Friday, July 31, 2009

The End (and series comments)

The End
© 2006 Lemony Snicket
324 pages

The End of the Series of Unfortunate Events begins on the open ocean, with the Baudelaires and Count Olaf in the same boat -- having escaped a burning hotel and an angry mob. Here is where the story that began with the untimely demise of the Baudelaire parents comes to its end -- and it is quite an end. In due time, a storm destroys Olaf's yacht and the four wash up on an island with white sandy beaches -- one that appears to be a safe haven occupied by a community of people who are committed to simple living who aren't fooled for a second by Count Olaf. That they aren't fooled by Count Olaf like every other adult in this book is surprising and dramatic: it renders Olaf powerless and changes the balance of power completely.

Unfortunately for Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, things are not always as they seem. The island is safe, but utterly boring and controlled by an old man named Ishmael ("Call me Ish," he always says). Ishmael does not pretend to be king, like Olaf does -- he simply possesses a strong power of suggestion and an unlimited supply of coconut juice that acts as an opiate. The kids realized straightaway that Ishmael isn't the kindly old "facilitator" he seems to be: he knew who Count Olaf was, and he knew that the Baudelaires were orphans. Clearly there's more going on here than meets the eye, and indeed they find that the island -- where "everything washes up, eventually" -- is not isolated from the world of their past, but is indeed very connected with it. Its story is their parents' story, and Olaf's story, and the Snickets' story -- and it is a story the Baudelaires are now caught up in and will fulfill.

The End is dramatically different from the twelve books preceding in that Count Olaf is utterly out of his element. No one believes him: he has no power. His and the kids' arrival has stirred up the past and will destroy the community on the island, but he will not gain from it. Surprisingly, he gains dimensions: he communicates with the children as people, not just as his victims -- conveying sympathy to them while the reader feels sympathy for Olaf. It's not what I had expected. What happens in The End I will not tell in full: I think I may have been more engrossed in this one than in any other. It was...well, moving. I think Snicket is at his best here.

The series as a whole has been enjoyable: there's a reason I can plow through five books in a few days and not feel tired of it. Frankly, I'm tempted to watch the movie again. It has a number of strengths. It takes its audience seriously, for one. The children who I expect constitute the bulk of the audience are talked to directly: Snicket connects with them. I think it is true that most kids feel a sense of alienation from adults when they get older -- treated as if they aren't the intelligent and feeling humans that adults are supposed to be. Snicket acknowledges that sense, and he plays with it using the Baudelaire's complete inability to get through to any adults. It is in this way that he is slightly "subversive", because he does talk to children frankly, and he tells them that some of the stories they hear from adults are utterly asinine (not in those words) and not worth listening to -- stories like the Boy Who Cried Wolf and the Little Engine that Could.

But Snicket's entire audience isn't children: I expect parents, librarians, and other adults who aren't too embarrassed to go into the children's section of the library are reading as well, and Snicket writes to us. I've lost track of the number of little jokes written into the text for the benefit of adults or very well-read children. (Speaking of which, the books are educational in that they are constantly building vocabulary for readers: some of the words Snicket uses even I haven't heard of.) Generally speaking, the narrative style should be enjoyable by most everyone. Snicket is dryly hilarious, and a joy to read even though the series is very dark indeed. Topping all of this off is the fact that the series isn't shallow: it's not just something to be read and forgotten. It convey important messages to children -- messages like that the world can be a very dark and dangerous place, but that people can show "moral stamina" and stay true to themselves -- that giving in won't work.

I would suggest that those who are in the position of recommending books to children read a few of these to see what they're like -- and that those of you who are not in a position of recommend books to children try one or two anyway, because they're funny and more than a little dark.

The Penultimate Peril

The Penultimate Peril
© 2005 Lemony Snicket
353 pages

As its name suggests, we are nearing The End. Following clues left for them by VFD members, the children arrive back where the series began -- at Briny Beach, where Sunny echoes her past self and says "Look at that mysterious figure coming out of the fog!". They soon arrive at the Hotel Denouement, where they meet many of their old "guardians" as well as many VFD comrades. Rather than allowing the children to rest in light of their many perilous adventures -- escaping multiple fires, a hurricane, idiot guardians, a lynch mob, being thrown down an elevator shaft, and falling down a mountain among many others, their VFD contact asks them to infiltrate the hotel and spy on various persons to find some answers and resolve the plot. This does not go too well, and the arrival of Count Olaf makes matters worse, leading to a trial where everyone by the judges are blind-folded (as "Justice is blind") after a harpoon accident. The children engage in even more morally questionable acts, and by book's end, the only person who isn't questioning their moral integrity is Count Olaf -- as he writes them off as being just like him. Very little is resolved aside from some questions about VFD, but then everything goes up in flames -- as it were.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Grim Grotto

The Grim Grotto
© 2004 Lemony Snicket
323 pages

I continue the Series of Unfortunate Events. By this point in the series, the format has completely changed. The Baudelaire orphans are no longer being protected by the system and ushered from place to place: having lost communication with Mr. Poe after he dropped them off at the Vile Village, the orphans are taking care of themselves as best they can. While trying to find answers to why their parents were killed, and why their friends' parents were killed, and why a dozen other things, they are competing with Count Olaf and occasionally running into people who are part of the overall story: the story of VFD and its fight against the likes of Count Olaf. One of those people is Captain Widdershins, who pops up out of the water unexpectedly in his submarine and invites the Baudelaire Orphans in. Fortunately for the children, Widdershins is not a friend of Count Olaf, and does not try to kill them. He worked with their parents and feeds them some information while constantly blabbering. His personal philosophy is "He who hesitates is lost", and this extends to thinking about what you want to say. He and his stepdaughter Fiona come friends and allies of the orphans, although like most Baudelaire friends they won't be around for long. The novel is dominated by the orphans' search for an artifact from the VFD headquarters that is apparently quite important. Count Olaf does make an appearance, but with the usual courage the Baudelaires thwart his evil schemes. Interestingly, by this point villains have been introduced that cow even Olaf into staring at his shoes and laughing nervously -- and they feature in the plot.

The main story seems to be shaping up nicely: although I'm pretty sure the great mystery of VFD has been spoiled for me by a single line in the movie*, I'm still very much interested in what happens.

*"Sgdqd Aqd svn jhmcr ne odnokd hm sgd vnqkc -- sgnrd vgn rsAqs sgd ehqdr, Amc sgnrd vgn ots sgdl nts."

Because blogger has no "spoiler" language to hide that sort of statement, I coded the line. It's rather easy: B is A and A is A -- because it can't really be Z.

The Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope
© 2003 Lemony Snicket
337 pages

The last book ended with the Baudelaire orphans not in a quiet place where they could reflect on their fate, but in a perilous place that threatened death within the span of the first chapter if their courage and wit did not show up quickly enough. Happily, they do --but this of little help to poor Sunny, who has been spirited away by Count Olaf. Sunny and Klaus must beat Count Olaf to the headquarters of the mystery organization VFD, set near the top of a mountain -- making their way up the mountain through bitter cold and bitter insects who like to sting people for no reason. (Count Olaf is "quite fond of them".) En route they run into an old enemy, Carmelita Spats -- an obnoxious schoolmate of theirs from the Austere Academy. They also make a new friend -- one who knows who Count Olaf is, and knows that the Baudelaire orphans are innocent of the crimes they've been accused of. He leads them to the VFD headquarters -- but they arrive there too late to find any answers.

The book may get its title from a slope the orphans must climb to rescue Sunny from Count Olaf, as he is forcing the poor infant to do all of his chores, including the cooking. (Fortunately, Sunny makes a very good smoked herring.) It may also apply to the growing moral difficulty that faces the orphans: simply to survive, they find themselves acting very much like villains, and at some point in the novel they have to make stands to protect their character. For their trials, they gain new allies and come closer to solving the great mystery in which they are involved. The series continues to entertain.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Carnivorous Carnival

The Carnivorous Carnival
© 2003 Lemony Snicket
286 pages

Although for the first six books the Baudelaire orphans were bounced from one psychotic or useless guardian to the next, they had a sense of stability in that they knew Mr. Poe would show up eventually (so long as they managed to unmask Count Olaf) and take them someplace else, where they would enjoy a moment of respite before being thrown down an elevator shaft or hypnotized or something like that. When The Vile Village ended with the kids being run out of town by a mob intent to burn them at the stake, this format was broken and the kids are utterly on their own. Count Olaf is increasing in strength now that people think he is dead. On the bright side, ....

...Well, the kids aren't dead. At the end of The Hostile Hospital, they decided to follow Count Olaf and see where he goes. As you might surmise, he goes to a carnival to see "Madame Lulu", a fortune-teller who has been keeping him up-to-date on the location of the Baudelaire orphans. The kids assume disguises and infiltrate the carnival, pretending to be "freaks": Violet and Sunny become a person with two heads, and Sunny dons a fake beard and becomes a wolf-child. Since Count Olaf has no idea that the Baudelaires are right under his hooked nose, you would think the kids would be entitled to a little rest -- but no. Olaf, as a favor to Lulu, introduces lions to the carnival to provide a new form of entertainment: lions eating members of the freak show.
The members of the freak show include an ambidextrous man and a contortionist -- as well as other people whose only real limitation is that they've allowed other people to view them as freaks. They're well-mannered, and the Baudelaire orphans object to their being thrown to the lions. Further dragging them into the plot is the fact that Madame Lulu has some connection to the mysterious group VFD -- and thus, to their parents. As you might imagine, however, circumstances prevent her telling them anything and the book ends with the Baudelaire orphans reenacting part of an INXS song. The book is entertaining as ever: character development continues nicely, and my interest in the overall story is increasing.

This Week At the Library (29/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Vile Village and The Hostile Hospital, Lemony Snicket
  • Syrup, Max(x) Barry
  • Finding Your Religion, Scotty McLennan
  • Reclaiming Virtue, Ray Bradshaw

I started the week off by continuing in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. While I typically check out three at a time, some unknown person had checked out book nine before my arrival, and so I settled for only two. At this point in the series, the books are more possessed by the overall story: the format set by the preceding six books in which Mr. Poe, as the children's overseer, inadvertently places them in the trust of people who are either destined to be killed or who are working with Count Olaf, and eventually takes the children away once they've dealt with Olaf's sinister plot, is no more. Mr. Poe does not come to rescue the children at the end of The Vile Village after they've been accused of murder and run out of town, nor does he find the children at the Hostile Hospital before Violet nearly loses her head. He never shows up at all, and the children have finally realized that he and every other adult in this world of theirs is useless and they must rely fully on themselves. Although they continue to face adversity with their usual stamina, they begin to question their actions after using deceit to protect themselves.

Syrup by Max Barry is not at all like the Snicket books. Like Jennifer Government and Company, it's a short but fast novel that provides laughs, an enjoyable story, and satire. This one is set in the marketing industry, following the struggle between two groups of marketers at the Coca-Cola company who are competing with one another for glory and money. Scat and 6 are our two main characters, and their rival is Sneaky Pete -- who is only in the story because he trademarked Scat's big idea to pitch to Coca-Cola while Scat was pitching it. Having robbed Scat of his opportunity, he immediately displaces the marketing executive that first heard Scat's idea (6), pitting the two against him. The quick and funny plot culminates in their attempt to film a movie that will serve as a feature-length advertisement for Coca-Cola. The conflict is not resolved until the book's final pages, keeping readers' eyes firmly on the page.

I read Scotty McLennan's Finding Your Religion next, and it seems to serve as a guidebook of sorts for people who are having problems with their own childhood religion or who are looking for a spiritual path that best suits them. Why would a religious skeptic such as myself read this book? Good question. What drew me to it initially was its potential for looking at the spiritual elements of the various religions and seeing how they compared and contrasted. The book was written for people who are looking for meaning or direction in their lives and not finding in in "material" means. McLennan is a Unitarian Universalist and does write on the universality of religions here, noting that each has something to offer. He believes in making religion serve the individual needs of people, allowing people to interpret the tradition they subscribe to as much as necessary -- as he has done in calling himself a Christian while dropping much of what is traditionally considered Christian. It was certainly an interesting read.

Lastly I read Ray Bradshaw's Reclaiming Virtue, a rational defense of morality that incorporates philosophy, sociology, parenting strategies, information on childhood development, self-help psychology, psychiatry, biology, and more into its argument. There's a lot of information here -- I regarded it as a mental hike -- but it all ties into the act of "prudence", which Bradshaw defines as doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason, allowing our emotions to inform us and our reason to guide us in figuring out what's best in a given situation. I think it merits recommending.

Pick of the Week: Finding Your Religion was surprisingly interesting, but I think Syrup takes it.

Quotation of the Week:
"History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again." - Maya Angelou, as quoted in Reclaiming Virtue

Next Week:
  • The Carnivorous Carnival, The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, and The End by Lemony Snicket.
  • To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm. I'm assuming this builds on "Affluence and Ennui in Our Society" from For the Love of Life and Fromm's criticism that people today build their identities based on what they own rather.
  • Walden, Henry David Thoreau. I've found his journal writings and Civil Disobedience to be thought provoking and personally inspiring, so I look forward to reading the work for which he is arguably most known.
  • Gold, Isaac Asimov. This is a collection of science fiction stories and essays published after Asimov's death.

Reclaiming Virtue

Reclaiming Virtue: How We can Develop the Moral Intelligence to do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason
© 2009 Ray Bradshaw
528 pages

When I checked this out, I expected a rational defense of morality. I found this, but I found more -- I found a big, rich book incorporating philosophy, biology, psychiatry, parenting strategies, sociology, social criticism, and more in the name of living virtuously. Bradshaw believes that human beings are equipped with a natural moral intelligence. While he references the idea of God several times, his foundation is not necessarily theistic: his content doesn't rely on gods like M. Scott Peck's does. For Bradshaw, what we call "virtuous" is that which leads to our own fulfillment: virtue is its own reward, allowing us to grow and triumph over adversity.

The book is divided into three sections: the first addresses the idea of virtue by itself, drawing on both biology and culture. He references Steven Pinker's article on morality to point out what he believes are five essential parts of morality: not harming others, being fair, being loyal to your tribe, respecting legitimate authority, and exalting what is "pure, clean, and holy". In part two, "Developing Your Moral Intelligence", Bradshaw focuses on how individuals can learn to rely on their innate sense of what is good while avoiding being ensnared by obedience cultures. Here we see psychology and a bit of self-help at work, with Bradshaw encouraging his readers to embrace their "shadow" selves -- their darkness -- as well as their positive attributes. (He quotes Jung here quite a bit.) In the last section, he concentrates on parenting, and here we experience quite a bit of developmental writing, with separate sections focusing on toddlers through to adolescents. It is in this last section that social criticism shows its face, and where I expected Neil Postman to show his -- especially when Bradshaw addressed the problems caused by television and the Internet. Bradshaw writes on a wide range of topic: while he began with Aristotle, he ended with sex among adolescents.

What ties the book together is Bradshaw's repeated emphasis on prudence -- doing the right thing for the right reason, which means thinking matters through while relying on our emotional intelligence. Although Bradshaw claimed this morality is rooted in emotions, it seems to me to rely too on rational intelligence. Because there are so many topics in this book, I'm almost hard-pressed to offer a summation: it was certainly a mental hike for me. I didn't expect to encounter so much, but even though my legs are tired and my lungs are winded, I think I got something out of it. I believe the book bears returning to, as well as reccommending it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Finding Your Religion

Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost its Meaning
242 pages

I didn't go into the library to find this book -- I pulled it off the shelf on a whim, and gained a little interest after seeing that it seemed to be a general guide to "spiritual paths". The clincher was the Doonesbury character on the cover of the novel promising an introduction from Gary Trudeau. I don't actually read Doonesbury, but I know its reputation. Author Scotty McLennan is a Christian Unitarian Universalist, although he may put emphasis on the first third of that description, and he has written this book in an attempt to help people with no religion or those who have been burned by their childhood religion find a spiritual path or to resume their journey. Why look for a spiritual path? This is never deliberately explained, but in the telling of his and other's stories, the general purpose seems to be to find meaning, purpose, and direction in life.

McLennan's story certainly is an interesting one: he sees his legal training as an asset to be used for spiritual purposes in helping people, establishing a "legal ministry" that defies the convention that spiritual matters and "secular" matters cannot mix -- as well as potentially giving lawyers a good name. It is clear that McLennan's view of spirituality -- which he practices and which he advocates -- is part of life, not just cultural identity. He begins the book by establishing what he believes to be the six "stages" of religion, beginning with a child's belief in magic and culminating in the "Unity" experienced only by mystics and men like Gandhi. The stages in between -- "Reality", "Dependence", "Independence", and "Interdependence" cover everything else, from cults to the standard religions.

One of his initial pieces of advice -- which I found surprising, since he is Unitarian Universalist -- was for those "seeking" a path to simply pick one and go with it. His analogy is that of paths leading up a mountain: those who choose to go it alone may tire of hacking away at the brush or may fall down the abyss of a cult. I thought it strange that he wanted readers to simply pick a religion arbitrarily and try to make it fit, but once I made my way further into the book I saw his purpose: the point is for people to get started. In "Crossings", he makes it clear that no one need be limited by their religion: the book is full of stories of people who have started in one tradition and grown into another one. McLennan believes in the universality of human religions/spiritual paths -- that they share the same essential goal of human growth and that they each incorporate similar practices. Many of the stories from the book come from his spiritual journey across the world, where he tries to drink in as much human experience as possible with an emphasis on spiritual matters. In one, he goes to a Hindu sage who admonishes him to be the best Christian he can be: Christianity is in the culture he knows, so he will fare the best there. McLennan reminds me of Marcus Borg (who also believes in the universality of human religions) in choosing this.

This book seems to me to reflect his and other's attempt to find a living spirituality: a sense of it that grows with them as it helps them to grow: a sense of spirituality that facilitates, not limits, human flourishing. He's a lovely guide and a readable author. Although I am not seeking a religion, I enjoyed connecting with McLennan's stories and the stories he betrayed. This is a recommendation for those interested in this kind of growth.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


© 1999 Max(x) Barry
294 pages

I've been enjoying Max Barry these past few weeks. His funny novels set in corporate America -- sometimes exploring speculative scenarios -- have not yet failed to disappoint, and Syrup was another en joyable read. This one has been described as a "cult classic" and is currently being made into a film. The book has a lightening pace: unlike his other books and unlike most books (including thrillers), Syrup's lead characters enjoy very little downtime. Main character "Scat" -- who has given himself a new name appropriate for pursuing a career in marketing --begins the novel with a million-dollar idea: a soda with the brand name of Fukk. After gushing about the idea to his roommate Sneaky Pete (who, we are told, you should never ask "Why are you called Sneaky Pete?), he runs off to the Coca-Cola company to meet Pete's friend 6. After hearing 6's name, Scat believes he has found a kindred soul, and despite her claims that she is not interested in men, he falls in love with her while attempting to sell the idea.

The idea is a sensation: the Coca-Cola company loves it. Everyone knows that the soda with an eyebrow-raising name sold in a black can will be the hit of the summer -- including Sneaky Pete, who trademarks the name while Scat is ignoring 6's claims that she prefers women. Oops. Scat was almost worth $3 million, but he is just an idea man -- he fails when putting ideas into action. After he returns to his home to yell at his roommate Sneaky Pete (and to leave after realizing that Pete owns the lease and can't be kicked out), he is approached by 6. Sneaky Pete is Coca-Cola's new golden boy, and he's after her job: 6 wants Scat's help. Thus begins the plot-driving conflict, which unfolds over a period of several months (the interludes are never mentioned) while Scat and 6 frantically fight to keep their new positions at Coca-Cola against Sneaky Pete's attempts to undermine them and take credit for his ideas -- culminating in their attempting to film a movie that will serve as a feature-length advertisement for Coca-Cola. The conflict is not resolved until the book's final pages, keeping readers' eyes firmly on the page.

Syrup is not only a funny thriller, but an interesting peek into the world of marketing. Barry confirms what a professor of mine -- who worked in marketing until making the switch to geography -- said about the profession, that it was "organized lying". According to the book's "About the Author", Barry worked in marketing before beginning work on his novels. He sprinkles marketing "tips" into the story, like "You don't have to claim a product is healthy: just insinuate it." and "Spread the most popular items throughout the grocery store so customers pass by as large a range of goods as possible. Shift the location of goods regularly to keep customers wandering." Barry also has Scat talk about the marketing business, where "perception is reality". I suspect that most people reading a book like Syrup are already familiar with the fact that advertisers use every gimmick they can to sell an item, but how far they will go is still surprising.

This is a definite recommendation if you want a fun read that focuses on story and not so much on giving the reader gratuitous anything -- except for snarkiness.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Hostile Hospital

The Hostile Hospital
© 2001 Lemony Snicket
255 pages

The Hostile Hospital represents a dramatic break in the series' pattern: rather than Mr. Poe delivering the children to yet another guardian who will either die, denounce the children, or attempt to kill them, the children begin this book on their own -- a consequence of having been run out of the vile Village of Fowl Devotees by a mob intent to burn them at the stake. Count Olaf has managed to fool another dim-witted group of people, but this time his disguises and lies have more long-reaching effects: the Baudelaire orphans are wanted for murder. Because the adults in this book series are so unbelievably credulous, the children -- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny if you need reminding -- are utterly on their own.

The story begins at the Last Chance store. If you've seen the movie, this is where Count Olaf attempts to kill the children by "flattening them with a train". The children fire off a telegram to Mr. Poe to tell him that they really didn't murder a man in VFD and that this is just a big misunderstanding caused by Count Olaf, but they have to leave soon thereafter when the gullible shopkeepers read the daily newspaper and begin to believe that the polite but harrowed-looking orphans are murderers. Fortunately, as they run out the door they find a bus marked "VFD": Volunteers Fighting Disease. This is a group of well-intentioned but otherwise useless clowns who go to hospitals singing songs in an attempt to cheer people up. That may work for Patch Adams, but it doesn't work here.

While the hospital is only half-finished and is filled with adults, the children seek sanctuary in its unfinished rooms. While they wait for the storm that is their manhunt to be over, they seek employment in the hospital's library of records after finding out that it may have information on them: unfortunately, this information has also attracted Count Olaf. Olaf's timing is unfortunate, but that's in keeping with the theme of the books and -- after a series of similarly unfortunate events -- Klaus and Sunny have to rescue Violet from an operating table, as Count Olaf intends to remove her head. The book ends with Olaf putting yet another building to flames.

Clearly, the series is shaping up: at this point the books are driven more by the overall story and less by their specific circumstances. There's clearly a larger story here, and one that involves the narrator in that people in the Snicket family met the same fate as the orphans' parents, as did the narrator's girlfriend Beatrice -- who he mentions often. In addition to the plot, the children are also maturing: they are growing as characters and exhibiting signs of the stress that they've gone through so far and know they will endure a little further. They're finally realizing how they must rely only on themselves, because adults are useless when not evil. The children are also learning to take advantage of this universal gullibility: they lie, disguise themselves, and steal when necessary in the last book and then fret over the choices they are making -- worrying that they are becoming more like Count Olaf.

The series continues to delight. On a final note, by this point I am sure Snicket is using Sunny's "nonsense" speak to convey private jokes to readers with broader vocabularies than the children who probably constitute the bulk of his reading audience.

On a more final note, while searching for music from the movie I found a song about the book series on YouTube. The real version has Snicket himself singing, but this particular video has the song set to clips from the movie.

The Vile Village

The Vile Village
© 2001 Lemony Snicket
256 pages

"It takes a village to raise a child", the saying goes -- and the vile village of VFD takes that saying seriously when they join a government program that allows whole villages to adopt orphans. Although the children will find nothing in the village that is pleasant or kindly, in an ironic twist this is an instance of the Baudelaires accidentally creating their own misfortune. They are given the opportunity to choose a village to be adopted by, and choose VFD based on the fact that its name is the same as the mystery organization that links their parents' demise and Count Olaf together. Given that the last time they chose something called "VFD" for that reason the Quagmire orphans were meanly spirited away by the ever mean-spirited Count Olaf, you'd think they'd be a little more careful -- but they were not, and so spend the better part of a day trudging toward the village through scorching sun and dust storms because the village doesn't allow mechanical devices anywhere near it -- one of their many hundreds of arbitrary rules with cruel punishments.

The children are dismayed to learn that the town cares little for their welfare, and that they intend to use the children as a source of free labor doing the town's chores. Complicating matters is the fact that the town is covered with crows -- literally covered with the black birds standing around looking menacing. The children are made to live with Hector, the town janitor who lives just outside the city limits. He's a kind-hearted man, but like all kind-hearted people in this series he's cursed with a character flaw that limits his ability to help the orphans: like Jerome Squalor from The Ersatz Elevator, Hector is easily cowed: Jerome was most definitely hen-pecked, and Hector is easily intimidated by the Council of Elders, a council of elderly folks who wear hats shaped like crows. "VFD", by the way, stands for "Village of Fowl Devotees".

It should come as no surprise that Count Olaf eventually shows up and eventually tries to steal the children, but in the meantime the Baudelaires are faced with a mystery: they keep finding messages from the kidnapped Quagmire triplets under a tree in Hector's front yard. Eventually they do find a solution, but not before Count Olaf manages to have them run out of town by a mob intent to burn them at the stake. So it goes.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

This Week at the Library (23/7)

Books this Update:
  • Lemony Snicket's The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, and The Ersatz Elevator
  • Company, Max Barry
  • The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis
  • Drawing Down the Moon, Margaret Adler
  • Ricochet, Sandra Brown

For future reference, I decided a few weeks back to postpone my comments on The Sane Society until I have access to the book once more. This week began with Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, as I read books four through six. Although each of the books follow the same general plot (Snicket warns readers against readers and introduces the book: children arrive at a new guardian's house and learn that they're either crazy or mean; Count Olaf arrives and contrives to steal the children away; the children come up with a plan to stop him, which only works partially and at best results in Olaf's cover being blown; and finally, the children contemplate the degree to which their lives are miserable), they're never dull. Snicket's narrating style is funny, and hints of the larger story are beginning to play into the books themselves now.

C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce is a short fantasy story conveying Lewis' impressions on what (Christian) Heaven and Hell are like, or why some people remain in Hell when they could easily be in the other. The unnamed narrator finds himself in a dreary town for no reason that he's sure of. The town is peopled by people at their worst -- angry, spiteful, short-tempered, petty -- and Narrator is anxious to leave, so he hops on a bus and finds himself near scenic woodlands far from the "Grey Town". When he arrives in the woodlands he sees that he and his fellow passengers are just ghosts . Solid or "real" people from a city in the mountains arrive to talk with the Grey citizens and ask them to join the solids in heaven, at which point we are treated to a series of conversations between the solids and strawmen that Lewis uses to tell everyone under the sun who does not grasp the importance of Lewis' grace/submission centered theology. The narrator eventually wakes up and realizes it was just a dream. It's an entertaining little story, but the theology is another matter. Its moral is to accept Lewis' god on his own terms.

Next I read a quite thorough survey of Wicca, goddess-worship, and other Earth religions by Margaret Adler. After establishing background -- focusing on what these groups have in common, where they came from, and how they are adjusting themselves to a culture that by and large rejects them -- Adler moves to examining the specific movements. Wicca receives proportionally more attention than the rest, but its members are more prominent and have more in common than the various goddess-worshipers might have. There's a lot of depth here: although (as a skeptic) there's information here that tempts me to wrinkle my nose, there's also a lot that intrigues me and confirms Adler's suspicion that if not for the connotations that witchery and such terms have, what they're actually saying would otherwise draw social critics and religious pluralists like flies. While reading, I was often reminded of Sufisim.

Max Barry's Company is a delightfully funny story about Zephyr Holdings' newest employee and his rebellion against what the rest of the company takes for granted -- the negligent when not cruel behavior that the company's managers and senior executives seem to exact on the workers, the fact that no one knows what Zephyr Holdings does, the fact that no one has never seen the CEO, and a few other irritations. He is alone in this quest: everyone tells him to just accept the fact that some things at Zephyr Holdings do not make sense, and that poking his nose into matters will just get him fired. Eventually he finds it necessarily to scale a twenty-story building using the fire-escape stairwell while being chased by security guards. What he finds makes Zephyr make sense, but it doesn't make him happy. What finally results is something that might require red flags and a boisterous singing of the Internationale. The book is definitely enjoyable, and I recommend it.

Lastly, I read a reccommendation from my sister in Sandra Brown's Ricochet, a police mystery thriller about an honest cop and a plot that somehow manages to pit him against the three people in his city that most threaten his integrity: a master criminal who he has a serious grudge against; the judge who let the criminal walk on a technicality; and the judge's wife, who our honest cop falls hard for. The story begins when the wife shoots a man in her own home. What looks like a simple case of self defense against an armed burgular has a few too many questions for Honest Cop, and when he presses the investigation further, the wife asks to meet him in secret -- at which point she states that she believes her husband was attempting to assassinate her and that he will try again. It is hard for the police to believe that the corrupt judge would want to part with his trophy wife under any terms, but as the protagonist digs, he finds pictures of her in the company of the criminal. What this means is that he can't actually figure out who is telling the truth: he has to wing it and go from his gut at times. The book was fairly entertaining with enough plot twists to keep it interesting.

Pick of the Week: Company, Max Barry

Next Week:
  • Lemony Snicket's The Vile Village and The Hostile Hospital. (Number ten was checked out.)
  • Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason; John Bradshaw.
  • Finding Your Religion, Scotty McLennan. I'm not sure why I checked this one out: the impression I got flipping through its pages was that it's about the common practices of the major religious and "spiritual paths", so file it under comparative religion -- perhaps.
  • The Great American Wolf, Bruce Hampton
  • Medieval Lives -- maybe. It isn't actually a history book.
  • Syrup, Max Barry


© 2006 Sandra Brown
385 pages

I didn't intend to read this book this week, but borrowed it from my sister while staying at her home. Ricochet is a fairly straightforward police mystery novel which my sister recommend to me after discussing Phillip Margolin's The Undertaker's Widow. In both books, the wife of a prominent man shoots a burglar breaking into their home, but what appears to be a straightforward claim to self defense is actually part of a bigger story. In Ricochet, the bigger story involves a honest cop's burning passion for justice and personal revenge -- and his burning passion for a judge's wife -- calling his integrity into question when he is called to the home of the very poorly named Cato Laird, a judge who plays politics from the bench and who allowed the book's thug to walk on a technicality. Further still, as the book progresses, our honest cop falls hard for the judge's wife -- who is herself somehow linked with the criminal. Although the case looks fairly simple -- she shot a man breaking into her home -- Honest Cop finds her story hard to believe, and when he presses the investigation, she requests a private meeting, at which point she informs him that her husband was attempting to assassinate her. I found the story to be a fairly enjoyable detective story with enough plot twists to keep things from being predictable, although I did not care for Sandra Brown's choice of words in some respects -- "nekkid" is a word that belongs on cellphones, not in books.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


© 2006 Max Barry
338 pages

I chose to read Max Barry's Company based on how much I enjoyed Jennifer Government, and I'm happy to say that Barry did not fail to entertain here. Company is the story of Stephen Jones, Zephyr Holdings' newest employee. Jones is hired to help market "training packages", and he believes this is what the company is for. Imagine his surprise when he finds out that only his department handles this, and further still that his department sells those packages to other departments within Zephyr. His every attempt to find out what the rest of the company does is stymied: even after he barges into his department chief's office to respectfully inquire about the issue, he is shot down. Repeatedly, he is told to leave it be -- no one else knows, and they don't need to know.

Although Jones is our leading character and protagonist, he is by far from the only character: Barry frequently writes from the perspective of others and sometimes using his own voice. What quickly emerges is a company in which the employees do what they're told simply because it's a living -- where little make senses and where Senior Management does nothing to explain anything. When Senior Management does poke its nose into the story line, they generally do so to make drastic changes to the company that make their employees even more confused and unhappy. The company is quite chaotic: departments vie for power and attempt to destroy one another. While everyone else is accustomed to this, Jones refuses to take "Nevermind it," as an answer, leading him to make a frantic run for the offices of the CEO while being chased by security guards. What Jones will change his entire view of the company, and it will for a time put him in a position of absolute power. What could possibly be so dramatic?

You'll have to read and see. I found the book to be very entertaining, at times reminding me of The Office and of a particular John Cleese clip. Not only is it an entertaining novel by itself, but it functions also as a criticism of corporate culture.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Drawing Down the Moon

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America
© 1986 (revised) Margaret Adler
646 pages including appendices

A few weeks back I read a book on Wicca and found the religion itself to be interesting. Continuing in my current habit of reading in comparative religion and religious pluralism topics, I decided to look into the broader theme of Earth religions. The book is quite broad, and its first section is mainly background and explanation in which Adler focuses on what these groups have in common, where they came from, and how they are adjusting themselves to a culture that by and large rejects them -- for even though they outnumber religions like the Quakers and Unitarians s while sharing most of the same values, the terms of the nature religions have such connotations that the groups are largely marginalized, according to Adler.

The next two sections focus on the religions themselves, with Wicca getting the lion's share of the attention: it merits its own section while the rest are grouped together. The definitions used for Wicca, witch, and pagan are broader here than in Wicca for Beginners because Adler is attempting to write a general survey of these groups. Adler's epilogue is the last chapter and concentrates specifically on how pagans and similar people live within society. Because the approach is so broad, impressions are as well -- although there are some general statements that can be made. For instance, these movements are by and large urban movements, filled with people from all social classes and which see themselves primarily as life-affirming. For many, the gods are not literal: they may be Jungian archetypes, or they may be flavors of Deity. There's a lot of diversity here, but the wealth of information is generally accessible. The people interviewed explain their terms well.

The book is useful as a general reference, I think.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Ersatz Elevator

The Ersatz Elevator
© 2001 Lemony Snicket
259 pages

"I know what you mean," Klaus said. "If someone had asked me, that day at the beach, if I ever thought we'd be climbing up and down an empty elevator in an attempt to rescue a pair of triplets, I would have said never in a million years. And now we're doing it for the fifth time in twenty-four hours. What happened to us? What led us to this awful place we're staring at now?"
"Misfortune," Violet said quietly.
"A terrible fire," Klaus said.
"Olaf," Sunny said decisively [...].

The sixth book in Lemony Snicket's series of unfortunate events takes the Baudelaire orphans back to where it all began -- in more ways than one. The orphans are adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Squalor, who live in a gigantic penthouse apartment. True to the pattern developed in previous books, the Squalors like all adults are useless when not cruel. Jerome Squalor is actually quite nice -- it's his wife who's the most problematic. She only cares about what's "In" and "Out" and is not adverse to having the building's elevator removed if elevators fall out of fashion -- which is what has happened to it at book's beginning, forcing the children to walk either "forty-eight or eighty-four" flights of stairs to get home. Although life in the Squalor apartment is more comfortable than their previous living conditions -- working in a mill or living in a shack, for instance -- they cannot enjoy properly given the fact that their friends and allies in the struggle against Olaf, the Quagmire triplets, have been kidnapped by Count Olaf. If this were not enough, Olaf soon shows up, necessitating that the orphans contrive a plan against him.

Building on book five, bits of the series' master story emerge here. For the first time, the central characters are not the only thing that tie the books together: what with the kidnapping of the Quagmire triplets and the emergence of a mysterious organization called "VFD". The book maintains its characteristic narration -- which reveals more and more of Lemony Snicket: he appears to be fighting against Olaf himself and is on the run, leaving the manuscripts that become the books in hiding places for his compatriots to find. The Ersatz Elevator is as ever enjoyable.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Austere Academy

The Austere Academy
© 2000 Lemony Snicket
221 pages

Mr. Poe warned the children at the beginning of The Miserable Mill that it was becoming increasingly difficult to locate guardians and that if anything were to happen at the mill, they would probably be stuck away in a boarding school while he looked. Seeing as their guardian at the mill was a cruel idiot and that the book ended with people losing legs, they were indeed sent to a boarding school -- the Austere Academy, a place with grey buildings shaped like tombstones (or "thumbs" if you want to look at the bright side of things) and an overall bleak spirit. The teachers are frightfully dull, the vice principal is another cruel idiot, and Count Olaf is the P.E. coach. Rather than living in a warm and cozy dormitory, the kids are sent to live in the "Orphans' Shack", a little shed filled with fungus and crabs with only hay for beds. Naturally, they are upset by the fact that Count Olaf has found them yet again, but this time they decide to make him believe that his disguise has fooled them.

Although much of the book follows the pattern Snicket has set before in terms of plot and narrative style, there are two important variations: firstly, the kids gain friends and allies in the Quagmire triplets, who lost their parents and third triplet in a fire -- just as the Baudelaire orphans did. Secondly, Snicket begins to directly work elements from the master plot into the book in that the Quagmire triplets and Baudelaire orphans learn that Count Olaf has something to do with a mysterious group. Given that this book is roughly the halfway point in the series, it seems appropriate that the overall story would start becoming more important. The book itself was as enjoyable as ever. On a final note, I sometimes think the author is using Sunny's "gibberish" for little injokes. During the series, Sunny's toddlerspeak is understood by her siblings and explained to us by them or Snicket -- for instance, "Queek!" might mean "This turn of events seems improbable to me". In this book I noticed instances in which Sunny's utterances could be read doubly -- perhaps for the amusement of adults who are reading the series. I doubt most children know who Sappho is, for instance, or why she would be appropriate as a response to a girl reading poetry. Then again, perhaps I am reading too much into things.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce
© 1945 C.S. Lewis
118 pages.

What drew me to this book? I suppose the novelty of a story in which the lead character visits an afterlife was one factor: my previous experience with C.S. Lewis -- which left me wanting -- was another. The story begins with the unnamed narrator wandering about a city known only as "the Grey Town", a dismal place full of empty streets, superficial means of amusement, and irritable people. The narrator has no idea why he's in this town, although he's not too much curious -- he just dislikes it and wants to leave. After wandering around from street to street, he finds a bus stop and joins the line forming. The bus takes the narrator and a few fellow citizens of the grey town to what appears to be a beautiful woodland clearing near a mountain range and some unidentified source of light.

The bus dumps its passengers without much of an explanation, aside from the fact that they are free to remain in the meadow area for as long as they would like. As beautiful as it is, the narrator finds that it is impossible for him to really enjoy it: the grass is so hard on his feet that it might as well be pointy stone, and water is the same way. What's more, the narrator realizes that he and his fellows aren't quite real: they appear to be ghosts. After solid people emerge from near the mountains and begin engaging various bus passengers, the narrator spends perhaps two-fifths of the book listening to their conversations. The real people -- the "Solid People" -- attempt to convince the "ghosts" to join them in a walk to the mountains. If you are already familiar with the general theme of the book, it becomes obvious that Lewis is using the bus passengers as means of explaining why people remain miserable in their non-surrender to Jesus. One grouch harangues his Solid guide for being a murderer and states that all he wants is his just deserts -- he doesn't want any "bleedin' charity", at which point the solid asks him to please do accept the "Bleeding Charity". I'm not sure if that pun is good or a groaner. Another ghost is a bubble-headed intellectual who would rather discuss intellectual matters than simply accept the "Truth" for what it is. Generally speaking, the fault of all of the ghosts that the narrator will observe is that they want heaven and God on their terms -- not God's.

Eventually the narrator gets his own visitor in the form of a Scottish theologian, at which point the narrator realizes that the shining place in the mountains is heaven and that the grey city is Hell -- and further still, that people are only in Hell because they choose to remain there. Making the move to Heaven is as simple as accepting God on his own terms -- which are never really defined: they seem to be whatever it is the ghosts dislike. Interestingly, the narrator is told several times that the life of the grey town will eventually end, and the consequences will not be pretty. Based on Mere Christianity, this seems to be a promotion of Lewis' theology. As a story, it's entertaining enough -- but its theological content is another discussion entirely. Although Lewis' view of hell is more humane than the traditional BBQ down under, I don't really understand why God just doesn't forcibly move these people to a place of safety: a parent who would allow their child to suffer through their own idiocy is doing them no favors by not interfering.

As for me, I prefer Kate Braestrup's view, so paraphrased: "If you're living in love, or in the Christian view following Jesus, then wherever you are is heaven. If you're not living in that love, though, then wherever you are -- no matter how splendid -- is hell."

The Miserable Mill

The Miserable Mill
© 2000 Lemony Snicket
194 pages

"You can't stop me! Count Olaf always comes back for an encore!" - Count Olaf, deleted scenes from the movie.

When we last left the Baudelaire children, they had lost their parents, a lovable mentor, and a slightly batty aunt to the incorrigibly evil Count Olaf, who is determined to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. Despite their mishaps, the bureaucrat in charge of them insists on shoving them off on people without doing proper background checks. In The Miserable Mill's case, the children are adopted by a man known only as "Sir", who owns a lumber mill and keeps his employees working in conditions that would have shamed a medieval lord. The children are forced into work -- stripping bark from trees is one task and given only five minutes and a stick of gum for lunch and coupons at the end of the day. Klaus is hypnotized by an optometrist that the kids are sure is in cahoots with Count Olaf -- not that their new guardian, Mr. Poe, or anyone else would believe them. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Count Olaf has thought of a new way to get possession of the kids -- although why he persists is unclear, given that Mr. Poe made it clear in The Bad Beginning that Olaf isn't eligible to receive any of the money. This book as something of a twist in that Violet and Klaus are forced to switch their respective roles as inventor and researcher when circumstances merit.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This Week At the Library (15/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window; Lemony Snicket
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
  • Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
  • The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism, Jean Smith
  • Jennifer Government, Max Barry
  • Jesus, Marcus Borg

I started this week with the first three books in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, which detail the troubles that befall three orphans -- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny -- after their parents perish in a fire and they are sent from one inept adoptive parent to the next while being pursued by the incorrigibly evil Count Olaf, who wants the children’s money. I read the first three -- as opposed to the first two or the first four -- because they constitute the movie, which is what made me interested in the series to begin with. Although the books are written for kids, the tone makes it very readable for adults as well. The books were a delight, and I shall continue.

I also read H.G. Well’s classic The Time Machine, which happens to be the first science fiction story I ever read and which surprised me this week for its utter readability. The novella -- concerning the Time Traveler’s tale of his trip some eight hundred thousand years in the future -- was published in in 1890, but lacks the formal language classic works are prone to have. The concepts the story relies on are explained by the Time Traveler to his friends. While the work is an enjoyable piece of early science fiction, it also captures the mindset of its time -- particularly the Traveler's utopian predictions.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar was next, it being an attempt to combine philosophy and humor. Despite its small size, the authors attempt to cover philosophy as a whole -- from metaphysics to art to social philosophy. They devote a chapter to each particular division of philosophy and work jokes into the text. Perhaps because of the size, the book doesn't do justice to the content covered: I found their treatment of many topics to be silly to the point of shallow and dreadfully flat. Some of the jokes are clever, and some not so. I would not recommend this book as an introduction to philosophy.

I then read Jean Smith's The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism, a very readable and fairly thorough introduction to Zen practice, ritual, and history. She explains not only Zen itself but Buddhism as a whole, stating that Zen and the other Buddhist schools of thought differ chiefly in which of the Eight Noble Truths they emphasize. Illustrations are used directly by the text, and Smith includes suggested reading and addresses of Zen centers for those interesting.

Max Barry's Jennifer Government was next, and it was quite an entertaining read. The novel takes place in the possible near future (although published in 2003, the book is dated: some scenes feature people fighting over VCRs.) in a world where American corporations rule supreme, dominating the world -- not just its markets -- and subjugating the American people in a way that not even the most paranoid Green party member could imagine. People take their very identifies from their place of employ and corporations have access to artillery for what you might call "aggressive negotiations"*. The American government is almost a nonentity. The story that unfolds begins when fourteen teenagers are murdered by Nike-hired assassins in an attempt to prove that their new shows are worth dying for. Federal agent Jennifer Government attempts to track down the perpetrators while a host of other characters bound around pursuing their own agendas that fit into the main story. The novel is light-action that doubles as a criticism of corporate greed, consumer culture, and libertarian philosophy.

Lastly I read Marcus Borg's Jesus, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. Borg's account is an attempt to find the human Jesus. He tries to build on a foundation that everyone can agree on, typically referring to the original "Q" source. He also builds on appropriate context -- namely, Judea's political, social, and religious reality that Jesus was surely shaped by and moved it. In emphasizing this context, Borg keeps his Jesus' feet firmly on the ground: he never floats like a puppet whose strings are being pulled. Rather than rely on or deny supernatural interpretations, Borg relies heavily on pointing out metaphorical language -- saying that while the words themselves might not be true, what they mean is. Rather than seeing the gospels as a collection of stories gathered for future generations -- existing solely for the sake of those who follow -- Borg points out that these stories must have had some importance for the people who collected them, and he writes much on this. After establishing background, he goes through the Gospels commenting on story after story and looking for both the literal and metaphorical meanings. In his epilogue, he comments further on traditional -- that is, relying on holding certain beliefs -- and emerging Christianity, the latter being following Jesus on "the Way", just as a Taoist or Buddhist follow the "Way". It is worth noting that Borg believes the major religions to be entirely human creations that develop in response to interactions with deity. I like what this book says about Borg as an author: never at any point did he insult my intelligence or make stretches of the imagination that weren't mostly implausible -- but never too does he lose touch with the fact that he's dealing with texts that have a lot of emotional connection to people. I think fundamentalists and skeptics alike can enjoy this book, and recommend it.

Pick of the Week: Marcus Borg's Jesus.

Next Week:
  • The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, and the Ersatz Elevator; Lemony Snicket. As mentioned, I'm continuing this funny little series. (Apparently he likes alliteration.)
  • The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity aside, Lewis has such a reputation that I'm going to read a little more and see if I can see what the fuss is about.
  • Company, Max Barry. I enjoyed Jennifer Government to the point that I will be reading more from the author.
  • Medieval Lives: Eight Charismatic Men and Women of the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor. It's been a while since I read any history, and the medieval period is always interesting.
  • Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-worshippers, and Other Pagans in America; Margaret Adler. Back in the late spring, I read a book on Wicca. I found it to be an interesting religion or lifestyle, and I want to continue reading on it.

Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government
© 2003 Max Barry
321 pages

A number of years ago some friends and I began playing the online game "NationStates" in which users create a nation and make daily decisions to shape its progress (or descent). The game was created by the author of Jennifer Government, Max Barry, partially as a way to amuse himself and partially as a way to advertise the book. I checked Jennifer Government out back in the day but never got around to finishing it -- but after returning to NationStates a month or so ago, I decided to look into Barry's other work once more. Jennifer Government is set in a world where the worst nightmares of some and the greatest dreams of others have come to life -- a world in which the government exists only to say "Hey, play nice!" and consumerism is god. Companies are more powerful than countries, especially as they join coalitions and sport private armies -- one of which is the NRA. Jennifer Government's world is one in which scenes like this can happen:

"Nine-eleven Emergency, how can I help you?"
"I need an ambulance. Quickly, a girl has been shot at the Chadstone Wal-Mart mall."
"Certainly, sir. Can you tell me the girl's name?"
"Hayley. Hayley something. Please, come straight away."
"Sir, I need to know if the victim is part of our register," the operator said. "If she's one of our clients, we'll be there within a few minutes. Otherwise I'm happy to recommend -- "
"I need an ambulance!" he shouted, and it was only when water splashed on [Buy's] hand that he realized he had started to cry. "I'll play for it, I don't care, just come!"
"Do you have a credit card, sir?"
"Yes! Send someone now!"
"As soon as I confirm your ability to pay, sir. This will only take a few seconds."
- p. 33

The girl -- shot by a Nike-paid assassin along with thirteen other teenagers trying to buy the new Nike shoes in an operation planned to boost sales, dies as Buy struggles to communicate his credit-card number to the dispatcher. There are other scenes like this when the utter callousness of Barry's world makes itself known -- like when Buy goes to an NRA store to purchase a gun and asks for the kind of pistol that might be best for suicide. The clerk cheerfully recommends a certain kind, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this man is planning on taking his life. People have been reduced by the corporate world to the point that they take their last names from their place of employ, and children take theirs from whichever company sponsors their school -- as the government is so reduced in power that it can only commence investigations as long as a private citizen is willing to pay.

Although the novel is a light-action thriller with some comedic aspects, it doubles as a critique of consumer culture now and what libertarianism might allow. The novel begins with Nike's "promotional campaign", at which point we are introduced to a host of characters: Hack Nike, a downtrodden cubicle-dweller who is tricked into doing the job (and who can't, so he subtracts it to the Police); Buy Mitsui, a French stock broker who moved to Australia (part of the United States, as are the Americas, India, Polynesia, and Oceania), who inadvertently causes the death of a young girl when he gives her money to buy the new Nike shoes, shoes she will soon die for; and Jennifer Government, the advertiser-turned-federal-agent who attempts to get to the bottom of the murders -- not only for the sake of the young people murdered, but because she harbors a vendetta against the man who engineered all of this, John Nike.

The book generally reads rather quickly, and the setting of course is quite interesting. I think I shall be reading more of Max Barry.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
© 1989 Marcus Borg
343 pages

Marcus Borg is one of the two theologians who interested me in attempts to humanize Christianity and in the works of men like himself, Albert Schweitzer, and Shelby Spong. I looked forward to reading this book, but did not anticipate enjoying it as much as I did. Rather than simply creating a narrative from portions of the Christian gospels and promoting it, Borg attempts to distill all the information we possess to the point that a hypotheticalnonpapal conclave” composed of a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an atheist could agree on the story being told.

Before he does so, however, Borg establishes background by analyzing the information at hand and the interpretations thus far, categorizing the viewpoints into general categories and writing at length on the texts themselves. More importantly, he offers a historical and social analysis of the Roman Empire and the religious world of Judea -- something I find lacking in many books and that I was most pleased to see here. Jesus and his followers would have been shaped by the culture they lived in, and I’m glad that Borg emphasizes the importance of context.

What follows then is an examination of the gospel accounts: Borg divides them into three portions -- Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee, his last days in Jerusalem, and the road between the two. As he writes, he refers back to the contexts he established and to the important of symbolic language. What unfolds is a genuinely fair treatment of the Gospels: when I looked at the back of the book and saw it advertised as a “unifying vision for a critical time,” I scoffed because I figured the interpretations of Jesus are so varied that unifying them would be like unifying humanity -- probably impossible. To my surprise, however, the book neither insults rationality nor belief. When examining accounts of the miraculous, for instance, Borg does not spend time debating on if these things happened or not: he prefers to address the importance these stories held for the first people to tell them. What does it tell us about Jesus that they would say these things about him? A common theme is the importance of metaphor. What strikes me about Borg’s tone is his gentleness: he refuses even to label the Pharisees or Romans as evil even when acknowledging that they did disagreeable things. “You and I might enjoy the Pharisees’ company”, he comments, “and the Roman Empire was considerably better to live in than any other nation-state at the same time.” The Pharisees and Romans were both trapped by the economic-governmental system that they were born in.

The book isn’t wholly unifying, but I don’t suppose it could be. Borg believes there are two general types of Christians: those who place importance on holding particular beliefs, and those who place importance on living in a certain way -- on following Jesus on the Path, just as a Taoist follows the way of Lao Tzu and a Buddhist the way of Siddhartha Gautama. The latter Christianity is one Borg identifies as having been emerging since the 17th century. In his last chapter, he looks at how traditional/authoritative and emerging Christianity are shaping up in the United States. While admitting concern over the success of the Religious Right, he points out that mainstream Christianity’s fading-away is not necessarily a bad thing: it is simply the decay of imperial Christianity, and will ultimately free Christianity to be the lifestyle-changing religion it first was. Here I wonder if Borg has ever heard of Shane Claiborne: from what I’ve heard of Claiborne (thanks for the recommendation, Pom-Pom), I think the two would get along.

I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend it without reservation.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism

The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism
© 2000 Jean Smith
190 pages

Not knowing what distinguishes Zen Buddhism from Buddhism as a whole, I decided to read this quite accessible little book about the basics. Author Jean Smith does this fairly well, I think. Although I would be made to claim a comprehensive knowledge of Buddhist beliefs and practices, I've never encountered anything in another book that was not at least mentioned here. Perhaps appropriately, she begins the book by concentrating on the practice of zazen, or Zen meditation. This is a particular form of meditation relying on particular sitting positions and techniques and must -- according to her -- become part of daily, or at least weekly. Illustrations are used effectively: what pictures that are here are used directly by the text, instead of functioning as "extras" that give the reader a rest from nonstop text. The first pictures used are of the author (I presume) demonstrating several appropriate sitting positions for zazen.

She then moves onto the importance of the sangha, or community, and the Zen practitioner's relationship with his or her teacher. Smith places a lot of emphasis on the need for a teacher, which I found surprising. She then includes a short history of Buddhism's spread and development from India into China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and finally the United States, after which she writes on the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, and other teachings. This approach -- specifics before background -- is the reverse of what I expected, but I think it works. It is here that she states that what makes the separate schools of thought in Buddhism distinct from one another is which parts of the Eight-Fold path they place emphasis on. Zen's emphasis, she explains is on "right mindfulness and concentration". The book ends with thoughts on Zen in everyday life and a chapter of frequently-asked questions. Smith includes a list of suggested reading and a directory of Zen centers in the United States.

Overall, I found the book to be enjoyable and informing reading. I was surprised by the picture of Zen painted here: I did not anticipate the importance of ritual and such. My only detractory comment would be that Smith doesn't seem to offer any explanation for the preservation of rituals and chants and so forth aside from "It's part of the Zen Tradition." I know of possible explanations for these things -- chants serving to quiet the mind for the purposes of meditation, for instance -- but they were not mentioned.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Wide Window

"It's miraculous!" Klaus cried, as the flame took hold.
"It's unbelievable!" Aunt Josephine cried.
"Fonti!" Sunny shrieked.
"It's the scientific principles of the convergence and refraction of light!" Violet cried, wiping her eyes.

- page 180

The Wide Window finishes the three books that constitute Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, although the stories told unfold in a slightly different way. Once again the Baudelaire orphans are taken to a new home -- one would hope a safer one. Alas, the home in particular hangs over a leech-filled lake, held up only by a few rotten beams. Their "Aunt" Josephine is positively neurotic, terrified of everything from falling sofas to realtors. The titular wide window resides in Aunt Josephine's library (a large collection of books on grammar) and overlooks the lakeside. If living with Aunt Josephine wasn't unpleasant enough -- with her various neuroses and her obsession with grammar -- the kids soon realize that Count Olaf is in pursuit of them, now in the guise of the aptly-named Captain Sham.

It is needless to say that Count Olaf once again connives a plan to make the Baudelaire orphans and their fortune his that is once again foiled by the constantly-maligned orphans -- although this time Olaf's plan is a touch more sophisticated than "Kill the legal guardian and take the kids". It involves a forged letter and preying on the terror of Aunt Josephine. Although I already know how the story would unfold -- this is part of the movie -- I still enjoyed reading the book, as the narration is fun to read. Lemony Snicket's humor is often dry, ironic, and a little subversive in that he talks to children as people instead of as children. Assuming the books are present in the library next week, I will be continuing in the series.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
© 2007 Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
208 pages

I was quickly taken in by this book's title, and was also interested in the intersection of philosophy and humor. The book attempts to be (and is, somewhat) both an introductory survey to philosophy in general while using jokes to demonstrate it. Although the authors do explain the meaning and (sometimes) relevance of philosophical matters, they do this in a silly and simple way that borders on being shallow and is definitely simplistic. Although I did encounter concepts I'd never heard of before -- thus learning something -- I found the treatment of many topics to be shamefully flat. Judging by the comments on Amazon, newcomers to philosophy find the book enjoyable, but I would not reccommend it as an introduction: the "...for Dummies" or "Complete Idiot's Guide to...." philosophy books are probably superior. Still, some of the jokes are funny and at least at the beginning do demonstrate philosophy. As the book wears on, they go from being "relevant" to being "somewhat related". The philosophy tag attached to this post should have quotation marks. If you read this, please do so with a large bag of iodine salt nearby.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Reptile Room

Count Olaf (as Stephano): Hello, I'm looking for Dr.Montgomery Montgomery. My name is Stephano, I am an Italian man.
Violet: You're Count Olaf.
Count Olaf (as Stephano): Dammit. This was such a good character....
- from the movie.

When the bad beginning ended, the Baudelaire orphans -- having become so when their parents caught fire -- had managed to escape the clutches of their evil guardian Count Olaf when he shot himself in the foot. (Not literally -- the book series may have ended then if that were the case.) Despite Olaf admitting to various crimes, his henchmen and he managed to escape the law's clutches. Mr. Poe, the executor of the bank's will (who author Lemony Snicket referred to as feeling like an "executioner" because he kept putting the children in danger), brings the children to their next-closest relative, a herpetologist who lives in the comparative middle of nowhere with a library and lots of snakes to keep him company.

Although snakes are often associated with villainy, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (known to the kids as "Uncle Monty") is a kind and generous fellow who values the children and immediately makes them at home. Lest we feel good for the orphans, our narrator informs us that soon they will once again be miserable and Uncle Monty will be quite dead. This comes about when Count Olaf becomes part of their lives once more under the guise of Uncle Monty's lab assistant. Stephano/Count Olaf almost spirits the children away, but once more their courage and inventiveness allow them to escape from his clutches.

The book series remains humorous despite its dark nature, and The Reptile Room is as enjoyable as its predecessor.

The Time Machine

The Time Machine
© 1895 H.G. Wells
108 pages

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I was not expecting The Time Machine to be such a short read. The Great Illustrated Classics treatment of it was the first bit of science fiction I ever read, and I remember it being a fairly thick read and was surprised to find that my library's only copy of the work was bound in a collection with The Invisible Man. Much of that book from my childhood sticks with me: the Time-Traveler staring at two wilted flowers, the titular machine that looked more like an amusement park ride than a time-traveling device, the way it made me want to find out what "mutton" tasted like, since the Time Traveler found it so appealing when he returns from his first trip -- and the haunting image of him staring at a bloated sun that filled the sky on a cold and dying Earth.

You may have surmised at this point that The Time Machine is a novella about a man who goes time-traveling. It begins at his home in England as he talks with his friends about the reality of four dimensions and the fact that time is as real as width or depth. (I found this very interesting when I was a child, given that science classes at the elementary level consisted of memorizing definitions of things.) He then states that he has found a way to move forward through time, and demonstrates with a little model of a time machine to prove this to his skeptical friends, most of whom are known only from their occupations -- as is the Time Traveler. Most of the story is told from his point of view: a week after he demonstrates his little model, he returns from a more extended time-traveling trip, most of which he spends in the far future.

He spends most of his time in the year 802,701, in which he discovers (in England) two races of people whom he believes are the descendants of humanity, the first being a childlike race of people living in vast communal structures who spend their time eating fruit, singing songs, and dances. At first the Traveler believes these people to be the fulfillment of human evolution -- they have completely conquered Nature, and now can enjoy the fruits of their labor. The problem with this, as the Traveler soon discovers, is that these people (the Eloi) are not enjoying the fruits of their labor. They do nothing other than sleep, eat, and enjoy other sensual pleasures. They don't grow food or make clothing -- so where are their generous supplies of fruit and simple tunics coming from? Our Traveler finds this out when he discovers the second race of men, the Morlocks: they live underground, fiddle with machines, and prey on the Eloi like humans treat cattle.

The Traveler's explanation for the evolution of the Eloi and Morlocks is grounded in then-contemporary social conditions and historical materialism: he believes that the Eloi and the Morlocks are the ancestors of the bourgeaouise and working class respectively. I assume that since the laborers were treated like animals, they became so. Our Traveler is quick to admit that this explanation, however plausible, could be wrong -- just as his initial thoughts about the Eloi were. As he explores the landscape -- eventually venturing into the Morlock underworld -- he befriends an Eloi named Weena. She seemed to be less present in the actual novella than in the children's book I read,but perhaps as a child I simply gave her more attention. Eventually the Traveler leaves the world of 802,701 to witness Earth's end, and quickly returns to his present to tell his friends of his story. The novel has a slight twist ending.

What is remarkable for a book written in 1895 is how utterly readable this novella is: Victorian language can be a bit dense at times, but this was easy to read as a magazine article. The story has its charm as well.

Lead picture is from The Big Bang Theory.