Wednesday, October 10, 2012
This Week at the Library (10 October)
Fall arrived rather suddenly this week, although I imagine the cooler temperatures won't stay for too long. October 3rd was 'der Tag der Deutschen Einheit', or the day of German Unity. As I did with the United States and France in July, I planned a set of German readings. I'm not quite done with that, partially because Five Germanies I Have Known is denser than I expected and because I keep getting distracted by other books. Here are a few:
In certain remote areas of the United States, there are churches which believe the Bible encourages the faithful to take up poisonous snakes. In Salvation on Sand Mountain journalist Dennis Covington explores their world. Although at the first he seems like an objective investigator, as the story takes on a manifestly personal light as it unfolds. Covington's own family history is connected to the snake handlers, and despite disagreeing with their theology he's entranced by the practice, and is seduced by it to the point that he "takes up the serpent" himself. The reader is thus partial witness to an intense 'spiritual' experience; Covington retains enough clarity to describe those moments of holding death in his hands as a way of experiencing transcendence a losing of the self. It's a disturbing work, but it does shed some light into a dark corner of the fundamentalist mind.
Guyland takes as its subject the extended adolescence of middle-class young men, who instead of assuming the rights and responsibilities of manhood right out of high school or in college, are instead deferring it until their late twenties. In this expansion of boyhood, they spend their time loafing around in college or in dead-end jobs, when they aren't drinking themselves into stupors, "hooking up" with girls, and staying up all night playing video games. This youth culture is somehow rooted in the Guy Code, which emphasizes being tough (drinking until you puke is so manly), repressing emotions, and using women. Kimmell is sharply critical, but he doesn't quite demonize his subjects, who act like badly behaved chimpanzees, raping and pillaging: they're just as miserable as their victims. There's a lot to consider here, but in the end I'm impressed by one central weakness and one really engaging idea. The weakness is that he tries to address the culture of American young men in general based on the lifestyle of the guys he interviews here, who all come from relatively privileged backgrounds. Of course they're depraved, selfish, and obsessed with entitlement; they've nothing to work forward to. But a recurring theme caught my eye, that of homosociality. Every aspect of the youth culture examined here eventually circled back to how guys relate to other guys, even dating women. I'm interested in this from an anthropological perspective: how deeply rooted is that behavior?
Fiction has been nowhere to be seen in recent..er, months, but just a couple of days ago I read Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov. It's a bit unusual in that the story isn't Asimov's: it was a movie he was asked to produce a novelization of. I've not seen the movie, but the novel is supposed to have removed plot holes and bolstered the scientific content The story is one of scientific adventure and political espionage, combining the cultural norms of the 1960s with technology beyond today's imagination. In the world of Fantastic Voyage, the globe is still polarized into the NATO and Warsaw camps, and the peace of the Cold War is kept by stalemate: neither side can gain a decisive advantage over the other quite quickly enough. That may change: for years, both have maintained experiments in miniaturization technology (that is, shrinking things), but the technology hasn't proven militarily useful yet because of restrictions. A Soviet scientist has found a way to get around those restrictions, and he has defected to the United States. Astonishingly the Soviets weren't just willing to let him desert without offering a goodbye kiss, so now he's in the hospital with a blood clot in his brain threatening death or dementia. The American solution is to shrink a submarine to the size of a bacterium, and use it to eliminate the clot with a laser. Unfortunately, one of the crew is a traitor, and so the book's hero, Grant, must ferret that individual out while the ship navigates the perilous world of the human body, a world which must be survived but not fought because fighting it might mean the death of the defector.
It's rather like The Odyssey: what was supposed to be a simple run from the neck to the brain turns into a prolonged and dangerous trip through the entire body, where something goes wrong at every turn. Here the monsters are white blood cells and antibodies, not cyclopes; and here the obstacles are the beating heart and lymph nodes, not Scylla and Charybdis. The decades since this book and the movie's publication have seen a lot of works inspired by it, like the Magic Schoolbus trips inside the body I watched as a kid, but this original exploration of the body is still fantastically interesting, even considering the cold war context where a female scientist is an oddity.
Oh, and there's The Lolita Effect, which covered the same material as So Sexy So Soon, but not as well.
Reviews are pending for Hamlet's Blackberry and Gone Tomorrow, and by pending I mean they would have been posted last week had they not gotten deleted accidentally.
This next week...
I'm just about to finish Jesus for the Nonreligious, by John Shelby Spong, and am thinking about doing a few more religion reads. Specifically, lately I've been thinking a lot about the origins of Satan. Ever since 2006, I've been interested in the evolution of Judaism, and how parts of it were transformed into apocalyptic Christianity, with Satan as Mr. Evil and a fallen rebel instead of God's quality-assurance agent, as he was in pre-christian Judaism and is now. Also, I am considering a book on the plumbing side of waste management.