Sunday, November 18, 2012
Enjoying the End--a Sampler
(Note: These Amazon Kindle Sample Reviews are ideal for the busy homeless. Contrary to popular imagery of the homeless as parasitic slugs and sloth-like hangers-on, street people are busy as hell riding buses, filling out forms, running to government offices and labor exchanges before the work is gone, getting up at 3:30 AM to stand a bare chance of beating the recycling competition, standing in endless lines with dangerously impatient predators and hustlers. My sample reviews are also ideal for readers at any societal stratum rushed for time and in need of cocktail party chit-chat and one up-manship ammo. I'm proud to provide this service. Each review clusters around three deliberately simple--if not simplistic-- cheery "book report" devices, nostalic reminders of grade school assignments: Main Idea, My Best Part and an Also afterthought for bedtime contemplation)
"The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
--William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Recently I entered the darkened apartment of a friend to find him lying on the couch, visible only in the blue light of his laptop's power indicator, listening to Jim Morrison and the Doors performing "The End." My friend and I had compared notes many years ago and discovered that our first exposure to this doleful epic of percussive jangles and down-spiraling guitar riffs had been during the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola did some of his best work with the opening montage of napalm blossoming in the jungle, Martin Sheen melting down in a Saigon hotel, and wraith-like helicopters drifting across the screen--all of it given gravitas by Morrison's groaning but commanding vocals. It all seemed tremendously profound at the time, but now seems slightly forced or sophomoric, and I wondered what what my friend was thinking or feeling having deliberately pulled up the song on his computer.
I sat down and waited for the song's conclusion before saying, "Mood music?"
"Naw," said my friend. "Sometimes you just want a little bit of Jim and a little bit of downer, tiny taste of world-ending, all that shit."
Then he turned on the TV, took a couple beers out of the fridge, and we settled in for a World Series game.
I know just what he means about a "little bit" of apocalypse, the short, sharp pleasures of brief yet languid contemplation of collapse. What better way to share the feeling than a selection of the many Kindle samples I've read lately that fervently wish for and revel in (no matter what the authors say to the contrary, no matter how tear-stained their tone) the End of All Things. Get ready to wallow . . .
City of Quartz by Mike Davis. A beautifully written, essentially socialist-social justice-oriented crystallization of Los Angeles in all its decadent/dynamic glory on the edge of the millennium, generously morbid and obsessive with detail. Pharonic building projects and monster mansions and museums overshadowing a growing homeless population systematically driven from Downtown by formerly a formerly radical mayor; Uzi-powered gang warfare on a nation-state scale and rookie policeman babbling about the coming Final Conflict; cops who gun down a crazy woman on the street with 18 powerful rifles after she steals an ice cream sandwich; an entertainment industry psychotically bloated and run by near homicidal maniacs; miles of crab-grass choked, doggy do-strewn suburbs with endless miles of chain link fences . . .it goes wonderfully on and on even in relatively short space of the sample. Best part: the hilarious account of L.A. hipsters, pundits, and celebrities deciding that a new wave of "intellectualism" is sweeping the city starting about 1989, the primary signs of which are slavering commodity booms like slick business sharks and ditsy models pouring into bookstores acquiring ziggurats of high-brow books they'll never read and "armfuls of 'smart-looking' eyeglasses. Main Idea: LA is ground zero for visionary techno freaks and wizardly image conjurers but also the locus of a nation-wide fact: we live in rich world containing millions of poor hungry children. "That should be intolerable," writes Davis. Also: L.A. may be perpetually on the edge of apocalyptic collapses but paradoxically derives much of its galvanising power and creative energy from that grim fact.
A History of the End of the World by Jonathan Kirsch takes on the Book of Revelation, notorious last book of the Bible, almost not included in the official canon and still reviled by many Christians, disconcerting in its acid-tinged, phantasmagorical, multi-eyed smoking glory. Tracing its vision of the influence on our culture, indelibly marking, as if with the Sign of the Beast, novels, poetry, songs, movies, and even political decisions by powerful world leaders with missile launch codes at the ready and fingers on the buttons. A text of Apocalypse, Revelation is merely one of many previous apocalyptic books the author drew on freely to create his nightmare. Main Idea: For believers, diviners, interpreters, and even skeptics, the Book of Revelation is an indispensable code book for deciphering who we are and how we conceive our place and destiny on the Earth. Best Part: This cool list: The Battle of Armageddon, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, he Seventh Seal, the Great Whore of Babylon (I had a date with her once!), the Antichrist, the Grim Reaper, the Grapes of Wrath, and Also: best of all, coming to you soon via vaccines, TB tests, HIV screenings, blood drives, suppositories and mini robot vampires, the indelible and irremovable Number of the Beast.
The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard This free sample is pretty meaty, as it contains 3 or 4 complete short stories by "the shaman of Shepperton," as Angela Carter called Ballard, referring to his somewhat reclusive residence in the English town of Shepperton, after his young wife died unexpectedly, where he lived and worked in a small, nearly invisible house, writing and caring for his three young children The whole collection contains 100 stories but the depth and beauty of the opening pieces will give the flavor of this radical and unique author. It also includes an author's introduction, and of course you can follow the links to Ballard's radical novels about the merging of external world disaster and techno-collapse with the endlessly fecund death-seeking psyche--the imaginative realm Ballard called "inner space."
Main Idea: Ballard took a beating from many of his SF colleagues for writing disaster and dystopian novels in which the protagonist, rather than marshaling plucky resources to defeat the catastrophe--wind, drought, flood, or disconcerting crystallization of time and human flesh- the hero instead triumphs through acceptance of the "logic of disaster" and somehow merges mentally and spiritually with the societal and natural breakdown. Ballard took this approach to the extreme in Crash, a fixed, unwavering, and baleful glare at the erotic possibilities offered in modern men and women's faithful marriage to the automobile accident and its mangled products. Best part: This sample gives you enough to get a taste--an acquired on, for certain, but one worth acquiring. Also: As Martin Amis points out in his introduction, Ballard invented a new genre, the J.G . Ballard story. "He was impregnably sui generis," and contra Ecclesiastes, something new under the sun.
The Watchman's Rattle by Rebecca Watson. This book claims, with the help of a cheerleading introduction by Edward O. Wilson--"Darwin 2.0," as Tom Wolfe calls him--to be a "radical" analysis of humanity's inability to heal the dysfunctions that beset the world, a book that presents a new hypothesis explaining our willful steering right for the lake of fire. Ready for it? The complexity of the world we've created outraces our cognitive abilities. The brain didn't evolve to solve the massive, slow-motion disasters we've created like climate change and species extinction. What's new about this? I'm flabbergasted to see this obvious old chestnut from science fiction novels and plenty of popular science books over the last 30 years touted as a startling new analysis. Something fishy is going on here, and it might have something to do with rah rah mentor E. O. Wilson's late incarnation in recent books as a Prospero-like magus who will weave all the strands of human knowledge into a single grand tapestry of bio-beauty and salvation. Some, including Richard Dawkins and me, think it's time Wilson was put out to pasture.
Best Part: Watson's observation that great civilizations--her main fascinating example in this sample concerns the death of the Mayans-- give off smoke-cloud warnings of impending collapse when they make an obsessive fetish out unjustified beliefs rather than observable, testable facts.
Main Idea: We need to bolt new ways thinking on to our inadequate brains, perhaps (my thought) the way we've painstakingly attached reading skills to a brain that didn't evolve for that purpose.
Also: The above point is something educators still haven't acknowledged or understood from an evolutionary standpoint. Reading is not a natural activity of the brain, which is why most people fail to acquire the skill or become very good at it. But understanding this is the first step in devising solutions that work around the handicap or even enlist it.
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. Our big brains--"totally useless" and the cause of all our problems, have created a techo-economic-media-sphere that is too complex for us to understand and essentially foreign to our natures. This satire is a wacky tale of human devolution in the Galapagos islands and the slapstick historical coincidences and chance meetings of sad and sharply drawn characters that lead to the End. Funny and extremely perspicacious regarding evolution.
Best Part: A world-wide financial crisis leads to humans giving up the concept of money as a real thing, which it's not, of course. Main Idea: You've got to laugh at the irony of evolution producing big brains that lead to men like Beethoven and Feynman but ultimately prove a deficit--a grimly funny one at that. Also: Vonnegut said everything Watson and Wilson lumber toward in the book above nearly 30 years ago and much more entertainingly. (By the way, this review is something of a cheat because I read the entire book years ago, but I did reread the sample to ensure that everything I touch on here is in the free chunk. So rest assured you need to read neither the sample nor the book now because of me)
The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future(Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein
The title says it all. Why sample it? Why review the sample? Besides, anyone likely to read the book will already agree with its thesis: today's youth, even those on fast track to good colleges, are dumber than mud. I saw it all happen in over a quarter century of college teaching: the already monumental task of reading and writing stops developing around 4th grade if the booster rockets of good teaching, parental motivation, and avoidance of TV and computer imagery don't fire. Most often they don't, and the kids reach college able only to text, grunt in sentence fragments, spew what Tom Wolfe termed the "Fuck Patois," and--sometimes-- fill in the allotted word space on a Powerpoint field for a class "project." And it's actually 100 times worse than than, but nobody will believe me.
Main idea: Kids under thirty are ignorant dumbasses addicted to ugly non-music, drugs, sex, profanity, Facebook, web camera jerk-offs . . .Yeah, yeah, yeah: every generation's old fogies have apolexy and attacks of the vapors over the young 'uns and their ignorance, but really, now, that's coming from people who've never been in a high school or freshman classroom, don't ride public transportation, or just sit down for a nice chat with these friendly, cheerful but frighteningly self-absorbed and ignorant kids. Best Part: Bauerlein doesn't give a microsecond's credence to the liberal complaint that today's kids are overloaded with homework or pressured to score astromically high on admssions tests to the point of nervous breakdown. Also: The problem is getting worse by the day, as information technology slides inexorably into the ambient background and into our very body spaces, even soon beneath our skins, thus making the structure of knowledge--its composition and architecture, it's labrinithyn arrangement, and the epistemological navigation skills needed in its deeps, shallows, narrow passages, and rapids-ever more invisible and unattainable. Tomorrow's youth will instantly access anything they want, will feel its rightness in their hands, see its "correctness," and smell its "truthyness," but they won't know what it means