Friday, December 20, 2013

Let's Just Write Good Fiction, People, Not Preachy Fiction

A review of The Sign, by Raymond Khoury, 2009. I picked up this book because it looked interesting. The Sign, wow. What could it be? Aliens? Ancient prophecy? Will we get a thrill of mystery as clue after clue is revealed? No such luck. If you haven’t heard of Raymond Khoury, think Dan Brown. Similar themes, similar writing style. From chapter to itty-bitty chapter, the book jumps around the world: Antarctica – Massachusetts – Egypt – Mexico – Egypt – Antarctica. This is supposed to give the book a fast pace (“never relents,” according to the blurbs). For this reader, it went agonizingly slowly. You get a little bit of action in Massachusetts, things start to get tense, then the scene moves to Egypt. You think that perhaps in Egypt, we will find out more, but after a few pages of cinematic conversation in which nothing is revealed, we are back to Antarctica. I call the conversation cinematic because, despite an international cast of characters (Egyptian, Croatian, Czech), all of them talk exactly the same, i.e. like characters out of a Hollywood police drama. For example, here is how a Croatian monk, living in a Coptic monastery, sums up his situation to a couple of Americans: “There’s not much to tell. They contacted us. They said they were making a documentary … The abbot wasn’t keen, none of us were. … But they were coming from a very respectable network, and they were very courteous, and they kept on asking and insisting. Eventually, we accepted.” Come on, Mr. Khoury. Not a single bafflingly misused word, or just one case of awkward word order? How often does this monk speak English? And speaking of English, there is Khoury’s own. Here is how he describes a certain bad guy: “He was a ruthless and imaginative political strategist, he had a mind like a steel trap, and [an] appetite for detail. … His effectiveness was further enhanced by an easygoing, gregarious charm – one that masked the iron resolve underneath and helped when one was a dedicated polemicist ready to take on the red-button issues that were splitting the country.” (p. 122) Golly gee. How many clichés can you squeeze into two sentences? (And even getting one of them wrong? Isn’t it supposed to be “hot-button” issues?) As it turns out, the Sign (spoiler alert) is coming neither from aliens nor from supernatural forces (between which, by the way, Khoury sees no difference), but from a very covert, deniable U.S. government group that has gotten ahold of some cutting-edge technology. The Sign, which first appears over the tragically melting ice caps at both poles, was originally meant to scare people into stopping global warming. But as often happens, the bad guys have had an internal disagreement about how to use the sign. The good bad guy (let’s call him Bad Guy B) wanted to keep the sign vague and occasional, so that no one religion could claim it. This, in addition to stopping global warming, might have the desired effect of nudging people toward pantheism or at least religious relativism. But Bad Guy A (the one described above), wants to steer the sign in the direction of a specifically Christian miracle, creating a specifically fundamentalist fervor. (He does this by kidnapping and brainwashing a Mother-Theresa type to be his mouthpiece). The two bad guys’ conversation about this is revealing. Bad Guy B is principled and thinks that deliberately stirring up religious fervor “might help get rid of one evil [global warming], but you’ll be feeding one that’s just as vile. One that’ll turn our world into a living hell for any rational person.” Got that? Belief in God is not just irrational, it’s “vile.” And it leads to hell. Bad Guy A replies: “You know that was the only way to go. These people don’t read newspapers. They don’t research things on the Internet. They listen to what their preachers tell them – and they believe them. Fanatically. They don’t bother to fact-check the bullshit they hear in their megachurches. They’re happy to swallow it whole, no matter how ridiculous it is … We need these windbags. We need them to sell our message.” (page 212) All I can say is, Wow. No, I don’t mean, Wow, Khoury thinks the Internet is a reliable place to fact-check, although that might make us scratch our heads as well. Rather … Wow. Has this guy ever met even one evangelical Christian? So that was where Khoury completely lost me. But I kept reading, partly because I wanted to earn the right to write this review, and partly because I wanted to find out what happened to the two “good” guys (a former car thief, and a Czech scientist-cum-couch-potato named Jabba, the funnest character in the book). And I was well rewarded when the car thief borrowed a garbage truck and crashed it through the façade of the “stately Georgian mansion” inhabited by Bad Guy B, killing bodyguards like flies in the process. He then puts Bad Guy B in the trash compacter, but thankfully, doesn’t compact him. That would have taken the book in a completely different direction. Later, the Mother Theresa character assured me that “of course I believe in evolution. You’d have to be a blind half-wit not to.” Another character finds this attitude to be “much less dogmatic than I expected.” The funny thing is, I think that I (or the person Raymond Khoury imagines me to be) am actually part of the intended audience of this book. His idea is that all of us evangelicals believe as we do only because we’ve never been exposed to any alternative view. So, we will pick up his book because it appears to be a novel about God (or maybe Satan, given the cover art). Then, the “relentless pace” of the action will draw us in, and when we read in the characters’ mouths Khoury’s compelling logic against belief in God, organized religion, and ID, our minds will be blown open, our world will be rocked. Then, the insults will give us added motivation to convert to materialist environmentalist atheism so that we can belatedly join the group of those in the know. It’s a weird experience reading this kind of a bait-and-switch, because often it goes in the other direction, with Christian writers trying to convert unbelievers through mediocre fiction. Khoury isn’t too fond of Tim LaHaye. Would he be insulted to hear that, as far as this reader is concerned, he is the Tim LaHaye of the atheist world? Anyway, reading this book and then reflecting on my experience was certainly enough to cure me of making any such attempts. Let’s just write good fiction, people, because the preachy fiction doesn’t work on thinking believers. It might work in movies, at least for the duration of the film (I’m looking at you, Dances with Wolves), but books don’t overwhelm the senses quite so much. But I digress. If the garbage truck scene sounds like enough fun to make you plough through the anti-religion rants, then this book is for you. About the science behind the book, I don’t know. I haven’t done the Internet research to find out whether “smart dust” a real thing. If the science of the book is as well researched as the historical and religious parts, then it’s mostly made up. But it’s possible that Khoury put more time into the part that interested him more, the part he actually believes in.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I'm Going to Jackson

This is the way to handle him, ladies!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Ancient Sumerian Epic Makes a Great Children's Book

You laugh. ... They love it.
Imagine my delight to find this illustrated version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which as you can see was retold and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman.
Gilgamesh, like most ancient rulers, is a god sent to rule a people. Unable to relate to humans, he rich, powerful, lonely, and cruel. He makes the people build a wall around the city of Uruk (a historical city), just to show his power. After a while, the people realize that the building on the wall is never going to stop. (Could this myth be a memory of the Tower of Babel, which was meant to reach to the heavens?) They cry out to the Sun god for help.
In reply, the Sun god sends Enkidu, who is also a god-man. But instead of being a Ken doll like Gilgamesh, Enkidu is a hairy wild man who lives among the animals of the forest. (This wild man aspect is perhaps why my three-year-old was fascinated with Enkidu ... is he a picture of the hairy, but soft-hearted, wild man within every three-year-old?) When no one can capture Enkidu, the beautiful Shamhat is sent to lure him to his death at Gilgamesh's hand.
Instead, she falls in love with him. And here comes the only part of the book that I censored for my kids. I simply skip the sentence, "They explored the ways of love together."
Enkidu rises to Gilgamesh's challenge and they have a long, terrifying battle on the city wall. My son wanted to take a picture of this page, where Gilgamesh slips and falls. This super ancient myth has enduring appeal because it is, basically, a superhero story. The DC comics of the Fertile Crescent.
Enkidu chooses to rescue Gilgamesh rather than let him fall.
Gilgamesh has found a peer and a friend. He has experienced mercy. Humanized, he orders work on the wall stopped forever.
How wonderful it is to have a god/king who understands us, who understands what it is to be weak and need mercy ... and to receive it. Look, even the Babylonian sphinxes are happy.
I love the illustrations in this book. They were clearly well researched. For any child who sees them, they will form his first impression of the world of ancient Sumeria. For adults, they capture well our feeling of that ancient world being always sunny, yet somehow always bathed in a golden sunset. The grandeur is there.
The people are celebrating Gilgamesh's change of heart. As you look at these pictures, what do they remind you of? I think they capture ancient Sumeria well, but they also reminded me of Mesoamerica, and, believe it or not, Bali. India is also in view. All complex, centralized civilizations with a lot of idolatry. ... Great book.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

At Last, A Realistic Love Poem

Tell me how wonderful I am. /Come on, tell me. /I know you can’t see the dishes that aren’t dirty, /but nevertheless I did them, /and I want to be praised for it – now. /Today I performed the least of my duties, /and it was such an unfamiliar experience /that it almost killed me. /So I think the least I deserve /is to be worshipped. /Tell me I am a goddess with sweet breath, /beautiful, smart and /selfless. /Come on now, /don’t distract me with your demands, /just tell me /how wonderful I am.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Forced Vaginal Ultrasounds:" A PR Coup for the Left

The phrase “forced vaginal ultrasounds” is a genius bit of spin on the part of the proabortion left. This little buzzword does the work of a hundred TV commercials. It takes ten seconds to say, and would take about ten minutes to refute. I first started hearing it about a year and a half ago, back during the “war on women” propaganda campaign. But I still see it plastered around, even on blogs: “Forced Vaginal Ultrasounds! Vote Republican!” I’d like to address the legitimacy of this little phrase, but first we have to back up a bit and talked about patient’s experience in our modern medical system. Doctors’ visits are never fun. All of us have been through things, in a medical context, that are uncomfortable and that, in any other context, would be really degrading. Ask any male patient. If we are considering major surgery, this becomes even more the case. Leading up to the surgery, we expect to go through any number of tests and procedures that might be really painful, though still less invasive than the surgery itself. For example, we might have our head shaved or have a bone marrow sample taken. These things are required in the sense that if we want to go through with the surgery, we have to have them done first. We accept this as part of modern medicine. It can be merely unpleasant, or it can be a real nightmare, depending on our state of mind and body, and on the attitudes of the medical personnel who are giving us care. I have never had an abortion. I have given birth three times. Childbearing is not surgery, but it is a major medical event. Leading up to this event, I had regular visits to the obstetrician. In my case, my ob was a man, a man I trusted and who had a great bedside manner. Nevertheless, I asked that a female nurse be in the room whenever he was examining me, and they were happy to comply. The first few ultrasounds were vaginal, then the baby got big enough that they could do abdominal ultrasounds. It’s always weird to be up on that table, but it was something I was willing to go through on my ob’s recommendation, in order to know the state of my unborn baby’s health. In the case of a woman contemplating an abortion, the purpose of the vaginal ultrasound would be to provide her with full information, so that she knows exactly what it is that she’s aborting, what is involved in the procedure, and what she stands to lose. The instrument for the vaginal ultrasound is small. Despite the weird, potentially degrading nature of the ultrasound, it’s not painful and is far less invasive than the original process of getting pregnant. It is also far less invasive than abortion itself, which often involves invasion by vacuums and knives, instruments of killing. (Abortionists have little tables in their offices too.) Requiring an ultrasound before an abortion is in harmony with how other major medical procedures are handled; namely, a series of tests before the main procedure to rule out potential problems. But abortion advocates have hit on the genius idea of calling this reasonable medical precaution a “forced vaginal ultrasound.” What a powerful buzzword. Anything with “forced” and “vaginal” in it can’t be good. (Although for women in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, ultrasounds are done on the abdomen.) Saying “forced” instead of “required” makes it sound like the woman is screaming on the table, being restrained by three or four people, being given the ultrasound by a male doctor who is probably laughing maniacally. (I ask: why not link this same scene to the abortion itself? The abortion is just as likely to be traumatic … in fact, more so.) And this rape-like scene can then be linked to “the Republicans” or any politician who thinks that women should be given full information about what is involved in abortion before they go through with it. This is nothing but pure propaganda, all packed into a little three-word phrase. A woman who decides to give birth to her baby can adopt him out after he is born. Abortion can’t be undone. It makes sense that women have full information before being asked to choose abortion. Ultrasounds can help give them that information.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Who's More Self-Absorbed? John Denver vs. Johnny Cash

No, I'm not qualified to compare their entire musical corpuses. Or to comment on music at all. Let's just look at each one's signature song, from a philosophical perspective. In "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver wants to go off into the Rockies and "try to touch the sun," "walk in quiet solitude," etc. Now, as an introvert, I find this VERY appealing. And I like Nature. I do. And in fact, I really like the song. But on a closer listen, JD does not like people. He does not want people following him to the Rockies ... "more people, more scars upon the land." So, getting off by himself in the mountains, for John Denver, is SALVATION. "You might say he's born again. You might say he's found the key to every door." Granting that we all need a retreat and some beauty now and then, getting away from people as a permanent lifestyle is pretty dang self absorbed. Of COURSE most of our problems will vanish if we just get away from the dang PEOPLE! ... Meanwhile, in "Man In Black," Johnny Cash is going to tell us why he's always wearin' black, why we never see bright colors on his back. Turns out that he wears black for "the poor and beaten down." On a first listen, I must admit the content of this song simultaneously inspires and annoys me. As a middle-class person who is very susceptible to guilt trips, I question the populist assumption that a class war is raging and everyone is either a victim in it, or an aggressor. And, c'mon, Johnny, did you REALLY decide to wear black at first because you represent all oppressed people? Or was it because you like black and it looks better on stage? ... But having said that, the attitude expressed by "Man In Black" is miles ahead of the one expressed by "Rocky Mountain High." Although I may find Johnny's populism kind of grandiose, it isn't a pose. It's sincere. Johnny really is very concerned about people who are struggling. He grew up poor, he really identified with prisoners. Above all, Johnny's signature song is about OTHER PEOPLE. Actual, other people. This is what gets him going ... the life-and-death struggles of other people. He sings about that with as much passion as John sings about ... himself, alone in nature. What more need we say?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Suspicion of Guilt

By Barbara Parker, 1996 ... Gail Connor has had a hard time lately. Her husband left her. Her sister was murdered, and Gail was charged with the crime. All this happened in the last book, Suspicion of Innocence. Now Gail, the Miami lawyer, is back. In this book she has a Cuban-American boyfriend (who was her defense lawyer briefly in the last book), a 10-year-old daughter, and at her firm she is trying to make partner. … This is a legal thriller, with lots of action, confrontations, and also steamy bedroom scenes. The plot is believable and gets consistently more tense toward the end. The author, a lawyer herself, clearly knows what it’s like to work at a firm. Also, we get to see lots of Miami. The book even had me turning to Google Earth so that I could orient myself. Which way does Miami face, now? Where’s the coast? Where do these causeways lead? As you would hope from Miami, a lot of the action takes place on or near the water. … If you like the genre, you will like this book. I don’t even particularly like it, yet I read the whole thing and often neglected my duties to read it because the book is such a page-turner. … So why don’t I like it? One major problem is Gail Connor herself. For most of the book, I found her hard to identify with. The scenes between Gail and her 10-year-old daughter are painful. I could identify with both of them in those scenes, but it seemed to me that Gail was not really trying to listen to her daughter. Of course, Gail was under a lot of pressure. That happens when you’re in a character in a legal thriller. Gail also doesn’t seem to really like her boyfriend for most of the book. She is so prickly that she bristles at him constantly. Perhaps this has to do with personality. To make partner, as a woman, and also to get involved in an unofficial murder investigation, you have to be bloody-minded. But I spent much of the book annoyed with Gail for how she treats wonderful Anthony. … Except when they’re hopping in bed, of course. Does anybody really do that after a day in which they’ve been arrested / beaten up / chewed out by their boss / nearly killed? Maybe in Hollywood. Anyway, I advise skipping those scenes, they border on porn. … It’s not all Gail’s fault that she’s not too likeable. She has some stiff competition from the other characters in the book. Gail’s mother, Irene, is terrific. I have already mentioned Anthony. And there is the murder victim, a large-livin’ Miami socialite. And Gail’s irrepressible Cuban-American office intern, Miriam. Even the murderer himself is a well-drawn character … a jerk, but a familiar kind of jerk. And the way these people talk! Whether it’s the octogenarian Miami aristocrat (“By God, aren’t you lovely? And tall. A strapping young woman.”) or the fiftyish black police detective (“I might want to reinstitute some paperwork from an incident over at Mrs. Tillett’s house. You understand what I’m saying?”), you can almost hear their voices saying it. … Gail redeems herself with her daughter, and with me, in the obligatory scene at the end when they’re fighting for their lives with a desperate killer. I might be willing to read about her again, if only to see how the daughter turns out.