Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tommy (Musical) - CSUB 2020

Right before California shut down most gatherings to shelter-in-place for Covid-19, we were able to attend CSUB’s production of Tommy. My eldest is a big classic rock fan, so we went together to see this. 

Written mostly by Pete Townshend, with contributions from Des McAnuff and the rest of the Who, Tommy is a rock opera that was originally an album centered on the song “Pinball Wizard.” It was adapted for stage in 1992, and that is the version we saw. 

The plot is a bit bizarre: young Tommy becomes deaf, blind, and dumb after witnessing his father (recently released from a POW camp) kill his mother’s lover after a fight. He remains unresponsive for years, until he turns out to be a pinball savant, playing entirely by feel. Later, his mother smashes the mirror in which Tommy saw the killing, and Tommy suddenly recovers his senses. He becomes a celebrity, but becomes disillusioned with the way his fans look to him as a spiritual leader, so he withdraws from public life to be with his family. 

College productions are a bit unpredictable, in part because the student talent varies from year to year. In general, CSUB has high production values, and often some great acting. The weakest part has typically been the dropoff from the best actors and singers to the lesser ones. In this case, this was apparent between the best singers and the ones that were in a bit over their heads. 

The good news is that the part of the adult Tommy was played by Natalie Love, who was excellent. Also outstanding in a bit part was Jan Mateo Tugab, with electrifying dance moves and solid singing. The overall ensemble was good, but a few of the singers tended to drift on pitch from time to time when singing alone. 

The live band was a real treat. Anchored by local pro and veteran of several outstanding local bands, drummer Cesario Garaza, the band was tight all night, well balanced, and energetic. For the most part, it was pros, not students - and that is how they sounded. For me, that was the best part. 

I also loved the creative set, which evoked a pinball machine. Whoever handles set design and construction at CSUB deserves major props for both creativity and craftsmanship - sets have been consistently great for years. 

It is sad right now that all theater in the state of California is shut down indefinitely, although I support the decision. I am looking forward to a return to normalcy, and will be out there supporting our local arts scene as usual. 

 CSUB needs more publicity photos - this is the only one I could find.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Journey From Peppermint Street by Meindert DeJong

Source of Book: I own this (and there is some history - see below.) 

Dutch-American author Meindert de Jong didn’t write that many books, but the ones he did write are absolute classics. 

With suddenly a lot more time at home (and with my wife picking up extra shifts in the ICU right now), I have taken over a lot more of the childcare, schooling (everything is distance learning now), and household duties. I realized that, while I read a lot to the kids when the older ones were younger, I kind of got away from it with the stuff we had to do for homework checking as they got older. Thus, my youngest has not had enough in the way of reading by dad. I decided this needed to be fixed. 

My copy looks a lot like this.

I suggested we read some Meindert de Jong, and the two younger ones picked this book. This was actually my first introduction to De Jong when I was perhaps a bit younger than Lillian - who is the age of the protagonist. We happened to own this book in a cheap paperback from the early 70s - which is still the copy I own, although it is disintegrating. Journey From Peppermint Street is De Jong’s last significant book, as far as I can tell, and I wonder if it might have an autobiographical element. It is set in De Jong’s birthplace, Wierum (Wierom in the book), as is his best known book, The Wheel on the School. The author’s family emigrated to the United States when he was age 8, a year younger than the 9 year old Siebren from the story. 

Journey From Peppermint Street is the story of an epic journey, taken by Siebren. His little brother, Knillis, is ill, has an itchy rash, and his parents are extra busy. So Siebren is stuck entertaining Knillis for hours. But things start to happen. The cap salesman gives Mother a tin of chocolates, which she gives to Siebren for his hard work. Knillis grabs the metal tin, and squeezes it over Siebren’s thumb, causing a deep gash. With blood everywhere, he vomits and faints, with everything a mess, when Grandpa shows up. 

Grandpa says that his sister Anna is deathly ill, so he is walking inland to pick up his other sister Hinka, so they can visit Anna before she passes. He asks if he can take Siebren, who can then meet his great aunt and great uncle - who is huge, and also deaf and dumb. Oh, and they live in an ancient monastery in the middle of a swamp. And they will be walking half the night to get there - and Siebren has never walked further than the next village over. 

Unsurprisingly, this is already epic in Siebren’s mind. Coming on top of a rather traumatic incident, he is already emotional, and everything seems larger than life. 

But things get even crazier before the end of the trip. He meets the kind Aal, who helps him button his pants (he can’t with his thumb.) He gets a giant black ball, which he names Satan, after...well, I guess that requires its own explanation. 

Grandpa, a church leader, has had a simmering feud with the Miller of Nes, over a trifling amount of money. He tells Siebren that the miller is a “handball of Satan,” who acts strangely. Ironically, Grandpa realizes he has been foolish, and makes up with the miller during the trip, but Siebren’s overactive imagination takes over, and he starts to think that he must be a handball of Satan, because his fears and imaginings swirl in his head. One of the fascinating things about this book is the way it peers into the head of a child who feels and thinks deeply. Siebren, between his age and the overwhelming events, swings wildly between fear, disappointment, ecstasy, and longing. His fatigue at the journey, his first night alone in a strange and scary place, his mental picture of people he has never met, and so on contribute to this turbulent state of mind. 

De Jong writes this rather fantastical inner journey in a way that spoke to me at age 8, and was surprising to re-read again for the first time as an adult. I can see why it seemed almost too strong to take at the time. Although I liked it (and re-read it), I ended up liking De Jong’s other books better as a kid. Ironically, although I can remember the basic plots for The Wheel on the School, The House of Sixty Fathers, and Along Came a Dog, I never forgot the emotional landscape of Journey From Peppermint Street. The throbbing thumb. The fear of being left alone in the dark marsh. The bed in the cold giant hall with an indoor well-cistern and a frog, the huge uncle who turns out to be a witty and gentle giant, the tornado which nearly kills him. And, of course, the way the giant black ball becomes a metaphor for Siebren’s inner battles. 

It is fascinating to watch Siebren navigate his feelings about adults. Grandpa, while familiar, is distant - this is Siebren’s first time alone with just him. Grandpa is prickly but kind, encouraging but impatient, and - even by my standards - a bit optimistic about how far and late a small kid can hike. (The kids and I hike ~120 miles a year together, and have since they were little. But never until nearly midnight, and without some training first.) 

Pretty much every other character they meet after leaving Siebren’s home is a stranger to him. Who is kind? Who doesn’t even notice he is there? Is the miller truly malevolent? 

For the most part, the people he meets are just ordinary people. Although Great Aunt Hinka and Great Uncle Siebren are the best possible people - they don’t talk down to him, but expect that he can discuss serious and deep topics. Which is precisely what he needs at the time. It just isn’t the same with parents, particularly ones exhausted by work and a demanding toddler. Siebren finds exactly what he needs at that time. 

There are other fun things in the book which my kids enjoyed just as I had. The bullfrog who lives in the cistern, Vrosk. (Which is really the perfect onomatopoeic name for a frog.) The giant pike with its sharp teeth and tricky bones. The secret passage under the monastery. The swamp at night. The dessicated rat that died years before of hunger and thirst. The giant symbolic ball. 

The book was as good as I remembered it, and I am glad that the kids found it interesting as well. 


Interesting historical note:

It had been so long since I had read this, that I had entirely forgotten where it came from. On the first inside page is a stamp, reading, “Harbor House, 2728 E. 10th St., Oakland, CA, 94601.”

As I mentioned when I wrote about There There by Tommy Orange, my late maternal grandparents lived in Oakland until I was about age 8. They ran a ministry of some sort (they were previously missionaries to Mexico, where my mom was born) called Harbor House. My memories of Oakland are both vivid and shaky, because of my age. We used to visit a few times a year from when I was 4, until they retired and moved to Oregon. At first, they lived in part of the upper portion of the “up and down” place at the address above. Then, they lived in the lower portion of a similar house a block or so away. (I thought it was in the 70th St. range, but apparently it was the 10th St. East area instead. Cut me some slack - I was all of 8 at the oldest.) 

Here is the place, as it looked as of the most recent Google Maps picture. Harbor House itself is clearly defunct, as I could not find any trace on the internet, but the house is still there. We used to have church services in Spanish behind that bay window on top, in that big room. I remember Christmas there too, with the ghastly eggnog and ginger ale “punch” they used to make. (The good food all came from my dad’s side of the family - a “Christmas Ham” was literally a canned ham with cloves stuck in it. And dead vegetables.) 

I am guessing that the book was donated to Harbor House for its library for the children of Latino immigrants to borrow. When my grandparents retired, I imagine the library was disbursed, and we got a few books. It was weird to open the book and suddenly have that flood of memories. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

My relationship with Theodore Roosevelt is a bit complicated. His legacy, after all, is complicated. On a personal level, I identified a little with him from the first time I read a kids’ biography of him. We both were sickly kids who worked to become stronger through exercise and outdoor activity. Even today, I have a bit of a “damn the torpedos” approach to life. If I waited until I had no allergies to do things, for example, I’d never get out. I am not, however, reckless, which TR tended to be. 

Likewise, his public legacy is complicated. There is no doubt that he was prejudiced, particularly as a young man. His statements about Indigenous people are painfully awful. (Although, to be fair, there is evidence that he changed his mind about the worst of his beliefs as he got older - something rather the opposite from my experience with a lot of my parents’ generation, who seem to have gotten increasingly xenophobic over the last decade.) He was, alas, a product of his time, an era in which the supremacy of white people was taken for granted by most white people around the world. 

There were some good parts to his legacy, however. His distrust of big business led to the first real regulations on corporations and trusts - he is correctly considered the founder of the Progressive movement in the United States. In fact, while he was generally liked by conservatives during my childhood, as the American Right has veered strongly to the far right, he is now being disowned as a “communist” by a surprising number of people I know on the Right. These days, seeking the common good is controversial, it seems. For his time, TR was a reformer, and many of his ideas remain core parts of the progressive legacy. 

One thing that remains true about him is that those who knew and worked with him generally respected and liked him. As the book points out, in person he was a tremendously hard worker, generous with everyone, full of good humor, and self-sacrificing as a leader. And that goes for how he treated least powerful people as much as the best. The native Brazilians who did much of the hard labor during the trip this book describes were assisted by TR and his son Kermit, and TR gave away his own food, often to his own detriment. So, again, a complex, imperfect person, but someone who genuinely tried to be moral and generous. 

The River of Doubt is the story of a lesser-known escapade in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. As is better known, Roosevelt left office after a term and a half as president (he took over when William McKinley was assassinated), assuming that President Taft would continue the progressive agenda. When Taft instead started supporting corporate interests, TR was furious, founded his own political party (the Progressive Party, colloquially called the “Bull Moose” party after its founder.) This, unfortunately for TR, was a failure. He took a bullet, making a speech with the bullet still in his body (dude was a badass), but failed to win. With a split vote, Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats won the election. 

Nursing his bruised pride, TR decided to do what he usually did after a disappointment: find an adventure. What started as a tour of South America with a little moderate river exploration thrown in turned into an attempt to map an unknown and dangerous tributary of the Amazon. At age 55, no less.

The way all this came about is a bit of a shitshow of incompetence. Roosevelt was in contact with Father Zahm, a bit of an amateur naturalist who wanted to explore. Zahm enlisted Anthony Fiala, whose big claim to fame was nearly dying along with his expedition to the Arctic - in part due to Fiala’s disastrously incompetent leadership - to plan their supplies. This probably would not have been a big deal had they stuck with the original plan. A cruise of a known Amazon tributary to collect biological specimens would have been easy enough to accomplish, and the often bizarre packing decisions made by Fiala would have been merely amusing rather than life-threatening. 

Instead, the government of Brazil suggested that TR join Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon (perhaps the rare person even more badass than TR) in exploring and mapping the River of Doubt, an unknown river believed to drain to the Amazon via the Aripuana and the Madeira rivers. 

 Partway down, after the drowning of one of their number. I am not certain who the two on the left are, but from there (l-r):
Theodore Roosevelt, Candido Rondon, Kermit Roosevelt.

Even to get there required hundreds of miles of travel on land (with dirt tracks as the only road), followed by the descent of the river in dugout canoes. During the land transit, it became clear that supplies were grossly inadequate. As a result, the party was split in two, with Zahm and Fiala, among others, sent to descend a known - and much easier - river. It was left to Rondon, TR, his son Kermit, and 16 others to attempt the River of Doubt. (Now renamed the Roosevelt River.) 

After a few days, it became obvious that the dugouts were far from ideal, and would not be able to safely traverse rapids. Thus, portages were made necessary. This slowed everything down, and left the party badly short on food. It was by a combination of luck and grit that they made it out at all. By the end, one man had drowned, one had been murdered (and the murderer abandoned to the jungle), everyone except Rondon was gravely ill with malaria, dysentery, or something else, and TR was near death with both malaria and an infected leg. 

One could say, I suppose, that the expedition was a “success” in the sense that they made it out with most of them alive, and the river mapped. On the other, it was a disaster, and but for some really good luck (and the fact that the native peoples decided to leave them alone), it would have been deadly for all involved. 

For Roosevelt, it was particularly catastrophic in the long run. In an era before antibiotics, he never fully recovered from his illness, and was dead in less than five years later. Kermit, too, seemed haunted by the experience and the early death of his father, and struggled with depression and alcoholism for years afterward, before committing suicide during deployment in World War II. 

[Side note here: this is Kermit Sr. The legacy of Kermit Jr. is problematic for rather different reasons. He was the “mastermind” behind the CIA-engineered coup that destroyed moderate democracy in Iran. That’s a mistake that we are still paying for today.]  

In a weird twist of fate, Roosevelt returned from his trip to accusations that he had faked the whole thing - from respected naturalists and explorers, no less. So, barely able to walk and speak, the still ill TR made a series of presentations on the trip. These did serve to restore his reputation, but probably contributed to further ill health. 

Later, in 1927, George Miller Dyott settled things for good, when he made the trip himself and confirmed that Roosevelt and Rondon’s descriptions of plants, animals, and geographic features were indeed accurate. In 1992, a third expedition further confirmed the accuracy - and shot all but one of the rapids using modern equipment. 

This is the second book I have read by Candice Millard. (The first was The Destiny ofthe Republic, about the assassination of President Garfield - also a good read.) I like Millard’s writing. She avoids hagiography, presenting the complexities of the politics and culture of the time. Both books draw heavily from primary sources, but are written in a compelling prose style that makes them hard to put down. In both books, she presents the less heroic episodes in the lives of her subjects, which makes for an interesting look at complex figures. 

I figured I would end with a mention of the speech that Roosevelt gave after being shot, because it is phenomenal. You can read the whole thing here. In it, he lays out the case for progressivism. 

“Our creed is one that bids to be just to all, to feel sympathy for all, and to strive for an understanding of the needs of all. Our purpose is to smite down wrong.”

Roosevelt correctly notes that when the poor suffer, society is at risk. At risk of violent revolution, at a minimum. And this needed to be prevented now, by enacting legislation that addressed inequality and oppressive employment practices. 

“Now, friends, what we who are in this movement are endeavoring to do is to forestall any such movement by making this a movement for justice now - a movement in which we ask all just men of generous hearts to join with the men who feel in their souls that lift upward which bids them refuse to be satisfied themselves while their countrymen and countrywomen suffer from avoidable misery.”

The speech is pro-union. It is pro-regulation. It vehemently opposes child labor and long work hours for the most vulnerable (he specifically mentions 16-hour days for female industrial workers.) It calls for a uniform Federal policy to prevent states having a “race to the bottom” in terms of regulation. It addresses policy without making personal attacks. 

And it would be considered flaming Communist propaganda by today’s GOP. 

Times have changed. The GOP of Eisenhower is in many ways to the left of the Democratic party today. And the GOP is...not conservative at all. It is radically reactionary, viciously social darwinist, and on the payroll of the plutocrats. Historian Heather Cox Richardson lays it out pretty well here. And now we get to 2020, and we are literally hearing that the hoi polloi should be willing to sacrifice millions of their lives to keep the stock market high. Roosevelt was right: unless significant changes are made, this will not end well. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Source of book: I own this

My first choice for Umberto Eco was originally The Name of the Rose. However, my wife found this for next to nothing at a library sale (or maybe on the discard shelf?) So, it was a convenient choice. 

This book is rather on the long side - 641 pages in my edition. For me, that isn’t that long, as books by Anthony Trollope and Henry James tend to run at least 800. So I am used to reading long books. So believe me when I say:

This book is too damn long. 

I think it would have been a great book at one-third the length. So much of the book seems unnecessary and deadly boring, even if it relates to the plot and theme of the book. Let me explain. 

[Spoiler Warning]

Here is the basic plot. Three friends, Belbo, Diotellevi, and Casaubon (the narrator) work for a vanity press company. As part of their work, they screen books by self-funded authors relating to the constellation of conspiracy theories surrounding the Knights Templar. Casaubon wrote a thesis on the Templars back in college, while Diotellevi is a Cabalist. Between the three of them, they go rather down the rabbit hole of interlocking theories. Eventually, they decide to write the mother of all conspiracy theory books, by finding ludicrous connections and metaphors between all kinds of nonsense - literally from ancient history to Mickey Mouse. To assist them, they use Belbo’s computer (this was in the 1980s) to randomly re-assort phrases they feed into it. The result is a bunch of pseudo-profound and utterly ridiculous blither. 

But the problem is, people start believing it. Maybe even the three friends. And eventually, the belief that the three are in reality holding the great secret of the Templars for world domination turns deadly. 

I avoided spoiling all of the ending, but that is in fact most of the plot. The majority of the book is a mess of interconnected conspiracy theories. It starts out well enough, with a history of the Templars, and then the Rosicrucians, and then...well it really goes down the rabbit hole. Anthony Burgess said that the book contained so many esoteric references to alchemy, the kabbalah, and conspiracy theories, that it needed an index. 

To give a feel for the book, it starts with a teaser of the scene near the very end (Casaubon hiding in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, waiting for...something connected with the Foucault Pendulum.) Then we dive into Casaubon’s attempts (eventually successful) to get into the missing Belbo’s computer, then another 90 pages or so of Templar history and theories. It isn’t until a hundred pages in that we actually get to start the story itself and figure out what the heck is going on. And then, after a short bit of plot, where a mysterious Colonel Ardenti claims to have a document with the secret to the Templars, then disappears, suddenly we are in...Brazil, where Casaubon goes chasing a woman he falls in love with. A few years there, and they meet a nut-job, Aglie  who seems to believe he is the Count of St.-Germain (still living hundreds of years later), who leads Casaubon down another series of rabbit trails. Oh, and a weird Afro-Brazillian occult ceremony and more theories. And then, Casaubon breaks up with the woman and goes back to Italy. And now, we are past the halfway point of the book, having spent maybe 30 pages on plot and the rest on conspiracies. 

 The Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles
This was the first one I ever saw, and I still remember it.

Once you get to about page 400, the plot finally starts to move somewhere. Over the final 240 pages, the ratio of plot to conspiracy theories is about 1:2, which is, believe it or not, a real improvement. The ending is pretty exciting, actually, and there are some great moments in that second half. So I am glad I stuck with it. But I really don’t think I remember all that much of the Templar stuff - and have no interest in trying to figure it out. 

Anyway, these quotes will give a bit of the flavor. First is Casaubon’s description of the Templars early in the book. 

“Hughes and the original eight others were probably idealists caught up in the mystique of the Crusade. But later recruits were most likely younger sons seeking adventure. Remember, the new kingdom of Jerusalem was sort of the California of the day, the place you went to make your fortune. Prospects at home were not great, and some of the knights may have been on the run for one reason or another. I think of it as a kind of Foreign Legion. What do you do if you’re in trouble? You join the Templars, see the world, have some fun, do some fighting. They feed you and clothe you, and in the end, as a bonus, you save your soul.”

This, of course, was before things got crazy. (Also, this is page 80, and we are still back on the actual history of the Templars.) I should also mention a deliciously snarky remark by Belbo. Casaubon has mentioned that things got uncomfortable after the Crusades, because soldiers do not easily return to civilian life - particularly as a priestly order. From sleeping with the plundered women to celibacy? Anyway:

“From prohibitions you can tell what people normally do,” Belbo said. “It’s a way of drawing a picture of daily life.” 

Another fascinating insight comes from, of all people, Aglie, describing the Brazilian fish market and the mashup of all these religious and occult symbols. 

“This,” Aglie said, “is the very image of what the ethnology textbooks call Brazilian syncretism. An ugly word, in the official view. But in its loftiest sense, syncretism is the acknowledgement that a single Tradition runs through and nurtures all religion, all learning, all philosophy. The wise man does not discriminate; he gathers together all the shreds of light, from wherever they may come…”
One of my epiphanies of the last few years is that ALL religion, past and present, is syncretistic. There is no such thing as “pure” revealed religion. It has always borrowed from the culture in which it exists, for good or ill. While it is an oversimplification to say that there is a single tradition, Aglie is to a certain degree correct. What runs through all religion, learning, and philosophy is humanity. We are all human, and thus have more in common than different. It is therefore unsurprising to find so much religious commonality. Unlike Aglie, I don’t think there is a single conspiracy involving the Templars, of course. 

One of the subplots of the book is the gradual revelation of Belbo’s childhood, growing up in a small village during World War Two, when his fellow residents were caught between the Fascists and the partisan rebels. How to stay alive and “normal” is a fine dance. There is an exchange between Belbo’s uncle, and Mongo, the rebel leader, which is revealing. 

Mongo said then, “You see, Cavalier, it’s this way, Major: we were informed that you collect taxes for the Fascist government that toadies to the invaders.” “You see, Commander,” Uncle Carlo said, “it’s this way: I have a family and receive a salary from the government, and the government is what it is; I didn’t choose it, and what would you have done in my place?” “My dear Major,” Mongo replied, “in your place, I’d have done what you did, but try at least to collect the taxes slowly; take your time.” “I’ll see what I can do,” Uncle Carlo said. “I have nothing against you men; you, too, are sons of Italy and valiant fighters.” They understood each other, because they both thought of Fatherland with a capital F. 

Eco too grew up under Fascism, and is one of the most perceptive writers about the subject. (See note at the end.) Fascism and Nazism are not synonymous. Nazism is Fascist, but not all Fascists are Nazis. For Italy, it was more complicated. Mussolini wasn’t Hitler. While Italy was complicit, it did not invent the “final solution,” and was no more anti-Semitic than, say, England. 

Around this time, Aglie shows up in Italy, and kind of worms his way in with Belbo’s girlfriend, kind of like he did in Brazil to Casaubon’s girl. He gives her some kind of line about how she is Sophia, the female part of God, and…(I don’t really understand all of that)...but she has this fun line about it. 

“How nice! Does he give that line to all the girls?”
“No, stupid, just to me, because he understands me better than you do. He doesn’t try to create me in his image. He understands I have to be allowed to live my life in my own way. And that’s what Sophia did; she flung herself into making the world. She came up against primordial matter, which was disgusting, probably because it didn’t use a deodorant. And then, I think, she accidentally created the Demi -- how do you say it?”
“You mean the Demiurge?”

Lorenza is a minor character, and seems to exist mostly to be part of the love triangle. Casaubon’s girlfriend (and later baby-mama) Lia, on the other hand, is pretty much the only sane character in the book. She tries on several occasions to talk Casaubon back from the cliff, so to speak. The extended passage in chapter 63 is way too long to quote, but she gives Casaubon a brilliant lecture on how the supposed magic numbers of numerology derive naturally from the body, and from nature. 

Another tour-de-force is the section where Belbo, on a dare from Casaubon, creates a whole argument that the automobile powertrain is a metaphor for the Tree of Life. It’s impressive. And laugh-out-loud ludicrous. I mean, it makes exactly zero sense. But it makes sense within the context of the ridiculous stuff the three are coming up with. This is the strong part of the book: the way Eco taps into the real psychodynamics of conspiracy theories. 

But whatever the rhythm was, luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections -- always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else. . . .

One of the things that they start doing is finding things that have the initials “R. C.” - for Rosicrucians. For instance, Raymond Chandler and Rick of Casablanca. Hey, that reminds me of an R.E.M. song: 


 Lenny Bruce is NOT afraid....

That this was unhealthy was something they knew, but refused to admit. 

When we traded the results of our fantasies, it seemed to us -- and rightly -- that we had proceeded by unwarranted associations, by shortcuts so extraordinary that, if anyone had accused us of really believing them, we would have been ashamed. We consoled ourselves with the realization -- unspoken, now, respecting the etiquette of irony -- that we were parodying the logic of our Diabolicals. But during the long intervals in which each of us collected evidence to produce at the plenary meetings, and with the clear conscience of those who accumulate material for a medley of burlesques, our brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until we did it automatically, out of habit. I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing. 

This has a way of happening with any ideology, whether that of Communism or Objectivism. The line between parody and true faith is beyond blurry. 

But all of us were losing that intellectual light that allows you always to tell the similar from the identical, the metaphorical from the real.

And that quote in particular struck me as descriptive of Evangelical theology, which has been so divorced from reality that it can no longer make those distinctions, particularly in its own scripture. 

Once the three bring the Jesuits into things, they have an issue: the Jesuits appear to have been the Templar’s biggest enemies. In coming up with a possible explanation, Casaubon stumbles upon a really interesting idea:

The Jesuits knew that if you want to confound your enemies, the best technique is to create clandestine sects, wait for dangerous enthusiasms to precipitate, then arrest them all. In other words, if you fear a plot, organize one yourself; that way, all those who join it come under your control.

The problem for the three is that they actually have managed to do this -- people are believing their hogwash. Lia finally tells Casaubon off, and she is right. 

Your plan isn’t poetic, it’s grotesque. People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer. With Homer, the burning of Troy became something that it never was and never will be, and yet the Iliad endures, full of meaning, because it’s all clear, limpid. Your Rosicrucian manifestoes are neither clear nor limid; they’re mud, hot air, and promises. This is why so many people have tried to make them come true, each finding in them what he wants to find. In Homer, there’s no secret, but your plan is full of secrets, full of contradictions. For that reason you could find thousands of insecure people ready to identify with it. Throw the whole thing out. Homer wasn’t faking, but you three have been faking. Beware of faking: people will believe you. People believe those who sell lotions that make lost hair grow back. They sense instinctively that the salesman is putting together truths that don’t go together, that he’s not being logical, that he’s not speaking in good faith. But they’ve been told that God is mysterious, unfathomable, so to them incoherence is the closest thing to God. The farfetched is the closest thing to a miracle. You’ve invented hair oil. I don’t like it. It’s a nasty joke. 

It’s a nasty joke with consequences. In real life, this happens too. I am thinking particularly of “Pizzagate,” which came damn close to getting innocent people killed. Or the whole Trump presidency, built on racist and xenophobic conspiracy theories, which have gotten a whole lot of brown-skinned people killed. Think about just the last couple of weeks, with the claim that Covid-19 was somehow a Chinese/Democrat conspiracy to remove Trump from office. That would require the entire rest of the world lying, which is ludicrous. But once you already live in the psychological place where incoherence is proof of truth, that’s where you end up. This is one reason why I consider most of the clergy in this country guilty of gross spiritual malpractice, for feeding conspiratorial thinking, painting science as the enemy, and turning people who are different from them into enemies out to get them. It isn’t funny. And the consequences have been dire. 

Anyway, that’s my take on this book. When it is good, it is great. But it is way too long with too many rabbit trails - you really do need an index. I am glad I stuck with it, though. 


Umberto Eco and Fascism:

One of the best long articles I have ever read is Eco’s 1995 article for the New York Review of Books, “Ur-Fascism.” Because Fascism takes different forms around the world, it helpful to see what the Fascism of Hitler and Pinochet, Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsanaro, have in common. It is also a prescient predictor of the rise of Trump. And yes, Trump is a textbook Ur-Fascist. 

It was this article that, when I read it several years back, convinced me that white Evangelicalism in America is proto-Fascist in a number of disturbing ways, starting with their idolatry of a mythical past and their need to believe in dire enemies foreign and domestic. And also their obsession with doctrinal and sexual “purity.” The single greatest reason that Trump appealed so deeply to white Evangelicals is that he spoke the Ur-Fascist language that they already built into their doctrine and psyches. (If you don’t think that Trump uniquely appeals to them, look at the way they lined up to defend him during the impeachment proceedings - they could have had Pence, supposedly their sort of candidate: genuinely devout, conservative, and so on. But what Trump has that Pence will never have, is the ability to speak Ur-Fascism.) 

 In a sense, Foucault’s Pendulum is an extended riff on Fascism and its psychological roots. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

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. Daisy Jones and the Six is definitely one of those books I had no idea existed, and likely would never have decided to read. Let me say at the outset that this book wasn’t really my cup of tea. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t my kind of book. 

The basic idea of the book is that it is a rock mockumentary. It’s a book about a fictional rock band (that kind of sort of resembles Fleetwood Mac, maybe?) I think Reid’s point is to write a book that looks at the rock and roll lifestyle from a more female perspective, and the book sort of does that. But I have to wonder why it had to be a fake band rather than a real one. I found it hard to get interested in or invested in the characters, because they and their songs didn’t actually, you know, exist. 

The usual rock biography stuff is in there. The band members sleeping with each other. Lots of booze and drugs. All night songwriting sessions. Drama. Lots and lots of drama. It’s stuff that you expect. 

It might have been one thing if the characters were somehow unique or compelling (as in the case of The Air You Breathe), but they really felt like stereotypes of particular rock stars. Or perhaps like real rock stars who had the identifying details removed. 

On the more positive side, Reid did a good job at keeping the voices of each character distinct - and their stories straight. After all, each has a different perspective and memory of events. 

One thing our group agreed was a significant misstep was the twist at the end: (spoiler alert!) the “author” of the story is the daughter of the male lead singer. The problem with this is that there seems to be no freaking way that the characters would actually be open her - particularly her parents. I mean, who tells their kid about all the sex and drugs in that kind of detail? Or spills their guts about their problems with their spouse? It seems implausible. And unnecessary to the story. 

My wife also noted that despite the lurid details, the language itself was rather naive. Not really much cussing. 

Overall, not the best book we have read, although diverting in its way. 


Due to Covid-19, this was our first book club discussion via Zoom.  While not as good as an in-person meeting, it worked, and helped keep us all from feeling isolated. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I’m not even sure exactly how this one got on my list. But I guess that is what happens when you have something like 300 books on your list that have accumulated over the course of nearly ten years from a variety of sources.

Kitchen is the first novel by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto), written in 1988. It is a fairly short novella, delightfully compact, and achingly bittersweet. Paired with this, in the English translation from 1993, is Yoshimoto’s debut short story, “Moonlight Shadow,” which is also lovely. 

Both the novel and the short story are about grief, loss, and love. In each case, the narrator, a young woman starting out in the world, loses a person close to her, and then must navigate both the trauma of the loss and complicated feelings of love. 

In Kitchen, Mikage Sakurai already lost both parents when she was very young. She was raised by her grandmother, who dies early in the story. She is essentially taken in by a friend and his mother. Except that this is no ordinary family. Yuichi Tanabe is a pretty normal young man, but his situation is unusual. His mother died of cancer a number of years back. After that, his father came to terms with his gender identity, and now lives as a woman. (Sorry about the pronouns, I couldn’t make it make sense otherwise.) So, as Yuichi says, “I’d never lived with anyone but Eriko, she was my mother, my father. Because she was always just Eriko.” 

Eriko is a kind person, with a sense of humor, and takes in Mikage as part of the family. Eventually, Mikage gets a job as a chef (hence the name), and moves out. It is devastating when she learns that Eriko has been murdered by someone who resents his attraction to a transgender woman. 

Both Mikage and Yuichi are devastated, but unsure how to grieve, how to process things. And, to top it off, they are in love with each other, but can’t even admit it to themselves. 

The high point of the novel is a midnight delivery of katsudon as a declaration of love. It’s a fantastic scene, deliciously written. 

The book is so self-contained, so delicately written, it’s a polished gem. It feels very Japanese to me, although I’m probably not much of an expert on that. The emotions are handled with care, with perception, and with grace. It really is a lovely read. 

I want to mention a couple more lines. After Eriko’s death, Mikage comes over to Yuichi’s house, and sends him out with a shopping list so she can cook for him. (That’s both her coping mechanism and part of her bond with Eriko.) 

I heard the door close, and when I was alone I realized I was dead tired. The room was so unearthly quiet, I lost all sense of time being divided into seconds. I felt that I was the only person alive and moving in a world brought to a stop. 
Houses always feel like that after someone has died. 

 And then this one, a reflection by Mikage about her co-workers and their lives. 

Those women lived their lives happily. They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing. But therefore they could never know real joy. Which is better? Who can say? Everyone lives the way she knows best. What I mean by “their happiness” is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. That’s not a bad thing. Dressed in their aprons, their smiling faces like flowers, learning to cook, absorbed in their little troubles and perplexities, they fall in love and marry. I think that’s great. I wouldn’t mind that kind of life. Me, when I’m utterly exhausted by it all, when my skin breaks out, on those lonely evenings when I call my friends again and again and nobody’s home, then I despise my own life -- my birth, my upbringing, everything. I feel only regret for the whole thing. 

The catharsis of the ending feels so gratifying because of these earlier moments of raw grief and existential despair. 

“Moonlight Shadow” is a bit different, although it starts with a loss. Satsuki is reeling from the death of her long-time boyfriend. He died in a car crash along with his brother’s girlfriend. (Nothing scandalous about it - he was just giving her a ride.) Satsuki and the brother, Hiiragi, deal with their grief in different ways. Hiiragi wears his girlfriend’s school uniform everywhere. Satsuki takes up running (and probably anorexia as well.) Things change when Satsuki meets a mysterious woman, Urara, at the bridge where she and her boyfriend used to meet. Urara brings her to the bridge again at a certain time where they see a mystical phenomenon, and Urara, Hiiragi, and Satsuki are able to say goodbye to their beloveds. It isn’t as deep (or nearly as long) as Kitchen, but it shares the polished, bittersweet loveliness. It is possible, perhaps, to see “Moonlight Shadow” as a first draft of the themes which Kitchen would explore in more detail. 

I very much enjoyed this book, and can definitely recommend it as worth the time. Only a handful of Banana Yoshimoto’s books have been translated into English, but I may have to seek them out.