the current state of American Christianity. If you read only one of these books, you'll be intellectually rewarded. If you read both of them, your understanding of American Christianity will be well-rounded and enriched.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Book Review: Soldier's Heart

Author: Elizabeth D. Samet
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 13: 978-0-374-18063-8; 10: 0-374-18063-6

It was slightly more than a decade ago that Elizabeth D. Samet graduated from an Ivy League university and accepted a position as a civilian faculty member at America’s oldest military academy, West Point. Her unusual position as a female civilian in an overwhelmingly masculine military environment has given her many opportunities to observe, participate in and think about contrasts.

The first contrast, which I’ve already mentioned, is that of gender. Dr. Samet is one just a few female faculty members at West Point. They are joined by a relatively small number of female cadets who enter the academy with the intention of serving as officers in the US military. Notwithstanding the fact that females have been attending the academy since 1976, West Point is not an easy place for women to live and work. Samet notes, “Women at West Point must make their way in a culture historically charged with machismo and fraternity (p. 100)” and, “Misogyny percolates beneath the surface of discussions about the ‘civilianizing’ or weakening of military culture (p. 99).” She speaks bluntly, but not bitterly, about the obstacles military women face both at the academy and in the military at large.

Another contrast that Samet deals with, particularly as an English professor, is that of the cultivation of physical fitness and toughness with the cultivation of intellect and introspection. Indeed, physical conditioning is a critical component of the academy’s program. The book is sprinkled with wry anecdotes in which Samet’s friends and family express surprise that cadets actually read serious literature, and that they often do so earnestly. Samet describes how many of her students embrace the reading of literature as an opportunity to let their imaginations roam freely – an experience not taken lightly in a military academy’s highly regimented environment – and to examine the connections between moral values and military exigencies. She also shares bits of correspondence she has exchanged with academy graduates as they continue to read and reflect on their field assignments. She says, “I relish the idea that ‘books are weapons.’ It is terminology sufficiently combative for someone teaching students who may very well find themselves at the violent margins of experience, and over the past several years I’ve come to understand the many ways in which books can serve as weapons: against boredom and loneliness, obviously; against fear and sorrow; but also against the more elusive evils of certitude and dogma” (p. 88).

A related contrast is that between the soldier who obeys without question and the one who thinks through and solves problems. She says, “The longer I teach at West Point, the more fascinated I become by parables of obedience…for they illuminate the inescapable tension between ‘knowing’ and ‘obeying’ within military culture and the fear of commanders that subordinates who know too much might choose not to obey” (p. 123). Even though the military requires unhesitating obedience in order to function efficiently, Samet suggests, “The American Army prides itself on the soldier’s ability to recognize immoral or unlawful orders” (p. 129). This ability is demonstrated in one graduate’s struggle, in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, to prompt the military to take steps to ensure that such events will be prevented in the future. Samet reports his passionate belief “in the necessary connection between a society’s values and the way in which it fights its wars” (p. 209). This belief was refined, in no small part, by his participation in Samet’s literature courses.

The final contrast that I will note, even though Samet’s examines several more that could be mentioned, is that between the West Point ethos before 9/11 and the ethos that has evolved since then. Samet says, “Before September 11, life at West Point had been – there’s no other word for it – peaceful” (p. 6). In those days, cadets anticipated that they would graduate and assume mundane posts in locales such as Germany or Korea. Nowadays, cadets are acutely aware that the odds are high that, upon graduation, they will be deployed to a war zone. This awareness has transformed the sobriety with which cadets undertake their studies. Indeed, some of the most touching scenes in the book are provided by the reflections of young army officers as they deal with the physical, psychological and moral realities of life on fields of battle.

“Soldier’s heart” is a term that military doctors sometimes use to refer to a condition that has been variously labeled “combat fatigue,” “shell shock,” and the currently vogue “post traumatic stress disorder.” In her beautifully rendered portrayal of the sensibilities, desires and fidelities of West Pointers, Samet fills the phrase with a far richer meaning. The young men and women who write stirring poetry and avidly recite Shakespeare in Samet’s classes are keenly aware of the responsibilities they will assume upon graduation. The faculty members, both military and civilian, are thoughtful, intelligent people who strive to balance commitments to a military culture steeped in violence and a democratic culture dedicated to the freedom of its citizens. Cadets and officers sacrifice much – their freedom, their comfort, their safety, their health, and often, their lives – to preserve and protect the lives and liberties of their fellow citizens. Samet does not take those sacrifices lightly. Indeed, this engrossing book is the means by which she expresses her gratitude and invites readers to join her in admiring the noble spirit that is the essence of the soldier’s heart.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sneak Peek: The Daily Show & Philosophy

Some of you may have noticed, by glancing at my sidebar, that I'm currently reading The Daily Show and Philosophy. Those of you who are TDS fans, or those who are interested in the philosophy of language, communications and rhetoric, may enjoy this book. I'm currently reading a section that carries the provocative sub-title, Critical Thinking and the War on Bullshit. In light of the fact that President Bush will be delivering his final State of the Union address this evening, it may be helpful to consider distinctions between lies, bullshit and spin.

In a chapter that examines bullshit and political spin, Kimberly A. Blessing & Joseph J. Marren adopt Harry Frankfurt's (author of On Bullshit) position that, "In the case of a lie, the aim is to deceive people about what's true" (TDSAP, p. 142). What this means is that liars know what is true (or what they believe to be true), but want to lead their audiences to believe that something contrary to that state of affairs is actually the true state of affairs.

Blessing & Marren also agree with Frankfurt's position that "the bullshitter aims at deceiving the listener about what the bullshitter does or doesn't know, yet can succeed without actually going to the trouble of forming a belief either way" (TDSAP, p. 142). In their view, the bullshitter doesn't care, and doesn't need to care, one way or the other about what is true. Rather, the bullshitter's only interest is in selling his or her message to someone. He or she will say anything regardless of its truth value to promote whatever message is being sold. So, the difference between liars and bullshitters is in their stances toward the truth: liars must know the truth in order to compose their lies. Bullshitters do not face such a constraint.

Blessing & Marren part company with Frankfurt on the matter of spin. In an interview with Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, Frankfurt claimed that spin "is a form of bullshit" (TDSAP, p. 140). Blessing & Marren, contend to the contrary that, unlike bullshitters, spinners "must know what's true in order to spin it" (p. 142). They must start from something that they know is true, then proceed to "manipulat[e] a listener's opinion to persuade the listener that their spin is true" (TDSAP, p.142). So, spin is similar to lying in that it must take truth into consideration, and it is similar to bullshit in that it consists of twisting content to suit spinners' purposes. Hence, spin comprises a third category of falsehood, alongside of lies and bullshit.

Are people equally tolerant of all three of these forms of falsehood? More importantly, should people tolerate of all of them equally? Blessing & Marren contend that "Spinners are required to know what is and is not true and then try to color the (commonly known) facts; unlike liars, they don't try to use this knowledge to deceive us about what the facts are. Mere bullshitters would never even bother with the facts" TDPAS, p. 143). In my view, bullshit is the most dangerous of the three types of falsehood. Lies can be uncovered by fact-checking. Spin, being a version of truth, is often obvious and easily countered. In contrast to these, the bullshitters' lackadaisical attitude toward truth is pernicious, and it's often difficult to cut through their verbiage to ascertain which parts of their bullshit, if any, are true and which are false.

I'll conclude by referring back to my opening paragraph and reminding you that President Bush will be addressing the nation tonight. As you listen to him, amuse yourself by seeing if you can figure out how much of what he says is unvarnished truth, spin, lies or bullshit.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: The Final Curtain

Author: Judge W.O. “Chet” Dillard
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-4327-0443-8

Dillard writes from the unique vantage point of one who served for 45 years in the Mississippi state judicial system. This book is the third volume of Dillard’s account of pivotal civil rights events that took place in Mississippi, which may have been the most brutally oppressive of the Jim Crow states.

In The Final Curtain, Dillard focuses primarily on the legal proceedings related to the assassination of Medgar Edgars, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary, in 1963; the kidnappings and murders of three civil rights volunteers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in 1964; and the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer’s home, in 1966. Dillard’s discussion includes information about the FBI investigations of these crimes, the agency’s use of Mafia informants to gather information and his personal insights into judicial theory and practice. The latter half of the book presents of many of the source documents that Dillard used in his research.

Dillard’s experience and research cover an immensely important era in American history. In fact, two of the cases have been documented in dramatic Hollywood films, a fact that Dillard notes in his book. The Evers assassination and the subsequent investigation and multiples trials of Byron de la Beckwith were portrayed in Ghosts of Mississippi. The case of the three collegiate civil rights activists was the subject of an earlier film, Mississippi Burning. It is probably safe to say that the Dahmer case is the one with which the American public is the least familiar. To my knowledge, no film about it has been produced, nor has it been chronicled in print as widely as the other two events.

In addition to providing some information that may not have been widely available previously, Dillard’s account includes interesting reflections on legal theory and processes. Dillard acquired these insights throughout a long and honorable legal career and they are valuable. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is badly marred by discontinuity. The book lacks any sense of narrative and scans like a disjointed memoir rather than a cogent account of significant and fascinating events. Dillard flits from chapter to chapter across themes that are strung together by weak transitional paragraphs rather than topical coherence. On occasion, Dillard’s text refers to the appended materials, but, for the most part, they are simply tacked onto the end of the book for readers to sort through on their own. He could have strengthened his account immensely by organizing his materials more lucidly and by integrating findings from his source materials more directly into the text rather than appending them. These two shortcomings detract significantly from the book’s appeal.

Aficionados of civil rights history in general, and events in Mississippi in particular, may find Dillard’s account a useful adjunct to materials they already have on hand. My advice to most readers, however, is to bypass this book and read some better-written alternatives instead. One such option that I recommend is John Dittmer’s Local People, an outstanding history of Mississippi’s civil rights movement that is more comprehensive, coherent and satisfying than Judge Dillard’s account.