Saturday, February 27, 2010

Robertson Davies turned me lame!

1. I'm not a genius, I just like books.
2. I can be a bit off-task at times.
3. I'm not exactly topical.
4. I never claimed to have good task.

Thanks, Robertson Davies! You’ve changed my life. I’ve turned a corner; I can now be the high-living, ever-quaffing, WASPy, bourgeois bastard that I’ve always aspired to be. You’ve shown me the way. If I were to drunkenly stagger into the clubhouse of any country club across this great land I would now know how to fit in. Why, I could discuss Anglican church politics like a pro! I could regale the swells with stories about my boarding school days, over “bumpers of first class scotch!” I could be grimly earnest about the importance of finding good help.

What I’m getting at, simply, is this: reading a Robertson Davies novel is about the most un-apologetically Caucasian sensation most normal human beings can ever hope to experience, it’s like watching Mr. Rogers and Barbara Bush dance to Pat Boone’s Tutti Frutti. I have recently concluded reading four Robertson Davies novels (The Cunning Man, Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders, the latter three making up what is known, for no really good reason, as The Deptford Trilogy) and I feel as though I’ve been bleached several shades paler. Davies writes about men (and that’s not a chauvinistic slip; I do mean men, no female plays any more significant a role in these novels than to occasionally narrate what the men are up to) who one supposes must leap out of bed in the morning already in their well-tailored three-piece suits, hoisting “bumpers of first class scotch,” and spouting witticisms.

And, what can I say? I enjoyed every minute of it.

I am, you see, a square. I’d rather have dinner with Brubeck than Miles Davis, I like chess and pipes and I love love looooooove a nice sweater. I hate hate haaaaate it when people are too familiar too soon (isn’t it better to be coldly polite to new acquaintances for two or three months just to show ‘em?). My favorite founding father is John Adams (the great great granddaddy of prickly squares everywhere) and I firmly believe the 60s ruined everything.

So, Robertson Davies, I discovered, is for me. He may well bore the living Christ out of you, though.

If none of this has turned you off yet, then pour yourself a "bumper of first-class scotch" and dive right in. ("Bumpers of first-class scotch" are kind of a big thing in Davies novels, if you haven't picked up on that yet) I would recommend The Cunning Man foremost of the books I read. It is, for one thing, a singular work, and thus more user-friendly than the Deptford Trilogy. Such nuts-and-bolts considerations aside it's also, I think, a better written, tighter, and more compelling story. It follows Dr. Jonathan Hullah as he reflects on the entirety of his life and follows the development of his lasting friendships. This book-length reminiscence is prompted by a reporter’s investigation into the death of an Anglican clergyman, and the possibility that Dr. Hullah's oldest friend may have been involved. It is this mystery that ties the book together, giving it a bit more starch and cohesion then the other Davies novels I read.

I am not a lover of the idea that ‘Character is plot’ (which notion was rammed down my throat bi-weekly with a punter’s pole while I was in grad school). I am an adherent of the radical notion that Plot is Plot and Character is Character, but I’m a little screwy you know. In the case of this book, however, it holds fairly true. Jonathan Hullah is, very simply, a person you want to read about. He’s a gentleman, and I mean that in one of the more archaic and elegant uses of that word. I say this because while he’s a diagnostician by occupation–it isn’t the beginning and end of what the man is. He is an illustration of that charmingly old-school idea that wealth is not an end in and of itself. The end, rather, is to develop oneself as an interesting and cultured person, and wealth only serves this end by providing the leisure and means to pursue it. He is a patron of the theatre, a literary critic, and a cultivator and collector of oddities, especially as regards his friendships. And his friends, being oddities, are also an interesting mix of people to read about.

So, what is there to say? It’s a good read. You won’t regret it. Especially if you’re a member of that increasingly marginalized demographic: the Square. If you’re reading this there’s a good chance you are one, whether you know it or not. And if you’re quite sure you aren’t may I recommend Valley of the Dolls?

Monday, August 17, 2009

I recently received this comment from a reader, one missrowanoak:

"WTF! Where are you? Have you stopped reading? I've been checking this goddamn blog for over a year to see if you have read anything. Shit or get off the motherfuckin' pot already!"

(I like your style dude, but there's just one thing: do have to use so many durn cuss-words?)

This was a shock on several levels. Firstly, it was jarring to remember that I actually had a life and thoughts and things to say before I moved to Quincy (we'll get to that in a bit), but also, and perhaps more mind-blowing, I had now to wrestle with the idea that someone actually READS this thing. I fell off my chair, my nose bled, down was up, up was down, I had to call my mom. It was pretty wild there for a minute.

I've recovered to an extent, but I'm going to keep cotton balls in my nostrils until I'm sure I'm out of the woods. Clearly some response is required to blog-commentary of this magnitude. In truth, it's owed to my legions of fans. Who exist, apparently.

Missrowanoak (nice name by the way), it's true that for a year now I've failed to blog. What follows will try to sound like an explanation and not an excuse. I'm a little hazy where the one thing stops and the other starts, so forgive me if stagger over the line now and again.

Weeell, last September I moved to a town called Quincy, Illinois. It has beautiful architecture, lovely trees, friendly people, and I want to burn it down and sew the ground with salt. I can't say that there's anything really wrong with Quincy, it's just not my kind of town. It's got the market cornered on quaint, but not a single decent coffeeshop. It's also closed on Sunday. The whole town.

What I tell people is that it's a nice place to live there, but I wouldn't want to visit. And since I came knowing I'd be here only for a year or so, it's been one agonizingly long visit. I'm in Quincy because going to watchmaking you do.

So here's how that happened; I finished my course work at U of M and set to work on my thesis, and I fiddled and tinkered and generally dicked around and before I knew it my student loans needed paying. I couldn't find a decent job, nor could I defer my loans by going into a doctoral program (because I wasn't technically finished with my MFA). But something had to give.

Now, for some years I'd been working on a theory that an artist can't serve two masters: you can't slave at your local newspaper all day and then come home and expect to write the Great American Novel (don't you hate that phrase, by the way?) at night. No, an artist has to starve OR... be his own boss. I thought that learning a trade would a good way to go; if one works with one's hands all day then one's mind is still fresh at 5:00. And so far this has worked out. I've been developing my talents as a comic artist since I moved to Quincy. I recently adapted James Thurber's short story The Lemming into comic form (this will shortly be published on The Great and Secret Thing, I'll link to it when that happens). But this is probably one of the things that's distracted me from blogging.

Sorry, bit of a tangent there. SO: I applied for watchmaking school. It seemed a good fit: I could learn a trade, defer my loans a little longer, and get the hell outta Dodge for a year or so. Why watchmaking? I dunno. I think they're neat. All those little wheels and springs...

To answer your central question: 'Have you stopped reading?' No, in fact I probably read more now for lack of other things to do. Why haven't I blogged? I don't know. It's hard to is surprisingly intense, but that can't account for all of it... there's also the old 'the-more-free-time-I-have-the-less-I-seem-to-get-done' paradox. I think mainly it's just this feeling I've got that my year in Q-town is a weird in-between-time in my life. I assure you, my blog is not the only thing that's on hold right now.

It seems likely that I'll be moving back to Memphis in October, and I hope I'll be able to pick up a number of threads I left dangling when I moved. The blog is one of them. I will try to blog before then, just so my time in Q can't be counted a as complete flatline. I just read Watership Down (I know it's old news to most of you, but it was my first time and I loooooooved it) and it's still on my mind... At any rate I hope that this will serve for a few more weeks.

Thanks for the heads-up.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Unbearable Tightness of the Unbearble Lightness of Being

1. I’m not a genius. I just like books.
2. I can be a little off-task at times.
3. I’m not exactly topical.
4. I never claimed to have good taste.

Books read since last we spoke: The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Sirens of Titan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, The Shadow of the Wind

I am extremely reluctant to confess my ardent, moony, schoolboy-like love of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’m not sure I know how best to explain this reluctance…I mean, it’s a great book. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and heartfelt, its characters are passionate, its ideas stimulating. Why be ashamed to like that?

Well, it’s because I kinda feel like I’m supposed to like U.L.O.B. You know? It’s like there’s a type of person who’s just gonna be a sucker for all that truth and beauty. It’s like being manipulated, it’s a little like being a lightweight. I picture some older, more experienced reader jerking his thumb at my thunderstruck face from across the library and saying "Hey, look at the kid over there. Somebody can't handle a little truth and beauty. Christ, what a mess. Do you think he's gonna try and drive?"

Fellas, do you like film version of High Fidelity? Because I felt the same way about that movie: it gave me a creepy feeling like someone, somewhere, in a nice suit, had me a little too pegged. As if in some Hollywood boardroom a marketing exec stood up said “We’re going to make a movie for guys in their mid-to-late twenties, who are intellectual, ineffectual, really really like music, fear real life and obsess over there romantic ineptitudes.” Then he clicks a little trigger and a slide of my face pops up on the screen. “Guys like him,” he says.

That's one too many clunky metaphors for one blog, so I'll suffice to say that if one can be that finely marketed to, can be placed so effectively in such a narrow group, it gives one the feeling that perhaps one isn’t quite the individual one thinks of oneself as.And I don’t know a single brainy, hip, well-read, romantic, creative, thoughtful person (of either sex) in their mid-to-late twenties who doesn’t love this book like a Baptist loves judging you. So if that means I belong to a ‘type’…oh well, there are worse types I could be a part of. Baptists.

Enough of this mad banter. Let’s talk about the book. Please don’t think for a moment that I was saying that High Fidelity and Unbearable Lightness of Being are similar, for while I love them both equally (and one is actually referenced in the other…hmm…weird) that is about the only thing they have in common. Both works are highly referential, but while High Fidelity draws its life from pop music, U.L.O.B. (as befits a novel of ideas) is all over the board. Kundera weaves his tapestry using threads from Kafka, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Parmenides, and Tolstoy. If that sounds like a mess, if it sounds over-intellectualized and inaccessible, I assure you it isn’t: all of these ideas are illustrated in a quiet, calm way, as they apply to the lives of his characters. The book has been called narration-heavy, and perhaps it is. But what a narrator! I wish that someone so wise, well spoken and understanding was following me around, explaining my life.

I feel odd about wrapping the blog up right now, because I know that some of you are no doubt saying: “that’s all well and good, but what’s it about?” I don’t think I’m going to tell you. It’s not laziness that stops me, or the very pertinent fact that I have to go the bathroom. It’s that a summary of plot is irrelevant to an understanding of this book. Beauty cannot be synopsized. I could say it’s about the journey through life of four characters–one Swiss, three Czech–as they live out what Kundera calls the symphony of their lives. I could tell you it’s about how they love and betray each other, about how some die and others live. But that would be shallow. When I was assembling my thoughts for this blog I asked my friend Jeremy how he would summarize U.L.O.B., and he said he wouldn’t bother trying. When he talks to people about this book, he says “just read it.”

So just read it.

If that’s not enough, here are some quotes:

“Love does not make itself known in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends itself to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep.”

“In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblem of a secret brotherhood.”

“Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according the laws of beauty without realizing it, even in times of great distress.”

“She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical slogans in unison.”

"Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity."

Friday, April 18, 2008

You gave up on me, didn't you? That's okay, I did too.

1. I’m not a genius. I just like books.
2. I can be a little off-task at times.
3. I’m not exactly topical.
4. I never claimed to have good taste.

The last 7 odd months have been momentous. I offer this not as an excuse for why I've failed to blog, but as an explanation. There is a difference. Look it up. Anyway, if the bookishness doesn't run too long I may give you all an update.

I don't really know where to start, because I've read a great many books since the last time I talked with you fine people. (might even be a fuck-ton, but I can't be sure if it's an English or Metric fuck-ton. So I'll just retreat from the point rather than risk the mistake). I even finally bested the Brothers Karamazov. It turns out that publicly shaming yourself is a hell of a motivator. Also reads: The Godfather, Ironweed, Goodbye Columbus, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (twice... really did dig that book) I finished up both the Harry Potter series and Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (both ended a bit disappointing). I rocketed through Richard Yates brilliant short story collection 11 kinds of lonliness, which has the distinction of being the only short story collection I've ever read cover-to-cover without interruption. I've been enjoying Kirkman's utterly badass zombie comic book The Walking Dead. And there's probably some other shit I'm forgetting about. about a lightning round? That sounds like a pretty good way to get back into the swing of things. A dozen books in manageable bite-sized chunks.

The Godfather: Pretty much lived up to the legend. As much a book about loyalty as the mafia, it was a surprisingly quick read and a lot of fun. The constant reminders of Italian sexual prowess started to get annoying, especially because this man writes love scenes with all the skill of a horny teenager in the marching band (it's almost like you can hear Puzo in the background, shouting "Hey, that's like me! I'm Italian!") But that's a minor complaint.

Ironweed: I jumped into William Kennedy's story of Depression-era Albany unaware that it was the concluding segment of a trilogy. It held up nonetheless. It's the story of Francis Phelan, a former ballplayer and family man who returns to his hometown on Halloween night after years of transient life. The homecoming forces him to face the ghosts of his past: the scab he murdered, the family he abandoned, the infant son he drunkenly dropped and killed. The author turns Francis's inner demons into literal night-walking spirits in an effective and haunting (no pun intended) touch of magic realism. Francis Phelan is in many ways the stereotypical Irishman: brash, good-natured, drunk, venturesome, inebriated, independent, worldy-wise, and plastered. One might be offended, but it's so well done that you barely notice it.

Goodbye Columbus: This was a pretty good book. I found the titular novella to be the least affecting of the bunch, and would turn the readers attention to the other stories in the book, particularly The Conversion of the Jews, and Defender of the Faith. Conversion is about a young boy who is smacked by a Rabbi for asking impertinent questions about the divinity. "You shouldn't hit people about God."

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: This book has a lot wrong with it; it's sentimental, it's naive about questions of race and sexuality and politics, it's dialogue (especially when McCullers is trying to write in dialect) is maddeningly clunky, almost silly. But all of these problems are forgiven and made good by the great love McCullers shows for the sad, flawed humans she peoples her world with. It's the story of four lonely people, who all meet a mute named John Singer, and create out of him the companion they have longed for. He is able to become The Person Who Understands to them all because he can't open his mouth and ruin the illusion. It's simply beautiful.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: I would re-name this book Harry Potter and the Anti-climax of Doom. 'nuff said.

The Amber Spyglass: The concluding segment of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is written with all the imagination, philosophical daring, and brilliant blasphemy that his fans expect of his work. My only complaint is that it suffers from a case of too-many-characters-too-many-worlds-not-enough-book. Pullman's strength as a writer heretofore has been his ability to create well-crafted and believable fantasy worlds, and people them with characters that were utterly outlandish, yet still compelling and relatable. He overuses this skill in this third installment; adding new worlds and new characters to the point that those characters you've already fallen in love with seem short-changed. Still worth the time.

11 Kinds of Lonliness: I've never tried to review a collection before, and don't really know how to do it. All I can say is that I never once finished a Yates story and thought that I'd do anything other than read the next at the earliest opportunity.

The Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman has helped me rediscover my love of Comic Books. And yes, I do mean Comic Books (big letters) and not 'graphic novels'. Basically, this saga is for anyone who has ever loved zombie movies and wished they could be longer.

Well, I could have said a lot more about all of these. Especially Ironweed and 11 Kinds of Loneliness, but there isn't a single one of these I wish I could get my time and money back on. Not even Deathly Hallows, because I enjoyed it pretty much right up until the end.'s running long so I'm going to go. But I'll talk at you again soon.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Moviegoer, or: Who the F**k is Rory? And also: Hail Hail Rock n' Roll

1. I’m not a genius. I just like books.
2. I can be a little off-task at times.
3. I’m not exactly topical.
4. I never claimed to have good taste.

Okay, if I can't maintain order in my freaking life I'm not sure how I expected to be able to blog with some kind of pattern or regularity. I mean, shit, I'm the guy who's never been successfully medicated for his ADD, not because the drugs didn't work but because I couldn't remember to take them in the first place. So here's the deal: I'll blog when I can and you'll like it.

In all fairness it's been a hectic month. I spent ten days of it out of town and I'd like to tell you about that before I get down to the bookishness. Is that okay?

Well, I know you probably don't care, but while I was out of town I lived up to my highest musical aspiration. Since I can't sing, or play any instruments, not even the drums, that can mean only one thing. You guessed it: I was a roadie. I went on tour with a local band called the Antique Curtains and it was probably (no shit) as much fun as I've ever had. If that sounds lame, well, maybe it is, but I don't care. It's the fucking truth.

We swung northeast from Memphis, playing in Asheville, Chapel Hill, Baltimore, Philadelphia and NYC. With the exception of Asheville I'd never been to any of these places before. I loved New York, and I wanted New York to love me, but the Gods intervened. As soon as I entered the city it seemed like what little coolness I can lay claim to changed its name and moved to France. I tripped, I spilled drinks on myself, I got caught in subway doors and turnstiles. In short, if it was uncool, if it was clumsy, if it was painfully bumpkinish, I did it.

Ah well, that's what I get for trying to impress people. To my credit I developed a whole new profession while on the tour; I'm calling it Rock n' Roll Road Sherpa. It all came about as a result of something I saw in Gigantic (a documentary on They Might Be Giants, it's good, check it out) and it was this: at one point John Linnell talks about the way in which, after they've been on the road for a while, he begins to resent the way John Flansberg breathes. That scared the hell out of me.

Now, it really shouldn't have, the Curtains are about the nicest freaking human beings you ever met in your life. But this was, after all, my vacation, and I didn't want any Bad Times. I wasn't going to risk it (I like breathing, you see, and do it often). I decided the best way to defeat any potential on-tour bad feelings was to ensure that everything went as smoothly as was humanly possible. To bring this about I had to transcend mere manager-dom, I had to become the Road Sherpa. A roadie, you see, is a drunk guy in a sleeveless teeshirt who moves amps from one place to another, a manager (at least at the Curtains-scale) is usually more or less the same but has sleeves and a map and might think he's too good to move amps. The Road Sherpa, however, is a guy with sleeves and only a mild buzz on, who has cough drops, mapquest printouts, TWO flashlights, internet access, a pen and paper (just in case anyone ever says "Britton, could you take a note?") earplugs, change for the meter, TP, Aleve, and a camera always at the ready. I was the all-purpose, go-to, swiss army human and it felt good. The Sherpa moves amps as well.

We all had a fucking awesome time, but I won't go into it. This isn't a music blog, after all. I want to talk about Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, to the best of my feeble ability.

I would really like to tell you what The Moviegoer was about but I'm afraid I can't really say. This is a problem I frequently have after reading one of the Great Literary Novels; a feeling that I failed to interact with the book at its deepest level of meaning.

The Brothers Karamazov
was the first, and still the ultimate, book to cause that feeling inside me. I've tried, and failed, to read this book probably five times. It's my Everest. Maybe you know the feeling that causes me to always throw up my hands in despair: it comes on as you're reading, and enjoying, a novel. You can be moved by its beauty, and challenged by its ideas. You can love its characters like family. But eventually you become vaguely aware of all the ideas that are flying right over your head, and all the currents of meaning that flow beneath the surface, undeniably there but beyond your reach, and you understand that these ideas, the ones you're failing to grasp, are what make the book what it is. You understand that really all you're grasping is the plot, and with a book like Karamazov that's kind of like going to the beach and doing no more than standing around in water wings, letting the surf wet your feet. And you give up, pretty disgusted with yourself for being such a clod.

Well The Moviegoer held a similar struggle for me. It follows some events in the life of Binx Bolling, a seller of mutual funds, an attender of movies, a perpetually distracted observer of life and also, ESPECIALLY, of his own feelings. He constantly dissects his social interactions, and the random march of his own thoughts. He theorizes on where "malaise" comes from, and adopts strategies for dealing with it; a mild car wreck, for instance, proves a useful means of shooing off malaise.

He's weird.

Towards the beginning of the novel, he declares himself to be on a search for...well, I never was quite clear on that point. He refers to this Search throughout the whole rest of the novel. He Searches as he chases his secretary, as he conducts his business, as he visits his family members, as he reflects and reflects and reflects and REFLECTS on the events of his life.

In the end, this book was about an oddball pondering his own oddness, and I felt rather shut out of the whole thing. I managed to find some liking for Binx, and I took some interest in the concrete actions he took in his life, such as when he defies his overbearing matriarch of an aunt, and runs off with his step-cousin Kate. She's a maladjusted weirdo no less than Binx, and I was glad they found each other. But their constant introspection was, I thought, fairly ho-hum.

With the The Moviegoer I suspect that you either get it or you don't. I didn't. This is probably my failing more than Walker Percy's. If you're like me, and you don't have the ability to connect with Binx's personal philosophy, and statements like "How could I deal with ten thousand people's personal rays" leave you going "hmm?", here's what you'll carry away from a reading of this novel: a little good dialogue, some moments of real pathos (such as Binx's beautiful connection with his crippled half-brother), and a bunch of really good descriptions of New Orleans in its glory days.

Also (and this is a moment in which I know full well I'm leaving myself wide open to a devastating broadside from anyone who loves this book, and who might have given it a more careful reading than I did) who the fuck is Rory? About two thirds of the way into the book, Binx (who has been narrating in a fairly straightforward first person voice) suddenly starts talking to this guy named Rory. "I tell you what, Rory, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed it", stuff like that. What? Calling all nerds, someone make this make sense to me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

There might be such a thing as ghosts, but they rarely say "boo."

Well, readers, it would seem that any devotion you have shown my humble blog has been pretty poorly rewarded. It has been nearly a month since my last post and I can't make a very good accounting for myself: a little writing, a bit of socializing, too much Medieval II, Total War (yeah, I'm still on that kick. You'll be pleased to know the Venetian Republic won their war with Milan). But very little reading, I'm afraid.

Luckily, I do happen to have a cultural axe to grind–it stems from cinema rather than literature, though. Have you guys seen the movie Waitress? Well, I had high hopes for it; I mean, it has Andy Griffith in it for fucksake, it also has Nathan Fillion (did I spell that right? Anyway, he played Captain Reynolds on Firefly. He rules. I was glad to see him getting work).

I initially struggled with my opinion of the movie, because there was a lot right with it, but what was wrong eventually won the thumb war. As an adopted semi-southerner I've grown more and more impatient with movies that assume the South, and its people, to be what I call QCQHW. This stands for Quaint Cute Quirky and Heart Warming–sort of the Fried Green Tomatoes effect. This movie is so full of folksy wisdom, ol' fashioned home-cooking, and guys named Earl it nearly collapses under the weight. I do believe the South has its own unique culture and aesthetic, but somehow it never makes it into movies. Southerners are generally smarter and a lot less friendly than they come off in films. Your typical movie-land Southerner is a drawling, sweet-natured simpleton. I'm not really sure where the myth of Southern hospitality comes from; it's always seemed pretty far-fetched to me. Here's the facts as I see them: I never saw a fist fight in my life, until the first hour of my first day of school in Memphis. I find rural Yankees to be more consistently friendly than rural Southerners. I think the Civil War left us with a feeling of needing to prove something. Who knows. Anyhow, Waitress was pretty lame.

Speaking of the Civil War, me and my friends have been playing a drinking game derived from Ken Burn's Civil War on Sundays for the last month. The rules are fairly complex, but here's the gist: You pick a side, North or South (I'm drinking for the North) and when your side is beaten in battle, or has some general feat of badassness perpetrated against it, you drink. That's the basic rules, but for advance players there are bonus drinkies: DRINK when Shelby Foote shows bias, DRINK when there's a "That's what she said moment" (i.e. "the balls were flying withing inches of my face"), adopt a personality, like Frederick Douglass or P.G.T. Beauregard, and DRINK when they're mentioned. And, of course, "Mary Todd Drinkin": act crazy for a second then take a shot whenever Mary Todd shows up. If this seems a little disrespectful...well...there's a reason.

OR WHATEVER. This is supposed to be a blog about books, remember? And I do have one good book to talk about: Ghost Hunters, William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum. The title pretty accurately sums up what the book is about: It focuses on a period in the late 19th century during which an extraordinary collection of men and women addressed the question of the supernatural using sound scientific research. These people were not hobbyists or homeopathic crackpots, they were Nobel prize winners, writers, and academics. Their numbers included William Crookes, William James, Oliver Lodge, Lord Rayleigh, Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Lewis Carrol.

This is a book that has the power to alter one's worldview (or, if you are a person with some spiritual/supernatural beliefs, reinforce it). It details many, many experiments that were conducted by this group in their efforts to prove the validity of supernatural phenomenon, and to go into all of them would take more space than is proper for a blog, but the plain truth is that–if you credit that these respectable, educated, stodgy, 19th century scientists knew their business, and conducted it scrupulously–well, dammit, they proved their case. Their tests showed, again and again, credible evidence of telepathy, telekinesis, and even communication with the dead.

I know what you're thinking: "If the father of Psychology, the grandfather of radio, and a few other various Nobel prize winners got together a hundred years ago and proved the existence of life after death, why haven't I heard about it?" Well, one of the great things about Blum as a writer is that she never breaks from her narrative to address this question, rather she writes, alongside her history of parapsychology, a history of mainstream science's hostility
to parapsychology. Again and again throughout Ghost Hunters the reader is no sooner floored by the discoveries of the psychical researchers, than he is again floored by the pigheaded disregard paid to those discoveries by the science world at large. One sees the careful, meticulous rigor that these early parapsychologists applied to their discipline, and then reads the hollow, uninformed dismissals of the traditional scientists: "Oh, you clearly weren't careful enough with your record keeping," "Ah you were clearly hoodwinked by a clever fraud," and, if all else failed "Well, clearly that couldn't have happened, so you must be making it all up." Blum paints a portrait of a young, struggling branch of learning that exists half-way between religion and science and is hated by both. The church saw Psychical Research as encroaching on its turf, and science saw it as asking questions that were inappropriate for science.

In the end, I think that what one takes away from Ghost Hunters is dependant on one's particular usage of an old philosophical device known as Occam's Razor. The Razor says that if two explanations for a given event are put forward, all things being equal, favor the simpler. So: William James, Henry Sidgwick, and their team of researchers conducted probably thousands of tests with the aim of ascertaining the existence of telepathy, life after death, and other supernatural phenomenon, and they found evidence that is solid enough that I wouldn't think twice about calling it "proof". So, you tell me which of the two following explanations is the simpler:

(1) This group of notable scientists, philosophers, and researchers, including some Nobel laureates, for no monetary gain to themselves, and at the cost of serious harm to their own reputations, devoted 30+ years of their lives to orchestrating a huge, pan-continental conspiracy with the aim of faking the existence of the supernatural. Or, (2) they did their jobs honestly, wrote down the results, and found some truth.

I think #2 is simpler, but I know many will side with #1. And never the twain shall meet. Anyhow, READ THIS BOOK. It's Amazing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Humbletron 2000

1. I’m not a genius. I just like books.
2. I can be a little off-task at times.
3. I’m not exactly topical.
4. I never claimed to have good taste.

This week: How to keep writing even when you’re pretty sure you suck at it. The advantages of brain damage. Does anyone know some good work music?

So I’m writing a book. I’m about 250 pages in, which I suspect is a little over halfway. It’s a historical adventure set in the Republic of Venice in the early Fourteenth Century. It won’t change anyone’s life, but I think it will be good fun to read: and I don’t think there’s anything essentially ignoble about a little escapist literature. I had a title I thought was pretty good, but then I found out that another book had pretty much the same one. Clearly that won’t do, so the book is a bit unnamed at the moment. The closest thing I’ve got at to an idea at the moment is The Arrowcatcher, but that seems a bit corny. I’m open to suggestions.

Anyhoo, I sent the first chapter to fifteen literary agents a month or so ago. And I’ve heard back from all but three of them (rejections) so that’s a bit of a bummer. But that’s part of the process. I’ve started hanging all my rejections around the full-length mirror in my hallway, the one I always look in right before I leave the house. I’m calling this device the “Humbletron 2000,” and it’s a revolutionary new weapon in the fight against ego. I’m working on a model for the general public, it will utilize DMV photographs, love letters from girls who don’t love you anymore, and reminders of times you were publicly embarrassed, typed out in haiku-form like this:

An outdoor lunch date
Sticky birdshit in my hair
Freshman year sucked bad

It’ll catch on, just wait; everyone will have a Humbletron.

Enough. Let’s talk about Solnit’s River of Shadows, like I’ve been threatening to do for weeks.

This book is difficult to discuss because it’s hard to pin down what exactly it’s about, or even place it in a definite genre. One could point out that it focuses on the life and career of a man named Edweard Muybridge, and thus call it biography. Or one might notice how much it has to say about his work (photographer, photographic innovator) and call it art history. Then again, it lovingly describes the society and conflicts of California in the 1870’s, so maybe it’s just plain history? Of course, one can’t discount Solnit’s careful, scientific analysis of the changes wrought on the human psyche by the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the invention of the motion picture…so, sociology maybe?

Enough. This book, finally, reminds me of a number of other titles I’ve read and enjoyed that use a human life as a lens through which to view a distant time and place. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is a famous example of this kind of writing, and also, more recently, The Devil in the White City. I love these kind of books, they have the combination of escapism, exoticism, and education that one finds in the best histories, but they also give the reader a protagonist to root for.

The main character in River of Shadows is the above-mentioned Muybridge. He is the daddy (or at the very least the granddaddy) of the motion picture. Apart from his passion for pushing the boundaries of photography, he was also a pretty interesting cat in his own right. He comes off the page as a kind artistic Prophet of Doom: an unkempt, excitable, glowering Michealangelo with vats of volatile chemicals (essential for that era’s cumbersome photography) rather than a serene painter’s palette. He is one of the horsemen of an apocalypse long-past: the end of the natural world that included humans as an integral part, and the beginning of our own age of separation from nature. He was one of the men who helped, as thinkers of his era phrased it, to “destroy time and space.” For the motion pictures he helped create can be thought of, at their core, as a technology for nullifying the effects of time.

The nineteenth century was all about destroying time and space; with the advent of the railroads time needed to cross vast areas was so reduced that the world seemed to shrink. The human race stopped living by the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset and began to live on the industrial standard of railroads and factories. Muybridge’s part in all this was multifaceted, which is why he is such a good subject for this book. Solnit makes a compelling case for this man being the zeitgeist. He was a photographer who took pictures of the world as it was ending: capturing the transcontinental railroad’s inexorable march across native America, with each tie laid bringing death to herds and tribes. He documented Indian wars, ruins, and earthquakes. His photographs were some of the first to have a mood to them. Before him landscape photography was a collection of clear, still, straightforward pictures of mountains and rocks, images fit to be painted on teacups. Muybridge was the first photographer to prize cloudy, brooding skies and heaps of jagged rubble, to prize a landscape for its upheaval and disorder. He enjoyed photographing falling and running water, which appear white and ghostly at 1870’s shutter speeds.

One aspect of Muybridge’s life I found very interesting was the theory put forward by Solnit that the man’s passionate, moody, and at times maniacal creativity was the result of brain damage. The artist’s life can be divided neatly into a before-and-after, with the central event being a grisly stagecoach accident that nearly killed him. Before, he was a prosperous San Francisco bookseller, seemingly self-satisfied. Afterwards he was Edweard Muybridge: artist, innovator, and future murderer (he shoots his wife’s lover, good for him). So, in short, in the pursuit of personal creative development, I’m currently seeking volunteers to bash me in the face with a sledgehammer.

In other news: I’m looking for some good writing music. I like writing while listening to things that are cool and have no lyrics. I normally write to Erroll Garner’s Body and Soul, but I’ve completely worn it out. Suggestions?