Sunday, October 31, 2010

Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne

Now We Are Six
by A.A. Milne

I can remember when I moved on from short picture books to more substantial reading volumes. Chapter books, some lightly illustrated and some not, and bigger worlds beyond The Poky Little Puppy made my imagination go into overdrive. Ever having trouble sleeping, I’d stay up late reading, congratulating myself on how many books I could finish. Stories and music, I couldn’t get enough of them. Somewhere in between came poetry. Though I sometimes succeed in what I feel is “intended” reading of poetry — understand and deriving meaning — I frequently feel like poetry is a language I never properly learned. It operates on a level I’ve yet to fully reach, though that didn’t stop me from subpar attempts at writing it myself. I know that there are all sorts of arguments to be made about “there is no right way,” just as there are so many variations on the poem itself.

For my daughter, a lover of books since birth, I’ve wanted to start that education earlier. On a recent trip to Seaside, Oregon, at a small bookshop with a cat, I picked out Now We Are Six. She turned six years old in March, and has been reading for a few years now. I thought she’d get a kick out of the title, and the words were entertaining and understandable, which made it a good candidate for her first book without much illustration.

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I'm as clever as clever,
So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.

Most nights, we would read together, and I can tell you that between my reading selections before bedtime and her reading the rest on her own, we’ve both read the book several times over by now. I must admit I tire of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh at times — something about the way he intentionally mispronounces words bothers me, as does Christopher Robin. I know that’s childhood sacrilege, but it’s true. My daughter only knows the Disney version of Pooh, however, so I was quick to remind her that the author of her new book had work of which she’d heard. Though she found it momentarily interesting, she instead flipped to a new page and said, “Start here tonight.”

We went to all the places which a beetle might be near,
And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear,
And I saw a kind of something, and I gave a sort of shout:
"A beetle-house and Alexander Beetle coming out!"
— From “Forgiven”

It’s a cute book, and it’s long enough that you won’t be talked into reading the whole thing before bedtime in one sitting. Three poems here, five poems there — It’s fun to get back into the rhythm of reading poetry aloud.

We only have so long to strongly influence our children’s interests before other elements start vying for competition. I can only hope that the love of books, of music, and of art never fade.

#51/ 52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young

Look! Look! Feathers
by Mike Young

Mike Young’s short stories live in the bizarre corners of our world, just past the surface of what we see in passing, but recognizable all the same. Suburban jocks idolize their washed-up, half-insane coach. Residents of shitty apartments and motel kitchenettes drink, fight and talk about all the great plans they have. Everyone is lonely in their own special way, and everyone likes to think that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. Problem is, several stories in, sometimes those voices bleed together.

And maybe that’s the point — we’re all so different in all the same ways.

Mastadon in a tar pit. Monster truck with a black eye. Nothing Monty could think of got close to how loud he wanted his band. He kept thinking of amps loud enough to rattle sediment. Nu metal that doubled as hydraulic strip mining.

Several stories mention nu metal, which gives them a rather late-90s, stuck-in-geometry-class feel. Either they seem to be set in that time period, or they are populated by characters who wish they were still there — socially structured within the confines of high school. At least then, they knew what to expect, they think.

Beyond recognizable despair, some tales turn surreal. In “Burk’s Nub,” some kids discover that an overweight, sweaty outcast can access the internet through a strange growth on his hand. In the title story, a miniature baby appears in a vacant apartment without explanation.

Those mama birds with the mouth worms — they don’t play that game for runts. But I couldn’t stop standing, wincing at random noises, wanting to quit my thoughts of this stunted thing and wanting to build myself around them, to leave this thing in a church plate but hide that plate from harm.

Every character is in some way torn between what they feel in their gut and what they feel obligated to do, whether through family or romantic relation, or because they are trapped in the way things always are.

Probably my favorite story was “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show.” In it, a small town is overrun by a mysterious television production. The staff has the entire town fill out questionnaires regarding their skills, saying that they could be featured on a locally-themed show broadcast on the internet. The entire town briefly loses their mind in the anticipation, and it’s an interesting meditation on pride, secrecy and temperament.

Still, I didn’t enjoy every story. Perhaps it was the rushed nature of my reading, but yes, some of the dissatisfied voices blended together. The writing, while punctuated with excellent lines and scenes, occasionally veered too far off into a love of language. I understand wanting to show off one’s expertise in description, but some lines felt overwrought in their specificity.

Wine country slopes by, green and buzz cut vineyards, gobs of lazy hill. Cheri drives. I’m in the seat behind her. The sun’s drifting up. Everything is olive oil, a spilled yawn.

It’s not that I flat out don’t like his style — no, sometimes fragmented thinking suits the story just fine — but the style sometimes came at the expense of clarity. At times, all those details smooshed into one and I had trouble discerning who said what, and where. Again, this could be because of the time frame in which I read the book. All I’m saying is, I didn’t fall in love.

But fair play to Mike Young for being different, for carrying that indie-kid literary bag. His characters don’t sit around and yammer about the intellectual merits of their problems, and they don’t whine. Their problems simply are. Here is the situation now, here is how they deal. Occasionally they may recognize that they’ve made some poor choices, but man, there’s still a glimmer of something new around the corner.


Full disclosure: Word Riot sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book reviewer contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

The Word Made Flesh edited by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor

The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos From Bookworms Worldwideedited by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor

There’s a certain loveliness to words inked on the body, and a tattoo with a great font will likely grab my attention before an image. All three of my tattoos are black text — though two are in Sanskrit and therefore unreadable to most people — and sometimes I find myself noticing fonts and thinking, “I should match a tattoo with this lettering.” Strangely, it had never occurred to me until recently to have a literary-themed tattoo. Despite my trade, unless it’s words from my own work, I tend to think of lyrics first. That said, The Word Made Flesh will certainly inspire anyone who loves both reading and tattoos to start thinking about what words mean enough to make permanent. I’ve never read Ulysses (I know, I know), but there’s something great about having the words “Yes, I said. Yes I will yes,” written somewhere on one’s body.

Filled with photos and personal stories, The Word Made Flesh has not only direct quotes, but tattoos that involve portraiture, illustrations and even simple punctuation marks. There are enough variations on typewriter-style fonts alone to make me start considering new projects. Some of the images are typewriters themselves, and it takes me back to learning to type on one that weighed more than I did.

I like the sexy librarian, the Dewey decimal system numbers, the complete text of “For Marcel Proust” by Theodore Adrorno transcribed across one man’s back (as is the case with Carey Harrison from Brooklyn).

Not all the tattoos are gems — I have to admit, the Twilight sleeves and Harry Potter logo neck tattoo made me roll my eyes a bit, but I suppose I’m the last person who should be judging intense preoccupations. Anything that sounded too much like an uninspired high school senior quote, I wondered how much personal meaning the words really had to the tattoo recipient. Sure, “To thine ownself be true” comes from Shakespeare, but it’s sort of like the literary version of picking flash art from the parlor wall.

Though this book is not at all heavy reading, I certainly recommend it as thinking material. Is it worth the $15 cover price? I don’t know — that depends on your love of tattoos more than it does literature, I think. Perhaps it’s more of a book you buy as a gift for others. Still, it’s always interesting to hear the stories behind why people choose to decorate their bodies in the way that they do, though I imagine that for any living writer, seeing their words as tattoos must be both bizarre and flattering.

See more at

#49/ 52

Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book blogger contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter

The Financial Lives of Poets
by Jess Walter

If you aren’t already familiar with Jess Water, may I suggest that you rectify this gap in your reading repertoire immediately? Really how many times do I have to tell you? [Stern Parental Face] [Wait, that won’t work.] [Enthusiastic This-Sandwich-Changed-My-Life-Face] [Better?]

Insisting aside, I must say that I came late to the Jess Walter party. Despite being a Spokane resident for seven years and having heard plenty about him, up until last November, I’d only read his funny columns in Out There Monthly. And unlike my apathy towards Gonzaga basketball or Chiefs hockey, I felt rather guilty about it. “I’ll get his books at the library sometime,” I said, though being a local author, his books were always checked-out. When he and Sherman Alexie were scheduled to do a reading together coinciding with the releases of The Financial Lives of Poets and War Dances, I knew I had to cough up the $15 already and started with a paperback of Citizen Vince. So rarely do I have a hardcover budget.

That in mind, I didn’t get a chance to read The Financial Lives of Poets until its paperback release*. Centered around our recent economic crises, we meet Matt Prior, an ex-reporter who lost all his money starting a poetry-themed financial website. He has six days to spare his house from foreclosure, his wife is flirting with her high school boyfriend, and he can’t sleep. In the middle of the night, he befriends two typical white kid stoners at the 7-Eleven. After tagging along with them and getting high for the first time in decades, Matt decides that maybe he can use his desperate insanity to fix his life.

And this is where the unlikeliest peace comes, and I smile. Because as fucked as the world is, as grim as the future surely seems to be, as grim as it revealed itself to be for my mother as she lay dying of the tumor that kills us all, there is a truth I cannot deny, a thing no creditor can take; even as my doomed boys stir in the cold unknowing of predawn sleep, even as the very life leaches out of me, soaks into the berber, and into the cracks of my arid grave, I must grudgingly admit —

— that was one great goddamn burrito.

Yes, it’s a funny novel about life’s collapse, about how expectations and reality do not often meet. It is about denial and digging the bomb shelter deeper and deeper, until the whole thing caves in with the weight of the Earth. It’s about what happens when we realize we’ve screwed ourselves over and think, Well, what’s a little more risk going to hurt?

Walter never names the city in this novel, and though it’s likely supposed to stand for any city across America, it feels undeniably like Spokane. Matt Prior talks about his local newspaper layoffs, and his editor M— “he whose name cannot be typed without befouling a keyboard.” It very much resembled the layoffs at The Spokesman-Review. Former Editor Steve Smith may have not had a “double chin-strap beard” (that I know of), but he was known to wear a “40s-movie fedora and [get] weepy whenever he reflected back on the fourteen months he spent as a libelous reporter waterboarding the English language.” He also uses the god awful verb “newspapering.”

Like M— and the unnamed newspaper, the Spokesman-Review also had failed forays into television and radio, and each time, more layoffs ensued. The content shrunk. The pages became narrower. Bureaus in the Spokane Valley and North Idaho were entirely closed, save for some patronizing weekly “Voice” sections. Like Matt, Walter was once a reporter and now “the once plucky staff — my old colleagues and friends — now resembles the nervous crew in one of the Alien movies.” (Also, I direct you to this comment within the link above.)

Meanwhile, M— continued to promote his sycophants and build himself the Taj Mahal of offices, even as he oversaw round after round of layoffs. Like some medieval doctor, this self-aggrandizing bully claimed he was saving the paper every time he bled it, and throughout the long decline, continued to waste a reporter’s fill salary each year flying to journalism conferences where he could bloviate alongside other Saddams about the future of newspapers.

Talking heads, newspaper editors and financial advisors may blather on all they want about the “old days” and the future, but they helped create the problem. The carnage lies in all the people who either willingly joined them or had no other choice, blindly hoping it would all work out in the end. Everything in The Financial Lives of Poets centers around that ride: Matt getting talked into the shady refinancing of their house, his wife’s period of compulsive spending, his father’s initial denial of declining mental health, and on and on. It’s everything we see in the news; it’s truth hidden within humor. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, and sometimes, we do both.

In the “P.S.” section of the paperback edition, Walter sums up the motivations behind writing this book:

I wrote quickly, because all of this seemed to be happening all around me and it seemed like an opportunity to do something novelists don’t always get to do. [...]

And I thought: what if instead of re-creating it later I just stick my head out the window and describe what I see as we go barreling off the road?

Yes, writers pilfer from their own lives all the time, and I read more into the details since I used to live in Spokane, but it’s got to feel awfully true to anyone around the country. Friends of mine aren’t the only reporters laid off and I’m not the only one who is having trouble trying to sell a house right now. The point is, Walter does an excellent job of avoiding exaggeration. We’ve met these people. We are these people.

Aside from the real life comparisons, the writing itself is extraordinary. I love that Matt’s inner thoughts are punctuated by cursing, checking out his baristas and his son’s teacher, followed by stream-of-conscious slips into poetry. I love that he recognizes his occasional immaturity and just succumbs to it anyway.

And then it comes to me: Chuck’s bald spot is roughly the size and shape of a fried wonton. “I don’t suppose there’s any good Chinese food around here?”

“Hmm?” Then, still bent over, reading my printout for the treeless tree fort, Chuck tells me the name of a place nearby.

“They have wontons?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Probably.”

I have, I should point out, a luscious head of hair. Cut short now, up over my ears, my hair is nonetheless thick and healthy and free of dumpling-shaped islands of skin. The wonton is turning, my friend, decaying Prince of Lumberland, balding boy-wonder of woodwork, male-pattern ninja of wife-thievery. I run my hand through my hair; it bristles like windblown wheat.

I know I go on and on about how writing should be honest, how I don’t want to be distracted by “Look at me! I’m writing!” but when a writer is so dead on, and once I recognize that skill, how can I not seek it out in other writing? And more importantly, good writing makes me want to get to work. I may never be a writer in the same talent bracket as Jess Walter, Michael Chabon or Aaron Sorkin, but they make me want to try. That’s all I really ask for in a book — entertain and motivate me. I want to be completely absorbed in your story, and after a sufficient punch in the heart, I want to get my own versions of those feelings onto the page. I want to care to the point of thinking, This is why I want to do this.

We all fall prey to complaining, consumerism and competition. There are people who bemoan eating anything but local, sustainable foods, but absolutely need to have the new iPhone. There are writers who gripe about the lack of attention [women/minorities/takeyrpick] get compared to the “canon,” yet readily admit they get squeamish telling people that they write. People claim to hate nepotism and special treatment, but love it when they know a guy working the door who will let them into the party. And I spend all this time talking about writing, rolling my eyes at insecure, pretentious blow-hards, yet have only written — count ‘em! — 1.5 pieces of fiction in the past six months.

And like Matt, like his dissatisfied wife, like his financial advisor, like the 7-11 stoners, like M—, we all make excuses for our behavior. Humans are of course imperfect, and occasionally we screw things up to the point of having to start completely anew, working with much, much less. The Financial Lives of Poets holds a mirror to all our misguided — though earnest — behavior, and therein lies its genius.

*Harper Perennial sent me this book. Since I’d wanted to buy it already, the arrival was good timing. Though I do feel a bit guilty about stiffing Jess Walter the royalties, I hope my compliments will suffice. No one may be directly paying me for my writing yet, but a lovely side effect to all this book reviewing is that I receive free reading material. Like always, I shall continue to be honest in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Numb by Sean Ferrell

by Sean Ferrell

How do we define our “self,” and to what degree does our work inform that definition? What if all we remember is our recent history? And what if we see our scars, but have never felt their harm? In Numb, Sean Ferrell’s title character grapples with amnesia and his mysterious inability to feel pain. After a brief residency in a low-rent circus, Numb travels to New York City with his friend and fellow performer, Mal, hoping to discover more about his past.

Numb’s wounds are not the Claire-from-Heroes variety — his blood may clot faster than most, but the marks still remain. Though he does not feel the nails being hammered between his fingers, he still keeps his tetanus shot current and keeps the wounds clean. He and Mal spend some time “performing” in bars to keep their room at a crappy hotel, and word soon spreads. In the ubiquitous camera age, footage of his various stunts attracts the attention of television and talent agencies. They want to capitalize on his “condition,” and unsure of what else to do, Numb pursues the celebrity ride — a circus in itself.

After seven pages of contract, I said, “Let’s just get to the heart of it. If I sign, I get some money, right?”

Michael raised his eyebrows at me and said yes.

“And the production company gets the rights to my life story, whatever it may be.”

Again, Michael said yes.

“And you think this is a fair deal?”

He said he did.

“Where do I sign?”

Of course, just cashing in on whatever your agent tells you to do doesn’t make for much of a real life. Numb begins a complicated relationship with a blind artist named Hiko, and his friendship with Mal has its own troubles. His efforts to figure out his past don’t turn up much information, so he is left to figure out who he is and what he wants now.

Ferrell’s writing is rather straightforward and appropriately detached for a first-person narrator whose emotions have become subdued, a side effect from the lack of physical pain. On occasion, Numb works up some anger, some lust, but his struggle lies in, well, his lack of struggle. He is easily talked into things and would prefer easy decisions. At times, that might make the plot moves seem too deliberately constructed, but once one realizes that Numb has just let things happen to him, they make more sense.

I said, “Not everyone knows what they want, Mal.”

“Yeah, but anyone can take a little control until they figure it out.”


“Well, what’s so great about your life? You’re living with a weird woman in a tiny little studio, with no job, and you look like hell.”

“What’s great about my life is I say no all the time, man. I’ve chosen a hard path, but it’s the one I chose. Did you know that Michael tried to recruit me after you signed with him? Wanted to get you a sidekick, he said.”

“You’re not my sidekick.”

He laughed. “Shut the hell up. I was. I was your friggin’ assistant. I held the nail, for Christ’s sake.” The smile fell off his face. “But I told him to go screw himself and that was the moment I realized I was angry at you for what I was doing.”

My only real complaint about the book is that I wanted a little bit more — maybe a few more answers, a bit more description of the meatier parts, in the anger and the lust — but maybe that’s because I’m just coming off reading Happy Baby, which is all introspection and unflinching detail. That’s really the trouble with reading and reviewing books in such rapid succession — my reaction is inevitably colored by what else is most fresh in my mind. Despite its imperfections, Numb is still an excellent, entertaining novel, and I want to read what Sean Ferrell writes next.

You’ll have to forgive the abbreviated nature of this review. I finished reading Numb the day before I left on a week-long vacation, and I read another book while gone before I wrote this review. Time and the chaos of Disney World mixed with a cold has left me making excuses, I realize, but my apologies for not being as thorough as usual. For further reading, check out Sean Farrell’s self-interview over at The Nervous Breakdown.


Full disclosure: I received this book along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my blog, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott

Happy Baby
by Stephen Elliott

Pushed and yanked into the light when we are first born, we know nothing about what comes next. In minutes, our instincts long for food, for warmth, and the more they are provided, the more we expect those needs to be met. It is only over time that we learn of disappointment, of pain — some of us are luckier than others. Some of us know the perils of life early on, hardship and uncertainty thrust upon ourselves through an odd mix of personal choice and environment. In Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby, a thirty-six year old man named Theo visits an old girlfriend, Maria, who now has a baby of her own. The story branches backwards, uncovering the moments that led Theo to the present. At times battered and broken, Theo searches for meaning and solace in his everyday.

Reading Happy Baby after already reading Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries, it’s impossible not to compare the two and notice the semi-autobiographical nature of the novel. Like Theo, Elliott lost his mother at a young age and has an abusive father. Like Theo, Elliott was a ward of the state in Illinois during his teenage years and spent time in group homes. He attempted suicide; he attempted to block out the world by concentrating on simple pain. The sum total of what is and isn’t true remains hard to determine without knowing the man personally, but what’s important is that it all feels true.

Within the realm of “simple pain,” much of the book deals with Theo’s involvement in BDSM, either through the services of a mistress or by more “typical” romantic relationships (though of course the argument can be made that it’s all romantic in some way). To anyone uninitiated to that variety of bedroom culture, the willing violence could be a bit jarring or baffling at first. However, the need for tangible wounds and how they mix with pleasure makes more sense as the pages go on:

I hand her the belt and stand in front of her, turning around, pressing my fingers into the wall. I hold my breath and then the belt whips across my back. I feel the sting and my mind goes blank for a second, the warmth of pain covering me as my breath returns.

Elliott’s words don’t strain for meaning through flowery metaphor — I hate to use the word “stark,” since that’s the go-to adjective for any work dealing with sex in a straightforward way. Spare feels more accurate. Much like I imagine Theo, and to a certain degree, Stephen himself, the writing is sinuous, firm, and yet childlike. Every person Theo encounters, even those who frighten him, are treated with affection.

He starts to move his hand, but I press my face against it, pushing into his palm.

“Don’t follow me anymore, Theo. I can’t take care of you. I have my own family. You wanted to have this talk. Fine. Remember, I kept you safe. You were safe when I was around. None of those boys did anything to you when I was there. You know why I kept you safe, right?”

I nod my head.

“That’s right. But you’re on your own now. Take care of yourself.” Mr. Gracie pulls his hand away, slaps my knee with the paper. I hear the squeak of the bus door opening. The sound of boots in a hallway.

The most effective books, for me, involve longing. We all long for something, and Theo longs for a caretaker, to have someone who will meet his needs and provide direction. He wishes to yield, to let all the fear and the loneliness drop away into some sort of balance. He wants acceptance, to be remembered.

If you’re not already signed up for Stephen Elliott’s Daily Rumpus emails, and if you’re otherwise uninitiated to his work, I suggest remedying this shortfall as soon as possible.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood by Martin Lemelman

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood
by Martin Lemelman

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Martin Lemelman watched his Polish-Jewish family struggle with their new American lives running a candy shop in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Though the shop was legendary for its ice cream, egg creams and toys, the neighborhood itself was beginning its steep decline. Young Martin (or “Mattaleh,” as his parents called him) discovered his interest in art — particularly drawing — during this time, and has since made himself a career illustrating books. Two Cents Plain is his second graphic memoir, after Mendel’s Daughter, which gives a more detailed description of his parents’ childhood and escape from Nazi Poland.

Recounting his childhood and the events leading to it, Lemelman offers his own memories, the points-of-view from his family, and historical documents. His black-and-white drawings are richly detailed — almost as real as the photographs included on some pages. I really enjoyed the use of different mediums to tell the story, and I would recommend looking at the preview offered on the book’s Powell’s page to get a taste of the visuals.

The moment I pressed brush to paper... Time slowed down. Minutes turned into hours. As if by magic — a face appeared on my paper, a tree, a house, a bird, a Pepsi bottle, hands... The cracked walls, dusty floors, screaming parents, worries, faded away. All I saw and felt were the marks I made on the paper.

Naturally, as non-artist parents of artists are apt to do, his parents wish he’d chosen something more lucrative. “I will be happy to pay for you to go to pharmacy school,” his father says.

The tales aren’t all poverty and struggle — There are quite a few funny moments, including stories about their cat named Cat, who would attack any dog that was brought into the shop. “She always seemed to know when one was around,” he says.

There are little character sketches along the way of the other neighborhood workers — the fish man, the fruit man, etc. — and he writes his parents’ dialect well. The narrative itself isn’t perfect, but neither is memory. Lemelman gathers what he remembers most about growing up and assembles it thusly. To assemble more facts into the story when he did not personally feel any connection to them would feel inauthentic.

The only complaint I’d give is that the ending is a bit ... well, anti-climatic doesn’t feel like the right word. I suppose since the reader knows what is coming, it’s not as affecting as it could have been. I’m not exactly sure how it should be different; it’s hard to say. However, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I am now wanting to read Mendel’s Daughter. The artwork alone is worth the time.


Full disclosure: I won this book through a Bloomsbury Press GoodReads giveaway.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why Our Decisions Don't Matter by Simon Van Booy

Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter
by Simon Van Boo

We’ve covered love, we’ve covered fighting; now let’s get to the business of futility. Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter spans works from Kerouac to Sophocles to existentialists Camus and Sarte. In essence, the book argues that, while we may be able to control our reaction to the world, we cannot control the world itself.

Remember: The things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrence; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others. Remember, too, that if you think that you have free rein over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.
— Epictetus, from The Art of Living

Word to all the meddlers out there, the overbearing parents, spouses, partners and friends — Others may take your reaction into account, but that person is ultimately in charge of their life.

That idea extends to several of the fiction offerings in the book. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus knows it is inevitable that his ship will encounter the evil monster Skylla. They cannot avoid it, but they can take measures to reduce the amount of harm that comes to them. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure finds a man who, no matter what he does, is a disappointment to his ill-tempered wife. In Camus’ The Stranger, a priest becomes angry when he cannot convince a prisoner to accept God into his life, and the prisoner becomes angry when he cannot convince the priest to just leave him alone already.

In other matters of theology, the excerpt from Ian Barbour’s When Science Meets Religion was an interesting take on how the views of God’s involvement within our natural world have changed over time. It also takes into account the modern practice of genetic engineering and the study of DNA in general:

I suggest, however, that differing views of genetic intervention do not represent a conflict between science and religion as systems of belief, but rather a conflict between differing ethical judgements about the applications of science. Instead of rejecting all forms of genetic intervention, we need to make distinctions among them.

When one takes God out of the discussion, decisions regarding scientific advancements come down to human decency, respect, and exploration of possible consequences. One’s sense of decency may come from a place of religion, but to argue that point with someone whose own beliefs do not come from the same place will not necessarily advance the discussion. That’s not to say it’s pointless to debate each other — of course not, we do it all the time and with some effect — but in this case, it may just be a matter of re-framing the discussion.

The God-talk isn’t all in relation to science — In Voltaire’s Candide, Doctor Pangloss “believes that ‘we live in the best of all possible worlds,’ and that the world is perfect because God is perfect and would not make an imperfect world. Therefore, everything that happens is for the best.” How often have we heard others, after suffering some misfortune, say that it will be a learning moment and that the purpose of that misfortune is all part of a greater “plan?” I don’t subscribe to that belief entirely (Learning moment? Yes. Mysterious grand plan? Eh...), but there are plenty of people who derive comfort from it, and I don’t begrudge them that.

I enjoyed most portions of the book, with one exception. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein is about as impenetrable as it sounds. His introduction is understandable enough, especially considering that the man suffered from several psychological disorders, but the work itself is structured like this:

1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

And so on, and so on. Maybe some people like to read things outlined in such a “logical” manner, but my brain isn’t inclined to process things that way.

Of the three books in the series, perhaps Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter is the one that would lead to the most chin-stroking in a university course, sending over-eager students into heated arguments that (irony alert!) won’t matter in the long run. But hey, as long as we’re here...

We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.
— Japanese Proverb


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why We Fight by Simon Van Booy

Why We Fight
edited by Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy’s Why We Fight continues the philosophical exploration of the human experience. Partial as I am to love, the selected writings on aggression still made for interesting reading. With Shakespeare making another appearance, we also hear from Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, James Joyce and others.

The reasons behind fighting fall into two categories: pride and power. Within those two categories, the reasoning becomes either personal or communal. We either fight for the greater good for “our” people, or we fight to better our own situation and emotions. These often overlap, of course, but any sort of reasoning behind battle will boil down to those categories. However, not all fighting is noble, nor is it always thoughtfully considered:

“Very little cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit.”
— Albert Schweitzer from Memoirs of Childhood and Youth

For example, consider the practice of women tearing down other women: We see it in 13-year-old girls, we see it on parenting forums, we see it in our culture of gossip and judgement. Are the people who participate in this negativity inherently bad people? Probably not, save for the occasional true psychopath. What’s more likely is that these women want to feel as though they personally have the upper-hand on their lives — power — to maintain their family, their job, whatever is important to them at that given time. Also, passing judgement becomes easy when you have made yourself to feel special, better than the rest.

On the flilpside, there’s also a certain amount of insecurity and doubt — What if I’m not actually doing a good job? is the lingering thought. That’s where pride figures in — act as though you’ve got it all together in the hopes that everything will fall into place. And that’s where in some cases, people tend to point out the flaws in others so that their own mistakes will not be as noticeable.

I’ve simplified the matter to be sure, but it’s a matter worth examining in ourselves every now and then. Everyone suffers from and participates in instances of light cruelty at times, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.

Speaking of inevitability, Why We Fight also features writing from the scientific community, exploring how much our genetics and environment figure into our aggression.

“War is a battle for power over people and for resources such as land and minerals, neither of which are relevant in hunting and gathering societies. With the growth of agriculture and of materially-based societies, warfare has increased steadily in both ferocity and duration, culminating in our current capability to destroy even the planet: powerful leaders have found more to fight about, and increasingly effective ways of achieving their ends. [...] The transition from the nomadic hunting way of life to the sedentary one of farmers and industrialists made war possible and potentially profitable.

Possible, but not inevitable.”
— Roger Lewin, from “Aggression, Sex and Human Nature” from Origins

That particular section was much more readable than Desmond Morris’ excerpt from The Naked Ape, which discusses humans in the same terms a scientist would about any other animal. It tends to equate breeding as an innate act of aggression — that the need for “pair-bonds” and reproduction cycle into each other in such a way that anyone having more than two or three children is contributing to the problem. I don’t really agree with that notion.

I will admit that I glazed over a bit when I got to Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, a lengthy and densely-written examination of inter- and intra-species fighting. This sort of writing doesn’t make me feel anything — it’s all fact and I’m no anthropologist.

So it should be unsurprising that the most satisfying portions for me were the fiction excerpts. Over ten years have passed since I last read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, one of those rare assigned classics I wholeheartedly enjoyed in school. In this example of fighting, Jean Val Jean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, meant to feed himself and his sister’s family. He is sentenced to five years in the galleys, and when he attempts to escape several times, his imprisonment totals nineteen years.

He declared to himself that there was no equilibrium between the harm which he had caused and the harm which was being done to him; he finally arrived at the conclusion that his punishment was not, in truth, unjust, but that it most assuredly was iniquitous.

The pride in one’s family and desire for well-being versus the power of a justice system over its people: In this case, it planted the seeds for one man’s hatred and distrust of society.

Though not as personally satisfying as Why We Need Love, Why We Fight is still a thought-provoking counterpoint and even the words from thousands of years ago still hold their relevance in our current culture.


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.