Friday, May 25, 2018

Peruse to Snooze

Reading oneself to sleep has at least one advantage over late night television: only a lamp might be left on unintentionally when the sandman comes. That is preferable to being awakened at 3 in the morning by an infomercial shouting, “SuperKitchenWizardGoop can’t be bought in stores but if you call or go online NOW to buy a bottle at only $19.95 we’ll send you a second bottle ABSOLUTELY FREE!” So, more often than not, the former is my soporific of choice. The latest occupants of the end table:

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From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
I’ve written before about Doughty, her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and her quirky Ask a Mortician videos. Doughty’s start in the funeral business was as a crematory employee, but she since has founded a Los Angeles funeral parlor specializing in un-embalmed and casket-free natural burial: simple shroud straight in the ground. In her follow-up book to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty tells us of her world travels and her investigations of various funerary practices. They include ritual disinterment of the remains of family members for extended home visits in Indonesia, spa-like crematories in Japan, glass coffins in Barcelona, and open-air cremation in Colorado. One of her many points is that the American-style commercialized and expensive funeral industry seems normal to us only because we’re accustomed to it. There are other ways, and to the extent those ways insulate us less from the realities of mortality, they can be better for us in more respects than the degree of strain on one’s wallet. She argues persuasively that more realistic contemplation of and experience with death can enhance our appreciation of life.

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The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann
Many of the early-to-mid 20th century thinkers and scholars in the field of psychology are known by non-specialists today (if at all) mostly through summaries of their work in college textbooks – often written by very unsympathetic authors. Few have been caricatured more unfairly than Sigmund Freud, whose books deserve to be read in full; they remain valuable, insightful, and far more open-minded than commonly depicted. Neumann (1905-1960) has met similar modern-day dismissal, but this tome in particular remains worth a look. In it he describes the evolution of mythology – mostly though not exclusively Western – from Neolithic times to classical civilization and beyond: the changing prominence of Uroboros, the Great Mother, heroic journeys, et al.  He then argues that individual consciousness from childhood to adulthood parallels that mythological evolution.

The second part about individual consciousness isn’t convincing and wasn’t widely regarded as such in 1949 when the book was published. There are far less misleading ways to describe the development of consciousness post-infancy than by trying to shoe-horn it into a grand mythological framework. That said, his thoughts on mythology during and after the dawn of civilization actually are valuable, grounded in evidence, and intriguing, which is to say he ironically is a better historian than a psychologist.

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Head On by John Scalzi
John Scalzi writes well, accessibly, and wittily with a flavor reminiscent of golden age scifi authors. He is best known for his Old Man’s War series, which is military scifi ala Heinlein. He has an unrelated space opera series starting with Collapsing Empire; the second entry will be released this year. He also has a Lock In series, which is in a near-future detective genre, consisting so far of Lock In, the novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, and the most recent addition Head On.

The premise of the Lock In series is that a pandemic of a virulent variant of the flu has left a small percentage of the population completely paralyzed but fully competent mentally; these people are called Hadens after the name of the syndrome. Robots with full sensory apparatuses are developed that the Hadens can control remotely by thought. While their biological bodies remain bedridden and require care, they still can experience the world through the eyes and other senses of their robots. Like avatars in online games, their robots may bear little similarity to their actual selves. They can “travel” almost instantaneously by renting a robot in a distant city and operating that one instead the usual one. The Haden who is the first person narrator of the novels is FBI agent Chris Shane. Any initial image the reader might form of the character might well be revised as he or she notices that there is never a clear statement as to the sex of the bedridden biological Chris even though sex robots are a plot element in the second novel.

 In Head On, Hilketa is a brutal and rapidly expanding spectator sport played by Haden-operated specialty robots. The sport can be spectacularly violent since only machinery gets damaged; the operators remain safe in bed. When prominent athlete Duane Chapman dies – biologically dies – during a game as his robot is torn apart, Chris Shane and FBI partner Leslie Vann investigate. The investigation turns up fraud, questionable finance, sports franchise politics, adultery, drugs, arson, and murder. Questions are raised that we already ask about online activities: for example, is it adultery if it only involves your robot? The novel is a solid scifi-mystery-thriller.

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Basic Writings – Martin Heidegger
Heidegger is another 20th century thinker – a philosopher this time – who, outside of a corner of academia, is better known from summaries in textbooks than from his original writings. In truth, he is not among the philosophers I had read in depth. I knew him primarily from excerpts and from summaries of the textbook kind, so it was past time to pay him more attention. I can’t say it was a revelatory experience though his scholarship is undeniable. He reminds me of a prep school teacher I had long ago who was apt to return my essays with the notation “Define your terms!”

A rigorous examination of terms is indeed a legitimate and significant philosophical enterprise. Descartes convinced himself of his own existence by cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), but Heidegger, referring to this example, asks what it means to think and then proceeds to analyze the matter in detail. Define your terms, RenĂ©! In his seminal work Being and Time, he asks what we mean by “Being.” What do we mean by an entity and what do we mean when we say it exists? He tells us: “Insofar as Being constitutes what is asked about, and insofar as Being means the being of Beings, beings themselves turn out to be what is interrogated in the question of Being.” Got that? Good.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9 Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty, Jane Espenson, Karl Moline, Joss Whedon
Last year on the 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, I praised the show as worthwhile fare both for teen and adult viewers:  All I Really Need to Know I Re-learned from Buffy. The show lasted seven seasons ending in (considering its budget) a spectacular finale. Joss decided to follow up the series with a Season 8 in comic book form. Freed from the restrictions of live action TV, Season 8 is an over-the-top romp that would have broken even the most generous fx budget of any attempt to film it. Reviews of Season 8 weren’t uniformly positive, but I think that’s because the comic assumes the reader has an intimate familiarity with the TV series. A passing familiarity won’t do. Do you know why Willow flayed Warren alive? Do you know why she terminated her friendship with Amy the erstwhile rat? Do you know why Angel and Buffy avoid getting it on? If you answered no to any of those (and “passing familiarity” should be enough to get the last one) you’ll miss major character motivations in the comics. There are many such details that the comics presuppose the reader knows. If you have seen all seven seasons, however, Season 8 will make sense (Buffyverse sense) and will be fine fun.

Season 8 tied up the loose ends of the TV series well enough that I felt no particular urge to read any of the subsequent “seasons” – until now. Amazon kept prodding me about it with its recommendations and finally offered Season 9 at bargain prices. Season 9 is much more reminiscent in tone to the later seasons of the TV show. In the TV series Buffy lived a largely normal life when she wasn’t battling vampires and supernatural forces. In Season 9 she is back in form with a job as a barista and an apartment with roommates. Dawn and Xander have an adult relationship. Willow strives to return magic to the world: Buffy had destroyed the seed that permitted magic in Season 8. Season 9 once again presumes familiarity with the TV series and also to at least some degree with the spin-off series Angel – Illyria from the latter is a prominent character in the story arc. The characters are nicely complex: friends are not always reliable allies but villains sometimes are. As usual, events escalate so that only desperate action can prevent global catastrophe.  

**** ****

The shelves in my library have limited spare space, and appropriate wall space for yet another bookcase is running short, too. So, I always have to decide whether a recently finished book is shelfworthy. These five passed muster and can introduce themselves to their new neighbors on the shelves.

Green Day – At the Library


  1. Re: Scalzi--there was a similar narative running thru the Grimjack comics about tourist-bots. Where tourist could use robot to visit the city, which was safer as the city was something similar to Escape from New York, and inter-dimensional. Fairly interesting idea.

    Re: Basic Writing--I was never big on philosophy as it always seemed to me they talked around in circles, and were hard to understand so I never got much from them. Kudos for getting thru that.

    Re: Buffy--as I read your review I thought that sounds like Archie with vampires which I'd never thought of before, but yeah.

  2. The idea has been booted (‘boted?) around before, true enough. Surrogates – the comic and the movie – ran with the premise big time. Still, Scalzi did well with is version of it.

    Hmm, maybe there should be a Buffy and Archie crossover comic. This is especially suited to the rebooted Archie that accompanied the premiere of Riverdale last year.

  3. The Neuman book sound really interesting. Always looking for books that explore mythology and its impact on our lives. Read quite a bit of Campbell, but looking for something else. This sounds like it might fit the bill.

    I checked out the first novel of "Old Man's War" on your recommendation and really enjoyed it. I have Scalzi on my reading list for sure. Need to check out "Lock In" for sure.

  4. Neumann is interesting even though his central thesis (parallel of individual and societal development) feels simply wrong. My favorite book on mythology at the transition from pre-history to history is still "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves. He knows his material and his insights provide many "aha!" moments.

    I'm glad an earlier Scalzi review was helpful. He writes good, literate, but unpretentious scifi.