Posts Tagged ‘books’

“I am the universe.”

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Last Words is the posthumously published autobiography by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra). While it is an entertaining read, there is only one part that stuck with me:

I believe I am bigger than the universe, smaller than the universe and equal to it. I’m bigger than the universe because I can picture it, define it in my mind and everything that’s in it and contain all that in my mind in a single thought. A thought that’s not even the only one in there: it’s right between “Shit, my ass itches!” and “Why don’t we fuck the waitress?”

That thought, with all the others, is inside the twenty-three-inch circumference of my cranium. So I’m bigger than the universe. I’m smaller than it because that’s obvious: I’m five foot nine and 150 pounds and the universe is somewhat taller and heavier. I’m equal to it because every atom in me is the same as every atom in me is the same as every atom the universe is made of. I’m part of the protogalaxy five billion light years away and of that cigarette butt in Cleveland. There are no differences, we’re equal. Unlike our fake democracy, the democracy of atoms is real.

Depending on my given mood on a given day, I can reflect on one of these three relationships for a moment or two and find comfort in it. And know that I’m really at one with the universe and will return to it on a more fundamental level some day—my reunion with it—and all the rest is a journey, a game, a comedy, a parade…

Last Words by George Carlin with Tony Hendra pages 285-6.

Compare that with:

I am the universe.

Morihei Ueshiba, quoted in Art of Peace by John Stevens.

It’s hard to think of two individuals with less in common, but somehow they came the same conclusion. What they have in common is that they are both artists. Art at its highest expression seems to make the artist identify with the whole universe.

If I understand O-Sensei’s point, Aikido’s highest expression is when an opponent’s efforts to defeat the master are as futile as trying to defeat the entire universe. Another way to state this is that the Aikido master aligns themself with universal principles so that they are in a state of victory before the combat begins.

Carlin’s point seems to be that he late in life stopped identifying with society in any conventional way but instead identified with the universe. This identification allowed him to do his comedy at the high level he achieved.

This identification can sound arrogant at first glance, but they don’t seem to be making a unique claim. Anyone can achieve this state through effort.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

I picked Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross based on a review in The New York Times by Scott Turow. This is the first time that I have bought a book on this basis (amazing but true). Mostly I choose books based on word of mouth or serendipity, unless the book is about Aikido or programming in which case I already know something about the author and subject. Scott Turow had a glowing assessment of Adam Ross’s talents and based on the review I expected a murder mystery that was more than genre fiction, much like Turow’s work. What I got was an experimental novel that plays with the murder mystery genre but is never really committed to it.

There are many references to M. C. Escher art and I think the author wanted to structure the novel like an Escher print. There are three narratives that have repeated elements, each time changed but recognizable. The central subject is marriage and the threat of violence in bad marriages. This structure never really worked for me. I used to enjoy Escher prints, but they are basically very cold and cerebral; not something that I want in a novel. The other problem is that Escher prints are never linear, the point is often an endless loop. A novel is a completely linear experience, and in this case the attempt to mimic the experience of an Escher print gives an ending that simply peters out and doesn’t satisfy. This may have been what the author was after and if so it is a success, but I felt very disappointed with the experience.

There are several sustained narratives that are very good and could have stood on their own. In particular, the retelling of the Sheppard murder from the 1950′s was very compelling. Adam Ross is a real talent as a writer, but I want him to focus on a more straight forward narrative. A well told story is rare enough that I don’t want it muddied by complicated, experimental structures that don’t boost the emotional connection I have to the story.

Innocent by Scott Turow

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I still vividly remember reading Presumed Innocent more than twenty years ago. I was a little late coming to it because I can remember being on the train and it seemed that everyone was reading it. At the used book sale where I bought it there seemed to be hundreds of copies available. I was blown away by the experience. The emotional content was very strong (it is still the most vivid description of an affair I’ve read) and the ending genuinely surprised me. Very few books have stayed with me for so long, especially ones that I only read once (I can’t explain why rereading it was never appealing).

Innocent, the sequal, is not nearly the same experience. As a mystery it was effective and Scott Turow knows how to build the suspense. I was pulled along by the story and the ending was a surprise. Unfortunately, overall it was a disappointment. For a start, there were too many aspects that were implausible to me. Would Rusty Sabich really be an elected judge after the events in Presumed Innocent? I could believe a successful defense attorney, but I couldn’t believe that being acquitted of a murder on a technicality didn’t have a negative effect on his career. And after having such a sordid affair, would he still be married to the same woman? The story tries to deal with that, but I had a hard time accepting.

Part of the strength of Presumed Innocent in comparison to Innocent is that emotions were built on characters making choices that felt psychologically true. That feeling is lacking here. I don’t want to give away the story, but there are too many times where I doubted the narrative. In most genre books, implausibility is such a constant that I don’t even notice it. In a Scott Turow story the effect is discouraging because so much of the story telling is so strong.

If I hadn’t read Presumed Innocent, I wouldn’t have read Innocent. On its own merits I weakly recommend Innocent, but it is a pale comparison to the earlier work.

The Wordy Shipmates

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

What fun! I have seen Sarah Vowell on talk shows and on CSPAN Book-TV and I have always enjoyed her sardonic delivery and gentle humor. The Wordy Shipmates seems to have been written just for me. She’s about my age and all of her cultural references are part of my personal experience and the humor feel like private jokes just between us. On top of that I feel a deep cultural connection to the Puritans, the main characters in this history.

I haven’t done the genealogical work myself, but some of my relatives have traced my direct male ancestors back to Isaac Stearns, who came over on the ship Arbella. This is the ship that brought over the founders of Massachusetts, who are the focus of this book. So while my ancestor doesn’t show up in the text, both the criticism and the praise for these odd people feels directed at my heritage. Sarah Vowell’s heritage is partly Cherokee, which gives her a perspective for severe criticisms (well deserved).

On top of my Puritan genetic lineage, I was brought up Unitarian (in Canada in a church founded before the Universalist merger) and while it isn’t mentioned here, Unitarianism in America started with a schism in the Puritans.

Somehow I inherited from this cultural tradition the same argumentative nature (as my wife will tell you) that makes up most of the action in this story. While my actual opinions and beliefs are very different, I can understand how the debates over very small religious differences can mean so much to people.

Sarah Vowell treats the furious debates and the genocidal incidents (“— spoiler alert — what the English end up doing to the Pequot youngsters is way, way worse than kidnaping.”) as fodder for both humor and outrage. She both admires and loathes the Puritans and the example that they set for the American character. How can you love people that set the precedent for slaughtering Indians that continued through much of our history. How can you not love people that founded Harvard, the principles of religious freedom and the Protestant work ethic. This is always the problem with reading history. We want to find villains and heros in our founding stories, but all we really find are real people that never precisely fit either mold.

The End of the World as We Know It

Monday, May 17th, 2010

I chose to read this memoir because I enjoyed Robert Goolrick’s novel. His novel involves very damaged characters and it is clear to me now that he is also extremely damaged himself. I don’t want to give away the reading experience, but there are sudden revelations of personal horrors that make this a difficult read.

The writing is riveting, but I have a hard time recommending it. I was well aware that some people live with this kind of personal pain and damage, so the painful experience of reading wasn’t changing for me.

A Reliable Wife

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is a relentless page turner. I was annoyed during the first couple of chapters because it felt like the same ideas were repeated over and over, but suddenly new information was revealed new information that made me reconsider everything that had been told. After this, the story had a grip on me that didn’t let go until the end.

This is a crime story about very damaged people. It was shocking to read that the author based all of the major characters on different aspects of himself. These are all people that have lived deliberately debauched lives. The existence of living for only selfish physical pleasure is presented as deeply depressing and the result of abusive circumstances. The characters, for at least some of the time, see a hedonistic existence as the best way to escape the pain they feel in their existence. Contentment is only found by the simpler, safer but less exciting existence of stable loving commitment to others. Those who can’t accept this lesson die.

This sounds simplistically moral, but the author does include minor characters that experience madness, pain and death without any sense of higher justice. The many characters reap what they sow, but I don’t think that the author is trying to imply that a virtuous existence is any guarantee of a good life.

The writing is mesmerizing and very sensual. While there is long discussions of the sex lives of the characters, I didn’t find it erotic to read as there was always a feeling of how damaged these people are. The sensuality comes from feeling the pain these characters experience so vividly. There were some distractions: one of the characters is portrayed as so wealthy that nothing can’t be bought, the setting was in some ways to simple, without the complications and randomness that would make it feel more real. The whole story happens on a stage that is designed and built by the author as a closed world. This closing off of the story from complicated and random real world made the story more engrossing while reading but made it less meaningful for me on reflection.

I recommend this book because of how engrossed I was while reading. I plan to read Robert Goolrick’s memoir The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life to find out how this kind of damage plays out in a real life.

Trotsky: a biography

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Trotsky: a biography was a very difficult read for me. I wanted to read it because interest in communism because as a left leaning liberal, communism is the most significant blot on the history of liberalism. I am proud to call myself a liberal because of liberalism’s noble heritage of extending rights into larger and large portions of society. Abolition and civil rights are the greatest examples of this, but also the efforts of progressives and liberals to use the power of government to deal with the worst examples of market failure (pollution, exploitation of low wage workers, monopolies, consumer fraud, etc). However liberals and progressives had a blind spot to the threat of communism, particularly in the years before World War II. Later, liberals began to define themselves in how they differ from communists, but the taint of prior acceptance remains even today as we see critics calling President Obama a socialist and worse.

Leon Trotsky is portrayed in this biography as so certain of his reasoning that he felt justified in using extreme violence to push aside all obstacles to his goals. As it became clear that Stalin was committing atrocities against is citizens to cement his power, Trotsky became a hero to western communists because he was in the opposition and had an explanation of Stalin’s mistakes. The thesis of this book is that these supporters ignored the fact that Trotsky engineered some of the worst atrocities of the USSR when he was in position to shape policy.

This book ably proves its point, but it failed to make its story compelling to this reader. I enjoyed learning about Trotsky’s childhood and early revolutionary career and the closing chapters had some excitement where Stalin’s assassination attempts play out. The bulk of the book, from years just before the October revolution to Trotsky’s deportation, were tedious to read. I can’t believe that this is because those years were unexciting, Robert Service is just not a very good story teller. The book might have been more interesting to someone who already knew the ins and outs of the disputes among the Bolsheviks. I still can’t tell you what was the substance of the dispute between Trotsky and Stalin (is it really possible that they just didn’t like each other).

The research that went into this book is significant and I am glad this book exists, I just wish that had left it to historians and book reviewers to read instead of slogging through.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I finished The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide by Douglas Adams. As a teenager I read and reread the the first three books of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series many times and my first thought in reading this series as an adult was nostalgia. Reading the whole series straight through was a surprising experience going from very familiar jokes and situations to the completely unfamiliar in the last couple of books. I had thought that I had read every installment but somehow I missed the final book. The ending came as a complete surprise and it became clear that Adams came to dislike the series and the characters. In the end he made them suffer than die along with his entire comic universe. It reminds me of other artists that become famous for a certain role or popular song and get tired of being asked to do the same act over and over. By destroying everything at the end Adams made sure that he would never have to write another book about Arthur Dent.

I remember learning that Douglas Adams had died and the sadness that I felt. My emotions are comparable to learning of Jim Henson’s passing. Adams humor and point of view is so important to my own and it is surprising that he changed significantly in his later years. We want some control and ownership of the artists that effect us.

I enjoyed re-entering the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe and discovering new corners. I think that I will try to forget the destruction of it and pretend that will stay the same forever.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

Friday, October 16th, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats is an entertaining and disturbing book. It covers the investigations into New Age/occult/psychic ideas by the US Army with the intention of creating super soldiers. These investigations take some members of the Army in very strange directions that have repercussions in the current war on terror. Jon Ronson starts with a rumor that there was a site at Fort Bragg where people attempted (and in some versions of the rumor succeeded) to kill a goat by looking at it. Whether this really happened or not depends on who is asked, but it does seem that some people took this idea very seriously.

While investigating this rumor, the author learns about the “First Earth Battalion” (see the manual here), an apparently serious attempt to apply the ideas of 1970′s human potential movement to the military. As unlikely as it seems, this was taken seriously and the Army started to experiment with teaching soldiers yoga and meditation. Somehow these ideas were extended to psychic abilities and there was hope that soldiers could, if their minds were trained correctly, walk through walls, become invisible (convince the viewer that you weren’t there, not let light pass through you) and kill without touching. These abilities would make the soldiers like jedi knights (this was in 1979, so this was a natural analogy). The author doesn’t mention it, but I thought of the book In Search of the Warrior Spirit by Richard Strozzi Heckler where the author describes his experience teaching Aikido to Green Berets. This is a relatively benign expression of the ideas that were floating around.

Jon Ronson suggests that there is a straight line between the First Earth Battalion and some of the more disturbing aspects on the war on terror: blaring loud music and sexual humiliation to break terror suspects. He also tells the story of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy that he claims has links to the secret psychic training programs in the Army. I found these connections tenuous, there are always crazies in and out of military and these ideas could have come from the general culture event without the First Earth Battalion Field Manual. George Clooney is turning this book into a movie that, based on the trailer, treats the whole story as a comedy. The trailer includes many episodes that I don’t remember from the book and I don’t see how they can get away with calling it a true story.

Bonk by Mary Roach

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Bonk, the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is a very entertaining light read about how scientists have investigated human sexuality.  Ms. Roach has more of an eye for the amusing detail about the work of the scientists involved than a desire to explain what is really known, but this may be because so little is really known. What is clear from this book is that there is a significant problem in doing serious scientific work on human sexuality and that is the scientists are humans with their very personal experience of sex. Kinsey, for example, overestimates the prevalence of homosexuality because of a selection bias in his choosing subjects for his interviews. Bias is always a problem in science, but normally there are enough scientists investigating a topic to eliminate this problem over time. With sex, very few people are brave enough to face the humiliating experience of serious study about sex.

Overall the book is more amusing than informative. While having a first hand account of participating in a sex study (the Ms. Roach and her husband volunteered for a study involving medical imaging of intercourse) is interesting because it suggests the limits of this kind of study, the episode feels more like (fun) gossip rather than serious science. The book isn’t arousing, exactly, but it in general has the feeling of naught fun that doesn’t help the image problem that the profiled scientists face on a regular basis.

As a warning to male readers, chapter 8 has many more details about medically slicing and dicing the penis than I had stomach for. Aside from that I can recommend Bonk as good clean fun.