Thursday, November 15, 2018

On "The End of the World and Karate" by Al Dixon (1947 words) ****

What I like so much about this strange little story is the seeming randomness of it and the attitude the characters convey to one another. Sure, it's a story in which nothing much seems to be happening, but then there's this whole talk of UFOs and of Kenny the foot stomper and of highjackers--one never knows where the story is going to go. Read it here at Hobart.

On "From Philo to Origen" by Robert M. Berchman **

This book is little more than a photostat of a dissertation. As such, it's double-spaced and shrunk down to fit a six-by-nine binding, which makes for difficult reading. That's too bad in some ways, as what Berchman has to say is important and useful. As the title suggests, Berchman traces through the influence of Plato from Philo to Origen, in the period known as Middle Platonism, one in which both the Jewish religion and the Christian were coming into being. Alas, it is not a book for casual readers or even mainstream readers; that one is still to be written. This is one for the scholars, preferably ones who know Greek and Latin, since Berchman often quotes from the vernacular without translation.

I would split the book into three main parts, with the first two being split into three parts each and the last part being split into two. The first section discusses conceptions of God, first in Philo, then in Clement of Alexandria, and finally in Origen. The gist of it is that all three, to some extent, apply Platonic ideas to Biblical concepts and to their beliefs about who God is and how his creation came about. Most pertinent here is Philo's dialogue Timaeus. God the Father, as First Principle, has no direct contact with the physical; his Logos, his reason and mind, is begotten and creates the things of physical substance. Or something like that. This was not easy reading.

The second section discusses ideas about knowledge--again in Philo, Clement, and Origen. The basic premise is that they write in Scripture as the ultimate form of knowledge, which goes beyond that which can be gained by physical senses to that which is the mind of God. Another short section discusses rhetoric--and how their use of it was Platonic.

Finally, the last section of the book provides a long excerpt from Origen's Periarchon, after which the author analyzes it to show how Origen is actually arguing against Stoic concepts of knowledge and of God in favor of Platonic concepts, as based within scripture.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

On "The Moon-Bog" by H. P. Lovecraft (3421 words) ****

This is what happens when a man named Denys Bary decides that the legends about an Irish bog are poppycock and in the name of progress and development decides to drain it. Campfire legends are made of this stuff. Read the story here.

On "Philo's Alexandria" by Dorothy Sly ****

This highly accessible book about Alexandria in the first century of the Common Era focuses on Philo's observations about the city and how those speak to both his thoughts and to the character of the city itself. It is, in equal ways, about each.

Philo was a Jewish philosopher/thinker of the time who was also heavily influenced by the Greek culture around him. In many ways, he was focused on proving Hebrew culture as every bit the equal of Greek culture if not superior to it, making such well-bandied (at the time) claims as that much of Greek philosophy stemmed from Mosaic law and custom or from a common divine source.

Sly is a feminist whose previous work focused on Philo's beliefs about women, and that finds a lot of emphasis here. Women don't fare well in Philo's texts, since he believes they are inferior to men and should largely be confined to the private arena. It is when they take a hand in politics or try to influence men that history goes awry, in Philo's view. He writes badly women like Cleopatra who have much to do with the social order.

Various chapters deal with Alexandria's marketplace, medicine, politics, and history.

About the only misstep in the book is that Sly chooses to end the book with the account of the Jewish pogrom of 38 and chooses to start it with a paraphrasing of Philo's thought, writing as if she were Philo. Ending the book as she does is not necessarily wrong, but it might have been a more compelling opening; the paraphrase, at least for me, seemed to drop us into the realm of fiction and made me at first rue choosing this book as one about these two subjects.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

On "Two Men" by Denis Johnson (3569 words) *****

Seemingly random, this story follows a set of druggies as they pick up a hitchhiker, try to get him home, realize that they do not know what they are doing, and then ends up somewhere more sinister than one could ever imagine at the start. And that's just the first man! Read the story here at the Short Story Project.

On "From Logos to Trinity" by Marian Hillar ***

Hillar traces the origins and history of the Christian concept of the Trinity. The work focuses first on Greek concepts of the term "Logos," then on Hebrew concepts of Wisdom and of the Messiah. The two ideas find unity in Philo, who was heavily influenced by both Hellenism and the Hebrew scriptures and who sought to claim that Hebrews actually anticipated and "taught" the Greeks philosophy. It is Philo, Hillar sees, as bringing Platonic ideas to the Jewish God. Justin Martyr builds on Philo, though he does not yet introduce the full-fledged trinity. That role belongs to Tertullian. In the appendix, Hillar summarizes the findings and then focuses on Egyptian concepts of God as being the first Mediterranean culture to come up with the idea of a uniplural god in three and likely the origin of later ideas in Christianity.

This work focuses much on philosophy and, as such, was difficult for me to follow at times. Hillar is interested in the evolution of religious ideas. Hillar seems to lean toward Biblical events regarding Jesus--indeed, Jesus himself--as being mythical.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On "The Shunned House" by H. P. Lovecraft (10,749 words) ****

Similar in some ways to "The Lurking Fear" this story revolves around a single house, one that holds fascination for the narrator growing up. It has a fungal problem, and occasionally, the narrator spies what he thinks is something lurking about inside. He gets the owner to agree to let him spend time in the house, and his uncle, who has an equal interest, comes along. Alas, the narrator loses his uncle to the house. I'm not giving away much, because readers learn this a third of the way into the story, though we don't discover how until the end. Lovecraft is at his best when trying to rationalize the irrational, and the most of this story is just that. But as with so many of Lovecraft's story's the final horror is a bit disappointing in its attempts to be horrifying. Sometimes the unknown is scarier. Read the story here.

On "Quiet" by Susan Cain ****

Long on my reading list, this book explores the world of introverts. Its first half contains some accounts of interesting studies, but its second half turns into a self-help book, which was not exactly what I was thinking this would be or what I was looking for. On the whole, this books reads as great mainstream commercial nonfiction, but as such it does feel like it lacks a certain amount of gravity, gravity that is hinted at in the first half of the book when it gets into its various discussions on culture.

Cain suggests in the first chapter that there was a shift in the early twentieth century away from a focus on character toward personality, a shift that is mirrored in a shift from a focus on introverts to extroverts (as such, she kind of links personality with extroversion and character with introversion, which isn't exactly a truism). Nevertheless, the point is that the American focus on extroverts, on being loud and friendly and "out there" with your desires and offerings, on sharing among large groups, means that the skills of introverts are often overlooked or ignored.

Cain backs up such assertions with finding and examples from the world of business and education, anecdotes such as that of an introverted man who had actual experience in survival skills but who in a class exercise in business school could not be heard over the voices of the many extroverts who knew much less about what they were talking about. She writes of how extrovert-centered idealism, which has resulted in concepts such as the open office and group work often result in less than intended results. Open office environments are actually less productive; group work often renders less creative solutions to problems than lone individuals often can. She writes of the financial world and how introverts tend to be more careful, less risk taking, and how the finance is dominated by the risk-taking extrovert class, which helps to forge a bubble and bust economy.

How did we get here? Dale Carnegie found confidence in public-speaking classes and went on to write classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People and taught others how to be successful, and that success was largely tailored around extrovert-type values.

From here, Cain moves toward self-help: how to deal with your opposite in relationships and at work; how to deal with an introvert kid. Much of this seems fairly self-evident or aimed at people who are at extreme ends of either spectrum.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

On "Mama" by Lucia Berlin (13 minutes) ***

In "Mama," Berlin returns to some recurring characters of hers. Carlotta here rehearses stories about Mom for her dying sister Sally, whose relationship with their mom was cut off when she married a Mexican--stories about alcoholism but also about love and sacrifice, some of them embellished. Carlotta may have stayed on Mom's good side, but Sally seems the more forgiving. Listen to Berlin read it here at Soundcloud.

On “The Getaway” by Jim Thompson ****

One of the more classic Thompson titles is almost entirely about an attempt to escape, or run away from, a crime that has been committed. The couple at the center of the narrative rob a bank. Then bodies start piling up as they flee, with the intent of retiring to a criminal paradise. Much has been made of the surreal ending, as the crooks go from hiding in a cave that barely fits their bodies, where they take sleeping pills to avoid pain, to hiding in a pile of manure, to crossing waters to get to El Rey, to finally landing in their supposed paradise, a place that proves to be less than ideal.

Unlike The Kill-Off, the characters here seem better drawn. But I think that after reading as much Thompson as I have, I've rather soured on the body count and the murders and the violence. Or maybe I just prefer stories about conmen. I loved The Grifters, and some of my favorite scenes in this book involved a similar con situation, wherein our couple loses their bag of riches to a guy swindling people out of keys to lockers at a train station. It's a gripping middle section that involves no so much violence as mental acrobatics between the characters involved.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

On "The Horror at Red Hook" by H. P. Lovecraft (8,323 words) ****

Here, detective takes to never again wanting to set foot in a certain kind of home. The story sets out to explain why, for the cause is more than the collapse and resulting psychological illness that is given as a reason. And thus we descend into a piece about a man named Robert Suydam who seems to get younger as the story proceeds, eventually marrying a young bride. How he finds this fountain of youth is the clincher on this one. Read the story here.

On “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth ****

Recently made into a Spike Lee movie, this memoir recounts the author's time as an undercover detective investigating the KKK. The twist: he's a black man. How does a black police officer become a member of the Klan? He does so on something of a whim.

One day, reading the classifieds, he finds an ad inviting people to join the Klan. He sends in a letter denoting his interest, not expecting anything back. Surely, this is a joke. But a few weeks later, he receives a response. From that comes a telephone conversation and a meeting. For the meeting, he has to have another cop pose as himself.

From there, several cops from the Colorado Springs Police Department become involved with the Klan in an effort to keep it from taking hold in their community. The black police officer also becomes involved in investigating anti-Klan groups who have violent tendencies (similar to today's Antifa). He also forges an interesting relationship (mostly on the phone) with David Duke, the Klan's grand wizard.

The tale is one that resonates with the current state of our country in terms of the viciousness of people at both far-out ends of the political spectrum—and how that can filter down to the mainstream, as racist and violent views are “cleaned up” for regular folks. It's also a very funny book, which is a good thing, because the investigation itself seems, by the end, something much less important than the fact that a book is devoted to it might make it seem to be. The investigation prevented some local disturbances, which is important, but one doesn't get the feeling that it reveals anything astounding about these groups that we don't already know or changes anything in our country.

Monday, October 8, 2018

On "Emergency" by Denis Johnson (3569 words) *****

Georgie, the narrator's friends in this piece, is one of those characters that sticks in one's head. He's a drughead who seems only semiconscious of things going on around him but who somehow manages to make good repeatedly--not necessarily out of some sense of love or goodness, just out of sheer luck. He stands in contrast to the narrator, who tends to think of his life as falling apart, of himself as one who constantly messes things up for others. I was curious to know how Georgie would be portrayed in the film version, and I wasn't disappointed, though in some ways, that portrait now sticks in my head more than the one that was in my mind before. Georgie was a bit more subdued in my mind, whereas now he is always over the top. The story can be read here at Narrative Magazine.

On “The Kill-Off” by Jim Thompson ***

As the back of this book denotes, this is not so much a who done it as a who will do it. The victim of the murder is alive for two-thirds of the book, though fearful of her impending murder. Through various points of view, Thompson shows that multiple people have reasons to kill the woman, a gossiper who has ruined many a reputation and life among those living in the town. Her younger husband might kill her to get her money (and also the money owed to him that she has confiscated from his work for herself), in part to run off with a new love interest. That love interest might kill her because she's not a very innocent gal and obviously wants to be able to marry her lover. The son of another local might kill her in order to steal money from her to be able to run away with a gal he has an interest in. And so on.

The conceit is an original one, but alas, the characters seem here prisoners to it and to the plot that Thompson has set out. As such, the book doesn't quite live up to its full potential.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

On "In the Vault" by H. P. Lovecraft (3416 words) ****

A shorter but well-done piece by Lovecraft, this one revolves around a gravedigger/mortician who builds cheap coffins and pays the price one night when he accidentally gets locked in the vault where coffins are kept as they await burial. Read the story here.

On "The Criminal" by Jim Thompson ***

This multiperspective narrative is not a mystery or thriller in any conventional sense. It's actually rather predictable. It's more of a character study and an indictment of the criminal justice system.

The tale revolves around the rape and murder of a young woman. Each character has his or her own view as to whether the young man charged deserves to be. His parents recount how the son grew apart from the father and how he has been skipping school and how they had conflicts with the parents of the woman killed. The son describes how the event occurred, but the tale leaves off at a crucial moment, such that we as readers don't know whether the man did or did not do the killing; what we do learn, though, is that the man was seduced and the woman was not so innocent as one might think. Enter the legal system and the newspapermen. The latter want a good story to tell and thus promote a rape and murder scenario with the young man at the center. This means that though the DA may well have thought the man innocent, the legal system feels obligated to charge the teen. Nothing is about justice so much as about money and individuals' jobs and careers.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

On "And the World Was Crowded with Things That Meant Love" by Amber Sparks (604 words) ***

This tale is about long-distance lovers who exchange gifts. The lyric formulation of words is what saves this listing of presents. Read it here at Matter Press.

On "Cities of Tomorrow" by Peter Hall ***

Peter Hall traces theories of urban planning from the Victorian era to his present (mid-1980s). This book is a good summary of twentieth-century urban planning, though at times, it's a bit dry, which is saying something, when I'm a fan of the genre.

Hall starts his account with the urban poor in Victorian England and in similar locations around the globe at the time. For him, modern urban planning essentially originates in this milieu, the idea being, How can we reform society such that the urban poor will no longer live in such squalor?

One of these early plans was the Garden City, but like most such plans, the original theory rarely made it into actual practice, and the idea got twisted out of its original intent. Also, like so many of the ideas, in part because it was never put into practice as written, the planning theory did not end up helping the poor. Rather, its benefits went mostly to the middle class and the rich. The Garden City, in theory, was to be a city--or series of cities--interspersed in gardens. Each would be of limited size, with a green belt around it. In the city, there would be moderate space for homes, and there would be businesses and work within the city itself. It's this latter portion of the idea that rarely made it into reality. Instead, such cities became suburbs, with people commuting into the big city for work. This meant such cities only helped those with enough means to afford such a commute. The urban poor remained urban.

Another idea was one much maligned by Jane Jacobs--that of Corbusier. He had the concept of towers in parks. Again, his idea was thrown a bit out of context. When applied to the urban poor, such towers did not create wonderful communities. But, Hall notes, such towers could and did work for those of higher class.

Then there were the nonplanners, the anarchists, who essentially denoted that cities should grow on their own and that planners should work around that. Had I taken notes during my reading I could have likely explained this section better, as well as the sections previously. I will probably need to read the entire book over at some point.

Hall eventually turns his attention to the split between academic planners and those who practice, a split that made its way more felt in the second half of the twentieth century and that showed how academics had become uninvolved in how cities really work. In this same timeframe, there were more private-public partnerships, and some cities actually saw renewal, but again, the solutions led mostly to gentrification rather than actually helping the urban poor. In other words, the poor, rather than being raised up, were simply pushed out.

A final chapter focuses on poverty and racism. As Hall rightly notes, the middle class did grow from the time of the Victorians to the present such that some issues are less troublesome than they were one hundred years ago. He is also an advocate, it seems, based on the research he cites, for the death of family being a large cause for the fall into or continuing life in poverty, more so than race (though the history of racism certainly plays a role in where people fall in terms of class). Urban planning, it seems, while intended to aid in resolving these issues has ultimately not been able to solve the problem.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

On "Macadam" by Lucia Berlin (148 words) ***

This is Berlin doing poetry essentially. The focus of this story is the sound of words--or rather, one word. Read the story here at Biblioklept.

On "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau ***

I can't say that this is a book I've been wanting to read for a long time. I can take Thoreau in short bursts, but whole books bore me. I base this on those short pieces and on his Week on the Concord and Merrimack River. But this is a classic, and it was on the shelf at home, and I was needing a book, so I read it.

Also, there was an amazing NPR piece on Walden. That was really what made me take note--the radio piece made this book sound amazing. I figured, Why not? So I checked it out.

Some things the radio piece did: It quoted from the book--and those quotes were amazing (remember, short bursts). Also, it talked about how there's a subtext about the underground railroad, which Thoreau's family was involved in--indeed, there were a couple of mentions I spotted.

There's also the idea, according to the radio show, that this book is not about isolation and solitude, as most people assume, but about going into civilization. The radio person made this claim because Thoreau doesn't leave permanently--this is just one stop on life's journey. Of course, he's not really isolated at Walden either; it wasn't that far from town, and he talks about his neighbors and others who come to the pond.

For me, the book was more about simplifying one's life. The first chapter and the conclusion are the pieces that really drive that point home, and those were, for me, the most interesting parts of the book. Once Thoreau gets involved with describing the nature around him, it was a snooze fest for me. But his material on economy gave me much to consider. In a way, that was my life really up until marriage, although I probably did get myself too caught up in doing too many things rather than just enjoying the present. Still, in many ways, I was one to say, I don't need that or this, and I often didn't go out and purchase gizmos everyone else wants. Even furniture was minimal. Now, married, I don't have as much choice in regard to what to keep and what to get rid of; there's others whose desires and needs have to be accounted for, and their idea of simplifying (if indeed they even want to--kids tend to want more toys not fewer) is something different from my own.