2011年11月27日 星期日

"Life, the Universe, and Everything" by Douglas Adams

"It was a large mattress, and probably one of quite high quality.  Very few things actually get manufactured these days, because in an infinitely large Universe such as, for instance, the one in which we live, most things one could possibly imagine and a lot of things one would rather not, grow somewhere.  (A forest was discovered recently in which most of the trees grew ratchet screwdrivers as fruit.  The life cycle of ratchet screwdriver fruit is quite interesting.  Once picked it needs a dark dusty drawer in which it can lie undisturbed for years.  Then one night it suddenly hatches, discards its outer skin and crumbles into dust, and emerges as a totally unidentifiable little metal object with flanges at both ends and a sort of ridge and a sort of hole for a screw.  This, when found, will get thrown away.  No one knows what it is supposed to gain from this.  Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is presumably working on it.)"

"Life, the Universe and Everything" was first published in 1981, back when I was six years old and entirely unable to read it.  It is the third book in Adams' "Hitchhiker" series.

This book is my favorite in the series so far.  It's not as laugh-out-loud funny as the first book, and it doesn't feature any concept as cool as "the restaurant at the end of the Universe," but it is really, really clever.  It is also funny, but it's mostly just clever.  The plot of this book was much better thought-out than the first two books, and it's extremely well written, with an eye (and ear) for the English language that leaves most other authors in the dust.

I want to say that the plot is beside the point, but that's not true.  Rather, the plot is a lot more subtle than the book jacket would have you believe, and is just too "layered" to be neatly outlined here.  Suffice to say, there is an alien race about to obliterate the entire universe, Arthur Dent and Co. are left to stop them, and along the way they learn of cricket's sinister origins, the cruel side of reincarnation, and the dangers inherent in challenging thunder gods to a brawl.

It's a great book, and I can't recommend it enough.  Buy it, borrow it, or steal it NOW.  You won't be sorry you did!

2011年11月24日 星期四

"The Pagan Path" by Janet and Stewart Farrar and Gavin Bone

Thinking about choosing the Pagan path?  Me neither.  But I came across this book in a Seattle thrift store, thought "What the hell," and used my pocket change to buy it.

"The Pagan Path" was written in 1995, by a couple of self-described witches who live in Ireland.  The male half of this couple also refers to himself as a witch, since apparently the word "warlock" was a term of abuse in Scotland.  I'm not sure what the third author, Mr. Gavin Bone contributed, though all three are mentioned in the book.  I have the feeling that Mr. and Mrs. Stewart supplied the content, and Mr. Bone was the one who wrote most of it down.

As it turns out, seeing the world through the eyes of a modern pagan is somewhat interesting.  I had never really thought about how pagans might view other religions, or about schisms within their particular group, or about how they might approach issues as varied as homosexuality, abortion, or freedom of speech.

My favorite part of this book was the digression into spells and rituals.  I loved the fact that they tried to make some of this stuff seem "scientific," even if it is anything but.  Many of their justifications for these numerological, astrological, and hallucinogenic excursions were culled from Jungian psychology, and sound even more dated in 2011 than they did in 1995.  Not to sound too condescending, but I had fun imagining portly married couples in their living rooms, chanting over pentagrams and lifting their "cones of power."

Apparently (and I am NO expert!), modern paganism is primarily made up of those following a Wiccan belief system.  To these are added the shamanists, the believers in Thor and other nordic deities, as well as an almost overwhelming number of Hindus and Shintoists throughout Asia. 

The book tries to present itself as "a book for all pagans," though I think the glossing-over of differences between Western and Eastern pagans was a mistake.  Yes, Wiccan beliefs incorporate the study of chakras and share a common Indo-European origin with Hinduism, but I think a belief in Irish fairies or Egyptian fertility goddesses is a far cry from the polytheism that most Hindus embrace.  Hinduism (if not Shintoism) is a world religion, with over a thousand year of history, while most modern pagan movements can only trace their history back to the 1800s, if that.

But this aside, "The Pagan Path" offers a relatively thoughtful overview of modern pagan beliefs and practices.  It also advances several thoughtful arguments in favor of paganism.  While these arguments failed to convert me, they did much to enhance my respect for this (let's admit it) fringe religion.

And anyway, it makes more sense than Scientology, right?

2011年11月22日 星期二

"The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" by Douglas Adams

"'Good evening,' it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, 'I am the main Dish of the Day.  May I interest you in parts of my body?'  It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

"Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

"'Something off the shoulder perhaps?' suggested the animal.  'Braised in a white wine sauce?'

"'Er, your shoulder?' said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

"'But naturally my shoulder, sir,' mooed the animal contentedly, 'nobody else's is mine to offer.'

"Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal's shoulder appreciatively.

"'Or the rump is very good,' murmured the animal.  'I've been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there's a lot of good meat there.'  It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud.  It swallowed the cud again.

"'Or a casserole of me perhaps?' it added."

"The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" was first published in 1980.  It is the second book in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker" series, and as such is the the sequel to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

I read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" a couple of years ago, so my memory of that one was pretty fuzzy.  Fortunately the beginning of this book recaps much of what went before, so it can be read as a stand-alone novel.  The plot revolves around Zaphod's quest to find the true ruler of the Universe, and also (of course) the near-disasters encountered along the way.

It's not, in my opinion, as funny as the first book, but there are some hilarious bits towards the end.  It doesn't really pick up speed until they reach the restaurant for which the book is named, but after that point it's just as good as "Hitchhiker's".  If you loved the first novel, then you'll also like this one.  Even if you haven't read the first novel, and are instead the kind of person who appreciates Monty Python, you'll like this one a lot.

2011年11月19日 星期六

"Global Brain" by Howard Bloom

"Global Brain" was first published in 2000.  Its author, famed psychologist Howard Bloom, wrote another book called "The Lucifer Principle" which is also well-known.

That said, this book is worse than idiotic - it's downright harmful.  While I wouldn't dispute the author's main thesis, that group selection plays as much of a role in the evolution of a species as individual selection, I found it hard or even impossible to swallow many of his arguments, couched as they were in a rampant anthropomorphism.  Describing bacterial colonies as "purposeful" or "intelligent" in the sense of "conscious" is reckless, if not misinformed.  The author, while possessed of an impressive vocabulary, fails to see the danger of describing non-human lifeforms in human terms.  There are also many elements of his argument - such as the inevitability of bio-genesis on earth - which are taken for granted.

Given my skepticism with regard to Modern Psychology, I felt it incumbent upon me to give this book a chance.  I failed, nevertheless, to finish it.  I got about 50 pages in, and then Bloom's boundless capacity for over-generalization became intolerable.  Maybe it is written for a general audience, but it is badly researched, and what's more, it is Bad Science.  As revolutionary as his ideas might be, Bloom overlooks the need for caution in such matters.  He also overlooks the fact that regarding the entirety of everything as a single, living system is as old as humanity itself.  One need only read from (or read into) the Upanishads for such an opinion.

My only worry about this book is how it is applied in Western universities.  Are professors of psychology assigning this to their students?  And if so, what kind of conclusions are these students reaching, with a freshman-level understanding of biochemistry?  The popularity of this book might spark a useful debate, but I can't help thinking that this sort of misinformation does more harm than good..

2011年11月16日 星期三

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov

"The Master and Margarita" was first published in 1966, though the 1966 version was heavily censored by Soviet authorities.  A complete version didn't appear until 1973, and the "canonical edition" didn't arrive until 1989.

The English edition I just read was (unfortunately) translated from the Russian by Mirra Ginsberg, who was translating from the censored version.  It saddens me that publishers are still profiting from an inferior edition of this work.  This is of course not the fault of Mrs. Ginsberg, who was only working with what was available, but any publisher even vaguely familiar with this book would know that there are better translations out there.  I bought my copy at the local Barnes and Noble, before I knew there were more authoritative versions available.

The author, Mikhail Bulgakov, was a "person of interest" in the Soviet Union throughout his life.  As an outspoken man of unquestionable talent, he was targeted by the Soviet government for most of his career, and many of his personal struggles with an authoritarian regime are detailed in the semi-autobiographical "Master and Margarita."

The novel concerns itself with Satan's visit to the Soviet Union, and all of the mischief that ensues.  As the story progresses, various individuals get caught up in the devil's schemes, often with hilarious results.  The novel is highly iconoclastic, specifically with regard to Soviet institutions, so you can imagine the kind of trouble Bulgakov was setting himself up for.  I believe that at one point he actually burned the manuscript for "Master and Margarita," and it was only published after his death in 1940.  It remains the most enduring of his works.

What I love most about this book are the surprises.  The plot has a way of turning right when you think it's going to turn left, and vice versa.  Nothing about this book is conventional, and it has to be one of the most original things I have ever read.  Yes, the long, Russian names are somewhat difficult to keep track of, but after the first half of the book this ceases to be a problem.

I can't think of a single bad thing to say against "The Master and Margarita," with perhaps the exception of the translation issues mentioned above.  It is a fantastic book, and if you haven't read it already, you should!

H.R. Giger's "Master and Margarita," inspired by the novel.

2011年11月13日 星期日

"World War Hulk" by Greg Pak and John Romita Jr.

"World War Hulk" follows the events of "Planet Hulk," in which our green friend was shot into space under the direction of Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, and Black Bolt.  Sent hurtling through the void, the Hulk eventually lands on a brutal, alien planet where he is pushed to his utmost in order to survive.

I read through most of "Planet Hulk" while I was in the Barnes and Noble, and I had a hard time choosing between that book and "World War Hulk."  Both of these comic books are BAD.  ASS.

So the Hulk is doing his King Conan thing in outer space, right?  He's got money, he's got power, and his wife is FINE.  Then this bomb totally fucks his shit up, and his wife and all his people get killed.  Eventually he figures out that those assholes that sent him into space had something to do with the explosion, and it's back to Earth for REVENGE.

"World War Hulk" made me want to go find some blonde guy and beat the living shit out of him.  This was a good feeling.  "World War Hulk" also made me want to throw people off of very tall buildings, and to spend a lot of time screaming at various foes.  I am only sorry that Thor didn't make an appearance in this comic, but maybe it's better that Thor didn't show up for this one.  The Hulk of "World War Hulk" would have given Thor the beating of a lifetime.

In conclusion: Hulk Smash!

"All Star Superman" by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

"All Star Superman" was part of DC's plan to "reinvent" their superheroes for the 2010s.  Their plan began with this comic book, and also with Frank Miller's disastrous "All Star Batman and Robin."

I'm happy to say that "All Star Superman" is A LOT better than Frank Miller's comic.  This mellow, laid-back version of Superman is a nice departure from the grimness of most modern comic books.  Superman doesn't waste any time brooding, and he comes across as a very likable guy.

The only problem is that Lex Luthor has found a way to give him cancer, and he struggles with the question of whether he should tell Lois about it.  Along the way he encounters an array of super-powered adversaries, dispatching most of them with little difficulty.

Grant Morrison's writing shines in this book.  Unlike his work on "Final Crisis," this chapter in the Superman saga feels both immediate and human.  A character like Superman is always going to be difficult to relate to, but Morrison pulls off this feat with an admirable level of polish.  Frank Quitely's art is also impressive without detracting from the story.

I may have complained about Morrison's popularity in other entries, but "All Star Superman" leaves no doubt that he is one of the best comic book writers out there.  "All Star Superman" left me with a feeling that any great story should impart.  "All Star Superman" left me wanting more.

"The Cleft" by Doris Lessing

"The Cleft" first appeared in 2007, and its author, Doris Lessing, has received the Nobel Prize for her contributions to Literature.  It is a re-imagining of our human origins, told by a Roman Senator during the reign of Nero.

On an island of uncertain location, the first women are born and die outside the presence of Mankind.  Their births are all virgin births, and their lives are spent in idle amusement.  They resemble nothing so much as a race of sea lions, without a single bull to disturb the peace of the herd.

Then, one day, the first male is born.  Thus begins the race referred to by the Clefts as "The Monsters," so named because of their "monstrous deformities."  In the beginning the Clefts attempt to exterminate this new race, though with the protection of eagles the race of Mankind somehow survives.

Of course, some of the Clefts eventually find a use for those deformities, and what follows is a contest between those Clefts who see a use for men and those who don't.  This contest forms the core of the book.

"The Cleft" is a pretty good novel, though it does drag a bit.  I had been wanting to read it for a while, though it wasn't until recently that I actually tracked down a copy.  I would recommend it if you're looking for something truly weird, though more literal-minded people probably won't like it quite as much as I did.

"Kingdom Come" by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

"Kingdom Come" is already a bit old by comic book standards, having been first published in 1996.  I can remember reading parts of it when it first came out, but it wasn't until last week that I really sat down and read this one from cover to cover.

"Kingdom Come" follows the exploits of an aging Superman, as he tries to reunite the Justice League and defeat a new generation of enemies.  Having been publicly disgraced in a trial following the Joker's death, Superman has gone into retreat within his Fortress of Solitude.  It remains for an increasingly lawless band of superheroes to draw him out of retirement.

This comic book quotes Genesis a lot, and even though it was very inventive for the time, I found it completely depressing.  I never felt like I wanted Superman to win, and I often wondered whether the alternative to anarchy that he represented wasn't just as bad as letting the "bad guys" rule the world.

"Kingdom Come" also pursues the love interest between Superman and Wonder Woman, though this part, in my opinion, fell a bit flat.  Frank Miller, for example, explored this love interest more successfully in his "Dark Knight Strikes Back."

If you want to read one of the most influential comics of the 1990s, you'll have to read this one.  Even so, there are better comics out there, and moreover comics that don't take themselves quite as seriously.  I don't have anything against biblical themes, but likening Captain Marvel to the angel of death is kind of silly - even for DC.