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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Imagine--Jonah Lehrer

In his third book length publication Jonah Lehrer takes on the world of creativity, innovation, and to some extent imagination--though that is hardly touched upon at all.  Leaving the secure ground of neuroscience (particularly in the second half og the book) Lehrer strays into the fields of social psychology and sociology with somewhat mixed results.

Perhaps that is only for me.  I tend to become quite skeptical when research involves more than empirically verifiable fact and strays off into the territory of group interaction.  You can say that something worked, but it seems difficult to pinpoint why that something worked in the particular instance.  Taking the well-known example of Pixar, Lehrer  (summarizing the work of others, implies that success was largely the result of architecture forcing hallway meetings and interchange.  This, in turn, blossomed into some of the wonderful films we see from the studio.  If such chance meetings and random conversations were really the breeding ground of creativity, one would have expected the 1950s cocktail party to have given rise to something better than Joe McCarthy.

Despite some places where I felt (but do not know) that the explanation was lacking credibility, I found myself sympathetic to the suggestions.  That, of course made me even more skeptical about their validity.  Just because a book confirms what I think to be right because of anecdotal experience does not imply that either the experience nor the book have a finger on the pulse of reality as-it-is.

Despite these reservations, the book is, as usual, readable, fun, and even compelling.  If I disagree at times with the examples of "genius" he chooses to site  (Why Auden rather than Larkin or T.S. Eliot?  Why Bob Dylan rather than John Lennon?--But then, one must draw from examples that demonstrate the principle), I nevertheless enjoyed the exposition of what these individuals did that allowed creativity to flourish.

My rating--an entirely subjective ***1/2  mostly because of disagreements and skepticism.

The Lieutenant--Kate Grenville

I'm not certain that enough good can be said of Kate Grenville.  In this second book of a trilogy devoted to the early history of Australia, she gives us the story of  Daniel Rooke--fashioned loosely after the real-life character of William Dawes.  William Dawes was an early student of the Aboriginal peoples and their language as well as an astronomer and all round polymath.  He was expelled from Australia and went on to join forces with William Wilberforce and, eventually, to open a school for freed-slaves in Antigua.

What Ms. Grenville gives us here is a remarkable story of first contact--of trying to forge the bonds of understanding that would bridge a vast gulf between the experiences of two different cultures.  She performs a remarkable feat in being able to show us the darkness of "civilization" as viewed by the aboriginal people.  She also speaks of the tenderness of heart and kindness that can bridge any gap.  She does all of this in language at once supple and lyrical but never purple, never overdone, always right-on cue.

If you have an interest in history, an interest in Australia, or an interest in just a cracking good story with powerfully drawn characters and (sometimes) a real bite--this is the book for you.

Highest recommendation--*****

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Secret River--Kate Grenville

One Saturday I happened into the library and stumbled upon a relatively new book by Kate Grenville with the title of Sarah Thornhill. I might not have given it a second glance--but truth is, I did, and doing so discovered that it was the prize-winning third volume of a trilogy.  Never one to start at the end I went looking for the other two volumes and stumbled upon The Secret River. As is the way with a great many things from the library, it took me a while to get around to it, and then some time to get into it.  And once again, I'm very glad I did.

The Secret River tells the story of William and Sarah Thornhill from the time that William was born to an impoverished family in the London Slums through the time of his transportation to Australia and on to his eventual success there.  In the course of the story, he marries Sarah who goes with him to Australia and in the strange way that things transpired in that early colony becomes his overseer and master.  They land in what was to become Sydney and begin their Australian careers--at first thinking only of eventually returning to London, and then gradually acclimating and falling in love with the country.

Thanks to an odd typographical choice, the use of italics for dialogue, one of the main features of this novel comes through with amazing clarity--silence.  Seeming pages and pages go by without one word spoken from one character to another.  One would think this would be disruptive or problematic, but it underlines one essential feature of the book--the sense of loneliness, exile, and then eventually awe at this new environment.  We see a man and woman of few words become people of fewer words in a country that speaks all for itself.

from The Secret River
Kate Grenville
Through the glass, the trees were flaked and cracked. The rocks were what seemed alive, something old and solemn out of the sea, their grey skins speckled with white lichen, creased and furrowed and ridged. Through the eye of the glass, he became acquainted with each one. He could see how those tumbled at the base of the cliff must have once been part of its lip, where the forest ended as abruptly as the edge of a table. One by one each had snapped and racketed down.
He had never seen part of the cliff fall away, although he sometime held his breath, staring through the glass, to be watching at the moment it happened.

Through prose like this, and strong, flawed, likable people, we get a glimpse into the early history of the European colonization of a land already populated with a people of its own.  It is this clash of peoples that makes for the climax and denouement of a supremely good and enriching read.  I have no doubt that having read The Secret River,  I shall also find myself reading The Lieutenant (book two) and Sarah Thornhill. All three books have garnered literary awards and, assuming they are as good as this first, they are undoubtedly merited.  These books are worthy of your time and attention, and will repay such many, many times over.

Highest recommendation *****

Monday, June 25, 2012

Looking for Reviewers

Anyone interested in taking a look at my new novel, Beyond the Rim of Space?  Right now we have the e-file available and if  you're willing to tackle an e-book, I'd be happy to send it to you--just ask that you post a review on Lulu and/or Amazon (when it eventually trickles its way through the Amazon bureaucracy to emerge as a Kindle book.

Oh, and for those kind enough to take a look at this blog from time to time, the alternative cover:  We had several while in the works, and the one above is the one--for a variety of reasons, that we settled on--but each had its merits.  Enjoy!

Friday, June 22, 2012

John Galt et al.

It occurred to me the other day, while reading a remarkable study of the figurehead and inspiration behind our latest round of privateering, that we've really missed the mark.  It really occurred after I attempted to watch Atlas Shrugged in its most recent film incarnation, not wishing to subject myself to the turgid prose and rancid philosophizing of the one person most responsible for the progressive decline of anything good to say about the libertarian ideal.  If  The Book of Mormon could spawn a highly successful Broadway appearance, why not Atlas Shrugged: The Musical,  or better yet, Who is John Galt?: The Musical. It could be paired with a revival of Springtime for Hitler  or Hitler on Ice: The Ice Capades Spectacular (as featured at the end of History of the World: part I). Think of the possible profits--the ability to exploit the poor and downtrodden--the possibility of proselytization.

On a more serious note--a more sobering and bracing study of the influence of Ms. Rand and her perennial and pernicious philosophy could not hope to be found anywhere.  Mr. Weiss takes a look at Rand and her circle of followers and notes the preponderance of Randites in the progenitors of our recent Wall Street and Bank Crises.  People who tore down the fabric of the American economy, but who are for the most part, at present, doing quite nicely for themselves, thank you.

Worth looking into if you are interested in objectivism and its pervasive but often unremarked upon influence on current society.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's Easy Being Green

from The Amish Way
Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zecher

David Kline was green long before it became trendy. He summarizes his theology for eco-friendly living in these words: "If one's livelihood comes from the earth--from the land, from creation on a sensible scale, where humans are a part of the unfolding of the seasons, experience the blessing of drought-ending rains, and seek God's spirit in all creation--a theology for living should be as natural as the rainbow following a summer storm. And then we can pray, 'Help us to walk gently on the earth and to love and nurture your creation and handiwork.'"

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Using the Bible as a Bludgeon

From my Amish reading--a reflection on the proper use of Bible reading.

from The Amish Way 
Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher 
One minister, however, cautions that "Bible reading and study is not good when you do it to find fault and criticize churches and people around you. There is a big difference between reading for your daily bread and inspiration, and studying the Bible just to be critical of others or to justify your own contentious and rebellious thoughts."

It is very important to remember that any interpretation of Scripture that is used to harm others or to coerce others very likely lacks authenticity.  If we fail in love, we fail.

Notes on The Amish Way

I will readily confess a deep interest in the Amish way.  Not the romanticized Witness and television drama version of Amish living, but in the witness the Amish offer of the possibility of another way of life--of being separate, apart, and yet whole.

Reading this wonderful book offers insights that go beyond what one might encounter in many books about the Amish.  It does not offer the usual proverbs, sayings, and superficial picture of buggies, bonnets, and barns.  Instead, we are offered a glimpse of Amish worship and how the Amish make meaning.

What is fascinating to me about all major faiths is the way that the emphasize a particular truth of the Gospel (often, I must say, at the expense of representing the fullness of the gospel).  What the Amish show, and represent powerfully is the notion of salvation within community--certainly a theme of Jewish Spirituality--but the main theme of the Amish way.  Everything is about keeping the community as Church intact.  For example, the prohibition regarding cars isn't because cars (or for that matter most modern mechanical things) are sinful in themselves, nor are they the direct cause of sin--but cars allow one to live at a great distance from others--to take oneself out of the community of believers and thus expose oneself more directly to the temptations that exist in the world.  The sinfulness in owning a car is the sin of willfulness an disobedience--not the sin of owning a modern convenience.  I find this a view entirely convivial with almost any Christian Doctrine.

As Americans, we are so used to having our own way about things.  We would not think of curtailing our spending because someone else though it excessive or unnecessarily indulgent.  And yet, I cannot help but wonder if we added a dollop of concern for others and concern for our ultimate effects on those around whether we might not do better to be more observant of things we tend to take for granted.

If Christian life is an integrated whole--not merely a surface decoration, a tribal tattoo, then it is necessary to regard every action taken as representative of that life.  Everything I buy, everything I write, everything I say, everything I do--every action has meaning and import for the whole Christian body.  This is what the Amish demonstrate for us--with their Ordnung and their tight-knit communities, we have a clear sign of what a Christian life looks like when one takes every action seriously.

And that does not mean joylessness--but as we often find with well-defined and clear boundaries, a sense of freedom and joy--the limits are clearly defined and while certainly more narrow that those enjoyed by society at large, often not, of themselves, particularly burdensome.  We all fail, we all transgress,  be we don't all have a community to call us to account--and, perhaps, that is a shame.

If you'd like to go beyond a superficial understanding of the Amish and their way--you would find this book a great help.  Even if the Amish are of not particular interest to you, if you take up this book and look into as a mirror, I think you might be moved and shaken by some of what you discover about yourself, your life, your faith.

And a note for the Catholics among us.  Does this ring any bells? If not then I think we might do well to consider the teachings of our late lamented Magnifico and our present blessed Pope.

from The Amish Way

One might expect that an Amish childhood would be chock-full of religious activities like vacation Bible School, religious camps, and Sunday school. Yet formal religious education is missing in an Amish child's life. Fathers and mothers--not church programs, schools, or youth pastors--shoulder the duty of passing on the faith to their chidren.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Revisiting To the Lighthouse

As anyone who may look into this blog from time to time undoubtedly knows, Virginia Woolf wrote a number of modernist masterpieces.  It's hard for me to choose from among her novels, to name the very finest, because each has its own merits, its own unique contributions to the literary world.  But surely it would be impossible to consider modern literature without Mrs. Dalloway with its unfortunate light into Woolf's own life and demise.  Equally, To the Lighthouse, is remarkable for its insights into how a family thrives and does not thrive, how two people relate and refuse to relate.

You really don't get much more pointed in such a discussion than this passage found on the very first page of the novel:

from To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

"But," said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, "it won't be fine."
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.  Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement. What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness (here Mr Ramsay would straighten his back and narrow his little blue eyes upon the horizon), one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure.

Whereby Mr Ramsay is so generously agreeable in providing an image to place alongside any lexicographical exposition of the word "pompous."  But apart from this severe portrait is the aplomb with which Virginia Woolf seems to move in and out of the consciousness of several different characters all within the same passage--a narrator, who looks uncompromisingly upon Mr Ramsay looking uncompromisingly, James, and Mr Ramsay himself.  One is left with much the same impression that one has at the beginning of Mary Poppins when Mr. Banks treats us to the wisdom that "A British Nanny must be a general."  So we have the Edwardian Father--committed to the truth for everyone except himself.

It is this depth of vision, this deep insight into what drives character and characters, that is one of the profound gifts Virginia Woolf has given us.  She has given us the deep play of the psyche in the very ordinariness of life.