Monday, September 08, 2014

booksnobbery? don't bet on it


Go read this article on Huffington Post by Alexis Kleiman.

It's about the trending subject on Facebook right now, about books that readers have found significant in their lives. Kleinman contends that the bulk of Facebook users are lying through their teeth, and sharing impressive titles that buttress their literary credentials, instead of listing the books they actually read. Don't take my word for it, though. Read what she has to say and then draw your own conclusions.

Here's mine: Feeling morally superior, isn't she?

A few things bother me about this article. The first is that she's being disingenuous about what the list is about. She presents the trend as listing 10 books that have changed your thinking, and gives us a list of impressive titles that, yes, I can see how they could change or influence a person's thinking. Then she turns around and says, "No, those aren't your favorite books." Well, no; it's a list of influential books, not favorites. There's a big difference in those two concepts.
For myself, the only instructions I've seen were "List 10 books that have stuck with you." That's kind of vague. "The Foot Book" has stuck with me, but so has "Night." When I made my own list, I decided to focus on books that have affected me in a specific way, namely my understanding of race relations in America. I'm not going to pretend that they're my favorite books by any means. There was at least one book on the list that I found unspeakably tedious, but I listed it because it is relevant to the theme I selected.

Articles like this get me down, because the intent here seems to be to shame people who have enjoyed books that are literary in nature, and who are willing to share it openly. A few people have thrown the "humblebrag" charge around, and I don't really get it. There's no reason not to name the books we've read and appreciated when we're asked, and I won't allow some HuffPo blogger to shame me for it.

If you want my list of favorite books, it will be markedly different from my current list, and won't even reach 10, because I have a hard time doing favorites with anything. (The Bible doesn't even make that list.)

By all means, list your favorites if you like. My favorites would include:
1. The Hobbit
2. The Fellowship of the Ring
3. The Two Towers
4. The Return of the King

After that, I'm not sure. If we go by the number of times I've re-read them the past few years, I'd list

5. Good Omens
6. Small Gods
7. Inferno (by Niven and Pournelle)

And then I really don't know. Possibly

8. The Kindly Ones

And then I have absolutely no clue what to list next. But at least I can tell the difference between "favorite" and "influential."

Sunday, September 07, 2014

10 books

They say that everything goes around in cycles. Who can say, "Behold, something new!" It was here long ago, it the time of your ancestors it was here.

And so we find that once again the trendy thing on the Internet is talk about the books we have read. Five years ago, it was 15 books we had read that will stick with us forever. Now it's down to just 10 books. I could reprint the list from the last time around, but I figure, let's try to have a different take on it. After all, every book I've ever read will stick with me in some way, even if it's just to make me shudder every time the author is mentioned.

So, without further ado, here are 10 books that I have read that have fueled my understanding of race relations in modern America:
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1. The Bible. This might not seem like a particularly obvious one, all things considered, but the Christian Scriptures have an amazingly progressive view of race growing from a thread that had emerged in Judaism during the time of the Babylonian captivity. Jesus confronted the racial discord of his day head-on, by healing Gentiles; by deliberately entering pagan territory to free people from unclean spirits; and in one famous example, by rejecting the racial superiority of his day to heal the daughter of a Canaanite woman. For his part, the Apostle Paul on a regular basis had to deal with the interracial conflict in the new Christian communities he was seeding throughout the ancient world. Like Jesus, he was progressive, telling people to respect their cultural and ethnic differences, and reminding them that love means welcoming one another. And ultimately, in the book of Revelation, John of Patmos describes a setting where people of every tribe, nation and language are united in worship.

2. "Black Like Me." "Black Like Me" is the true account of journalist John Howard Griffin and his journey through the South as a black man during the days of jim crow justice and segregation. Through a combination of melatonin pills, ultraviolet light treatments and a dye, Griffin made himself appear to be black, in order to better understand racism and how it affected society. The idea alone is incredible. That someone actually did this and then wrote about it, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

3. "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years." Taylor Branch's Pulitzer-winning work, first of three, chronicling the growth of the Civil Rights movement. The cast of characters is considerable, the detail mind-boggling, and the story timeless. I gained a much better understanding of what happened during the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The book shines remarkable light on a dark period a lot of us would rather not talk about, because we want to believe we've moved on.

4. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." When I read this book, it made me angry. Not at what happened to Douglass, but at what had happened to me. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was given no real sense in public school of what slavery entailed, or about the tremendous people, like Douglass, who rose much higher than society wanted them to. This was a man who taught himself how to read and write, who broke a slave-breaker, and whose story should be required reading for middle-schoolers throughout the nation.

5. "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano." Equiano's autobiography was an important contribution to the abolitionist movement in Britain in the late 18th century, because it it conveys not only the humanity of Africans but the essential barbarity of the English slave owners, who prided themselves on their culture and their piety. The book's got tremendous value historically, and also includes a first-person account of the Middle Passage. Unlike other slave biographies, Equiano's book in many ways reads the adventures of Sinbad, with its fatalistic declarations about the hand and will of God. Still, despite its perceived deficiencies, it's worth reading, particularly for people who have never read a slave narrative, or who think African Americans somehow benefit from the enslavement and debasement of their ancestors.

6. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," by James Baldwin. Told through a series of interconnected flashbacks at an overnight prayer service in post-WWI Harlem, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” peels back the veneer of righteousness of a deacon in a black holiness church, and reveals instead of a life of godliness a life of anger, hatred, adultery, and sin that has poisoned the lives of everyone around him. It's an angry book, and it deals with race in a despairing voice, as black characters revile one another – the character John admires his mother, but considers her powerless against his father’s brutality, and that appears to be the warmest he feels toward anyone – and hope for the future is cut off by these destructive dynamics, curtailed by white society, or severely limited by a God whose love is talked about but never seen.

7. "Letters from Birmingham Jail." I read this book for a religion course back in college, and wish I still had a copy. It's a collection of letters by Dr. King while he was in prison in Alabama, during the early days of the Civil Rights movement.

8. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." I read Maya Angelou's autobiography in college, and again last year when Oldest Daughter had to read it for high school.

9. "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Zora Neale Hurston was an amazing writer, and there is a lot to say about this book, but what lingers with me is one image she returns to again and again: the image of the black woman as the mule of the world. The white man doesn't want to carry a load, so he gives it to the black man; and he doesn't want to bear it, so he makes the black woman carry it instead.

10. "Invisible Man." I think of this book constantly these days, with Ellison's imagery of black invisibility.

Friday, August 15, 2014

'the killing joke'

First published 25 years ago, "The Killing Joke" may be one of the three finest Batman stories ever told. It's certainly the finest ever written about the Joker.

Killingjoke[1]Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, "The Killing Joker" has the Batman starting to boil over in his frustration with his green-haired foe. He knows how Harvey Dent became Two-Face, and that all his decisions come down to the flip of a coin. He knows that the Edward Nigma is the Riddler, and he understands the Riddler's compulsion to lead people on a chase. Ra's al Ghul, the Royal Flush Gang, Poison Ivy, the Penguin -- Batman gets the entire Gotham City rogues gallery, and knows how they work and why. But the Joker remains a mystery to him, and Batman wants to change that before it becomes too late and one of them kills the other.

The Joker, of course, has other plans.

In one of the most iconic scenes from the comic, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon at point-blank range and paralyzes her. This event, which sidelined Barbara Gordon from being Batgirl for the next 25 years of comics, wasn't even the main attraction as far as the Joker was concerned. His goal is simply to drive her father, the police commissioner, insane.

"The Killing Joke" is the comic that cemented the Joker in readers' minds as a nihilistic madman, and one of the central themes of the comic is how far one bad day can take a person past the edge. Without knowing the details, the Joker alludes to the events that drove Bruce Wayne to become Batman, and assumes that Commissioner Gordon also has been pushed over the edge by what the Joker has done.

But what makes the story worth reading is that Moore depicts the bad day that pushed the Joker himself over the edge, when all his hopes and dreams came crashing down, when the bottom fell out of his world, and he plunged into the void.

Around the same time that DC Comics published "The Killing Joke," it also published Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One," which showcased the endpoint and genesis of Bruce Wayne's career as the Caped Crusader, and that established him as an antihero with mental health issues of his own. Add "The Killing Joke" to the mix, and there's nothing else DC has published that comes even close to their level. 

'a new kind of christianity'

51Zo53goj7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Brian McLaren is a pastor and well-known voice in what has been called the emerging church, a movement among post-evangelical Christians away from the popular stereotypes of moral scolds, right wing politics, and generally unpleasant behaviors and ideologies.

"A New Kind of Christianity" is one of McLaren's attempts not only to deconstruct some of the more difficult aspects of evangelical Christianity, such as its belief in the eternal torment of those outside the camp, but also to understand better what Jesus and his disciples meant in their original first-century context. From there, he projects forward, to how this different understanding could affect the relationship churches and Christians have with the larger society, with members of other religions, with gays and lesbians, and so on.

McLaren begins his book by tracing the influence of Greek philosophy on a collection of writings that came from a Hebrew culture with radically different views of evil, God and human nature. From there, he makes the argument that some doctrines held firmly by many evangelicals reflect a perspective that would have seemed alien and baffling to biblical authors and their audience, such as the belief in the eternal, conscious torment of sinners at the hands of a loving God.

After this and related arguments -- for example, that Jesus should be the lens Christians understand other biblical writers through, rather than viewing Jesus through the lens of Paul or later philisophers -- McLaren lays out a sweeping ethos for how he believes the church should address social issues such as same-sex marriage, war and the military-industrial complex, religious pluralism, environmental responsibility, and so on.

The book is challenging, and thought-provoking; and even among those not inclined to agree with McLaren and his conclusions, the questions he raises should lead to deep and meaningful discussions.

'afterlife with archie'

I expect that just about everyone in the United States knows about Archie Andrews and the rest of its gang. Even if you didn't grow up watching "The Archies" in syndication, it's impossible to avoid the Archie digests at the supermarket. Archie Comics aren't as big as Spider-man, but they're every bit as much a part of America.

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And that's what makes "Afterlife with Archie" such a treat. In a nutshell, Sabrina the Teenage Witch does something with good intentions, and inadvertently brings the zombie Apocalypse to Riverdale. Before long the zombies are chowing down at Pop's Diner; they're coming to the high school dance; and Archie and his gang are running for their lives, while hell comes nipping at their heels.

There's an undeniable comic appeal to a story that blends two pictures as contradictory as the horrorific Walking Dead and the idyllic Riverdale, and "Afterlife with Archie" definitely enjoys that appeal. But aside from the goofy charm that comes from such a juxtaposition, the story itself is well told. Betty and Veronica are still rivals for Archie's affections, but with a sharper edge than usually shows in traditional Archie tales; Reggie is still selfish and self-absorbed, but with graver consequences than before; and other, minor characters from the Archie universe emerge with new and sometimes more disturbing wrinkles than they otherwise ever might have shown.

Throughout the entire volume, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa manages to create a zombie story that is both unnerving and thoroughly human, as Archie and members of his supporting cast come face to face with soulless monsters who used to be loved ones, and must make the horrible choices they need in order to live.


If you're a teen or older, and you have only vague recollections (or better) of Archie and his ilk, do yourself a favor and read this collection when you can. It's scary fun.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

the blue monster

Like the rest of the country last night, I was shocked to hear the news that Robin Williams had died.

Williams, whom I grew up watching on "Mork & Mindy" and followed through movies such as "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting," died in his California home on Aug. 11. Reports indicate that his death was an apparent suicide by hanging. News articles relate that he had been struggling with depression.

528483-Depression-1364630455-842-640x480[1]Not surprisingly, I've heard a few people chime in with opinions on how selfish he was for killing himself, or other similar comments. I want to ask, do you even know what depression is, or what it feels like?

Depression is not being sad, or blue, or grieving for a period. Depression is a void. It's a void that starts out small and slowly, but as things fall into that void and disappear, the void grows larger.

The first thing to go is your happiness, so that things that once brought you pleasure now do nothing for you. Have a job you love? Soon it becomes rote drudgery. A hobby? It's pointless. The tiny little things that made you laugh suddenly don't seem funny any more, and you become a little grumpier when there's not as much left to lift you out of the slough.

The next thing to go is your joy. Happiness is fleeting and on the surface, but joy has deep roots that go all the way to your core. People like your wife and your kids bring you joy; your faith in God may be a source of joy to you. As your depression grows and your joy falls into the void, life itself begins to hurt.

It hurts so bad that you can't see anything worth living for. Every difference of opinion with a friend or a loved one blows up into something too large for words, and then you're left with a handful of shame for overreacting, made only worse when people you love start to demand, "What's the matter with you?"

Once the present has fallen into the void, the future goes next, because there is no longer any hope that things will get better. The past follows soon after, because you can't believe that it could ever have been that good in the first place. By this point, the void has swallowed everything, and all that's left for it to swallow is you.

Depression is patient. It can wait, and it does. It follows you minute after painful minute, day after exhausting day, week after wearying week, until time becomes a ravenous crocodile with years like teeth that will tear into your soul. And as the crocodile follows you, the void beneath you begins to speak.

"It doesn't have to be like this," it says. "You can stop the pain now."

There are always people who say that you can ask for help, and that's true. You can ask for help, if you think it'll be there; but depression robs you of the ability to see help. You can't ask for help if you don't believe that help exists. You can't ask for help if your life is so miserable that you can't convince yourself that anybody cares about you, or ever has. You can't ask for help if you have no reason to believe that anything can ever get better.

There are other people who say that depression is an act of supreme selfishness, and disregard for how others feel. Of course, when you wrapped in depression and it smothers you like a blanket, you can't see the others. You don't know that they're there, that they care, or that your death will be anything but a tremendous relief. People in the throes of depression aren't trying to make other people hurt; they're trying to stop their own pain.

Some people are saying that Robin Williams was a coward for killing himself. I don't believe that. I believe he was exhausted from dealing with something that he had no idea how to deal with further. I believe he made the wrong choice, and I wish to God he could have found the help he needed, but I don't hate him. My heart goes out to his family and his friends, who now must contend with the empty questions of why, and whether they could have done anything to save him.

Robin Williams is gone now; and I pray that he'll never feel depressed again.

Friday, July 04, 2014

swamp thing, volume 6

The final collection of Alan Moore's award-winning work on "Swamp Thing" finds everyone's favorite plant elemental trying to make it back home.

After five previous volumes of some fairly intense storytelling, this anthology contains instead a series of short episodes as the Swamp Thing's spirit jumps from one planet to the next, encountering some of the spacefaring characters owned by DC Comics, such as Adam Strange, Metron and a member of the Green Lantern corps. Unlike the previous, more complex stories, these are fairly straightforward fare.

Which isn't to say that they aren't good; Moore has always been one of the brightest lights in comic books, and in the 1980s, he was at the top of his game. It's clear from these stories that he was having fun, imagining unusual settings to place the Swamp Thing in, and along the way experimenting with the storytelling medium he was using. (There is one story told from the perspective of a sentient planet-size ship that encounters the Swamp Thing and traps him in her core for a brief time.)

But it's only after the Swamp Thing gets back to Earth that things get truly engaging again, as Moore returns to his familiar environmental themes. And like every good writer does, he leaves the reader with something to consider on those themes. While in space, the Swamp Thing discovered he could save a world from complete environmental collapse and ruin, and now on earth he is considering the possibility of doing the same here, until he realizes that humanity would simply squander the new Eden he gives them, and continue to blight it over and over again. It's better, he decides, to sit it out, and hope that humanity will wake up to its responsibilities on its own.

And on that, despite the horror we have seen over the last six volumes, Moore leaves us with the hope that we are willing to contribute, and the effort we are willing to make that hope real.

swamp thing, volume 5

I had never read much Swamp Thing until recently, when I finally got around to reading Alan Moore's classic take on the character.

3536661-4126267845-Swamp[1]As superheroes go, Swamp Thing really doesn't bring much new to the table. A brilliant scientist named Alec Holland, he was turned into a monster by a horrible accident in his lab in the Louisiana bayou that turned him into an intelligent mass of swamp life. It was a fairly ho-hum origin story until Alan Moore took over the title and started to explore the horror story potential around a being so literally plugged into the environment.

This, the fifth volume of Moore's seminal run on "Swamp Thing," marks a shift in the storytelling from the four previous volumes. Until now, "Swamp Thing" has been a comic showcasing environmental and social horror, covering topics like deforestation and overconsumption, nuclear and toxic waste, misogyny and domestic violence and America's gun culture. Volume 5 is where it becomes a love story.

As the collection begins, Abigail Cable, the Swamp Thing's human lover, has been charged with crimes against nature because of her relationship with him, jumped bail and fled to Gotham City. When he discovers, he follows her to Gotham and ultimately brings the city to a halt and (naturally) comes into conflict with Batman until his lover is released. As Batman later remarks, "I think all of us were awed by a love that could stop a city."

This collection continues many of the environmental themes of Moore's earlier "Swamp Thing" stories, but it also delves into the psyche of an urban jungle and its powerlessness before the might of nature. Even as he tells the story of the love between the Swamp Thing and Abby, Moore shines his light into the emptiness of America's cities and the longing at the heart of humanity for a return to the Green and walking in step with nature once more.

If you're looking for a superhero comic for your children, "Swamp Thing" isn't it. But if you want an intelligent story that gives you something to think about after you finish, you should read this, and the previous four volumes.

Friday, June 27, 2014

'small gods'

"Small Gods" is Terry Pratchett's rather humorous and insightful take on the relationship among gods, religion, and their worshipers.
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Set on his fantastical Discworld, "Small Gods" tells the story of the Great God Om, whose church-state has become so powerful that it is the fear of a dozen other nations along the coast, and the terror of the people who live under its iron rule.

Om, who previously has appeared as a raging people trampling the infidels, has just incarnated and found himself as a creature no more terrifying than a turtle, and with only one believer. The difficulty, Om discovers, is that as the Church of Om has grown, people are paying more attention to their priests and church authorities than they are to him. And of course, the flip side of this is that Om never paid any attention to what his previous prophets told people about him or in his name. He had no idea they were murderous and violent people; he just wanted to be worshiped.

Things change as the god grows in understanding, as his lone worshiper ascends into the role of prokphet, and the leaders of his church-state come to face payback from the other nations for all that they have done in Om's name.

Pratchett's a humanist, as becomes obvious to anyone reading his critique of gods and religion; but he's also a gifted humorist, as anyone familiar with any of his Discworld novels will know. Like his other Discworld novels, "Small Gods" is a book that satisfies at many levels, and always leaves the toughtful reader with something to consider, even after the fifth or sixth reading.

'maus'

"Maus" is a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel of the Holocaust, written by the son of a survivor.

Maus[1]The novel tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman in the years leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. Interwoven with the story is the tale of the hero's twilight years, where he has become a bitter and difficult old man, and his son, Art, tries to bridge the gap between the two of them by trying to understand his father's experiences. The younger Spiegelman at times uses the narrative to offer commentary on the medium he's telling it in, and even expresses doubts as to whether the book adds anything of value to Holocaust literature.

To that, I'd have to add my own unequivocal "yes." Although "Maus" chronicles the same horror found in books like "Night" and movies like "Night and Holocaust," it also expresses something about the resilience of the human spirit. Vladek Spiegelman makes no claims that he and his wife survived the Holocaust because of any special merit on their part, but his story also shows a man who seized opportunity when he could, and not only kept himself alive but managed to give hope and assistance to other Jews during the darkest period of the 20th century.

And while Vladek's story conveys much misery and loss, it ends on the happy note of reunification, as he finds his wife after the war has ended, and the two are able to start a new family.

For all the horror and nightmare of the Holocaust and other periods where we give way to hatred and fear, and the other woes released from Pandora's box, "Maus" reminds us that hope also is at loose in the world, and cannot be extinguised even by the likes of Hitler and those who support them.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

tragedy

Yesterday Middle Daughter made fliers for a Student Council-run bake sale. Using ComicSans.

I can't help but wonder where I went wrong. If I were a better father, this never would have happened.