Monday, May 30, 2005

You Make Me Sick

People can be pretty rotten. One need only look through the annals of history (or through a current newspaper) to confirm that. I have seen people do some pretty despicable things. We all have.

Still, I never cease to be amazed at how someone can harbor such unmitigated hatred toward another human being, simply because he's black or Jewish or gay or just doesn't share his value system. I remember the first time I ever saw someone behave in such a way.

I was with my mother. We were walking down the a Berlin street and passed a Gypsy beggar woman. She was sitting on the sidewalk, holding her baby. Another small child was nestled in beside her. A man stopped and started yelling at her, poking at the bundle in her arms to punctuate his curses and insults. I don't think I had ever seen my mother so angry before. Well, she might have been angrier the time she took me on a visit to the zoo and some pedophile grabbed my ass. I remember her telling him that if he touched me one more time, she'd part his hair with her umbrella and call the police. Man, did he run away fast! At any rate, I am proud to say that my mom told the bigot off as well.

Somehow it is even worse when perpetrated in the name concepts like the nationalism (really chauvinism) of the sort that states that everyone but the U.S. is bound by the Geneva Conventions or religion. Although I have strayed from my Sunday school days, there is still an expectation in me that faith be a good and kind force that elevates people.

Crackpots like the placard carrying "You make me sick!" guys are the antithesis of that. It seems that they are fixtures on every college campus. Thankfully, most people seem to dismiss them, but one sometimes wonders how many think "Well, he's nuts, but one thing he's right about is the _____." But perhaps there is even scant hope for people like him. I like to think so, even though I tend to be a little suspicious of people who can make such drastic turn-arounds.

But sometimes people do turn around. Take, for instance, the German theologian and Protestant pastor, Martin Niemöller. He started out a Christian, anti-semite, German nationalist who initially supported Hitler's rise to power. He ended up a resistance leader and founder of the anti-Nazi Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), who was sentences to years in a the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he became a figurehead of the German peace movement until his death in the mid-80's.

Despite his problematic beginnings, Niemöller is known today for his role in the resistance. He is perhaps best known for the following words:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

There are many versions of this formulation. I've often seen it errantly referred to as a poem. More likely, it was part of a speech or sermon. According to Harold Marcuse of UC Santa Barbara, it is likely that Niemöller uttered different versions in various speeches and sermons as there is evidence that he varied anecdotes for different occasions as well.

Regardless of which version is the true (if that even exists) one, the spirit of the words remains the same. It is the kind of spirit I would expect from a pastor. It is the kind of spirit that stands in deep contrast to Bible thumpers like the "You make me sick" guy and his ilk.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Still Reading

The year was 2002. I was 33, but didn't look a day over 32. Enough time had passed since my soul sucking sojourn on the prairie that I was back to my devil-may-care Northwestern self. Up until the fall of that year, I was reading up a storm. I don't know what I did for the winter months, but it apparently wasn't reading, since I read nothing (that's right NOTHING) between October and the start of December. I think this may have been the year we got our DVD player, so it's possible that I was focusing more greatly on movies. It may also have been a period where I was reading a lot of political science, which I don't always tend to finish, and I have a rule about not recording anything until I've read the whole book, so that might explain the gap. Nonetheless, looking back over the rest of the year, however, it seemed to be a big year for discovering authors who were new to me and also tending to focus on the works of a few authors rather than branching out a lot. Here are some of the more memorable ones:

1) Barbara Michaels, Houses of Stone
For as long as I can remember, Barbara Michaels has been my favorite light reading. Her books always involve a big spooky house, a plucky heroine and a plot tinged with supernatural events. When I was in college, I had a little ritual of reading one of her novels as soon as the stress of the semester was over. Barbara Michaels got me through more than a few papers in grad school, because I knew that once they were over, I'd have the reward of escaping into one of her novels. Being not quite as insipidly stupid as a romantic fiction, which I've never loved, but still light enough to be entertaining without a lot of intellectual investment, they were always the perfect reward book. Houses of Stone is one of my favorites. It features an English professor who has discovered a lost manuscript of a 19th century female poet. As she begins to obsessively research the woman, a ghost story begins to unfold. That, a big bag of fresh cherries and a nicely chilled freezy cup of diet coke make for the perfect lazy summer reading!

2) Sharan Newman, Death Comes as Epiphany
2002 was the year that I discovered the Catherine Le Vendeur mystery series. The mysteries are penned by medievalist Sharan Newman, who manages to write entertaining, but intelligent mysteries set against the backdrop of 12th century France. The heroine of Newman's novels is a young scholar, Catherine Le Vendeur, whom we meet at the Convent of the Paraclete. The series is interesting for not only the mystery and romance of the plots, but also for the realistic picture Newman paints of daily life in the 12th century. Newman is able to do this because of her vast knowledge of the period. Even though their work is vastly different, I think that one of the things that she and Barbara Michaels share is that they are both educated, articulate women and that comes through in their writing. I've read three or four novels in this series and look forward to reading more, but have to say that the first is still my favorite.

3) Neil Gaiman, Stardust
If 2001 was the year that I fell in love with Neil Gaiman, 2002 is the year I got to know him better. If I didn't say in my last post that Neverwhere was my favorite Gaiman novel, then I would like to say that Stardust is. The story has a magical Märchen-like quality that reminds me of why the Grimms, Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson have always been among my favorite parts of the 19th century. Of course Gaiman is a modern writer, but whether intended or not there are some similarities between this work and those of fairy tales and German Romanticism that could make for an interesting article. Academics aside, Stardust is the enchanting tale of Tristran Thorn who sets out beyond the hamlet of Wall to the terrain of Faerie in search for the fallen star he hopes will win him the love of the cold but beautiful Victoria Forester. On the way he encountersexhilarating adventures and magical characters that interweave to create an engaging story of the sort that can be enjoyed again and again. In fact, just thinking about the story makes me want to reread it!

4) Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
In the year of getting to know Neil Gaiman, I also got to know Terry Pratchett. While I have grown to appreciate each in his own right, the two of them together are hilarious. What is not to love about a doomsday novel featuring characters like Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order? The best, however, are the friendly rivals Aziraphale (full-time angel and part-time rare book dealer) and the Crowley (an angel "who did not fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards") the respective emissaries of God and the Devil. In the course of their work that they have grown to so fond of the human race and life on earth that they want to save them. I think the best description I've read of the book was in the publishing blurbs on the inside cover: "Imagine The Omen as performed by Monty Python." That just about covers the mood of the book. However you choose to imagine the book, it irreverent, funny and definitely worth the read.

5) Hermann Hesse, Demian
What pithy statement do you write about a Nobel prize winner? Hermann Hesse rocks? His novel about Emil Sinclair and his dark friend (some say alter-ego) Max Demian is one that changes each time I read it. For me, that has always been the mark of a good poem or piece of fiction. It grows with the individual. Demian is up there with Hesse's great novels Steppenwolf, Siddhartha (my personal favorite) and Narzissus and Goldmund (the first Hesse novel I ever read). Actually, I take that back, the first Hesse novel I ever read was Peter Camenzind. I don't think it's as well known in the English speaking world has Hesse's bigger novels, but I've always been fond of it. As a young person, its themes of going out into the world to seek one's fortune and coming full circle to find that contentment has more to do with the inner workings of the self than with georgraphical location were a revelation. Having always enjoyed Existentialists like Sartre and Camus, Hesse's interest in existential themes appeals to me. If I were making a list of must read Nobel prize winners, Hesse would definitely be on it.

6) Gerd Brantenberg, Egalia's Daughters
Aside from the fact that the Arcola area Amish not only don't use but actually eschew buttons, Gerd Brantenberg was one of my most fun discoveries during my aforementioned soul sucking period on the prairie. Originally written in Norwegian, Egalia's Daughters is a satire of the sexes, set in a world where beard bow wearing menwom are housebound and seeking liberation in the masculinist movement. This, of course, upsets the wom, who want to hold onto their social and economic power and can only do this by keeping the menwom down. Published in the 70's, the book is a bit dated, but still very funny (especially the part where a young boy in an early rite of manhood goes shopping for his first peho) in its depiction of how arbitrary some of our social mores really are.

7) Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I think I've said enough about Neil Gaiman. If you haven't read this, you should! A good part of the action is set at House on the Rock, for Pete's sake! If you don't know what House on the Rock is, read this. I think the part about HoTR explains the mood. What better place to set a novel? The only thing kitschier would be a murder mystery set in the aisles of Wall Drug. While I admit this is not my absolute favorite Gaiman novel, it's definitely worth the read.

8) Alison Lurie, Women and Ghosts
Before receiving a copy of Women and Ghosts as a Christmas gift, I had never read anything of Lurie's. If I am honest, I have not read anything of hers since, even though I would like to. Women and Ghosts is a collection of short stories. In addition to being a Pulitzer prize winner, Lurie is a literature and writing professor at Cornell university and has done a lot of work with editing children's literature. In trying to refresh my memory on Lurie, I read a Publishers Weekly review of Women and Ghosts that calls the collection "disappointing" and "wraithlike entertainment from an author who usually delivers far more substantive work". While I can agree that the collection was light, I found it far from disappointing. Perhaps if I knew more of her work, I might think differently, but I doubt it. It was satisfying entertainment and there is nothing wrong with that. I like deep, difficult books as much as the next guy (probably moreso), but there are times when it's enough as a reader to just to be drawn into a good story. That's what ghost stories are supposed to do, isn't it?

9) Neil Gaiman, Coraline
If I were going to write a children's story, Coraline would be it. To be fair, I must admit that I never actually read this book. I listened to Neil Gaiman read it on cd. It is the perfect kind of story to heard read aloud. It is just the sort of thing I loved as a girl. It's spooky without being terrifying, there are alternate, twisted worlds, and the story is engrossing. What more can one ask?

10) Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark
This is the first book in a series of vampire mysteries set in small town Louisiana. If the Publishers Weekly reviewer thought Lurie was light spook-fluff, I shuddered to think what he would have to say about Charlaine Harris. What Publishers Weekly did have to say was, "Fans of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake looking for a lighter version of the vampire huntress should cotton to Sookie Stackhouse." And they almost got it right. Harris' Southern vampire series is good, light fun without the perverted triumverate orgies of the train wreck that has become Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series. Don't get me wrong, the Anita Blake books were never high on literary value or even what could technically be referred to as good, but the early ones had a kind of guilty pleasure entertainment value. Anita Blake's whole "I may have to wear an outfit comprised of stillettos, some leather butt floss and a studded bra and sleep with forty vampires at once to feed the ardeur, but I am a good, moral girl and not a tramp" routine has always been a bit tedious, but now the books have crossed the line to just plain awful. Thankfully, there is still Charlaine Harris (although I heard somewhere that Sookie Stackhouse may be tarting it up à la Anita Blake in the near future. Hopefully electric blue izod shirts and black Reebocks are not in her future. I warn you right now, Charlaine Harris, that I am putting the book down immediately never to pick it up again if Bill the Vampire shows up in a frilly, lace shirt and leather pants).

Thus ends 2002, although I should point out that Jasper Pforde's The Eyre Affair and Paolo Coehlo's Veronika Decides to Die deserve honorable mention, even though they din't make the top 10.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Book crazy!

The past few weeks have not left me very motivated to write here. I am not sure why. Perhaps my muse is vacationing on some tropical island or maybe I'm just too content. It's not that I don't think about things to write, it's just that I don't write them. I had, for example, absolutely intended to write about the UFO Festival I attended last week. I had meant to write a disgruntled post about the scheisters who call themselves BMG Music Service (I am still too bitter for that), and about my professional nemeses - the Logistics Department at work (why do I crave their approval, when they make me so mad???) Have I written about any of these things? No. But I'm not too worried about it. These things are cyclical. It is what it is.

One of the things that I have been motivated to do these past weeks is read. On average, I read about 3-4 novels a month. I read non-fiction too, but it usually takes me longer, because I tend to read it in little bits every few days and interspersed with bits of novels, poetry, magazine articles, etc. When I was in graduate school, I read a lot more. This was partly because I had to and partly because that was my existence back then. When you work, it's harder to get the world around you to stop, so you can kick back with a good book and read.

Still, looking back over the past few years, I still seem to find a decent amount of time to read. Since September 2000, I have been keeping a list in the back of my journal. Perusing over it, I am reminded of some of the really good books I've read in the past 5 years, so since I am not inspired to write, I will share some of the titles that I have been inspired to read over the past few years. Here are some that were particularly memorable:

1) Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is a figure who has always fascinated me. I picked this up during a period when I was taking a class on World Religions and remember being very engrossed in it. One of the things I really like about the book is how much of the human side of His Holiness comes through.

2) George MacDonald, Lilith
Finding this book was a delightful surprise, especially since it was recommended to me by someone I didn't expect to have very sophisticated tastes in literature. At first, his style is a bit difficult to get into, but once I was in, it swept me away. The story is dense and allegorical - one of those things where I know I didn't get everything, but still really enjoyed it. I read somewhere once that Macdonald was a big influence of C.S. Lewis'. Having read both, I am not surprised. Lilith is definitely one of those novels I'd like to revisit. I have the feeling that it offers a little more each time one reads it.

3) John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
This is one of the funniest books I've ever read. It too was recommended to me by a friend who doesn't tend to be a big reader, but it's one of the best recommendations I've received in a long time. It's sad that Toole died before he could write more. Definitely another one I would like to read again. Sadly, I loaned my copy to someone and never got it back. The worst part is that I don't remember who it was!

4) Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman.
The story behind the creation of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). I know, linguistics. What could be more exciting? But, really, it is! One of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary was a murderer, who submitted his contributions from an asylum for the criminally insane. The book details not only the compilation of the dictionary, but the relationship that develops between an academic and a man who began contributing to his project after reading an ad seeking contributors to submit quotations illustrating the usage of words to be included in the dictionary. For anyone who loves language, Winchester's book really is a fascinating read.

5) Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas.
You might remember the movie version of this featuring Johnny Depp. While there is something to be said for anything involving Johnny Depp, the book puts the movie to shame. It has everything a bibliophile could want - antique books, murder, mystery, exciting locations - in a page turner. In my mind, this book is a bit of a pre-cursor to The Da Vinci Code in the way it draws its inspiration from playing with the interpretation and representation of an already existing work. There are other similiarities too - art as the holder of secrets, an expert in his field galavanting around Europe to unlock its mysteries, etc. A really enjoyable read that I highly recommend.

6) Arthur Golden, Memoires of a Geisha.
I think I read this book in a weekend. My cat, Loki, was just a kitten at the time and he spent a good portion of the time, sitting on my shoulder and reading along. He was very engrossed. At one point he declared his true identity to be Katsu Yakimoto, famed Kabuki actor. I suspect this was just some kittenish silliness, but you never know. What I do know is that we enjoyed the book immensely - so much so that we also read Mineko Iwasaki's memoire Geisha, A Life when we (well really, I) ran across it at a discount book store some months later.

7) Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere.
I love this book. It is the book that made me fall in love with Neil Gaiman (or at least his writing). I've read it more than once and suspect it will be one of those books like Tolkien's that I'll read again and again every few years. The thing that makes me so fond of this book (beyond it being completely engrossing and weird) is that I never really became a fan of his Sandman series. It's not that I had anything against it, I just never bothered to read it. After discovering Neverwhere, however, Gaiman has become one of my favorite authories and I've read everything he's done since.

8) Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter.
I first read Hughes in college in a poetry class and really liked him. For years, I only knew him as a poet. Then, one day, I ran across this book and decided to give it a try. It is lovely.

And that brings me through my favorite books of 2001. Honorable mention goes to Lemony Snicket (read the books, don't let the movie taint you!). They may be for children, but they are clever and funny to read even as an adult. They fit in with my penchant for kid's fiction à la Harry Potter, Phillip Pullman, etc. As an aside before I go, that reminds me of a friend in Britain, who told me that Harry Potter was marketed with two covers there after it came out and became popular with children and adults alike - one with a kid-friendly cover and another with a more serious cover, so adults didn't have to be embarassed reading it in the tube.

So, this is all for tonight. I'll have to go through 2002-2005 another time.