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Mon, 3 Sep 2007

Books Fatal to their Authors

— SjG @ 2:26 pm

P. H. Ditchfield, 1894, read as an e-book from manybooks.com

This litany of imprisoned, tortured, condemned, burnt, exiled, hounded, bankrupted, beaten, abused, reviled, and otherwise rejected authors is a fitting followup to god is not Great. While Ditchfield gave brief histories of authors doomed for their writings in a range of fields (which he groups as Theology; Fanatics and Free Thinkers; Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic; Science and Philosophy; History, Politics and Statesmanship; and Satire), the majority in all of these categories were condemned for ostensible violations of theological dogma. Some of these theological associations are pretty tenuous — for example, Ditchfield references “a recondite treatise on Trigonometry” that was condemned “because they imagined it contained heretical opinions concerning the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Ditchfield repeatedly waxes poetic on the plight of the writer, who nobly labors to share intellectual riches with a world that responds with scorn and violence. I can’t find much information about Ditchfield himself, other than that he was a prolific English writer and the Rector of Barkham Antiquary. His biases come through when he writes of critics, who hound poor authors to death. With regard to religion, he tries to maintain neutrality, but can’t help but chide some authors for their theological errors.

Even if the “fatal” of the title is not necessarily our modern usage of “leading to death,” reading this gives me renewed appreciation for where and when and how I live. I don’t have to think twice if I choose to blaspheme, criticize my government, or even write about trigonometry.

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Thu, 30 Aug 2007

god is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything

— SjG @ 11:18 pm

Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 2007

Reading this book is kind of like coming into your first freshman seminar class where you are harangued by an extremely well-read and well-educated but overbearing, bullying, and quite possibly drunk professor. It’s intimidating, impressive, and, dare I say? amusing.

From the title on, Hitchens flaunts his disdain for religion. He offers up example after example of the philosophical contradictions of various religions, skewers beliefs by pointing out logical flaws, and condemns faith by describing crimes of organized religion. Hitchens spends most of his time on “the big three” of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but he is ecumenical in the contempt he heaps on other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism in the little time he devotes to them. He comes up swinging, winding up with a call for a new Era of Enlightenment, one without religion.

I can’t help but feel ambivalence. Yes, religious fanatics the world over are trying to create their own respective theocracies and suppress everything but their own threads of belief. I can oppose this without reservation. Yes, many of these same fanatics are ignorant, and don’t know much about their own religions. Attacking some of these people (like the kind who say “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me”) is shooting fish in a barrel, and doesn’t do anyone any good. The deeply faithful admire the believers for their faith, ignore their flaws, and take umbrage at the attack, while the nonbelievers already think of them as asinine idiots.

However, in what I feel is the weakest part of the book, Hitchens defends atheism from responsibility in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Nazi Germany by casting the personality cults as religions, and, in the case of Germany, by showing how religious groups lent early and vital support to the fascists. It comes off as awfully glib. Furthermore, it seems to me that the evidence supports the idea that religion is not the problem, but that the sins of religion are symptom of a deeper pathology. The universality of the crimes suggests that the accumulation and abuse of power is hard-wired in (at least a portion of) humanity. Religion is a useful tool to incite believers into evil behavior, but tribalism, nationalism, racism, or countless other means of division have done just as well.

As a devout and pious member of the Church of Sacred Doubt, I found some of the attacks on religion appropriate, I found some of them gratuitous, and I found many of them engaging. While the book could be dismissed as an atheist preaching to the choir, it is definitely thought-provoking, and, if nothing else, entertaining.

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Thu, 9 Aug 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

— SjG @ 9:26 pm

J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, 2007.

So, based upon
my predictions
, I probably only got a C+ in Divination. Which is just as well.

Rowling managed to pull off a mostly satisfactory ending to the series. This last book abandons the leisurely pace of the previous two, and kicks into high gear right off. It accelerates from there.

I enjoyed the resolution to the Snape Question, which I thought was at least plausible within the framework that was set up. The tying up of the loose ends with regards to Horicruxes was satisfying. The body count was about what I expected, although Rowling toyed with us in a few cases. The disposition of Dobby and Kreacher and the house elves worked well, and felt like the groundwork had been well laid over the course of the previous books. The whole kerfuffle with the Elder Wand and how it plays out, on the other hand, is a little out of left field. We didn’t have much background from previous books to help with that.

I find that I have some dissatisfaction in retrospect; things that didn’t bother me while I was reading the book feel unsettled later. Some of the deaths were kept emotionally distant, or even rushed over — Harry sees bodies laid out on tables, and that’s pretty much it. Obviously, he’s got other issues at hand, but we don’t ever come back to experience any of the feelings. I would have liked the story to come closer to full circle with the Durstleys. But my strongest objections both involve scenes in train stations: the expository segment in the latter part of the Battle of Hogwarts didn’t feel right to me. We needed the information, but the circumstances felt forced. Again, I understand why the other train station scene was necessary, but the thought it generated more than any was “damn, what a bunch of breeders!”

Perhaps I’ll do what Karl’s doing, and re-read the whole series. If I do, I’ll write more, and probably with much less vague avoidance of spoilers.

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Tue, 7 Aug 2007

What Makes Sammy Run?

— SjG @ 9:28 pm

Budd Schulberg, Vintage Books, 1990 (originally published 1941)

The story of obnoxious, hyper-competitive, and ambitious Sammy Glick(stein)’s rise from child of the tenements to the head of a major Hollywood studio is a familiar one. Glick embodies the entitled, egotism that we see everywhere, the ends-justify-the-means machinations, and the casual disregard for everyone unless they can be used for advancement.

The tale of Glick’s rise is interwoven the explosive growth of the studio system, along with the early development of the Screenwriter’s Guild. It’s a quick, engaging novel, filled with betrayals, triumphs, and backstabbery. The characters are familiar too, we’ve all dealt with Glicks and their victims, whether on campus or in a corporation.

The copy I read (thanks Karl!) contains not only the novel of What Makes Sammy Run?, but the two short stories from which the novel evolved, as well as an afterword written by Schulberg in 1989. The short stories are interesting views into how the novel was developed, but the afterword is even more revealing. Schulberg writes of the surprise of the book’s success, how it was simultaneously attacked as being Communist and being counter-revolutionary, and how it led him to a fist-fight with John Wayne on the beaches of Puerto Vallerta. He talks about his alienation from the Communist party, and offers a defense for his role as a friendly witness for the House Committee on Unamerican Activity.

Most poignantly, he writes of Sammy Glick’s evolution from a repugnant character to a role model in the forty some odd years since publication (or rather, how our American attitudes have shifted). He cites various late Reagan-era examples of how America has become a nation of entitled, self-important Glicks and Glickettes. He ends with the dire warning that the Sammy of the 21st century may end up making the Sammy of the 20th look like an eagle scout.

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Sun, 5 Aug 2007

Viriconium

— SjG @ 10:00 pm

Viriconium by M. John Harrison, 2005, Bantam Books.

Consider a vast triangle. At one vertex stands one of the better authors of “great quest” science fiction or fantasy, perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien, or maybe Dan Simmons after a degree in Art History. At the next vertex, stands Mervyn Peake, with his cast of grotesques and desperate characters in their fantastic, crumbling, and endless decaying stronghold. The last vertex is simultaneously occupied by Angela Carter and Samuel R. Delaney, although they coexist in orthogonal dimensions, and are only vaguely aware of one another (via nebulous signs, strange dreams, and through the oddly resonant rituals that the villagers observe).

Somewhere near the center of this triangle lies Harrison’s sprawling poisoned wastelands, ruins, and evershifting city of Viriconium with its heros, artists, murderers and thieves.

The copy I read (thanks Peter!) comprises the three Viriconium novels The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium, and a collection of short stories. The collection has several distinct voices, and could conceivably have been written by different writers about a common thematic place. Characters show up in one story, and reappear in another — but are they the same person? Is it the cyclic nature of history we’re seeing? Are we in parallel universes? Places seem more constant than people (excluding perhaps Cellur the Birdmaker), although even places seem to shift location between stories.

Viriconium takes a few tropes of science fiction and fantasy, and weaves them in new and unexpected ways. Evidently, the ordering of the books and stories varies by edition, however in this copy, the tale starts in The Pastel City with what appears a fantasy setting which quickly reveals itself to be a distant post-apocalyptic science fiction world. From there, it evolves into a nearly opaque, disturbing, profound, and often absurd exploration of the nature of reality/realities in A Storm of Wings, and winds up with an equally absurd delving into courtly politics, artistic cliques, disease, and hooligan god-children in In Viriconium. In the short stories, many of these themes, places, and characters are revisited. Some are like fairy-tales, telling of people dealing with their destinies (e.g., “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”) others are tiny windows into a presumptively vast historical sweep (e.g., “Lords of Misrule”), while still others illustrate of village life and rituals in the shadow of a great city or ruminate on the significance of art.

Unfortunately, these few adjectives do the stories themselves no justice.

Harrison’s writing conveys a very strong sense of place, and is some of the more geological writing I’ve read. You can’t help but get a feel for the physical structure of the land, mutable as it is. The city of Viriconium too is imbued with a great presence, if not geography, and everything — city, land, society — is rich with barely imagined or imaginable history.

Harrison also has an exceptional vocabulary. I found myself consulting the dictionary on many pages, and discovering words like baize, catafalque, cinereous, costermonger, etiolate, gamboge, hispid, lazar, nacreous, osier, peneplain, phthisis, planish, saveloy, sempiternal, serac, and whin.

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