Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Language of Life

Debra Niehoff, The Language of Life: How Cells Communicate in Health and Disease

The content is inherently fascinating, which goes a long way toward redeeming a book that suffers from little annoyances. Aimed at a popular audience, it attempts to explain the complex chemical systems that connect cells of all kinds, in all situations. From quorum sensing to morphogenesis, Niehoff covers a wide range of subjects in vivid, lively detail.

What are the annoyances, then? First, minorly, the absence of endnotes. I know it's a populist treatment, so endnotes would clutter up the page, but it would be nice to know exactly which points go with which citations without having to jump to the notes and search for a specific phrase.

But that's trivial. The real grievance is the overabundance of metaphorizing. Sometimes analogy helps us understand or visualize unfamiliar concepts. But analogies are like condiments; you can't keep adding more to the mix and hoping the result will taste better. Niehoff's blend of anthropomorphism and scientific jargon can be jarring, even unintentionally comic.
Contact between a misguided temporal axon and a posterior tectal cell is as toxic as two young children in the back seat of a car. "MOMMM! She touched me!" the axon whines and then retreats to the ephrin-free anterior tectum where its ephrin, or "Eph" receptors can avoid contact with the offending signal. "Ewww, cooties!" retort neurons of the posterior tectum....

A blue and white North American moving van pulls up and begins unloading couches, chairs, tables, beds, boxes of dishes and boxes of books, a cedar play set, three televisions, and a plastic dog house.... The axon that's just completed its journey and the dendrite it has selected as a partner also pull off to the curb fully prepared to begin the task of setting up a new synapse. Before they even trade a handshake, the axon has already begun to assemble vesicles and is putting the final touches on its secretory apparatus....
If you find this thrilling, by all means pick up a copy of The Language of Life. If you don't, but the topic interests you, you've been warned.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Portrait

Iain Pears, The Portrait

Pears' previous novel, The Dream of Scipio, deserves every blurb on its cover. Pears deftly interweaves three love stories around an imagined philosophical text, creating a unique tapestry of drama, suspense, and insight.

Where Scipio is adroitly erudite, though, The Portrait is forced, canned, name-droppish. Imagine an Art Appreciation professor flipping through slides of the classics, and you have a perfect rendition of Henry MacAlpine, the narrator, who exacts a form of artistic revenge on the antagonist, William Nasmyth, whose abuses of literary power have wrecked the lives of those near to both.

I feel a little nervous critiquing a novel that essentially attacks the pettiness of criticism, and hope that the narrator speaks for Pears when he says to Nasmyth, "I discovered early on that I could always forgive you anything, as long as you told the truth." There are elements of sheer beauty, as always, in Pears' prose, and deft didactic touches, but overall, The Portrait is disappointing. To paraphrase its narrator, it overpaints the subject.

The novel's weakness springs not from its author's lack of power--he has none, to my mind--but from the limits of direct narration. When the text is addressed in second person, "you" becoming both antagonist and reader, the effect can be surprising and unsettling, a la The Death of Artemio Cruz, but only in small doses. As a sustained effort, it becomes wooden and artificial, and the shocking revelations lose a good deal of their potential force. To switch modes, the novel is a slow crescendo from piano to mezzoforte; the final chords are solid, jarring, and muted.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Thinking Like Einstein

Thomas G. West, Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization.

It had a cool, Joe Carteresque title, so I checked it out. I was going to read it carefully and write a long-winded review. But I threw it down in disgust.

The blurb?
West predicts that computer visualization technology will radically change the way we all work and think. For thousands of years, the technology of writing and reading has tended to promote the dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain, with its linear processing of words and numbers. Now the spread of graphical technologies permits a return to our visual roots with a new balance between the hemispheres and their respective ways of thinking--presenting new opportunities for problem solving and big-picture thinking.

Breezily academic, and perhaps even intriguing. Why shouldn't you take it seriously?

Because the book isn't illustrated. There's not one picture, graph, chart, or diagram in its 200-odd pages.

Come on.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Devil's Highway

Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil's Highway

Its substance is violent: twenty-six migrants, led by a perniciously naive Coyote, try to enter El Norte through a stretch of impassable desert known as El Camino Diablo. They fail. The lucky ones are caught. The unlucky perish.

Reconstructed from interviews, press reports, police statements, and speculation, the book is beautiful but brutal, ironic but earnest, colloquial prose poetry.

From El Papalote, it seems like the myth of the big bad border is just a fairy tale. One step, and presto! You're in the EEUU. Los Estados Unidos. The Yunaites Estaites. There's nothing there. No helicopters, no trucks, no soldiers. There's a tarantula, a creosote bush, a couple of beat saguaros dying of dry rot, some scattered bits of trash, old human and coyote turds in the bushes now mummified into little coal nuggets. Nothing.

A powerful little book. Read at your own risk.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Walking on Water

Derrick Jensen, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution

Part memoir, part teaching manual, part writing guide, part Luddite screed, Walking on Water is all ass-kicking for any interested teacher.

I hated high school--and I teach high school, so I already know that American education isn't so much about reflection or revolution or resistance as it is about regurgitation, recitation, reception. True education, Jensen notes, is drawing out; its lingual cousin, seduction, is leading astray. (Guess: which one do teachers usually succeed at? Right. Neither.)

Jensen captures the tension of working inside the system without becoming part of it. It's an everyday struggle. If you haven't had the stars plucked out of your idealist eyes, read this. If you've grown stale in your teacherly comfort, read this. If you have only two hours to steal away from grading papers, read this.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Challenge of Jesus

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus


Recently, I have been exploring on the relationship between the synoptic problem and Christian eschatology. After Part II, I decided to take a break, let my thoughts jell, and stop pontificating and start researching. I was surprised by the lack of immediately available information, as far as I could tell, on this specialized topic. So, when Mark Olson challenged non-believers to read Wright's book, I gladly accepted.

Mark's invitation included this statement: "On a personal selfish note, I really do want to hear what a 'differently' biased person might say when reading this." Here's where I qualify. As a former believer, a one-time adherent to the Christian faith, I have a strong affinity for all things Christian; my understanding of Christianity is both from an insider's an an outsider's perspective. So, unlike some "strong atheists" or persons of different faiths, I have no automatic, knee-jerk responses to Christian arguments; to some degree, I can see where Christians are coming from, because I've been there.

That being said, Wright's book is readable, interesting, and surprisingly poignant in parts (which I'll discuss later), and condenses a wealth of information into bite-size chunks. Written for laypersons, and not extensively footnoted, it is perhaps a jumping-off point for scholars. My disappointment relates to its target demographic: Christian believers. The book is a call for recommitment to the quest for the historical Jesus, reconciliation between opposing historical-critical camps, renewal of dialogue among Christians about the true meaning of the Gospels. As an insider-outsider, I can easily navigate through the faith-talk looking for intellectual insight, but I would imagine such language off-putting for a "true" nonbeliever.

Getting the Gist

How can we understand Jesus--his identity, his mission, his meaning? Wright's answer is simple on the surface, but staggeringly complex in application. Wright asks his readers to imagine themselves as "average Galileans," situating our minds in a proper 1st-century context. In this way they should truly understand what Jesus meant to his listeners, recognizing that he came at a unique moment in history, and for a unique purpose: to inaugurate the kingdom of God.

By extension, then, the Church's role is not to blindly work out "What Would Jesus Do" by parsing parables, but to be a divine agent provocateur and beacon of Godliness, as Christ was for the Jewish community.

Through this "average Galilean" set of spectacles, Wright manages to verify all the central claims of orthodox Christianity. (Skeptics will note that Wright's purpose, as noted before, is not apologetic; look elsewhere to find his arguments defended at length.) However, Wright intends to puncture half-truths of contemporary theology, not least of them a Gnostic heritage of the Enlightenment.
Western orthodoxy, not least within what calls itself "evangelicalism," has had for too long an overly lofty and detached view of God. It has always tended to approach the christological question by assuming this view of God and then fitting Jesus into it. Hardly surprising, the result has been a docetic Jesus.

At the close of the historical analysis, Wright challenges his readers to put education into action. His ethical claims, however, are so broad as to be almost vacuous. Sure, he calls for Christians to be a vanguard, leading the culture through the post-postmodern era, and to model "humaneness"--but he has no words on specific divisive issues like abortion, divorce, or homosexual practice--perhaps because of their inflammatory nature, or because he has commented on them elsewhere (look here or here or here to read up on his consistently conservative position). Wright calls for the Church to be a light--but seems to downplay the importance of lighting from within.

Seeing Through Glasses, Darkly

We now come to the primary critique of N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus. The proper way to read the Gospels, Wright claims, is to adopt the mindset of an average first-century Galilean. Do this, and Jesus's cryptic parables, ruminations on the kingdom of God, his death and resurrection will make sense--and, furthermore, will end up, in a new way, confirming all the things Christians have believed through the centuries.

I will not disagree with Wright's basic strategy: our best hope of understanding Jesus is to realize that most (if not all) of his words were not intended for us; we should not "read into" the text. I also agree that Jesus's words and actions fit into a particular cultural, historical, and literary context, and to ignore this is to distort their meaning and significance. But is literary precedent equal to meaning? Wright often slides the two together.

Consider his treatment of Mark 13, sometimes called the "Little Apocalypse."
The whole chapter is to be read, I suggest, as a prediction not of the end of the world but of the fall of Jerusalem.... [T]he language of the sun and moon being darkened, and so forth, is regularly used in Scripture to denote major political or social upheavals... and to connote by the use of this language the cosmic or theological significance that they ascribe to these events.

The language in Mark 13, then, about the Son of Man coming on the clouds should not be taken with wooden literalism--as, of course, generations both of critical scholars and uncritical believers have taken it.... The phrase about "the son of man coming on the clouds" would not be read, by a first-century Jew poring over Daniel, as referring to a human being "coming" downward toward the earth riding on an actual cloud.
Look at Wright's claim: Daniel uses "son of man coming in the clouds" to mean this, therefore Jesus must use the phrase in the same way, because... well, because. Contrast this with the transition from Luke to Acts, its sequel.
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Is this a "literal" taking-up, or a metaphor for disappearance? Onward to part two:
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Now, is it "wooden-headed literalism" to assume that a cloud is a cloud, and that the disciples actually stood there looking into the sky? Why wouldn't the angel say, "This same Jesus will come back, but not exactly the same way he left?"

Wright may be correct--perhaps Mark 13 isn't about the return--but he is certainly wrong to dismiss an apocalyptic reading of the passage by stating that "first century Jews wouldn't think of Jesus going up into heaven"--because, if Luke is to be trusted, first-century Jews stood there watching as he did just that.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Heart of Christianity

Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity
Is a Cadillac transmission a Cadillac CTS? No, of course not--that's confusing parts and wholes. What if we add axles and an engine? Still no? How about wheels, tires, a body, and perhaps an exhaust manifold? Is it a CTS yet? Or maybe we should reverse the situation--take a CTS and begin stripping parts away, one at a time. When does it become something less--a not-CTS?

If you're like most, you have trouble defining an bright line, and willingly leave such petty debates where they belong: in college bull sessions and rest-stop bathroom stalls. But the larger issue--what "is," and what "isn't"--is a matter of urgency for Marcus J. Borg, who wants to reclaim Christianity from fundamentalists of every stripe.

Borg's work is an attempt to reduce Christianity to its ontological minimum, to tear away the inessentials while (hopefully) maintaining its identity as a unique belief system. He is not likely to sway many fundamentalists; he advocates panentheism, calls Jesus a "metaphor for God," affirms the basic validity of multiple religious viewpoints, and favorably quotes John Dominic Crossan, among other things.

Borg is most provocative, though, when discussing the meanings of the word "faith," which are crammed (by both fundamentalists and strong atheists) into one connotation: assent to specific propositions, denoted by the Latin word assensus. Borg claims that actual faith rests more on fiducias (trust in God), fidelitas (faithfulness to God), and visio (faith as a different way of seeing the world).

Even if you automatically discount Christian liberalism, Borg's book is useful as a concise statement of the "new paradigm."

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Hiding the Elephant

Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant
When I was a young tyke, I watched an automobile race on the boob tube with my uncle John. No NASCAR or Formula One or Indy for us. It was some contest of rabbits--VW Rabbits. (Remember them? The modern update of the Beetle, with none of the charm.) Unwittingly, uncle John precipitated my demise into skepticism by pointing at the screen and saying, "See their tails?" I looked everywhere for cotton, but saw none, and protested. "No, look!" he said. "Look--there they are!" Radical doubt was minutes away.

With that random anecdote, I introduce Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear. Warning: if you are a true believer in Magic, stay away. In fact, if you think that analysis is inherently destructive, and that knowledge ruins art, do not read this book. Steinmeyer's survey of the history of famous (and lesser-known) stage magicians not only tells the stories and reveals the secrets, but includes photos and diagrams. Steinmeyer doesn't just throw back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, but subjects him to a colonoscopy and a dental exam. Recommended for aspiring magicians or casual fans.

Monday, August 16, 2004

The Flickering Mind

Todd Oppenheimer, The Flickering Mind
No doubt the computer is the cureall for our time. I can't imagine a malady, complaint, or problem that can't be solved by a quick trip to the internet. Need a product review by a corporate shill? Attacked by water-borne parasitic bacterioids? Should have read up on giardia. Suspect your wife of terrorist leanings?, my friend.

Sadly, educationists--teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, parents, even students--have been suckered by the lure of the flickering CRT. Todd Oppenheimer dissects the history of technology in education, and his findings: it's overrated. No matter what the new gizmo or gadget, it can't supplant (and often gets in the way of) good teaching. Study after study shows that human interaction outweighs and outlasts the effects of technology on learning.

This is the must-read book for those concerned with the state of American education.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes (John Rutherford, trans.), Don Quixote

Attempting to add something new to the Quixote corpus would be like adding schmaltz to a Kincaid painting. This review, really, is just an excuse to boast that I've finished the thing, the bloated, repetitive monster, the comedy of errors, the accidental odyssey, the ultimate jesting trope. It took approximately ten hours, in 100-page chunks. It was, dare I admit it, fun.

Don Quixote is the first truly modern novel, a playfully ironic parody (and self-styled debunking) of chivalric stories, without precedent, and yet, to the modern reader, entirely familiar. (I had a similar sensation upon first seeing Citizen Kane.)

Let's get pseudo-Platonic for a moment, though, and count the steps between the reader and "reality" in just one scene.

In Part II, Chapters 23-24, Don Quixote describes his adventure in the Cave of Montesinos (hey-hey, Plato!), involving fantastical visions of crystal palaces and sumptuous maidens, a three-day trip that occurs in a bit over an hour, real time.

So we have:

1. Something happens in the cave
2. Quixote tells Sancho and Basilio about what happens in the cave (and possibly lies, or deceives himself)
3. The fictional historian Cide Hamete Benengeli recounts Quixote's words
4. The narrator translates Benejeli's history
5. Cervantes writes Don Quixote
6. Rutherford translates Don Quixote into modern-day English

Borrowing another allusion, the novel is an epistemological labyrinth, full of self-referential humor and sly irony, which make for delightful reading. I may not be so devout as William Faulkner, who "reread it once a year, 'just as some people read the Bible,'" but I'll definitely read it again.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Evolution from Creation to New Creation

Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Evolution from Creation to New Creation
Claiming the reasonable middle is risky in any debate. It upsets hardliners on either side, who deride it as sitting on a pointy picket fence--foolish, if not impossible. It's particularly risky to straddle the gap between dogmatic "creationists" and "evolutionists," whose idea of constructive dialogue is all woe-crying and warmongering, a church picnic with Sackloth Races and a Grenade Toss.

Ted Peters (a Lutheran theologian) and Martinez Hewlett (a Catholic molecular biologist) bring some needed balance and hope to the discussion, attempting to join together not only science and religion, but the warring factions on the theistic side of the contest. Their book presents a brief history of the development of evolutionary theory, and synopses of various points of view (covering, in separate chapters, the genesis and evolution of Scientific Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Theistic Evolution). Rather than just describe, however, they criticize each perspective, and offer up their own interpretation.

Peters and Hewlett should be commended for separating methodological naturalism--which is beyond repute--from its philosophical cousin, ontological materialism.
Is Darwinism merely an ideology that parades as science? No. Genuine science is present and available. Darwinian evolutionary biology qualifies as solid science because it generates proressive research--that is, hypotheses based upon its assumptions lead eventually to new knowledge about the natural world... Darwinism is explanatorily adequate (p. 21).
They also refute Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design in short order.

It's not all dahlias, though. Peters and Hewlett underplay the deception and distortion that form the foundation of Scientific Creationism, calling the dispute a "conflict between science and science," when a more apt description would be a "conflict between science and pseudoscience."

They also underplay the theistic claims of Intelligent Design proponents (notably Johnson, Behe and Dembski). They quote Dembski saying
First off, intelligent design is not a form of anti-evolutionism. Intelligent design does not claim that living things came together suddenly in their present form through the efforts of a supernatural creator. Intelligent design is not and never will be a doctrine of creationism (p. 103).
They also claim that "William Dembski and Michael Behe rely increasingly on change over time, both requiring episodic or punctuated transcendental influence on evolutionary advance" (p. 104). If ID isn't "creationism," what of that "transcendental influence?" And what of Dembski's other published comments? Or the fact that one of his books is even titled Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology?

They also write, "[Dembski] does not reject the fossil record or the molecular evidence, as Johnson does" (pp. 111-112). Contrast that with Dembski's Five Questions Evolutionists Would Rather Dodge [pdf] in which he parrots standard creationist arguments. (The use of the word "evolutionists" is itself a red flag, as even Peters and Hewlett point out.)

These criticisms aside, Peters and Hewlett have done the near-impossible, creating an insightful book in an already overpopulated field.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Philosophy of Mind

Jaegwon Kim, Philosophy of Mind
Cartesian dualists, keep out. Jaegwon Kim's accessible, though difficult, survey of the issues and problems with physicalist conceptions of the mind wastes little time dispensing with substance dualism, the belief that
...each of is, at least as we exist on this earth, a composite being made up of two distinct substances, an immaterial mind an a material body.... There has been near consensus among philosophers that the concept of mind as a mental substance gives rise to too many difficulties and puzzles without compensating explanatory gains (pp. 3-4).
The rest of the book focuses on varieties of physicalism--from emergentism to reductionism, from behaviorism to functionalism--and dwells on the explanatory benefits of, and difficulties with, each perspective. Though the book is meant for the informed reader, as Kim notes,
In the course of writing this book, I was constantly reminded of what Sir Peter Strawson once said, namely, that there is no such tihng as "elementary philosophy" (p. xi).
Those who struggle through discussions of twin earths, Nagel-reduction, supervenience, and Turing machines will be rewarded with a new understanding of the complexity--and possibility--in the fields of neuropsychology and philosophy. The book is part of the Dimensions of Philosophy Series which is "dedicated to the next generation of philosophers and their students." A superlative achievement.

The Evidential Argument From Evil

Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil
If we grant that there is no logical contradiction in the statements "evil exists" and "God exists," we are left with a powerful objection: the empirical evidence for the former assertion compels us to doubt the latter. Daniel Howard-Snyder has assembled a formidable group of philosophers who, in a chronological series of essays, propose and challenge various conceptions of the evidential argument from evil. In the preface, Howard-Snyder writes,
...I didn't want just another collection of previously published pieces. Rather, I wanted a handful of the very best previously published essays to act as a stage upon which dialogue might progress, a place where new work might be done. However, I also wanted a collection that a student or educated layperson could understand, with only minimal assistance from an instructor or a course or two in basic philosophy (p. ix).

He has succeeded. Because of its chronological layout, the book allows us to see the evolution of the arguments in question--how they change or are abandoned--and, in the end, to realize that the question is far from settled.

The most interesting proposition, in my mind, comes from Paul Draper, who posits the "indifference hypothesis"--that even if an omnipotent, omniscient being created the universe as we know it, on the balance, the evidence doesn't favor its omnibenevolence.

The book isn't easy, but even at its most difficult is well worth the slog.

Monday, August 02, 2004

God, Freedom, and Evil

Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil
Is it possible, in slightly over one hundred pages, to destroy the logical problem of evil and rehabilitate the ontological argument for God's existence? If Plantinga's arguments are credible, then yes. In this slight volume by an intellectual heavyweight, Plantinga explores what he considers the fundamental objection to theism--how does evil exist if God is all-powerful and wholly good? Though I find his argument ultimately unconvincing because of its undefended presuppositions, it is clear, defensible, and entertaining.

On the way to rejuvenating the ontological argument--that a "being of maximal greatness," God, has been instantiated in one possible world (and, by logical extension, all possible worlds). Plantinga earns my respect for two reasons: first, he dispenses with the cosmological and teleological arguments on the way to restoring the ontological argument, showing that he is above casuistry in the cause of apologetics; and second, he admits that even if his rendition of the ontological argument is acceptable, it "establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability" (p. 112). Only a combative anti-theist could find fault with that.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Bend Sinister

Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister
Skipping the preface and introduction, I read it, and then immediately read it again, aware now of Nabokov's dazzling wordplay, delicious humor, and dizzying imagination. Sure, I got the parody of Stalinism,
"You see, the general procedure is something like this: first the questionnaire must be filled, then you go to your cell. There you have a heart-to-heart talk with a fellow prisoner who is really one of our agents. Then, around two in the morning, you are roused from a fitful sleep and I start to question you again. It was thought by competent people that you would break down between six-forty and seven-fifteen. Our meteorologist predicted a particularly cheerless dawn."
followed the dream sequences,
Olga was revealed sitting before her mirror and taking off her jewels after the ball. still clad in cherry-red velvet, her strong gleaming elbows thrown back and lifted like wings, she had begun to unclasp at the back of her neck her dazzling dog collar. He knew it would come off together with her vertebrae...
caught the obvious imagery--but I had glossed over the tiny interjections, which Nabokov reveals in the introduction.
It may be asked if it is really worth an author's while to devise and distribute these delicate markers whose very nature requires that they be not too conspicuous.... Most people will not even mind having missed all this; well-wishers will bring their own little symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to my little party; ironists will point out the fatal fatuity of my explications in this foreword and advise me to have footnotes next time (footnotes always seem comic to a certain type of mind). In the long run, it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts.

Enjoy your own tangential pleasure, then, and read--and re-read--Bend Sinister.

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

Kenzaburo Oe, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids
It had been a while since I last read The Plague, that existential classic by Camus, so, when scanning the dust jacket of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, and seeing the words "plague," "Camus," and "existential hero" within mere paragraphs of each other, I thought why not? After all, it sat on the "classics" rack in my local library.

Kenzaburo Oe's style is described as "grotesque realism," and the description fits.
Dogs, cats, fieldmice, goats, even foals; scores of animal carcasses were piled up forming a small hill, quietly and patiently decomposing. The beasts' teeth were clenched, their pupils melting, their legs stiff. Their dead flesh and blood had turned into thick mucus making the yellow withered grass and mud around sticky, and--strangely full of life and holding out against the fierce onslaught of decay--there were countless ears.
The ears, in their way, symbolize the plight of juvenile delinquents abandoned to a plague by paranoid villagers. They attempt to create a new life within the confines of the deserted village, but their success is short-lived.

I don't know if disappointment is the right word. It is breezy, thanks to its clipped sentences; it is graphic and disturbing; it is ultimately tragic; but somehow, I missed the emotional connection, the "enormous impact" (as the Washington Post put it). I guess I'll have to read The Plague again.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Communities of Dissent

Stephen J. Stein, Communities of Dissent

The history of religion is usually told from a majoritarian perspective; small heresies receive only a passing mention, as foils for dominant creeds. Stein's brief synopsis is an attempt to take the minority view, treating fringe groups as not only worthy of study, but typical of American idealism and cranky independent-mindedness. The book could have woven twin strands of humor and pathos into a brilliantly-textured polemic, but sadly, in the name of objectivity, it becomes dull, a collection of historical bits livened only by descriptions of outlandish behavior and direct quotes from primary sources. Consider a typical example of a "New Religious Movement," the Vermont Pilgrims.
Sometimes they wore coarse sackcloth instead of bearskins. They fasted constantly. The central item in their diet was gruel, or mush.... They rarely ate meat and rejected other basic practices of Western civilization, declaring them sinful inventions. They gave up, for example, the use of knives and forks as well as conventional furniture, preferring to suck their food from a common bowl through cane stalks while standing....[T]hey neither bathed nor cut their hair.... Sometimes they rolled in the dust as an act of humility and repentance. They also chanted strange refrains, such as: "My God, my God, my God, my God, What wouldst thou have me do? Mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum" (3).
Stein's main tactic is summarize-rinse-repeat; the end of each chapter is a concise recapitulation of the main points, which is fine for a time, but becomes numbing. His deliberately unbiased reading means that there is little critical analysis of NRMs' often wacky claims. Also missing is explanation of the vituperation and persecution by "insiders." Was it a tit-for-tat response to charges of stagnation and decline by foaming prophets, or an irrational outpouring of fear? Did the government look away or participate?

Communities of Dissent is a decent introduction to the history of American cults and sects, but its most valuable resource is its "Further Reading" list.

Friday, July 23, 2004

On Writing Well

William Zinsser, On Writing Well
The New York Times calls it "a bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose." Indeed, it is a model of clarity and brevity, Zinsser's fundamentals of good writing. He echoes Thoreau, charging the writer to "simplify, simplify." (The smart aleck in me always wondered why Thoreau had to repeat himself.) But Zinsser goes beyond mere platitudes, giving countless examples, often from his own writing, and addressing specific modes and genres (from memoir to science writing, from art criticism to sports). Zinsser's brain is a storehouse of pithy anecdotes. My favorite:
Many years ago, when I was writing editorials for the New York Herald Tribune, the editor of the page was a huge and choleric man from Texas named L. L. Engelking. I respected him because he had no pretense and hated undue circling around a subject. Every morning we would all meet to discuss what editorials we would like to write for the next day and what position we would take. Frequently we weren't quite sure, especially the writer who was an expert on Latin America.

"What about that coup in Uruguay?" the editor would ask.

"It could represent progress in the economy," the writer would reply, "or then again it might destabilize the whole political situation. I suppose I could mention the possible benefits and then--"

"Well," the man from Texas would break in, "let's not go peeing down both legs."
Which is why I can't wait to read another Zinsser classic, Writing to Learn.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Humankind: A Brief History

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Humankind: A Brief History
A slender volume packed with big questions. What makes us human? Tool-making? Ratiocination? Language? If we cannot effectively distinguish a bright line separating humans from apes, should we expand rights to our near relatives? Although Fernandez-Armesto offers no clear answer (nor does he set out to), his work sets out the historical, cultural, and scientific paths such questions have taken. And in the end:
That humans are uniquely rational, intellectual, spiritual, creative, conscientious, moral, or godlike seems to be a myth--an article of faith to which we cling in defiance of the evidence. But we need myths to make our irresoluble dilemmas bearable.... For now, if we want to go on believing we are human, and justify the special status we accord ourselves--if, indeed, we want to stay human through the changes we face--we had better not discard the myth, but start trying to live up to it.
A great complement and challenge to the ebullience of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.

The Blank Slate

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
In his apologia for evolutionary psychology, Pinker treads on many toes--right, left, social constructionist, innatist, fundamentalist, radical feminist, neo-Marxist, and more. His book has been reviewed elsewhere, so I won't attempt to say anything new or profound; what I'll do is quote passages I found either interesting, challenging to my preconceptions, or both.

First up, critics of "reductionism" (and there are many):
Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another. The black boxes get opened; the promissory notes get cashed....An isolated geographer would have to invoke magic to move the continents, and an isolated physicist could not have predicted the shape of South America (p. 70).

A useful summation of the key themes of cognitive science:
1. The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.
2. The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don't do anything.
3. An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.
4. Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variations across cultures.
5. The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts (pp. 31-45).
I appreciate Pinker's perspective on education; it is a refreshing change from standard constructivist gobbledygook, the sort that echoes throughout the academy. is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.... Students cannot learn Newtonian physics until they unlearn their intuitive impetus-based physics. They cannot learn modern biology until they unlearn their intuitive biology, which thinks in terms of vital essences. And they cannot learn evolution until they unlearn their intuitive engineering, which attributes design to the intentions of a designer. (222-223)

[David] Geary points out a final implication. Because much of the content of education is not cognitively natural, the process of mastering it may not always be easy and pleasant, notwithstanding the mantra that learning is fun. Children... are not necessarily motivated to adapt their cognitive faculties to unnatural tasks like formal mathematics. A family, peer group, and culture that ascribe high status to school achievement may be needed to give a child the motive to persevere toward effortful feats of learning whose rewards are apparent only over the long term (223).

Every teacher who's ever had students work in groups learns this the hard way:
When people are part of a group, they pull less hard on a rope, clap less enthusiastically, and think up fewer ideas in a brainstorming session--unless they think their contributions to the group effort are being monitored (257).

Pinker is at his best when he dresses up arguments in droll (often personal) anecdotes.
As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike.... By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist) (331).

And, last, a scientist's lament:
...when it comes to genes, people suddenly lose their ability to distinguish 50 percent from 100 percent, "some" from "all," "affects" from "determines." The diagnosis for this intellectual crippling is clear: if the effects of the genes must, on theological grounds, be zero, then all nonzero values are equally heretical (378).

The book is readable and vastly researched--although one wonders if Pinker quotes his sources too uncritically (he quotes standard critiques of "Whole Language," for example, which are based on scurrilous, politically-motivated studies). He succeeds at demolishing the Blank Slate and the Noble Savage, but spends less time addressing The Ghost in the Machine (which seems to disappear, pun intended, in later chapters). But these criticisms are tempered by great admiration for the book's wit and clarity. I'll re-read it again this summer and have even more to say. (Sorry.)

Monday, July 19, 2004

The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
A concoction of reality, fantasy, folk-tale, history, memoir; above all, a prose-poem in five stanzas. Most infuriating are the accounts of harsh, unrelenting abuse heaped on Chinese girls for their main fault: not being boys.
We had three girl second cousins, no boys; their great-grandfather was the old man who lived with them, as the river-pirate great-uncle was the old man who lived with us. When my sisters and I ate at their house, there we would be--six girls eating. The old man opened his eyes wide at us and turned in a circle, surrounded. His neck tendons stretched out. "Maggots! Where are my grandsons? I want grandsons! Give me grandsons! Maggots!" He pointed at each one of us, "Maggot! Maggot! Maggot! Maggot! Maggot! Maggot!" Then he dived into his food, eating fast and getting seconds. "Eat, maggots," he said. "Look at the maggots chew."

"He does this at every meal," the girls told us in English.

"Yeah," we said. "Our old man hates us too."

[originally posted July 16, 2004]

Inside Mrs. B's Classroom

Leslie Baldacci, Inside Mrs. B's Classroom
Give up a cushy job to teach in Chicago's South Side? You'd have to be crazy. Or, you'd have to be Leslie Baldacci. It's not a self-congratulatory memoir; it is, rather, a frank, brutal record of what's wrong with urban (translation: inner-city) education, what's misguided about political reform, and what's wrong with standardized testing. Hint: it's not the kids.
I touched on the insensitivity of assumptions when I faced the bean-counters who defend standardized test scores like they are the holy grail. They, same as most policy-makers, like things to fit in neat little boxes. Wrapping themselves in comfortable assumptions makes it easier to defend their hard and fast policies.

I told them the story of one kid, a fair student, who had tanked the Iowa test the year before. On test day, he took the garbage out before school and found a dead body in the alley. His mother sent him to school after he finished talking to the police.... Try as we might to consider the conditions that children come from before they pass through our doors, we cannot anticipate everything and therefore should not assume anything.
Oh, and if you figured eventually Baldacci would go back to her old job, refreshed and reinvigorated from her field trip into the South Side, you're wrong. She's still teaching.

[originally posted July 15, 2004]

Out of the Loud Hound of Darkness

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Out of the Loud Hound of Darkness
A "dictionnarrative!" I can't say I was swept up in the sort of fervor that made Constance Hale "shiver with glee," but I was pleasantly surprised by the erudition and poetry in Gordon's slender volume. (I suppose I should have read the many prequels.) Tongue-tripping and intellectual--what's the difference between complacent and complaisant?--and altogether good fun. A sample quotation:
The horizon greeted us with a baleful rumble of louring coruscations as we dreaded our way along the precipitous switchbacks of Upper Trajikistan.
Say it out loud; try, though, to avoid spitting on your keyboard.

[originally posted July 14, 2004]

The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything
And now, to the real deal, a true dictionnarrative--the story of the fabled Oxford English Dictionary (which, as the author notes, might have been published at Cambridge if history had taken a different turn). Winchester's deft prose conveys his utter enthusiasm for all things nerdy. (When I was young, I was accused of "reading the dictionary;" if we'd had an OED in the house, I'm sure I would have.)

An example of Winchester's over-the-top ardor:
These were essential: the millions of words from these quotations offer up countless examples of exactly how the language worked over the centuries of its employment, and by their use they mark the OED out as the finest dictionary ever made in any language, and made, as it happens, of the language that is the most important in the world, and probably will be for all time.
I suppose the Greeks thought the same thing about Greek, and heaven knows the Romans were quite fond of Latin. For the future, my money's on Asia; the global balance of power will shift toward China and India in the next two decades. You heard it here first.

[originally posted July 14, 2004]

A Doll's House

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House
Praise be to Dover for their cheap reprints (paperback, of course) of classics old and modern. Bridging the divide is Ibsen's once-scandalous A Doll's House, the 19th century women's lib shocker. Nora supports hubby Torvald through a difficult financial scrape by taking a loan from Krogstad, the unscrupulous former lover of forgotten widow Christine. Her scheme backfires, but Christine gets back with Krogstad and convinces him to cancel Nora's debt. When hubby finds out, his righteous indignation leads Nora to realize she's just his doll; in a final scene exactly opposite Gone With the Wind, Torvald's left mumbling, "The most wonderful thing of all?--" as Nora flounces out the door.

[originally posted July 13, 2004]

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Collected Novellas [more specifically, Chronicle of a Death Foretold]

It takes a master craftsman to create suspense out of inevitability. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez does just that. Thanks to the Citizen Kane-like reportage, you know all the while that the protagonist, Santiago Nasar, is going to die; you even know who will kill him--or, more accurately, who has killed him. And yet you are still breathless when he is murdered gruesomely, shockingly, humorously. It's like being punched in the gut while laughing.
...and yet they thought that Santiago Nasar would never fall.... Trying to finish it once and for all, Pedro Vicario sought his heart, but he looked for it almost in the armpit, where pigs have it. Actually, Santiago Nasar wasn't falling because they themselves were holding him up with stabs against the door.
Up next: A Doll's House.

[originally posted July 13, 2004]

The Stranger

Albert Camus, The Stranger
Who's more American--Johnny Cash or Albert Camus?

Read The Stranger not to be moved, or to be unmoved, but because you can. Be gripped by its sparing, simple prose (see below). Or, let the waves of anticlimax wash over you; merely bob on the surface, floating in "gentle indifference." The choice is yours.

I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so?

Matthew Ward, in the prefatory note, justifies the Hemingwayesque, crime-novel style of the translation:

Camus acknowledged employing an "American method" in writing The Stranger, in the first half of the book in particular: the short, precise sentences; the depcition of a character ostensibly without consciousness; and, in places, the "tough guy" tone.... In addition to giving the text a more "American" quality, I have also attempted to venture farther into the letter of Camus's novel, to capture what he said and how he said it, not what he meant. In theory, the latter should take care of itself.

The simplicity, though, masks a complex moral anti-drama; for Meursault, the protagonist, events merge seamlessly into each other. He is an observer, objective, detached from his own existence--even killing a complete stranger without reason or remorse--but only when condemned does he realize his beliefs about death and life are illusions.

... everything was very simple: the guillotine is on the same level as the man approaching it. He walks up to it the way you walk up to another person. That bothered me too. Mounting the scaffold, going right up into the sky, was something the imagination could hold on to. Whereas, once again, the machine destroyed everything: you were killed discreetly, with a little shame and with great precision....

Then, in the dark hour before dawn, sirens blasted. They were announcing departures for a world that now and forever meant nothing to me... For everything to be comsummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

The allusion is obvious, violently and ironically inverting the crucifixion. So much for the promise of future glory, so much for the hope of suffering through a world that is not "home."

I find it instructive to read the one-star reviews on Amazon. They give you the true sense of the book--its capacity to shock, to infuriate, to baffle, even years after The Stranger has become a near-cliche.

Don't Even Waste Your Time, January 12, 2004
Reviewer: A reader from Cincinnati, OH USA
If you are looking for a book to put you to sleep, look no further. Here it is. This is the most pathetic book I have ever read. And not only was the book boring, the main character, Meursault, was an emotionless, hopless, and disgusting human being. His views on women and relationships are no less than vile. He does not even remorse over the death of his mother. He then says that he no emotional attachment to Marie, the lady that he is sexually active with. Thankfully, he commits a cold blooded murder and is put to death. And at his execution, he says that he wishes there be "howls of execration." It is amazing to me that an individual can want there to be people cursing him on the day of his death. Bottom line, this is not woth the time for you to sit down and read it. [this refers to the original British translation]

Disappointing, June 24, 2002
Reviewer: A reader from Boston, MA United States
I'll keep this short. The book was an awful read save the last ten pages. Everything before that is terribly uninteresting. It is only once he has been sentenced and awaits his end that it becomes something worth flipping through. I have the utmost respect for Albert Camus, but this is dribble.

A horrible translation, March 29, 2002
Reviewer: Meg from Boston, MA
I have read a previous translation of The Stranger, and was deeply moved. My entire life was changed. The previous translator did Camus justice. Matthew Ward, with this translation of The Stranger, ruined the novel. Ward includes awful cliche and unintelligent description. Unfortunately this is the only translation currently in print in the US. If you are able to, please order from a forgein printer (sometimes printed under the title The Outsider) or consider searching for an out of print copy not translated by Matthew Ward.

So much for being faithful to the original, in all its paradoxical simplicity. Non-flowery prose just isn't as moving.

[originally posted on July 12, 2004]

Friday, July 16, 2004

The Dimwit's Dictionary

Robert Harwell Fiske, The Dimwit's Dictionary
A useful reference, if you have trouble with cliches, stock phrases, or "moribund metaphors." Most helpful are the thesaurus-like recommendations. I hate, loathe, despise the phrase "in terms of," which, in the world of education, gets batted around like a beach ball in a graduation speech. "With some slight thought," Fiske writes, "in terms of can be pared from a sentence." For some, slight thought is tough work.

[originally posted July 12, 2004]

The Death of Artemio Cruz

Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz
Time-shifting narrative structure that anticipates Quentin Tarantino's filmic stylings; shifts in person that blur the roles of reader and protagonist. Fuentes manages to use first, third, and second person, without overly confusing or aggravating the reader. The shifts in time at first seem random, but as the novel rears to the finish--as expected, Artemio Cruz dies--the death scene is juxtaposed with Cruz's birth, and the narrative comes full circle. Satire, pathos, and lyric description collide in this magnificent work. I'd say much more, but I'll save it for my IB class this coming fall.

[originally posted July 12, 2004]

Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, 2003 (novel).
A realistic post-apocalyptic future with an infuriating conclusion. I'll have to read more Atwood, now; it's like Vonnegut or Palahniuk--darkly humorous and easily digestible, but unsettling, even stomach-churning in its plausibility. Only quibble: why do companies, years hence, have such cheesily-spelled names? "RejoovenEsense." "HelthWyzer." "AnooYoo." Annoying.

[originally posted June 30, 2004]