Monday, March 25, 2019

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

Source of book: I own this.

We listened to the audiobook read by Martin Freeman - which was really good. 

I first read the first Hitchhikers book when I was pretty young. Young enough to be mildly scandalized by the references to sex. But I thought it was hilarious even then, and proceeded to read all of them for the first time during my teens. I re-read them at least once thereafter, but it has been a while.

As a general rule, books change as you grow and age. A book has one vibe during one’s childhood, another as a teen, another as a young adult, and another as a middle aged sort. And I am speaking purely of how the reader changes. Other times, the historical moment itself is radically different, giving an entirely different meaning to the text.

This latter phenomenon is what I experienced this time through The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The first book is pretty good, admittedly, and has so many good quotable lines that it sticks with one. I also remember that the third book (Life, the Universe, and Everything) was my favorite - probably because of the concept of the Somebody Else’s Problem Field - which I actually used in a case once. (The judge laughed…) But I didn’t really remember that much about the second book.

Reading/listening to it now, however, I realize that it expanded on the political satire of the first book - and both together sound like prophecy of the Trump Era. (Zaphod may be a lot more fun and harmless than Trump, but he has all the narcissism and inexplicable popularity.) The jokes at the expense of religion are also a lot more funny now that I am older and a bit more jaded.

To try to summarize the plot seems pointless. The plot mostly exists to carry forward the bizarre imagination of the author. Suffice it to say that the Vogons still want to kill Arthur Dent, Zaphod is still on the run for stealing the Heart of Gold, and bad things happen.

The details are fun, though. I vaguely remembered the scene where Arthur crashes the ship’s systems trying to get the replicator to make a decent cup of tea. I didn’t remember the hilarious repartee between Zaphod and his great-grandfather (Zaphod Beeblebrox IV - the numbers are backwards because of an accident involving a time machine and a contraceptive…)

I also remembered a good bit of the restaurant scene - which still rates as one of the best in the series. The uncomfortable exchange between the diners and the beast which has been bred to desire being eaten made me wince as much as I did when I first read it. What is it about us humans who have less difficulty eating something which definitely did not want to be eaten than we would something which did? That’s kind of weird if you think about it. I also didn’t anticipate last time I read it that I would eventually have a daughter (#2 - the morbid one) ask me at age 3 if animals liked being eaten.

So, there were a few lines that stood out enough that I remembered them even though I was driving while we listened.

The first is about the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy, it’s always reality that’s got it wrong.
This was the gist of the notice. It said “The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.”

Hey, that sounds super familiar! And not just because the followers of Galen considered the corpse to be inaccurate when it failed to match Galen’s descriptions.

Rather, this is how the Fundamentalist tradition I grew up in approached the Bible - it was always the infallible guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It was to be taken literally as an instruction book and inerrant guide to everything from science to ethics.

And when reality contradicted it - or really, when reality contradicted the theological superstructure - the layers of interpretation and doctrinal dogma which told us what the ancient book meant, well, it was always reality which was wrong, not the dogma. So if the dogma told us that the book meant that women were to be subservient to men, then, well, the reality of the equal intelligence of women was clearly in error. Reality was “inaccurate.”

Adams is definitely on to something here. His analogy of the Guide is also interesting in a way I didn’t realize when I first read the book. The point of a guide book of this nature is that it should be constantly revised to reflect better knowledge, new information, and ongoing changes. That’s why nobody buys the 1976 AAA guidebooks now. (Actually, the internet has replaced those altogether these days.)

In our modern times, we, for reasons I am having a harder and harder time understanding, seem intent on considering our sacred books “definitive” because we view them - and their interpretation - as unchanging. As in the case of the Guide, this is rather obviously bunk. Not only that, it is exactly opposite from how the ancients viewed them. As Yale professor Christine Hayes points out in her fantastic course on the Old Testament, the ancients considered their sacred writings to be definitive not because they didn’t change, but because they did. They were living, and the stories were retold, rewritten, and reinterpreted to reflect changing needs and changing issues. (It is not an exaggeration to say that this course is the best thing I have ever listened to on the OT - it is such a refreshing look at a difficult collection of writings that have been so abused by my faith tradition.)

Not too long afterward, when Zaphod finds himself about to be put into the Total Perspective Vortex, the author writes a few more zingers.

The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore.
Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.

Adams then cites an imaginary race which lives in a single tree - and the only way people leave is when they are kicked out for asking uncomfortable questions which presuppose a larger world out there.

Exotic though this behavior may seem, there is no life form in the galaxy which is not in some way guilty of the same thing, which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it is.
For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”
…[I]f life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

I will mention the captain in the bathtub, the band Disaster Area and the whole mythology surrounding it, Max Quordlepleen - the quintessential Las Vegas MC and comedian, then endlessly delayed flight. And, of course, the real ruler of the galaxy, with is endless ontological uncertainty. I found that I enjoyed this installment more than I recalled enjoying it previously, presumably because I get more of the jokes this time around.

I mentioned above that Martin Freeman was excellent. I was a bit worried, because the audiobook of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was narrated by Stephen Fry, who is so delightful that I expected disappointment. But actually, Freeman was great. In particular, his imaginative voicing of the various eccentric minor characters was impressive - you could easily believe it was different actors playing the parts. Our library has the third book also narrated by Freeman, which makes me happy. I am looking forward to that one.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Florida by Lauren Groff

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Believe it or not, I DID check out this book before the “Florida Man Challenge” swept the interwebs. Actually, I have had this on my list since NPR did an interview with the author last year.

I have always loved short stories, and try to read a few collections each year as a contrast to the longer novels I read. For some reason, lately, I have ended up reading quite a few written by southern authors. It seems as if the last century or so has been particularly rich in authors from that region, perhaps because the rural South still seems foreign to many of us.

Florida is very much in the “gothic southern” tradition, with an underlying pedal tone of menace. I think that is the best way to describe it. There is a bit of a similarity with Flannery O’Connor (who I enjoy, even though I am not always certain why), but Groff doesn’t take things to that extreme. In fact, thinking back, most of the stories have a more or less non-terrible ending. I won’t say “happy” exactly. But people don’t necessarily end up dead, dismembered, or devastated either. Although I think there is the portent of divorce in a couple. I guess you could say that things end reasonably well given the circumstances, people are traumatized, but they mostly survive.

The menace comes from multiple directions. On the one hand, everything in Florida wants to kill you. The snakes and alligators. The mosquitos. The hurricanes. The heat. But even more dangerous than nature is humanity. People range from blithely uncaring to outright hostile and abusive. Perhaps the worst, however, is the monster within. Many of the characters battle their demons, and it isn’t clear who will win. Often, the story ends, but it is clear that the battle awaits another day.

Groff often tells the story from the point of view of a woman who is not quite her, but a lot like her - so the viewpoint is generally that of a middle class white woman. But Groff also intentionally expands outward from there. As one of her characters puts it, she refuses to “barricade myself with my whiteness in a gated community.” But she is aware of the privilege that comes with a choice.

One fantastic line comes in that story:

“Isn’t it...dicey? people our parents’ age would say, grimacing, when we told them where we lived, and it took all my willpower not to say, Do you mean black, or just poor? Because it was both.”

Some of the stories are about pretty normal situations, with relationships and tensions and discovery. But others are pretty crazy. There is the man who collects reptiles and eventually dies after a bite in the field. (He isn’t the main character - but his life sets the stage for the rest of the story.) There is a particularly harrowing tale of two small sisters abandoned by their mother and her boyfriend right before a hurricane hits their island. They are resourceful, and manage to survive for weeks before they are discovered. This is one where things end well, but just barely. It is also one of a few hurricane stories. There is another where a woman falls and gives herself a nasty concussion - and she has to hold it together enough to care for her small boys until her husband returns in a few days. Another is a story of a grad student whose life spirals into homelessness when her boyfriend leaves her, and she cannot afford a place to live.

There are also a couple of interesting longer stories about Floridians on vacation in France. The theme seems to be one of leaving Florida, but still having too much Florida in you. (I can sympathize - I am a Californian through and through, even - especially - when I travel.) You can travel the world, but you can’t really leave yourself behind...

Groff’s writing is excellent - this is definitely literary fiction, not genre fiction. I admired a number of turns of phrase as I read through the book, and the psychology was intriguing. The story about the concussion was particularly impressive in the way the narrator’s story blended between her rational brain and the addled and concussed brain in unexpected yet entirely believable ways. It is vivid, carefully crafted storytelling, and compelling.


Hey, this is a good excuse to link one of my favorite Clint Black tunes - it has been my anthem (or better yet, an anti-anthem) for the past couple decades.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Educated by Tara Westover

Source of book: I own this.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book is definitely in that category as I would never have picked it up on my own. In this case, however, my wife had wanted to read this book, which meant that I might have read it after she did.

"In families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth." ~ Tara Westover

This book was a difficult one to read at times, because it was a bit too familiar for comfort. I have spoken about my family’s time in Bill Gothard’s cult, and the damage I have had to deal with from Cultural Fundamentalism in my upbringing. There were a lot of things in this book that I recognized - and wish I didn’t.


Let me start, however, with some significant differences. My family was never as crazy as the one in this book. We never really went in completely for the lunacy, even as we flirted with it. As I would put it, we dabbled in insanity, and were “crazy-adjacent,” meaning that we knew and hung with some people who were this crazy, and believed some of the poison, but we never truly left the mainstream of normal 20th Century American life.

I also want to be clear that my parents are not mentally ill like the father (and possibly the mother) in this book, and that they were not abusive like the parents in this book. That’s an important distinction, and I believe it is why we only dabbled, rather than following through on the worst ideas. However, we knew people who did abuse their children (more about that later), and knew plenty of mentally ill and damaged people within the Fundie universe.

While we embraced a series of faddish “alternative medicine” and dietary approaches, we never rejected Western medicine - and certainly never went down the trail of “using Western medicine is rejecting God.” But still, between the carousel of diet fads (from vegetarianism to high protein) and the acceptance of long-debunked “cures” of various sorts, we dabbled in some pretty silly stuff.

Our involvement in the anti-feminist Patriarchy side of things was a bit deeper, although, again, we were more “normal” than most. It was always assumed that girls be as educated as boys, and my parents never mandated skirts. But of all the crazy ideas described in this book, I think Patriarchy has made the most inroads into white Evangelicalism, and it has had the most lingering effect on my birth family. I was also reminded by someone who kind of stepped away from our family during that time that my parents said that giving women the vote was a big mistake. So we might have gone over the cliff in some ways. Of course, now this idea has gone mainstream on Fox News, so...

Likewise, it is important to point out that my parents took academics seriously, and, even though we were homeschooled, we were not “unschooled,” and we were able to go from homeschooling to college without any more of a hiccup than any other normal kids. So the education part here was very different for us. That said, we knew people whose kids were not educated, and were - from what I could tell - significantly neglected rather than raised.

We are not Mormon. My parents are fairly conservative Evangelicals who (as far as I can tell) went part way down the rabbit hole because of our involvement in the homeschooling subculture - and with a heavy assist from conspiracy theory authors (all too popular in Evangelical subculture in the 1980s) like Larry Burkett.

Also, we didn’t know any Mormons like the Westovers. We knew ones much more like the ones the Westovers condemned as “worldly gentiles.”

So, I do not want to create the impression that we were this family. However, we did drink from the same poisoned well in a number of cases. I hope to give a better picture later in this post.


Tara Westover is the youngest child of seven, in a Mormon family living in the mountains of Idaho - kind of the “ground zero” for Survivalists. Oh, I guess I should explain what Survivalists are.

Survivalists believe that there is a coming breakdown of society and government, and that the vast unwashed masses will have no way of feeding themselves. Thus, those who wish to survive must be self sufficient, able to feed themselves, and able to stave off an invasion of those not so prepared. So basically, the zombie apocalypse, except with real human beings. To this end, they buy land that they can farm, store vast quantities of shelf-stable food and fuel, put together an arsenal and enough ammunition to defend the place from starving people (or the government in black helicopters), and focus on teaching the kids skills for an agrarian lifestyle, not the modern era.

Going along with this is typically a deep distrust of government; a distrust of modern Western medicine; a belief in conspiracy theories (particularly about Jews, multiculturalism and globalism, the Illuminati, Freemasons, Communists, the United Nations, the Trilateral Commission, and Democrats); a worship of the supposed purity of the past; suspicion of modern culture and technology; a belief that only they are the true [Christians, Mormons, intelligent people, whatever]; a vicious tribalism - hostility to outsiders; obsession with guns and other weapons; and a strong affinity for Patriarchy, White Supremacy, and neo-Nazism.

In some ways, one can see a pretty direct connection between modern Survivalists and the sort that bought fallout shelters in the 1950s - although nuclear war was definitely a possibility. And also a connection with the John Birch Society, 19th Century conspiracy theories, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and 19th Century snake oil and dietary charlatans like Kellogg. I would also note that there seems to be a lot of overlap between Survivalists and groups like Militias, cultic churches, religious fundamentalist subgroups, home birth midwives, and alternative medicine scams. I might even say that Survivalism is practically a caricature of every distinctively “American” brand of nuttiness, all rolled into one.

Tara was pretty young when her family took this turn, so, unlike some of her older siblings, she didn’t really remember life “before.” All she knew was isolation, conspiracy theories, a controlling father, a lack of education, avoidance of medical treatment, and deep rooted fears of the government.

The book appears to be based mostly on her compulsive journaling (which I have heard is a Mormon thing) combined with her memories. She notes that she considers her own memory to be flawed - the first chapter is of a “memory” she knows is obviously false - that her mother was murdered by the government in a Ruby Ridge type incident. Since her mother is alive, obviously this isn’t true - but because of the way her parents freaked out about the incident involving White Supremacist and illegal firearm seller Randy Weaver and his family, she kind of internalized the case. (She was all of 6 years old, so this is not surprising.) For many of the incidents, Westover checked with those of her family that she is still in contact with (3 of her older brothers), and has indicated throughout the text when their memories differ. To an attorney, the differences are unsurprising. After all, witness accounts often differ, particularly with regard to traumatic events.

The book follows Westover’s life from her earliest memories through age 27, when she started work on the book. A substantial part tells of her life at home, until she left to study at BYU (largely against her father’s wishes.) After a couple years of struggle to overcome her utter lack of education (she had never heard of the Holocaust, or learned more than rudimentary math, let alone learned how to write an actual essay or use a textbook), she eventually excelled, earning a PhD at Cambridge.

The education issue is rather fascinating to me. Westover’s parents appear to be quite intelligent, although deeply deluded. Out of the seven children, it appears that three, Tara included, went on to higher education and excelled. The others never made the leap, and ended up working for their parents and becoming trapped in their alternate reality. High IQ seems to run in the genes, but not necessarily good judgment.

In an interesting twist, after struggling financially for most of Tara’s childhood, her parents eventually made it fairly big time with an essential oils business. As one of our book club members noted, their success seemed to make Westover try to compete with her family in the last part of the book. There is what seems to be a bit of gratuitous bragging near the end, as if she is trying to prove that she (despite her family’s warnings and censure) turned out just as well as they did. Not surprising, considering their behavior toward her - including their attempts to “save” her from the devil. (Because she left and got an education, of course…)

There are a number of harrowing incidents in the book. Before making the essential oils their business, her parents ran a junkyard which was not (to put it very mildly) OSHA compliant. The safety risks they took were pretty appalling - with the kids too. This, as well as their cavalier approach to auto safety, led to a number of horrifying accidents. The number of serious concussions that occurred is pretty high. Mom was never right after a car accident that confined her to the basement for months and wrecked her memory. (They never sought medical care.) There were several severe burns from explosions, Tara got serious cuts and stabs as a kid from equipment and metal pieces, and everyone seemed to have major scars from avoidable injuries. As someone raised by safety conscious parents (another way they differed from this family), I found it horrifying.

But worse was the fact that the family refused to seek medical care. As the dad put it, “You can’t put your trust in a doctor, then ask the Lord to heal you.” As I noted, my family didn’t go this far - although there was an incident where a relative died of cancer, and I heard stuff about how she should have just gone with alternative medicine. (I don’t think my parents still think this way, because they have availed themselves of modern medicine...but still.)

There is also Tara’s description of her mother trying to get birth certificates for the younger children, who had been born at home. (Side note here: I was born at home, although that was before my parents’ Prepper days, so it was more a hippie thing. I got a birth certificate. However, I have done legal work for adults who lacked a birth certificate because of kooky religious beliefs like the Westovers’.) The problem was, in part, because Tara’s mom didn’t remember her exact birth date. And neither did other family members. It is both hilarious and...kind of horrifying.

The worst parts, however, involved Tara’s brother Shawn, who, perhaps partially as a result of multiple traumatic brain injuries, became violent and abusive to Tara and her older sister. Tara tells of some of the incidents, from holding her head in the toilet until she “admitted” she was a whore, to later threats to kill her for blowing the whistle on him. What Tara doesn’t say, but strongly implies, is that he sexually abused her and her sister. (There are a few incidents that go almost, but not quite, up to the line.) I wonder if she decided that she had to pull that punch because she was concerned that her now-wealthy family would sue her for defamation. In any case, she scrupulously draws a hard line before anything sexual occurs. This also includes her stories of her boyfriends. It is clear that she shared a flat with one in Europe during a period of study - so one assumes they were sexually active - but she never really lets us in on that.

Almost as bad, however, are the extended attempts she makes to reconcile - even after her parents make clear that the cost of reconciliation is that she accept their reality and agree that nothing bad ever happened. The degree of gaslighting in this book is appalling. And a bit familiar, not from my own family, but from others within the Christian Patriarchy community. (See, for one example, sexual predator Bill Gothard…) I genuinely worried throughout the last 50 or so pages that she might actually give in and go back to them. She didn’t but it was a close call.

One of the interesting things about our book club discussion is that there was one person who had difficulty believing that Westover was being truthful. And it is true, there are inconsistencies - particularly about timing and some specific events. For the most part, Westover notes that accounts differ, and she often doubts her own memories even as she reads what she wrote in her journal and compares it with her memories and those of the brothers who also escaped. For me, I found the story to be credible not just because of the way that Westover did her best to admit the inherent unreliability of memory, but because I knew people very much like this. I can say that the conspiracy theories are portrayed accurately. The subculture is portrayed accurately. The gaslighting, the denialism about genuine abuse, the suspicion of government and outsiders - she knows it personally just as I know it from those I knew. This isn’t the sort of memoir one could write from reading Wikipedia. You have to have experienced the subculture to be so fluent in its idiosyncrasies and the depths of delusion.

One thing I wanted to point out about the book is this: while Westover’s parents were over-the-top, they weren’t that far out from a certain mainstream. Specifically, a lot of these ideas - albeit in less obviously nutty forms - are endemic to white Evangelicalism. If you look at this as a continuum, the average mainstream white Evangelical subscribes to some forms of some of the nutty ideas. (Typically some combination of distrust of government, patriarchy, tribalism, and suspicion of other cultures and subcultures.) This is precisely why you get 80% voting for and supporting Trump, who kind of ran on an appeal to these less than admirable human tendencies. There is also a strong apocalyptic streak in white Evangelicals, whether it is the Premillennial Dispensationalism I was raised with (think Left Behind) or the Postmillennial Dominionism/Theocracy pushed by the Reconstructionists of the Christian Patriarchy movement - that’s the one that Gothard and Rushdoony (hugely influential in the homeschool movement) pushed. Add in a belief in phony-baloney persecution, and you get an interesting picture. So you can, unfortunately, find a lot of the roots of what this book describes within mainstream Evangelicalism. On a related note, the growing prevalence of these ideas was a contributing factor in why we left organized religion two years ago.

However, it is best to think of mainstream Evangelicalism as only a little way along the continuum of crazy. (Although it is rapidly moving in that direction since they started following the Messiah Trump and the prophet Ayn Rand…) Much further along that line is Homeschool culture. Just a quick bit here - I need a full post to tell the whole story - my family didn’t get into homeschooling for ideological reasons. I was sickly and missed so much school my principal suggested we do it. However, while there were and are many who homeschool for academic or other non-crazy reasons, there are also many who do it for very ideological reasons - to keep their children culturally, politically, sexually, and ideologically “pure.” I mentioned Rushdoony, who saw homeschoolers as his future army to “take back” America and the world from...well, liberals, advocates of human rights, abolitionists, gays, feminists...and indeed anyone who disagreed with his Talibanesque vision for re-creating the glorious past of the Iron Age.

This is where I can say that our family brushed up against the crazy.

I think, perhaps, the best way to describe it is this: eventually, as you follow this path, you come to a high cliff. You have the choice: back away, or throw yourself over it. My family approached the cliff on a few occasions, and backed away. Not always far enough in my opinion, but they backed away.


Let me talk about our “Prepper” experiences. We lived in the San Fernando Valley - part of Los Angeles - during the Rodney King beating, the trials, and the LA riots. The beating took place only a few miles from where we lived - I know that place well - and we could hear gunshots during the riots. A few days afterward, my dad was accosted by an angry African American guy, who threatened him at a gas station, and then chased him in his vehicle some 20+ miles before giving up. (You can read more of my thoughts on the riots in a long footnote to this book review.) I don’t think he was ever the same after that. I feel kind of bad about sharing this, but I think it is a key to understanding our journey.

We moved out of LA soon afterward, and it was sometime around that time (my memory of the sequence is a bit fuzzy) that we started seriously exploring Prepping. Some friends of ours from church (who weren’t exactly Preppers, I don’t think) had bought some cheap land out somewhere east of Lucerne Valley that they rode their ATVs on. We went out there to check it out. It was not, shall we say, suitable. In addition to being in the driest part of the Mojave Desert, it had what seemed like a rattlesnake for every 10 square feet of land. (I am an avid hiker and am used to sharing the trail with rattlers, but this was freaking scary.) But even worse than the rattlers were the Desert Rats - the people who lived there literally would steal anything that wasn’t bolted down - and even what was. On the plus side (if that is what you would call it), they were largely Preppers with large arsenals, so a white family like ours might have been able to fit in and survive after a fashion.

After that, we looked near one of our favorite destinations, Zion National Park in Utah. Specifically, near Kanarraville, in the Escalante Desert. (See a pattern? Cheap land is in the desert...but it isn’t exactly good for farming. Which I guess is where the 100 years of food storage comes in.) Utah had a lot to recommend it, such as towns like La Verkin, who back in the 1990s had a big “UN Free Zone” sign at the city limits. However, we weren’t Mormon, so we might have been treated with suspicion. Particularly by the FLDS people…

In what strikes me now as either a weird coincidence or possibly a case of fortunately divine interference, on the day we were set to have a realtor show us some land in Utah, our alternator went out as we reached Mesquite, Nevada. (Seriously, we broke down there several times, and I still get a bit of a flinch every time we travel through there on the way to Utah.) So, we missed our chance, and we never really tried after that, although I think we explored at least buying a food cache from a Mormon company. We stepped away from the cliff.

So that part of the book felt uncomfortably familiar. But there were others. All of the conspiracy theories involving the Jews (specifically the Rothchilds and a few others I forget), the belief in an imminent future meltdown of society, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission and the UN - all these conspiracy theories are familiar from shit my dad read during my mid to late teens. To see them in the book brought back some memories I hadn’t really thought about in a while. I think my parents don’t really believe all that crap anymore. I think. But every so often, something comes up in a conversation that makes me wonder if a bit lingers.

The firearm stuff was also familiar. I’m a gun owner (but not that kind…), and grew up - at least since my Jr. High years - with guns in the house. Some of this made sense in the neighborhood we lived in. There were some gang bangers around, and things happened. It wasn’t a bad idea to be able to defend one’s self, although we never really had to. So I am pretty dang good at the mechanics of reloading ammo, target shooting, and all that. Again, we stepped away from the cliff, but in Prepper world, you mentally prepare yourself to murder a lot of desperate people who might want your carefully hoarded food. Ultimately, that is one reason I couldn’t really buy into the Prepper lifestyle. And, I often suspect, why we stepped back from the cliff. To quote John Michael Talbot, “But when every nation has crumbled to dust / will you still reach to give the Lord’s mercy, or will you kill if you must?” (John Michael Talbot was one of the most influential musicians of my childhood - The Painter was my favorite album at age 9 - and this song really seems prophetic these days. It illuminates why Trump support is actually Anti-Christianity…)

I have discussed at more length elsewhere the issues we have had with other political/cultural issues. I try not to talk politics too much with my extended family because there are too many land mines. Some of these definitely stem from our Gothard years, and others from the overall Fundie/Homeschooler culture. Just to name a few, a belief that Theocracy is superior to Democracy and pluralism (Hi there, Rushdoony and other Dominionists!); an opposition to Feminism (tough since me and my wife are both feminists); and suspicion of immigrants and refugees (to be fair on that one, I pretty much cannot talk racial politics with any white Evangelicals anymore. We do not share the same understanding of reality or a common morality.) I won’t get into it more here, but I have specifically blogged at length about both Modesty Culture and the worship of gender roles. These two issues have caused unnecessary conflict, and have resulted, unfortunately, in irreparable damage to relationships. Sure, my parents “stepped back from the cliff” and thus are not completely estranged from me like Tara’s are from her. But I had to draw some hard lines - and some damage just can’t be fixed.


I also want to mention something the book alludes to here and there, but isn’t always clear to those outside the subculture. Within both Prepper culture and Christian Patriarchy (and to a large degree, homeschool culture in many places), there is a strong undercurrent of White Supremacy. In the Prepper culture, here is the form it often takes: when the US government crumbles, all those “inner city” people will lose their welfare checks, and be furious, and go loot and pillage all the “real Americans” who have prepared. It’s not that difficult to see the link between this and the terror of slaveowners that their chattel might rise up and kill them. (One suspects that if we had paid real reparations in 1865 - the proverbial 5 acres and a mule - it might be the African Americans who owned our farmland today - and the whites who would starve in that scenario. )

Ditto, though, in Christian Patriarchy and Homeschool culture. The point for many in leaving the public school system is to avoid sending their kids to school with “those people.” Meaning poorer people, of course. But also brown skinned people. I remember my dad commenting on one of the Gothard seminars where a bunch of the teens did something or other about all the “clean cut, middle America” kids they represented. F-ing damn. I still remember that 25 years later, after we joined ATIA (against my wishes). It is hard to escape the conclusion that the desire to see us marry good 1950s white middle class conservative spouses was a factor in why we joined. Hmm, apparently that didn’t work out so well when I married a feminist with a career. But don’t underestimate the degree to which the Culture Wars™ are really about race. Because they are so about race. And, while obviously not all homeschoolers are that way, a heck of a lot are, which is one reason we haven’t really ever participated in our local homeschool groups. Between the patriarchy and the barely veiled racism, it’s not a good place for our kids.


One final thought here: the abuse in this book is pretty clear-cut. That much is obvious. But I very much get why it was so hard to address. First of all, the theology of Patriarchy is powerful, and it makes it really difficult for victims to break free. Tara’s psychology was all too familiar. But there is another factor. While there was sibling to sibling violence here, the parental abuse was essentially psychological and verbal abuse - not something that is easy to prove legally. I have seen this one too, including in a situation I personally experienced. When parents are not physically abusive - something which leaves evidence - but just verbally and psychologically abusive - there is often not much outsiders can really hope to do. In the situation I am speaking of, my birth family had a tough choice. Even if we thought CPS involvement would be a positive (something I am not sure of even now - and our subculture feared above all else), it is unlikely they could have done anything. Even with a mentally ill and horrible parent, I don’t think a removal would have happened. So what is one to do? Cutting off contact was an option, but that would have left the kids (and one kid in particular) with one less outside influence and respite from the abuse. What would have been the right choice? God only knows.


This has ended up a bit confessional. My intention here isn’t to throw my parents under the bus. They, like most white Evangelicals, had good intentions, but were the victims of a few hundred years of bad theology and spiritual malpractice. I am glad we have a relationship, even if things will never be the way they might have been had things been different over the last three decades. They are not and will never be Tara’s parents - or I would have left as she did. My intention, rather, is to shine an uncomfortable light on the dark and ugly corners of the subcultures that I experienced in my youth and have rejected as an adult and as a parent - even though it has cost me some degree of family relationships. The point isn’t to go after the individuals who have swallowed the poison - but to warn about the poison.  

Because, as Tara Westover shows all too well, there is a deep and deadly poison at work in these subcultures. There is a tremendous amount of denial right now in conservative religious circles about just how widespread the poison is, and how deeply they have drunk of it in recent decades. Some of us have left - and are now speaking out about about what we experienced and the damage we have sustained as a result of theological and cultural poison.

The ultimate problems go a lot deeper than just the lunatic fringe of conservatism, Evangelicalism, the homeschool movement, and Prepperism. The problems are more endemic. A belief in Authoritarianism, an opposition to tolerance of other viewpoints, a paranoia complex, a deep hatred for those outside the tribe, a pathological lack of empathy, and a willingness to accept delusion as a substitute for objective truth have so putrefied American white religion and white conservatism that it is nearly impossible to have a meaningful dialogue anymore. Looking back, the fact that otherwise intelligent and decent people like my parents actually approached the cliff of Prepperism and all that entails is worrisome. In fact, I can see now that there was a straight line from Prepperism (and the racial fears that fed it) to our embrace of Gothardism immediately thereafter. They were different facets of the same fears and hopes. The inability to engage with modern society, the unwillingness to face the consequences of centuries of white supremacy, and the desire to protect the next generation from the world as it actually exists, with all its complexity and messiness, the quest for certainty and formulaic answers.

Chris Stroop has written some great stuff lately about the “exvangelical” phenomenon - those of us who have left (white) Evangelicalism as we have realize just how toxic and hateful the theology, culture, and politics of that subculture truly is. One point he makes is one that is illustrated by Educated: no more will these various authoritarian religious subcultures be given a free pass. People like Tara Westover and others (including me) will be there to shine that uncomfortable light of truth on the toxicity and abusive nature of these philosophies. I know this had made people (including those in my extended family) deeply uncomfortable - but this is necessary. We can no longer afford to let this evil go unchallenged.

As we have seen all too often in the last few years, there are a lot of angry paranoid white guys with guns who see those outside their subculture to be a threat - and then go shoot people up. As the world continues to become more global and less white-dominated, I am concerned that this will accelerate - and it will be the Preppers and the adjacent subcultures all too willing to kill in the name of their delusions.

Prepperism and violence are just symptoms, however. The root cause has been a long time in the making. The need to theologically justify genocide, colonialism, conquest, slavery, segregation, and social darwinism has made it necessary to create and protect a theology which is wholly divorced from empathy, reason, and even reality itself. In that kind of environment, where paranoia, authoritarianism, and tribalism are cultivated, that kind of strange fruit will inevitably grow.  


There are two quotes from the book that I definitely want to mention. Westover is a good writer - she didn’t end up a Gates Scholar accidentally. I found these two particular insights to be perceptive.

These come when Tara is at Cambridge, and is discovering ideas that were considered evil anathema by her parents. One of these is Feminism - the early feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill.

“I read through the afternoon and into the evening, developing for the first time a vocabulary for the uneasiness I’d felt since childhood.”

In her case (as in my wife’s), she was a smart and strong female - and capable of making her own decisions - and even leading. And this was viewed as a defect within Patriarchy.

Going beyond the specifics of Feminism, however, I really resonated with her description of finding a vocabulary to describe her uneasiness. It has been a long deprogramming process for me since my Fundie days. As a first born who was so square my violin teacher teased me about it, I really wanted to make my parents happy. I tried so hard to believe as they did, and to embrace what they wanted for me. I am embarrassed by a lot of the things I said back then, and the things I convinced myself were truth. The uneasiness remained, though, and I pushed back in little ways since I couldn’t on the big ones. Looking back, I realize that much of my uneasiness was the result of doing violence to my better nature, trying to silence that part of me that doubted all women liked being wives and stay at home moms, or that poverty was the result of people having sex.

When I moved out and started exploring other viewpoints, discussing things with those dreaded “liberals,” and - this was a crucial step - working at Legal Aid assisting low income people - I started to find a vocabulary for my uneasiness. This process continued through marriage to a strong leader who happened to be a woman, parenthood of strong willed and skeptical children, and continued reading, of course.

This leads me to the next one, which I think encapsulates the problems I have outlined with the religious tradition I was raised in.

Westover describes learning about Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty. The book greatly simplifies the concepts (for obvious reasons - it isn’t a philosophical treatise), but she distills them down pretty well. We are all familiar with “negative liberty,” which is a freedom from external obstacles or restraints.

But positive liberty means a freedom from internal restraints. Specifically, as Westover describes the lecture she attended, “To have positive liberty is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions, and all other forms of self-coercion.”

These two concepts of liberty are both vitally important to understanding Fundamentalism and why it is such a force for evil in the world. As anyone who spent time in Dominionist circles knows, the goal is theocracy. Plain and simple. And the totalitarian power to eliminate the freedom to disagree with the Fundies. So Fundies most assuredly do not believe in external freedom for anyone else.

The other part is important too. The goal of all the isolation, the endless culture wars, the paranoia, the fears of outsiders, the whole edifice - is to prevent people from exercising positive liberty. From actually thinking for themselves and coming to their own conclusions rather than endlessly defending the theological edifice. Tara was specifically raised to guard her mind from any true inquiry or questioning of the dogma. And it is in this that I recognize my own upbringing the most. (This goes for a LOT of us ex-fundie homeschoolers, by the way. We were raised to be that Dominionist army - except we were given the tools to think for ourselves...and we did.) We were trained that we couldn’t trust our minds or our hearts - they were irredeemably evil - so we had to believe the dogma NO MATTER WHAT. Thus we were hardened against empathy - don’t trust your heart. We were hardened against reason and evidence - that was just worldly wisdom. We were hardened against listening to those outside our tribe - they were of the devil because they didn’t share our beliefs. We were hardened against listening to other Christians - we were the only ones with “true” doctrine. We were hardened against participating in our own culture - modernity was all of the devil, and the past was when people were truly “godly.” We were hardened against reality itself - only those of us with correct theology could understand reality correctly.

The problem is that reality doesn’t give a shit about your theology. Faced with reality, there are really only two choices. One can reimagine one’s theology in light of new information and understanding. Or one can, as Adam Savage says, “reject...reality and substitute your own.” As reality and modernity kept pushing ever harder, it became harder and harder to live in denial. Hence the increasing paranoia, denialism, tribalism - and the ever more draconian attempts to control the behavior - and thoughts - of the next generation. Charlatans like Gothard, Ken Ham, and David Barton, along with others, fed on this paranoia, denialism, and tribalism and sold it to my parents’ generation, who ate it up. Prepperism is just the most extreme expression of this. As is Trump - the inevitable result of the belief system. And thus, it what I hope is the last gasp of political power for white Evangelicals, they are doing their best to burn our democracy to the ground as they cling to power with bleeding fingernails.

Tara wavered between going back and leaving for good numerous times in this book. She finally knew, when her parents came out for their final “intervention” - the attempt to save her. She finally looked them in the eyes and said “I love you. But I can’t.”

I have been there a few times. I have looked over that cliff and felt the pull of gravity. At that point, the question has been, will the other person or faith tradition back away from the cliff? Or charge on over into oblivion? Ultimately, Tara and her parents remain estranged. And my family has left Evangelicalism for good. Denial of reality and ever more draconian attempts to isolate one’s family from it will eventually backfire in most cases, sooner or later. Educated is one of an increasing number of voices unmasking the disease that lies beneath the surface of these movements, and those voices will continue to increase as Millennials find their own voices. It’s time to listen.  

Monday, March 11, 2019

Poems Second Series by Emily Dickinson

Source of book: I own this.

Although I have been a used book shopper since childhood (it runs in the family), I didn’t spend my hard-earned money on a new book until my teens.

The very first new book I purchased myself was this one - a Courage Classics hardback edition of Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems. Dickinson was my first poetic love (followed immediately thereafter by Christina Rossetti.) I can even remember the first poem that spoke to me in that way - my first time, so to speak. It was Dickinson’s “The Bee,” contained in the poetry volume of The Junior Classics - a collection I still own. (Okay, I basically stole it from my parents…) That opening line, “Like trains of cars on tracks of plush” is still amazing. I believe I wrote something for a school assignment about it at one point. But anyway, I knew the moment I read it that I loved Dickinson and always would.

While I have read from this book many times before, I didn’t really start to sit down and systematically read through my poetry collection until 2010, when I started writing about my reading. I decided that the occasional browsing was nice enough, but too sporadic and unfocused to really plumb the depths of the poetic tradition. Since that time, my book pile on the nightstand has contained a volume of poetry, and most nights when I read, I start off with a few pages of poetry. Best of all are the evenings when the kids are in bed, and Amanda is either working, reading in the library, or knitting while streaming something. Because then I can read aloud and hear the cadence of the language roll off of me.

My particular collection of Dickinson is perhaps not the best. It follows the pattern of the early publications, and contains “the first four” of her collections as they were released. (First Series, Second Series, Third Series, and The Single Hound, plus her essays.) Unfortunately, it also follows the original editions in “fixing” her punctuation to match 19th Century standards. Thus, the dashes are replaced by boring commas and periods. I am not certain if the book contains all her poems or not, or how many are missing. But, it is a hardback, and must contain at least 500 or so poems - I haven’t yet found a poem that isn’t in there, so it may be complete. Also, it was affordable to a teen, and was in stock at the local independent bookstore. So I definitely do not regret getting it.

Each of the first three books are subdivided into sections: Life, Love, Nature, and Time and Eternity. Not all poems fit cleanly into these categories, of course, and I found a few that I thought would have fit better in other places. But blame Dickinson’s sister and later editors for the groupings. You can read my thoughts on the First Series of poems here.

Here are the poems which stood out to me most this time. It was difficult to narrow it down to this few, because so many are profound and meaningful to me. Throughout, I have used the numbering in my collection. Dickinson did not give her poems titles - those were supplied later. I have attempted to find versions online with the correct dashes wherever possible.

Life I.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

I have to wonder if Dr. Seuss had this in mind with Yertle the Turtle. While I am not quite as introverted as Dickinson, I share her dislike of celebrity.

This one is a bit of a gem. Every time I read it, I am struck with a renewed wonder at its depth of perception.

Life VI.

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,       
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practising sands.

Or how about this one:

Life IX.

I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,        
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!    

Power is only pain,        
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,—        
They ’ll carry him!

This one bears a bit of pondering. I’m not sure whether I agree or not - for me. Dickinson’s own experience is another thing altogether. But the idea that we can move impossible mountains - but not handle joy - has a certain deeper truth in it.

Life XXXV.

EACH life converges to some centre
Expressed or still;
Exists in every human nature
A goal,    

Admitted scarcely to itself, it may be,        
Too fair
For credibility’s temerity
To dare.    

Adored with caution, as a brittle heaven,
To reach        
Were hopeless as the rainbow’s raiment
To touch,    

Yet persevered toward, surer for the distance;
How high
Unto the saints’ slow diligence        
The sky!    

Ungained, it may be, by a life’s low venture,
But then,
Eternity enables the endeavoring

There are so many good things going on in this poem. The message, of course, is amazing. The language is evocative. But notice too the form. The odd lines all end with a feminine rhyme. The even lines (except for the second) consist of a single iamb. These lines are therefore emphasized, drawing out the key meaning from each couplet. The poet also chooses either four or five feet for the longer lines, and as far as I can tell, there is no specific pattern intended. The length, though, does dictate exactly how contrasting the short lines are, and thus how much emphasis they get when read aloud.

Moving on to the poems in the “Love” section, here is one which imagines marriage as a shockingly mutual transaction. Dickinson uses the language of commerce to describe what is so obviously not transactional. This is metaphor that rises to the level of a paradox.

Love IV.

I gave myself to him,
And took himself for pay.
The solemn contract of a life
Was ratified this way.    

The wealth might disappoint,        
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great purchaser suspect,
The daily own of Love    

Depreciate the vision;
But, till the merchant buy,     
Still fable, in the isles of spice,
The subtle cargoes lie.    

At least, ’t is mutual risk,—
Some found it mutual gain;
Sweet debt of Life,—each night to owe,        
Insolvent, every noon.

Not too bad for a woman who appears to have never had a romantic relationship - and indeed seemed ill at ease around other humans.

Dickinson’s nature poems have always thrilled me. She spent hours in her garden, and clearly had a keen eye for detail. Many of these struck me as quotable, but I had to pick just my favorites of this reading.

Nature XIII.

ONE of the ones that Midas touched,
Who failed to touch us all,
Was that confiding prodigal,
The blissful oriole.    

So drunk, he disavows it        
With badinage divine;
So dazzling, we mistake him
For an alighting mine.    

A pleader, a dissembler,
An epicure, a thief,—     
Betimes an oratorio,
An ecstasy in chief;    

The Jesuit of orchards,
He cheats as he enchants
Of an entire attar       
For his decamping wants.    

The splendor of a Burmah,
The meteor of birds,
Departing like a pageant
Of ballads and of bards.        

I never thought that Jason sought
For any golden fleece;
But then I am a rural man,
With thoughts that make for peace.    

But if there were a Jason,     
Tradition suffer me
Behold his lost emolument
Upon the apple-tree.

I don’t know exactly which species of oriole inspired this poem, but it fits both of the common species in my part of the world. Such as this Hooded Oriole I captured at Cesar Chavez National Monument.

“A Narrow Fellow In The Grass” is definitely one of Dickinson’s best known poems. For good reason, as it captures a moment so memorably.

Nature XXIV.

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides -
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is -

The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on -

He likes a Boggy Acre -  
A Floor too cool for Corn -
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone -

Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

One of the most memorable moments of my own life is the solar eclipse of 2017 - which the kids and I traveled to eastern Oregon to view. There is absolutely nothing like it, and I highly recommend seeing one if you possibly can. Dickinson wrote a total of four poems that mention eclipses. I was unable to determine if she ever saw one in person, but I did turn up an interesting connection. Mabel Loomis Todd is best known for editing and publishing Dickinson’s poems. But she was also a skilled science writer. Married to a philandering astronomer, she was well versed (and experienced) in eclipses - she wrote an entire book on them. (She also had a long affair with Dickinson’s brother, so that was how they came to know each other…) So, it is possible that Dickinson based her eclipse poems not on her own experience, but that of her friend. Whatever the case, I think that she captured something of the feel of an eclipse in this poem.

Nature XXXIV.

It sounded as if the Streets were running
And then - the Streets stood still -
Eclipse - was all we could see at the Window
And Awe - was all we could feel.

By and by - the boldest stole out of his Covert
To see if Time was there -
Nature was in an Opal Apron,
Mixing fresher Air.

The next poem describes a storm - I quote it here mostly for the fantastic description of lightning as a beak and a claw.

Nature XXXVII.

The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low,--
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.

The leaves unhooked themselves from trees
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road.

The wagons quickened on the streets,
The thunder hurried slow;
The lightning showed a yellow beak,
And then a livid claw.

The birds put up the bars to nests,
The cattle fled to barns;
There came one drop of giant rain,
And then, as if the hands

That held the dams had parted hold,
The waters wrecked the sky
But overlooked my father's house,
Just quartering a tree.

I want to end with a couple of the “Time and Eternity” poems. These too are usually excellent. Dickinson thought about death a lot, and had a rather agnostic view of eternity. I have heard the term used “The Big Perhaps,” which might be a less poetic version of “The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” but is a pretty good description nonetheless. Even for those of us who believe in an afterlife, those of us who think carefully and deeply have to admit that we have less certainty about this than we often pretend. Dickinson likewise left things pretty ambiguous in her poems. Which is one reason they feel so timeless. While she often alludes to eternity, more of her poems on death focus on those left behind, as in this gem.

Time and Eternity XIII.

DEATH sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly    

To ponder little workmanships        
In crayon or in wool,
With “This was last her fingers did,”
Industrious until    

The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,      
And then ’t was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.    

A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him,—        
At rest his fingers are.    

Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.

This last one is just fantastic. It is sure a vast distance from the pleasant and accessible nature poems. Between the unorthodox meter and the gothic language and the insight into our darkest selves, this is one reason that I keep returning to Dickinson. I almost don’t even want to comment further on it, so I will just leave it here. Enjoy.

Time and Eternity XXIX.

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.
Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—
Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.
The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

Friday, March 8, 2019

English Music by Peter Ackroyd

Source of book: I own this.

I have enough books in my library that I can’t always remember where I got them and when. This is such a book. My best guess is that I found it at a library sale at least five years ago. It is a Franklin Library hardback signed by the author - and it matches copies of Jurassic Park and The Lost World by Michael Crichton - so I am pretty sure I found them together. After all, it is hard to pass up a really nice hardback.

What I am less sure of is that I had any idea who Peter Ackroyd was when I got the book. I may have been vaguely aware of him, but he wasn’t on any of my reading lists. In any event, he is still living and writing, and is best known for having a wide variety of subjects and styles, from well respected biographies to fiction spanning a range of genres.

English Music is a somewhat unusual book. One could even argue that it is two books in one and that either part could stand alone.

The odd numbered chapters form one of the parts: they are a first person narrative by the protagonist, Timothy Harcombe, of his life. That part of the story is essentially a coming-of-age story as well as a tale of a boy and his complex relationship with his father. Clement Harcombe is a former circus performer turned faith healer, who has raised Timothy alone since birth - Timothy’s mother died in childbirth. Although the character has all the hallmarks of a charlatan, Clement actually does have the ability to heal - as long as he has Timothy to assist him. (It is never clear to the reader or to the characters exactly how much of the ability belongs to Clement and how much to Timothy - although it does seem that the two of them have to work together.) Timothy is taken from his father to go live with his maternal grandparents - and get a real education and grow up as a normal child. He ends up seeing his father again a few times during childhood and then as an adult - and eventually goes back to working with his father. Their both loving and dysfunctional relationship forms the core of the narrative - and it is clear that Timothy is torn between his two natures: his conventional aristocratic mother, and his self-taught bohemian father. These two natures are represented in a rather metaphorical way by the art which forms the second part of the book. Timothy’s father teaches him during his childhood using English literature. When he goes to live with his grandparents, he discovers his mother’s collection of classical music - primarily English composers. The author combines these traits in Timothy, and literature and music in what he calls “English Music,” which is really the entire art of the English people, from painting to music to literature to poetry.

The second part of the book is rather distinctive. The even numbered chapters represent dreams (or visions or hallucinations) that Timothy has during his unconscious spells which afflict him during times of stress. These dream sequences are told in the third person, who observes Timothy as he interacts with various representatives of “English Music.”

So, for example, in the first one, Timothy finds himself in a world which is a mashup of Pilgrim’s Progress and Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Yes, that is as odd as it sounds. Furthermore, Ackroyd writes these sequences in the style of those stories - and yes, Bunyan and Carroll mixed together does make for a bizarre style.

That is just one example. Other chapters feature Great Expectations, Robinson Crusoe, Morte d’Arthur, and Sherlock Holmes. The poetry of William Blake gets a chapter, as does the gallery of great English painters. William Hogarth gets a chapter to himself - a harrowing vision of Gin Alley and Bedlam. Composer William Byrd gets a chapter as well. There are other authors and books that get at least small references.

Ackroyd has been criticized for his choices in putting together his English pantheon. Women are barely mentioned (just George Eliot and Emily Bronte), and his idea that English art forms a single, coherent narrative is both a stretch and a bit jingoistic. On the other hand, you can tell Ackroyd loves the artists he selects, and is intimately familiar with their works. This isn’t just a greatest hits list, but an exploration of the artists that made Ackroyd who he is. I myself have mixed feelings about this, because I am an Anglophile myself. If I were to pick, I would say that English literature has been the most consistently influential and best written (on average) for the last 500 or so years. But of course, I am biased both because my native language is English, and I grew up immersed in the English language classics. Music and the visual arts, however, are different - England has a few distinguished names, but is hardly a leader in those areas.

As for the book itself, I thought it was good, but not great. The writing is excellent of course - Ackroyd is a craftsman of words. The dream interludes were quite interesting, whether or not you agree with his theory. I would go so far as to say that his ability to write “in the style of” is quite impressive - the poetry in particular is spot on. Where I felt it fell a bit flat was in the basic concept. The faith healing just feels kind of weird, as it is never given an explanation or a reason for existing. The book isn’t written like Magical Realism, and it has no other supernatural elements - or even the acknowledgement of any. We are just to assume that within an otherwise realistic book that two characters can heal people without knowing how they do it, or with any natural or supernatural explanation suggested. I also found Timothy to be annoyingly directionless. He never does seem to have any idea what he wants to do with his life. And that includes even in his old age. He never really does find himself or get beyond his tendency to expect that others will give his life direction. For that reason, it was difficult to warm up to him as a protagonist. I kept waiting for him to grow or discover something about himself. But it never really happens.

I am rather curious to read some more Ackroyd, however, because he is clearly a skilled writer, and his other books are apparently quite different from this one and from each other.


So, a few things from the book:

A number of paintings become part of the story. Here is one I particularly like, “Landscape With A Castle” by John Martin

William Byrd wrote nearly 500 works - a prodigious output to be sure - and also taught extensively. He is one of the few of his time to live long enough to see his works go out of style. In recent times, his music has been rediscovered. Here is a taste of his skill:

Although it doesn’t make it into the book, I figure I might link one of my favorite English composers, Ralph Vaughn Williams. This work is a bit more obscure, but it is one I have played - and it is quite fun.