Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hounded--Kevin Hearne

Meet Atticus O'Sullivan, the last druid--no, real druid.  The pull-power from the earth and work magical things kind of druid.  Atticus lives in the town of Tempe Arizona--a place he has chosen because there is no easy way for member of the Fae to find him.  And that is just fine with Atticus because his relations with the Fae are, shall we say, tenuous.

Atticus runs a new-age book shop and herb/tea story in town.  He has fixed the place up with all the latest accessories in cold iron (to keep away the unwanted fae and most other magical charms).  But Atticus has a pretty huge problem.  Despite his close relationship with The Morrigan (Choser of the Dead in Battle) he has managed to earn the emnity of a few of the powerful members of the Tuatha de Danaan--the Celtic Pantheon.  Chief among these are Aengus Og, the Celtic God of Love.  (Once you meet him, you'll have no doubt about why the Irish have always gotten along as well as they have.)

Obviously, from the details given above, we are talking light reading here.  The book clips along at a nice place--the initial premise is fascinating and plays out very well in the overall story.  I'd love to share a couple of really interesting moments of mixed pantheon--but that would give too much away--and this is a story of twists and turns, the less you know overall going in, the more you'll enjoy it as the surprises and interesting moments unveil themselves.

I found it so interesting, I have already picked up and gotten through the second in the series Hexed, about which more soon.

For light-minded, light-hearted beach readsl--a prince among books--****

The Mating Season--P. G, Wodehouse

Well, I'm pleased to report that I finally pushed my way through my first (and very likely last) P. G. Wodehouse novel.  I've read selected shorts here and there and always wanted to attempt a novel.  Now, with the backing and help of my book group, I've done so--a milestone accomplishment.

However, I fear the task was accomplished with dismal results.  My report will not tickle the ears of many, because I found Wodehouse the literary equivalent of the Three Stooges when I was hoping for the Marx Brothers.  Reading through this story of mixed up identities at the house of the fearsome Aunts, I was constantly amused and frequently dismayed.  Dismayed, because it seemed that every line strained so hard to amuse, tried so hard to be funny, worked feverishly to entertain, with the net result that the entertainment value, for me, was diminished.  And perhaps the most telling point of all--Jeeves and his actions occupies all of about twenty pages in the entire opus.  This is nearly all devoted to the fathead Bernie Wooster, who, if one were to meet in real life, one would be tempted to give a stern lecture to about coming to terms with reality.

That's not to say that there were not some extremely amusing, laugh-out-loud moments in the book.  (One of them comes in the description of an exotic dancer than must have been the inspiration for "The Cobra Dance" of Bride and Prejudice fame.)

But the net effect, the final summation, for me was that while the book amused, it did so to the point of tiresomeness--that effect that comes when, while reading you're also squeezing those pages you have left to go and wondering if you'll get through them and if so, when.

Summation--I find myself hard-pressed to recommend this book.  I find myself perplexed by the legions of fans who are wild about these books even while acknowledging that there are some powerfully amusing moments.  Sadly, I would say, that if a fan this might tickle your fancy, but I suspect that it is not a good place for the novice reader to start.

Even so, well written, and if not my cup of tea, reasonably well executed--***1/2

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Pretend You Know Better"

Smugopedia--Pretend you Know Better

The intro blurb is worth the price of admission.

Gil's All Fright Diner--A. Lee Martinez

Yep, my brain has slumped into a summer reading mode which is likely to include a lot of light-weight fiction.  You might encounter the odd The Secret Agent or other more notable piece of fiction in among the fray--but don't count on a lot of it.

This one was an anomaly.  I picked it up in the bookstore and started reading and was hooked by the road trip of a werewolf and a vampire wandering through the desert Southwest and nearly running out of gas as the coast into Mel's All Night Diner.  When they get out of the car, they face the restaurant's owner battling it out with a horde of zombies (more the haitian type than the apocalyptic type) and the action escalates from there through zombie cows, ghouls, graveyard guardians, and a slight encounter with the Elder Gods through the aegis of a 17 year old which and her trusty (and lusty) assistant.

Yes, the teenage practitioner of magic plans to open the gate and allow the great old one through.  And of course Mel's Diner has a secret with regard to the gate.

The action is fast, mildly amusing, and engaging.  The story twists and turns along byways that most Lovecraftians know by heart and though there is never any doubt about the outcome, there are moments in the book during which you wonder how such an outcome will be achieved.

The one thing that nonplussed me about the book was a banner on the cover that indicated that the ALA voted this a "Best Book for Young Adults"  and granted it an "Alex Award."  I would strongly caution anyone thinking about handing the book to a young adult, particularly a young adult on the lower end of that spectrum.  There is very adult subject matter scattered throughout the book, and while not extremely explicit, there are moments that I would rather not have a teenager in my charge reading without discussion and guidance.  (Guess it kind of tells you something about the ALA that they are no longer able to distinguish subject matter truly appropriate for young people--it's one thing to have a shrouded, discrete contact in the book, another when it is as casually peppered through as it is in this tale.)  Of course, none of this really reflects on the book itself, but rather on the suspect judgment of those who hand out awards.  As I noted, I advise caution.

However, for adult readers looking for a light supernatural romp with a few laughs and a unique perspective, you could do worse than Gil's All Fright Diner.

In the category of freaky, fun, light, supernatural beach read--Gil's gets two thumbs up.  ****

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

DFW v. BEE

Foster and Ellis together again not for the last time

I truly wish I could get through Foster's longer works.  I've managed two short stories--but I am so put off by post-modern games in literature that I find it impossible to read.  On the other hand Ellis created a sort of sick tour de force in Less than Zero and has not since equaled that early work. Of the two, I would like to like Foster and find Ellis unreadable, but for me, it is exactly the reverse.  And because Ellis is readable but had nothing of interest to say--I find that I cannot read either.

By the way, the blogpost referenced above is an elegant consideration of the two writers well worth your attention if you are interested in either of them.

100 Greatest Nonfiction Books

100 Greatest Nonfiction Books

"The Wasteland" App

Eliot's Wasteland hits the media age

Joyce in Paris

"Deal with him, Hemingway, deal with him."

The Painted Veil--W. Somerset Maugham

I can say with some pleasure that this is the first of Maugham's books that I have ever finished.  I've tried many--Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, and none of them ever quite did it for me.  Maugham's style is rather flat and his plots and events something of potboilers.  And so it is with this one as well.

However, in this case, I like the particular pot that was boiling.  The Painted Veil reads a bit like a two-penny version of any of Greene's great works (I'm thinking here of The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair as particular examples).  Whereas Greene prefers Africa for his exotic locale, Maugham has chosen China to set his story of infidelity, broken marriage, and redemption.

Vane, shallow, brow-beaten Kitty marries an infatuated intellectual--Walter Fane.  Walter Fane is a bacteriologist in the service of the Royal Colony of Hong Kong and he soon enough sweeps her away to that dismal land--so different from and inferior to England where Kitty takes up an affair with a person every bit as shallow and self-absorbed as herself.  Upon discovering her affair, Walter gives Kitty an ultimatum--go with him into the cholera-blasted depths of mainland China, where it is entirely likely that she will die, or have him divorce her and as a result get her lover in serious trouble as well.   There's a little twist here as well that serves to show Kitty what she has been involved with and starts to clear the path to redemption.

The novel is mercifully brief and to the point.  It is also very much of its time--redolent, as I said above, of Graham Greene's ruminations on similar topics and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.  Nevertheless, it reads well and quickly even now and if there are awkward moments--such as when Maugham practically sticks the reader in the eye with a major, enigmatic symbol in the form of some last words--that passes swiftly enough into the rest of the tale.

Despite some of these imperfections, the book is a good read--enjoyable, a balance of the serious and the light (because the prose is so workmanlike).  It would make an excellent beach book for those too self-conscious to carry J. D. Ward (or for that matter J. D. Robb) to the beach.

****--Recommended

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Equal Opportunity Offense

Ms. Armstrong is likely to offend those who abide by a strict literal interpretation of scripture, but her words support those of us who have to answer the question--"Why the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the one in the New?"

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

There is a great deal of tribalism in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Hence we fince tests such as the book of oshua, which describes Israel's brutal slaughter of the ingigenous people of Canaan, and the book of Revelation, which imagines Christ slaughtering his enemies in the Last Days. Not surprisingly, some have been puzzle by the Charter for Compassion's call "to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate."

But we have to remember that people have not always read scripture in the way it is read today. Rabbinic midrash was not interested in the original meaning of the biblical author; far from sticking slavishly to the literal sense of the ancient scriptures, the rabbis sought a radically new interpretation for a drastically altered world They took from the old texts what was useful to them and set the rest reverently aside.  Henceforth Jews would read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the Mishnah and the Talmuds, which entirely transformed it. Christians were equally selective in their exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, focusing on texts that seemed t predict the coming of the Messiah (which they understood in an entirely different way) and paying little attention to the rest. Even Martin Luther (1483-1546), who saw scripture as the only valid path to God, found that he had to create a canon with the canon, because some biblical texts were more helpful than others.  The reading of the bible was, therefore, a highly selective process, and until the early modern period nobody thought of focusing solely on its literal meaning. Instead Christian in Europe were taught to expound every sentence of the Bible in four ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically. Indeed, as a Catholic child in the 1950s , this was how I was taught to read the Bible.  For the Christians as for the rabbis, charity was the key to correct exegesis. Satin Augustine (354-430), one of the most formative theologians in the Western Christian tradition, insisted that scripture taught nothing but charity. Whatever the biblical author may have intended any passage that seemed to preach hatred and was not conducive to love must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity.

My son asked me, upon my returning home from work yesterday, what it meant when the Old Testament said to slaughter all the Amalakites, their women, children, cattle, and fowl.  And I told him that it could have several meanings.  The first of which was to put away all false belief--that one was not to literally kill those who disagreed, but one was not to allow the incorrect thought to persuade one to wrong ways.  A second way to look at it was that it was the way a warring people understood their radical "chosenness" and they way they chose to express that thought.  Finally, I pointed out that such a command was inconsistent with the scriptures later in the Old Testament that demanded fair treatment of widow and orphan and a sacrifice of charity not of the blood of oxen--a repentance not of sackcloth and ashes but of liberating the unjustly imprisoned, and relieving the oppressed of their burdens.

Any interpretation of scripture that allows us to justify harm to another or to hate any person for any reason is unjustified.  If such a God exists, He may as well not because He is no better than us.  And all of the evidence points in the opposite direction.  God is God from eternity to eternity--it is not possible for Him to order the slaughter of innocents and then tell us to "Turn the other cheek."  It isn't in his nature.  And because it is not and because all true understanding of God emphasizes compassion, it is necessary to understand biblical texts always in that light, even when that light seems exceedingly dim.  The vagaries of scripture are better understood as human failings than as failure of Compassion.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Compassion--The Jewish Tradition

I loved these passages from Armstrong's book:

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

Building on the insights of the Pharisees, the rabbis of the Talmudic age were able to transform Judaism from a temple faith into a religion of the book. Hitherto to the study of the Torah (the teachings and laws attributed to Moses) had been a minority pursuit; now it would replace temple worship. In the course of a massively creative intellectual effort, the rabbis composed new scriptures: the Mishnah, completed in about 200 CE, and the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, completed in the fifth and sixth centuries respectively. Compassion was central to their vision, as we see in a famous story attributed to the great sage Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus's. It is said that a pagan approach Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg.  Hillel replied: "What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man.  That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it."

*****

The great Rabbi Akiva, executed by the Romans in 135 CE, taught that the commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" was the greatest principle of the Torah. Only his pupil Ben Azzai disagreed, preferring the simple biblical statement "This is the roll of the descendents of Adam" because it emphasized the unity of the human race.  In order to reveal the presence of compassion at the core of all the legislation and narratives of the Torah, the rabbis would sometimes twist the original sense and even change the words of scripture.  They were not interested in merely elucidating the original intention of the biblical author.  Midrash (exegesis) was an essentially inventive discipline, deriving from the verb darash, "to search," "to investigate," or "to go in pursuit of" something that was not immediately self-evident.  A rabbi would be expected to find fresh meaning scripture, which, as the word of God, was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation.

I love the observation of Ben Azzai as it is both salutary and terribly necessary in the world today.  We are all part of one human family.  If we could remember in the time of heated encounter that the person we are facing is indeed a brother, indeed loved of his mother and brother and sisters--it becomes more difficult to regard such a one as a stranger.   Compassion starts with realizing our common humanity and our common brokenness.  There are those who think they are not broken and often, they are the most aggravating and difficult to deal with.  But the reality is that once we see who we are and how broken each person is--either compassion or contempt must follow.

What I find difficult in the post-modern world is that too often it is contempt and not compassion that emerges from this realization.  How often do I read a book in which the authors too obviously hold no love whatsoever for his or her characters?  Such works are trials--even if they are well done--they are trials.  We seem to have something of a void in the way of compassion in serious literature.  Perhaps that is why I like Yiyun Li and Maaza Mengiste so much--their compassion and love for the characters whose stories they tell is so large and so encompassing and so beautiful. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Compassion Considered

It is hard to continue on the point of yesterday's post without sounding as though I am on a tirade against the solid intellectual foundations of faith.  My first task is to dispose of that notion.  I do not stand opposed to careful and clear articulation of fundamental doctrinal and dogmatic understandings.  What I do stand opposed to is that Jesus, or for that matter any other spiritual leader, ever intended that to the be legacy that they left us with.  The true legacy of a profound spiritual teacher is the changed lives of his or her followers--not the knowledge that they have of hidden things.

Too often that sort of knowledge is put to poor use as a bludgeon to batter those less intellectually inclined--or, by demagogues for purposes even less charitable.  But misuse of knowledge is not a credible argument against its acquisition.  And the purposes of such thought should be ultimately to help the follower in faith to live his or her faith.

Yesterday was another case in point at my Church--a predictable one.  In the United States the celebration of the feast of the Ascension has been moved to the Sunday before Pentecost.  While done for good and meaningful pastoral reasons, all of this moving about of feasts is actually counterproductive because it accommodates the spiritual life to the secular life.  That is, the purpose and portion of non-Sunday feasts was, at least in part, a continual reminder that the faith life is not to be confined to an hour on one day of the week.  When the faith is lived rather than merely acknowledged, all days are holy and precious for the insights they bring.

Back to yesterday--on the Ascension--a feast celebrate the compassionate act of Jesus both as teacher and savior returning to the Father in preparation for sending out the Holy Spirit on Pentecost--we got a lecture on ecclesiology, Christology, and eschatology.  In point of fact, many people can't even pronounce the words--and if they're so inclined they might puzzle out what at least one of the three is all about.  But how does knowing the word and hearing a bit about the role of Jesus in salvation history actually inspire the listener to worship Christ in the only way that matter--imitating Him?  I'm certainly not going to ascend on clouds of heavenly glory.  Still less am I likely to found a Church (although I suppose much could be made of the question as to whether that was ever an intent as well).  What I need to know as a person occupying a seat in a pew is what does this action in salvation history call me to do for my brothers and sisters today.

It isn't that Christianity doesn't view this question as important, it is just that throughout history many of the major teachers have been notoriously bad at explaining it in any way that would foster the kind of growth that produces compassionate people.  The wrong things get emphasized and division is the order of the day.

Or worse yet, this sort of compassionate activism becomes the end-all be-all of religious life and is as hollow and empty as many of its detractors claim it is.  Living the life of faith is a delicate balance between knowledge and action--contemplation and activity.

Here, in a nutshell is what Ms. Armstrong (among many others) has to say to us about compassion:

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

Compassion impels us to work tireless to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, with exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in bot public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others--even our enemies--is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women

--to restore compassion tot he centre of morality and religion;

--to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. . .

I like particularly the last part of this.  How many of us have seen signs from some who call themselves Christians that say something like "God hates f_gs"?  God hates?  How do the two words even come out of the same mouth in such a juxtaposition? How is it conceivable to even think in such ways?  If God can hate (at least persons) then such is not a God I can have any interest in serving.  If God does not regard each and every one of us as a particular, singular, and precious child, then only Atheism offers a release from the terrors of such a monster.  Or perhaps Antitheism would be the more appropriate term.  Needless to say, I do not believe this in any way describes the God we meet in most of the sacred scriptures of the world.

While doing the prayer for Vespers yesterday, I came upon a passage from Hebrews referring to Jesus, "now he waits until his enemies are placed beneath his feet." And was brought to an abrupt halt.  If Jesus is the savior of all, who then might be His enemies?  And it occurred to me that this had a very simple answer--the enemies of Jesus are not people but spiritual entities that pervade the world--ignorance, anger, hatred, fear, cruelty, visciousness--all attributes of humankind--but not the only attributes.  It was these that are the true enemies of any Christ-life one might wish to undertake, and until they are vanquished in is impossible for the individual to be what is required of each of us.

LoA Story of the Week--Stephen Crane

"An Experiment in Misery" Stephen Crane

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What Catholics (and other Christians) Can (and Should) Learn from Buddhism

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

Yet sadly we hear little about compassion these days. I have lost count of the number of times I have jumped into a London taxi and, when the cabbie asks how I make a living, have been informed categorically that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history. In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, Popes and Bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity. In their public announcements, they rarely speak of compassion but focus instead on such secondary matter as sexual practices, the ordination of women, or abstruse doctrinal definitions, implying that a correct stance on these issues--rather than the golden rule--is the criterion of true faith.

While Ms. Armstrong and I might have words to exchange over the relative importance of doctrinal and dogmatic clarification, I think we would see mostly eye-to-eye on what really matters.  When I think about the teachings of Jesus, I don't remember a time when he said, "Blessed are the test-makers, for they shall have a precise measurement of the gates of heaven."  Nor do I recall that the ultimate test of faith would be multiple choice on  doctrine and dogma.  Rather it seems clear to me, that Jesus articulated a very pronounced criterion for success in faith matters.  "When I was in prison, you visited me.  When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink.  When I was hungry, you gave me to eat."  This, it seems to me, is the test of whether faith has any substances--not abstract knowledge of the principles.

I don't want to denigrate that abstract knowledge because it helps to inform the practical actions one should undertake.  However, when the abstract knowledge becomes the end rather than the means to a living faith, one needs to examine the principles that are being articulated.

For me, faith has no meaning if it is not lived in a way that everyone can see.  And by that, I do not mean mouthed so that all can hear--although that can be an important aspect of a living faith--but the fundamental understanding that John Donne had when he wrote:



from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII
John Donne

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours.

Such a statement comes only from certain knowledge of a shared fate and a deep compassion for human frailty and weakness--a compassion that demands walking with those more frail and weaker than ourselves and helping shoulder their burdens.  We do this in prayer, in corporal works of mercy, and sometimes in our mere presence--a listening ear to turn to.

What Catholics could learn from Buddhists (oh, and a great many other faiths as well) is to recognize the criteria of lived faith and to celebrate those even as we worship as we have been taught.  What we do not need is further division in the name of doctrinal purity or even in the name of  "right translation."  I know that what I have to say is not popular among some groups of Catholics, but the Church would be much better off if more attention were lavished on compassion and how to demonstrate it and how to practice it, than on whether multos translates literally as "for the many" or "for all"  when it is absolutely crystal clear in all dogma and practice that Jesus died for all that sins may be forgiven.  It is the sort of tone-deaf word mincing that causes all manner of difficulty in and out of the church. And I, for one, am tired of the endless division it inculcates. 

Is that a problem of the faith?  No rather, it is a problem of people who must always be in the right.  But, if they would just open their eyes, they must see that to be in the right is to help to take away some of the suffering of those around us--to practice compassion and lovingkindness to one another.  There is no way of being wrong if one's life is lived on those principles.  And when we've died and gone another way--translated into a new life, the legacy left behind is one of mercy, compassion, love, and perhaps a small part of the Earth that is a little better off than before we had been there.