Category Archives: Uncategorized

Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker

Thick with statistics, charts and graphs, this is nonetheless a smooth and enjoyable read, not least because it tells such a palatable story: that humankind has made great progress over the past centuries, especially those since the start of The Enlightenment (roughly 1730 to 1800, give or take a few lifetimes).

Attacking first our flawed habits of perception and thought, then some of the pessimistic myths those have spawned, Pinker makes a convincing case that life for the vast majority of humans is considerably better today than in any earlier era.  And further, that these positive changes have resulted from identifiable strategies employed by humans over time, in light of which he suggests – though not without caution – there is strong possibility of continued progress if only we, as a species and a community, will continue to employ those strategies, which he identifies as Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

(A single example from personal experience: during my childhood Polio was, even in privileged middle class USA, a serious threat.  I sat next to children in class who’d been stricken seemingly at random, suffering permanent disability, disfigurement and limitation of their potential and well-being.  In less than a single lifetime, that terrible disease has been very nearly eradicated – to the extent that many people living today don’t even know what it is – and therefore the miracle of its eradication (literally scores of millions of crippling cases avoided) has no emotional impact, is totally lost in concern over other, often lesser, ailments (dry eyes syndrome anyone? Or hair loss?  Any  condition that is solved by Botox…) which still remain.  This is the sort of mental bias – focusing on the problems left to solve and ignoring all the ones which have already been solved – that Pinker rightly identifies as shaping our pessimism and fears.  And worst, leading some voices to claim there is no point in even trying to progress.)

Pinker wisely avoids any direct reference to Trump and Trumpism until late in his thesis, but it must be clear to any earnest reader long before the name arises that the phenomenon is in direct opposition to all the book espouses.  Fortunately, the breadth of the case made is sufficient to suggest we will eventually self-correct – barring some catastrophic accident or act of impulse.

An immensely valuable book. So good that, after reading it on a library loan (in late 2019), I purchased a hard copy to have on the table and refer to in future.  Now Jennifer is reading that copy and equally impressed.

In a time of such upheaval and so much fear, I can think of few books more worth reading, sharing and keeping close at hand.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phillip K. Dick

Held up as a classic of sci-fi, and part of Dick’s canon, this brief dystopian cops & killers tale inspired the film Blade Runner (and its sequel), so seemed like a must-read.   Published in 1968 it was, like all of Dick’s work, more pulp than lit, which shows in the writing; sometimes clumsy,  sometimes cliché, but occasionally quite thoughtful  An example of the latter comes about 75% of the way in, as Rachael, an android whose model-line has been carefully designed to generate sexual desire in wet-blooded males (Dick’s repeated appreciations of ‘small high breasts’ and an almost boyishly-androgenous physique are curious, but apparently appeal broadly-enough to have found their way into the movie), latches on to a bounty hunter’s qualms about terminating something so potentially loveable – and begins to use them against him.

That, it turns out, points us to Dick’s real interest here. Forget the totalitarianism and environmental destruction (though those are valid themes and forward looking for 1968, if not exactly prescient).  What he’s really chewing on are our notions of identity and what makes a life worthy of value.  How artificially-intelligent must an android be before it starts to resent being viewed as an object or tool, and how human-like can it be before the continuation of its operating ‘life’ justifies the same price as a ‘real’ (i. e., organic, non-manufactured) life.  A license to kill, in this case, soon turns into a license to doubt. 

The comparisons are greatly aided by Dick’s postulation of Earth as a dying planet, from which nearly all humans have departed except those too damaged to earn a flight out.  Denigrated as a lesser caste, the lives of these radiation-damaged ‘chickenheads’ are limited, dull and dreary; hardly more rewarding or free than those of the androids they manufacture to serve the off -world elite.  The return of several renegade androids presents a threat to the few fully-functioning humans who have remained behind to keep the remnants of industry in operating order – Rick Deckard being one of them.  Poor and depressed, with a wife addicted to artificial emotions fed out of an electronic box, he seems qualified for the detective part of his task, but quickly out of his depth with the moral issues to come. 

That these humans have turned pet-ownership into a fetish and status indicator adds another twist to their prejudice.  Decker and his neighbors will scrimp and borrow to spend a fortune on almost any animal, whether real or simulated – to salve their thirst for companionship and belonging, yet they deny any hint of those same values to androids who have been manufactured in their own image.  And speaking of values, Dick gives his humans a pseudo religion, the cult of Wilbur Mercer, apparently created by their leadership to provide the lesser populace with distracting illusions of purpose and salvation – this society which creates artificial animals, artificial humans, and artificial environments on other planets has also manufactured an artificial religion, designed to specifications.  Not a stretch at all

How much humanity can you put into a machine before it deserves the same rights as its creators, and how far can we dehumanize our fellow beings before their value drops beneath that of their creations; especially when one realizes there is no big ‘C’ Creator out there to insist the two are inherently different?  Questions we may need to begin answering quite soon, the way things are going.

Christine Falls, Benjamin Blck

Irish literary figure and Booker Prize winner John Banville adopts a pen name to begin a mystery series centered on Dublin pathologist Quirke. (I finished the novel unsure whether that is first name or last, nor of what is the other to go with it. Could be my lack of retention, or could be author’s intent to create one more bit of mystery which he can  choose to reveal for greater impact at some later date, ala Inspector ‘Morse’).

Black or Banville, there is still an impressive attention to framing detail; sometimes to excess.  Inventive descriptions as well, though some are less apt if you stop to picture what the words actually mean, rather than just listening to their melody in quick reading.  His characters too, are interesting enough in the moment, but not a little typecast if examined at all closely.  Still, their motivations are considered and valid, their conflicts and difficult choices are well-applied to drive dialogue if not plot, and all of it is much more real than, say, a Hammett, a King or a Fleming would do.

This is 1950’s Ireland too, and perhaps those stereotypes were more pervasive and real in that time and place. Surely Banville knows much better than I, so we roll with it.  What begins rather slowly builds a fair degree of tension and becomes, by the second half, a stay-up-late-to-finish-it experience, with little of the hangover that comes from having been manipulated or toyed with.  There’s also very little resort to gore, gunplay or car chases, though plenty of bar scenes, cigarette fondling and coffee/tea/wine drinking to give the impression of far more action than really occurs. Like most mysteries, it’s really all about distressed and disaffected people talking – and not talking – to one another about events which happened in the past or offscreen.

All in all, a very credible diversion, even if Quirke is not yet someone I’d really like to spend time with.  Worth a go at the second in the series though, to see where it all is headed, as this author is far too skilled to settle for just piling up the bodies and counting coup of capital crimes solved. 

A Taste for Death, P. D. James

The so called “Queen of Crime” strikes a chord for Jennifer and I as this page-turner is set in and about London’s Paddington and Holland Park neighborhoods, locales quite familiar and ear to our own hearts.  Aside from that, it is a very capable example of the genre – full of pretentious aristocrats dragging out a lifestyle which mostly died a century ago, struggling wage-slaves navigating the drear of a stagnant British economy and bureaucracy, everyday murders with creepily daft suspects and perpetrators and nearly everyone searching for someone to hold onto, whether sexually or just emotionally.

At 500 pages in paperback, A Taste for Death allows one to escape to James’ world for a satisfyingly-long time, and generally holds the attention well.  Her Adam Dalgliesh is a comfortable mentor to both subordinates and the reader, his character established long ago in other novels, so the heat is more upon Inspector Kate Miskin and Chief Inspector John Massingham to provide somewhere to hang our sympathies.  This we can do, as Kate has satisfying vulnerabilities and baggage, while Massingham plays the cad and insensitive throwback. 

James follows formula to a degree, but throws in twists and turns.  One – a sudden fainting spell of young Darrell – seems arbitrarily concocted to avoid a brutality which might have been too much, but then another – the novel’s final death – is just the opposite; an even-greater brutality which shocks, reminding us there is a price for hanging about with murder and making clear the author’s desire to give us something more than drawing room theater.

James was 66 by this writing (1986) but shows considerable energy and enterprise in both the volume and originality of the work; sufficient to nudge the boundaries of the murder-mystery genre without any risk to her place in its top tier of practitioners.  I’ll be reading more of here when I need a comfortable escape from the truly-murderous present.

(Intriguing note, the author spent decades working in law enforcement and government positions but is also, officially, ‘Baroness James of Holland Park,’ so whether her characters are embodying or lamenting the existence of their nation’s baggage of nobility and class, it seems she is speaking from experience.)

The Three Body Problem

Geek fiction of the sci/poli sort. Set within the landscape of China’s autocratic-socialist movements and brigades, this first of a three volume series considers the possibility of ‘First Contact’ with alien life as a matter of existential fear and conviction. Fear, on the one hand, that an advanced civilization will take over and obliterate us,  and conviction, on the other, that we ourselves have devolved so much we’ve become a malignancy on the earth and the universe – or, to quote a current political figure about an invasion of a different sort – “what have you got to lose?”

Liu is a citizen and resident of the PRC, not an ethnic Chinese educated or residing in the west, which may explain why the events and rhythm of the book feel so plodding and academic; one suspects they reflect expectations and tastes shaped by decades of bureaucratic media and arts.   His detailed and historicist attention to the physics behind the story is informative, but similarly derails a central tenet of what one normally expects in a popular novel – drama. Add to that characters whose individuality is expressed only in the very narrow and internalized manner allowed by their society’s emphasis on conformity, obedience and reticence, and you end up with something rather challenging to get through, despite what seems a fluid translation from the original Mandarin.

Still, Liu is intelligent, knowledgeable and original, so one is very curious to see where it all will go (as well as whether the pace will pick up in future volumes). Maybe worth the time…

The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem

 A contemporary noir, loosely-framed by the protagonist’s despair at the election of the ‘orange monster’ and the economic and cultural divides it reflects, but also deeply embedded in broader 21 st century dislocation and despair.

Intriguingly, Lethem tells the tale thru the voice of Phoebe Siegler, a refugee from the urban entertainment/media complex, rather than Charles Heist (what a surname choice that is!), his idiosyncratic detective. This allows for more thoughtfully-analytic observations by the character, and a more literate tone than would the latter. It also makes for some brave writing, as Lethem voices Phoebe’s sexual longings and encounters with Charles. One would love to know what female readers feel about his level of success, but to me it rang true, if perhaps a bit enhanced by what a man hopes a woman is seeing. Lethem also finds something new in the L A area by choosing for his locations the little-known towns of Upland and Clarement; the resort hermitage of Mt. Baldy (a personal touchstone, having driven, hiked and skied there) and the Mohave Desert just over the mountains from the big city. The tenuous economics of these locales, and the multitudinous opportunity for misfits to isolate themselves resemble the same raw ingredients which Southern writers have long mined from their home turf, but being still part of LA makes for a freshness and perhaps a more accessible connection to readers not of the sub-Mason Dixon world. Interesting and engaging, but I’m not hungry to read another installment, if indeed this is the start of a series (a possibility suggested by the ending, but inconsistent with Lethem’s intellectual adventurousness, nor his career path and to date).

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

A back-cover quite, credited to The Observer newspaper, notes that this “will surely become a vital crib for generations of students to come,” and this reader agrees entirely. Ackroyd’s lucid and fluid contemporary-language version is certainly the only way I would have gotten through this artifact; deciphering even just the chapter titles in the original Old-English is enough to tell me I’d never have made it.

As with many other ‘classics,’ one of the main values derived from reading Chaucer’s tales has been to glimpse inside the minds and thoughts of that earlier time.   What preoccupied the literate Londoner in the fourteenth century? Marriage, power, religion and the appetites for sex, food and drink, it seems, and in approximately that order.

Another obvious value of this volume is for its role in the early evolution of literature, acting as bridge between millennia of oral legends, folk tales, fables and religious parables, allegories and sermons and the later arrival of personal stories, those concerned with particular individuals who may be neither hero nor villain, maiden nor slut, but unique and messily-realistic combinations and contrasts of opposites. We see here a transitional stage between the archetypes within the tales (nearly every knight is appallingly-brave and virtuous, nearly every young woman is the most beautiful, chaste and compliant in her land) and the beginnings of dramatic characterization in the diverse and earthy travelers who tell them.

Even with Ackroyd as intermediary though, Chaucer is not an easy read. Many of the tales feel pointless, several redundant, and a couple seem to have been just cut off in mid-telling – leaving one to wonder whether some pages have been lost to history, or is that perhaps evidence of just how new and unself-conscious the infant art of fiction-writing was at the time (and prior to invention of that indispensable tool, the Editor). The religious paeans are also off-putting; tedious paragraphs and pages of dedication to the Holy Mother, or protestations of one’s faith, all the way down to Chaucer’s own ‘Retractions,’ which is not, as modern minds expect, a rescinding of what he has written earlier, but a ‘retraction’ in the sense of pulling away; taking his leave while beseeching the reader, ‘for the mercy of God, to pray for me…’ and so on. Pronouncing all that he has written, to be sinful and without merit, the author protests that despite having taken the pains to record and clearly enjoy these sinful tails, he is actually the most pious of men.

A remarkable piece of cultural history, presented in a generous and helpful manner by this modern retelling; truly the “crib” this reader need to ever become familiar with this oft-cited relic.

The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra

We Americans tend to see the war in Afghanistan through the lens of our own involvement – how many U.S. troops lost, how many U. S. billions spent, how much progress toward making that nation over in our own image. This brief and poetic novel, the author’s fifth to be published in the English language, sets the history in a different light, showing on the one hand that the disorder in Afghanistan verifiably predates US involvement (original copyright is 2002, and the action is clearly pre 9-11) and on the other that the damage and suffering of the Afghan people goes far deeper and wider than anything we have paid for our involvement (speaking of course of the USA as a whole; not those particular few individuals who have given so much, and sometimes all).

This is a tight narrative, the comings and goings of two married couples in a few narrow streets and run-down buildings of Kabul over the course of a few days, maybe a week. In that time though, lives are ruined and lost, hopes dashed, resurrected and swamped by the reality of a nation that has been at war for decades and is now at the mercy of fanaticism and men’s worst impulses claiming to serve their best. As with much middle-eastern fiction I’ve read, the language can be rather florid and some of the characters’ internal reflections feel over-dramatized, more performances of the author than real human thought. At other times though, Khadra’s characters speak honestly of emotions real people strain to conceal, if they even admit to themselves. (A prime example is one man’s participation in the public execution-by-stoning of a prostitute – which even he cannot explain or defend.) The portrait of how one lives when nearly everything has been taken away or coopted for the oppressors’ purposes is eye-opening. Reading it during the Covid 19 shutdown is yet another reminder that I’ve still got it very, very easy, even in what we think of as a period of distress.

Building slowly, the story reaches its climax in the thoughts and action not of the husbands – as one might expect for a tale set under the patriarchy of Islamic culture and Sharia law – but of their wives. Zunaira, the educated and worldly beauty whose life has devolved into an exile inside her own shabby home, gives way to a moment’s impulse, with tragic consequences. Then, Musarrat, the miserable and terminally-ill wife of a part-time jailer and Taliban collaborator has a contrasting moment of transcendent insight, compassion and love; forces which are so out of place in this environment they strain credulity. Regardless, her vision propels the climactic act of selflessness which is, unfortunately, doomed by circumstance and habituation, as is all hope in the universe of this novel.

That the story itself can be conceived, written and published is the only thread of optimism one brings away from the reading but then, sometimes it only takes a single thread to unravel an entire knitting.

(Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a male former-Algerian army officer, who the liner notes say adopted that name to avoid government scrutiny of his writings.  If is unclear just how much the choice of the feminine reflects his convictions, but this novel sincerely presents women’s lives with much more importance and sympathy than conservative Islamic culture grants them.)

 

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier

As a ‘surplus’ woman in an England still reeling fourteen years after the 1918 end of The Great War in which two-million young men of her generation were wiped away, Violet Speedwell struggles to find any trace of meaning or purpose in her life. Brother, fiancé and father all dead, mother an intolerably-abusive emotional wreck and her opportunities deeply constrained by gender, custom and the dearth of even marginally-desirable suitors, her only sense of achievement comes from having moved-out to a boarding house room in the next city and managing to live on her own, though that living is marginal at best. Desperate nostalgia for the warmth of child-time church visits (one possible interpretation of the novel’s title) leads her to discover ‘the Broderers,’ a group of women engaged in embroidering new soft goods for Winchester Cathedral. It is that encounter which allows her to forge some tenuous personal connections and so drives this totally-engaging and moving tale.

This is necessarily a narrow tale, as Violet’s life is limited by circumstance and prejudices, yet the author uncovers sensuality in a hungry woman’s reactions to food and drink, entrepreneurialism in others’ efforts to survive when their jobs are lost to bigotry, and even a range of sexuality. The illicit love of two women is treated with empathy and honor, making clear that it is love for its own sake (‘their own sakes’?) not just a make-do for the lack of eligible men, as some of their compatriots rationalize it. Violet’s own romance, a sparse affair with a married man devoted to caring for a wife tormented by the wartime death of their only son, is doomed in most senses, yet still nurtures them both in important respects, even before it produces the slender thread of permanent connection that restores meaning to each of them and to the novel’s title.

Along the way we learn about embroidery bell-ringing and church customs, and are reminded of how material our modern lives have become as we see Violet live with barely more than a suitcase-full of possessions. We also discover real artistic ambition and achievement in women (the actual historical figure of  Miss Louisa Pesel, in particular) whom we might otherwise dismiss as slaves to convention, decoration and rote following of recipe.

More than any of Chevalier’s earlier novels, this one opened my eyes to what she is really doing, correcting the lack of female figures in familiar moments of cultural history by novelizing them through a female point of view. From the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, to the paintings of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the writings of Wm. Blake in Burning Bright and the discoveries of Darwin and early fossil hunters in Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier illustrates that women were present and integral to the work for which men have been so lauded. Not only that, but those women’s contributions were made under duress and restrictions far greater than the men ever faced.

Each volume entertains and enlightens at the same time they serve, both singly and as a body, that very worthwhile social purpose. Brava, Ms. Chevalier, brava.

Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge

Subtitled ‘The Life and Times of Britain’s Legendary Warrior Queen,’ this hefty volume turns its narrative outward from the individual to her context, becoming in effect a survey of the entire history of Britain as a nation and a people, lensed around the largely-mythical warrior queen. While at times that feels digressive or indulgent, in the end it provided this Yankee with plenty of useful insight into how a group of disparate warring tribes evolved into a world power and an important culture.

Collingridge writes somewhat as one would expect of a television presenter, lots of grand characterizations mixed with occasional insertions of her first person (‘I was nearing the end of my search for the legend’ sort of stuff) but has clearly done a great deal of research, with frequent source citations and an impressive bibliography. The sense is of an author eager to demonstrate she has qualifications above and beyond her popular success and it mostly works, despite some unfortunate lapses in editing and copy-proofing.

The first 150 pages or so hardly deals with the title character, but gives instead an overview of Rome’s imperial grasping toward, and eventual invasions of, the British Isles. The depth of that background at first seems odd, but then makes sense as it places the eventual tribal rebellion in a proper context. More than that, it makes abundantly clear that there was no ‘Britain’ or ‘England’ until the Romans conceptualized it as a way to refer to the region they claimed to have conquered. Once Boudica (or Boudicca, or Bodicea; the variations due to different hearings, translations and monkish typographical errors) herself comes on the stage, we realize that almost nothing is factually known about her; whatever spelling one uses, she is largely the fabrication of other authors down the ages, starting with the writings of her Roman opponents, Caesar (the single contemporary), Tacitus (writing decades after) and Dio (another hundred years removed). Their meager and un-confirmable portraits, which Collingridge points out are most-certainly biased by their politics, have then been repeated, massaged and embellished over the ages. Several middle chapters then recount the rebellious Queen’s battles and eventual demise, a tale which is surprisingly brief, even fluffed out with plenty of speculative recreation and embellishment. The third and concluding part of the volume is again more substantial, as it depicts the morphing of Boudica’s story and image to serve the changing needs of the British people and politics at various stages of their history through nearly two thousand years to the present (Boudica and Princess Diana making a particularly interesting pairing).

Along the way one learns that Druids are not originally Welsh or even British, but of continental origin, as is the term Celtic and even the La Tene art style which we today refer to as ‘Celtic design.’ Nor are present day Druids in any real way connected to the historic ones – so little is known about what the original Druids actually believed or did, that any modern versions are really just fabrications by poets and others from the Romantic period onward. How New Age-y! On the related subject of archaeology, Collingridge voices appreciation for the findings of ‘metal detectorists’ who scour the countryside in search of finds. In the end though, the reader’s dawning realization that not one of the objects found to date can actually be tied to Boudica herself only emphasizes that all talk about her is speculation, at best, or fiction, at worst.

A rewarding read (with some judicious skimming now and then, when the pedantry gets excessive), Boudica ultimately affords enough detail and insights to be well worth the journey.