Sunday, February 22, 2009

Carolyn Jessop - Escape

I was profoundly moved by this book. Like "Stolen Innocence" by Elissa Wall, I appreciated that this book gave me the chance to hear about the FLDS from a first-hand perspective. I would even go to the point of saying that Carolyn Jessop is one of my new heroes for having overcome such terrible odds and having helped to take down such an evil man (Warren Jeffs, that is, since obviously the institution of the FLDS will probably be around for much longer than I will). I had heard her story before but it was so interesting to read the entire back-story and the circumstances surrounding it. I had already known a lot about what happens in the FLDS but much of what I knew was based on circumstantial fact and snippets I'd gathered from the news and other sources. I was astonished not only to discover that the abuses that have gone on are even worse than I had thought, but that the level of degradation within the family structures, religious integrity and general stability of the FLDS was in such large part due to Warren Jeffs [and that consequently, Carolyn Jessops was able to get a university degree and profession. It was great to read this after the two other books on polygamy since I found this to be the most useful and informative, the most well-written and cohesive, and perhaps even more moving than Elissa's (simply because Carolyn endured the cult's abuse for so much longer than poor Elissa did, and therefore experienced a more varied type of abuse over a much greater number of years). What really astonishes me, though, is that both she and Elissa were able to overcome the persistent psychological abuse and indoctrination they were forced to endure.  

Daphne Bramham - The Secret Lives of Saints

I really enjoyed this book, particularly because it focused on the Canadian side of such a well-known and traditionally American group. I was fascinated but disgusted to find out how terribly Canada has failed its children and women, but I'm glad that someone has finally unearthed this story and that something might therefore be done to improve it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

George Orwell – Animal Farm: A Fairy Story

Having read much of Orwell’s other work and having heard about this book intermittently for years, I anticipated that this book would be tremendously profound and enjoyable. I was tremendously gratified to discover that this book lived up to my expectations and, despite its short length, managed to concisely and effectively communicate large, universal themes without relying on overstatement or clichés and while maintaining a savvy—if somewhat limited—sense of humour. Although it is marvelously relevant to the Russian Revolution and other similar situations, I find that it is wonderfully applicable to so many other elements of human life and human relationships. 

I was struck by so many phrases and situations in this book, but I will try to focus upon the most specific and memorable ones.

“There were only four dissidents, the three dogs and the cat, who was afterwards discovered to have voted on both sides” (6). Although I’m sure someone would object to the personification of the animals along traditional, stereotypical lines that magnify the flaws in some and the virtues of others that may be unfounded (such as the assumed natural intelligence of the pigs)—since this is effectively creating a natural hierarchy within the animal world that the story is built upon and which the plot consequently expounds. However, I was thrilled with his charming characterizations of each animal, and I wish it could have been a longer piece.

“And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices…All the habits of Man are evil” (6).

“The stupidest questions of all were asked by Mollie, the white mare. The very first question she asked Snowball was: ‘Will there still be sugar after the Rebellion?’

‘No,’ said Snowball firmly. ‘We have no means of making sugar on this farm. Besides, you do not need sugar. You will have all the oats and hay you want.’

‘And shall I still be allowed to wear ribbons in my mane?’ asked Mollie.

‘Comrade,’ said Snowball, ‘those ribbons that you are so devoted to are the badge of slavery. Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than ribbons?’ Mollie agreed, but she did not sound very convinced” (10).

Mollie “had taken a piece of blue ribbon from Mrs. Jones’s dressing-table, and was holding it against her shoulder and admiring herself in the glass in a very foolish manner” (14).

“Some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial” (14).

I also loved the fact that the Animalist guidelines were referred to as “Commandments” (15), which adds the critique of religion to this already-plentiful array of cultural assessments.

“Every mouthful of food was an acute positive pleasure, now that it was truly their own food, produced by themselves and for themselves, not doled out to them by a grudging master. With the worthless parasitical human beings gone, there was more for everyone to eat” (18).

Boxer “had made an arrangement with one of the cockerels to call him in the mornings half an hour earlier than anyone else, and would put in some volunteer labour at whatever seemed to be most needed, before the regular day’s work began. His answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’—which he had adopted as his personal motto. But everyone worked according to his capacity” (18). It was at this point that I first felt the references to Russia to be somewhat obvious. They cry of “we will work harder” and the concept of each working to their own capacity is to me a clear reference to the mandates of Lenin and Stalin. Comments which indicate that “we [whoever ‘we’ might happen to be] have the hardest workers in the world” is to me a disturbing representation of a kind of mindless patriotism based upon feelings of superiority to other nations and other people. That is why I was so perturbed to hear John McCain spouting endlessly about the worth of the American worker, the value of American culture, and the validity of the American dream [since the American election of Barack Obama was so recent, I can’t help but be reminded of this particularly recent event]. His promises were no doubt intended to bolster the average American and therefore secure votes through a feeling of self-worth, but they came off to me as empty promises and a xenophobic, isolated perspective with no idea that the world outside America is full of other people who are equal- if not better- workers, parents, companions, and basic human beings. The focus upon work is obviously necessary in order to accomplish great things, but it is in the definition of the people as “good workers” rather than “good people” or members of stable families that connects this book with the Russian Revolution and all other incidents in human history in which power and corruption overrun the potential of society as a whole regardless of its inherent worth and virtue.

I particularly loved the indefatigable character of Benjamin and his perpetually cynical but realistic attitude. It says something that the one with most wisdom is not necessarily the loudest or most charming, and that cynicism is not always inappropriate.

“Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty. So far as he knew, he said, there was nothing worth reading. Clover learnt the whole alphabet, but could not put words together. Boxer could not get beyond the letter D. He would trace A, B, C, D in the dust with his great hoof, and then would stand staring at the letters with his ears back, sometimes shaking his forelock, trying with all his might to remember what came next and never succeeding…Mollie refused to learn any but the five letters which spelt her own name. She would form these very neatly out of pieces of twig, and would then decorate them with a flower or two and walk round them admiring them” (21).

“The animals had assumed as a matter of course that [the apples] would be shared out equally; one day, however, the order went forth that all the windfalls were to be collected and brought to the harness-room for the use of the pigs…Squealer was sent to make the necessary explanations to the others [I particularly love the use of the word ‘necessary’, as it perfectly captures the feeling that the welfare of the leader’s regime is the only thing that matters]... ‘Comrades!’ he cried… ‘Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science,  comrades [I adore the capitalization of “Science” here]) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers…Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back!’…When it was put to them in this light, they had no more to say. The importance of keeping the pigs in good health was too obvious. So it was agreed without further argument that the milk and the windfall apples (and also the main crop of apples when they ripened) should be reserved for the pigs alone” (23). As the prologue of my edition states, I see this to be the turning point of the story. It is the moment in which the true corruption either begins or is applied to the entire population, and is the beginning of a downslide that can only result in the destruction of their communal dream. If one breaks the rules—no matter how important they might be—the entire moral structure is threatened or even invalidated.

“Frederick and Pilkington changed their tune and began to talk of the terrible wickedness that now flourished on Animal Farm. It was given out that the animals there practiced cannibalism, tortured one another with red-hot horseshoes and had their females in common. This is what came of rebelling against the laws of Nature, Frederick and Pilkington said” (25). I personally love the fact that these are all common practices of farmers toward their livestock. The feeding of diseased, discarded animal flesh to other animals is a prime cause of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow disease) and has taken place even recently on apparently “civilized” farms (and is itself not always discouraged outside of the fear of its medical consequences). The torturing of hot iron is essentially the same as branding, and I’ve never known a farmer to mate an animal exclusively with just one partner of their species for any reason other than genetic preferability.

“I forgot that I was wearing iron shoes. Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?” (28).

“Without saying anything to the others she went to Mollie’s stall and turned over the straw with her hoof. Hidden under the straw was a little pile of lump sugar and several bunches of ribbon of different colours. Three days later Mollie disappeared” (30,31).

I also loved their divisive slogans of “‘Vote for Snowball and the three-day week’ and “Vote for Napoleon and the full manger’” (33,34). I was even more impressed to read that the eternal pessimist Benjamin “refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go one as it had always gone on- that is, badly” (34).

“they were the puppies whom Napoleon had taken away from their mothers and reared privately…they were huge dogs, and as fierce-looking as wolves. They kept close to Napoleon. It was noticed that they wagged their tails to him in the same way as the other dogs had been used to do to Mr Jones” (36). I found this to be a significant passage as well. Not only did Napoleon essentially make for himself a private army, but this was one of the first clear signs that he was becoming like the humans he fervently preached against, reinforced by the abolishment of public input in decision-making and the establishment of the panel of pigs (under his control, of course) which would make all important decisions from that point on.

I particularly enjoyed the heavily-referential and pointed language of the following passage: “‘Comrades,’ [Squealer] said, ‘I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Naploleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?...Discipline, comrades, iron discipline! That is the watchword for today. One false step, and our enemies would be upon us’… if the holding of debates on Sunday mornings was liable to bring him back then the debates must stop. Boxer, who had now had time to think things over, voiced the general feeling by saying: ‘If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right,’ And from then on he adopted the maxim, ‘Napoleon is always right,’ in addition to his private motto of ‘I will work harder’” (37, 38). I found this entire section to be quite masterful- especially the delightfully unabashed announcement that it would henceforth be a totalitarian existence, and the assertion that its leader was bearing a heavy burden of service when in reality they were simply taking advantage of whatever degree of power they could obtain. Even more interesting is the happy declaration that the leader must make all future decisions because the citizens can’t be trusted to think for themselves. Of course in this case many of them weren’t even cognizant enough to recognize that their rights were being removed or to understand or remember the details of previous decisions, but the importance of this message is in no way diminished by this fact. I also loved the quote that “if the holding of debates on Sunday mornings was liable to bring [Jones] back then the debates must stop” (37).  Boxer’s determination that “Napoleon says always right” in addition to his commitment to always working harder really crystallizes the blind devotion of those too unaware or too blithely dedicated to recognize the forces at work behind their heroes and otherwise-innocent principles. The simplicity and clarity of this phrase is wonderful, and I love that Boxer—the representation of honesty, sincerity, devotion and good intentions—is the one to promote it and thereby unknowingly encourage Napoleon further abusing his power.

I really enjoyed how Orwell illustrated the misleading and sly techniques of misinformation and social control. The steady processes by which the people’s minds are slowly manipulated and the leader’s principles [not to mention the mental subjugation required for followers to sincerely and willingly call him “Leader” (45)] are instilled is fascinating and although the timeline of this story is clearly accelerated to fit into a compressed format, I think the representations are accurate enough (and are particularly relevant, in my opinion, in the use of language and literacy to control the population and collective memory, and consequently, collective beliefs). The technique of making someone doubt their own mind is a powerful and subversive tool, and is present in general society in more ways than most people would like to think. It’s therefore comforting to see it illuminated so expressly and to have it recognized for what it is, and this is one of the first examples given in which this occurs: “[Squealer] assured them that the resolution against engaging in trade and using money had never been passed, or even suggested. It was pure imagination, probably traceable in the beginning to lies circulated by Snowball. A few animals still felt faintly doubtful, but Squealer asked them shrewdly, ‘Are you certain that this is not something that you have dreamed, comrades? Have you any record of such a resolution? It is written down anywhere? And since it was certainly true that nothing of the kind existed in writing, the animals were satisfied that they had been mistaken” (44). 

“Napoleon paced to and fro in silence, occasionally snuffing at the ground. His tail had grown rigid and twitched sharply from side to side, a sign in him of intense mental activity” (47).

“‘we know now-it is all written down in the secret documents that we have found-that in reality he was trying to lure us to our doom’” (54). What, exactly, were these documents presumed to have been? Secret correspondence between the farmer and Snowball? Snowball’s secret diary? I love that the lies don’t even have to make sense because Squealer can convince them of anything regardless of how ridiculous it is. It’s a pretty appropriate illustration of how dictatorships and totalitarian regimes work, though, because the important thing is not to understand, but to obey and repeat the party line.

“when Squealer described the scene so graphically, it seemed to the animals that they did remember it. At any rate, they remembered that at the critical moment of the battle Snowball had turned to flee… ‘I do not believe that Snowball was a traitor at the beginning,’ [Boxer] said finally… ‘Comrade Napoleon’ announced Squealer, ‘has stated categorically…that Snowball was Jones’s agent from the very beginning’… ‘Ah, that is different!’ said Boxer. If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.’ ‘That is the true spirit!’ cried Squealer” (55).

Furthermore, I find it hilarious and compelling that Napoleon awards himself medals and the highest honours for no particular reason (55). This personifies (and exemplifies) the opinion such leaders have of themselves, and further demonstrates the insignificance and ultimate uselessness of the grand, overwhelming systems they have built and utterly believe will remain in place for the rest of humanity’s existence.

“The dog shrieked for mercy and…Boxer looked to Napoleon to know whether he should crush the dog to death or let it go…Boxer lifted his hoof, and the dog slunk away, bruised and howling” (56).

I also enjoyed the inclusion of the various confessions sprinkled throughout the book- both those which were forced, and those which seemed to come of the confessor’s deluded belief that they had actually committed some crime. Confessions, spying, and other tools of controlling the citizenry are key elements of regimes such as that of Animal Farm [or as it is later renamed, ‘Manor Farm’], and they are a small but significant element in the work, for they further reinforce the relationship between the leader and his people and the environment of fear he seeks to promote and perpetuate. This is also a fundamental part of 1984, and is an essential component of both.

“Without any further prompting [the four young pigs attacked by the dogs] confessed… When they had finished their confession the dogs promptly tore their throats out…the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood” (56,57).

I also appreciate (and find quite necessary) Orwell’s description of Napoleon’s followers’ reactions to these occurrences. “They were shaken and miserable. They did not know which was more shocking- the treachery of the animals who had leagued themselves with Snowball, or the cruel retribution they had just witnessed” (57). It is both charming and obviously saddening to see Boxer’s reaction, for it describes so perfectly the internal struggle fought by those who can sense that things aren’t right but don’t have the will or the capacity to demand that things be made right; in this way the animals’ thoughts and perceptions—particularly Boxer, as he is such a simple, dedicated worker who personifies the ideal follower who dreams of a better life and trusts the leader to ensure he will receive it. “He fidgeted to and fro, swishing his long black tail… Finally he said: ‘I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. To solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings’” (57). I love this passage not only because it illustrates the effectiveness of the mantra that work will solve all problems, but it also demonstrates the complete and implicit trust the followers have in their leader. It does not even enter Boxer’s head that the leader could be wrong—much less corrupt and intentionally committing these acts with the knowledge that they went against the very principles of their society—and his blind dedication is the only reason any society with a structure like this could ever survive. However, it is shocking to realize that complacency and ignorance are a fundamental part of every society, and that governments and leaders (even—or perhaps especially—today) are permitted to do things that their citizens would normally oppose or steadfastly refuse to allow.

“As Clover looked down the hillside her eyes filled with tears. If she could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race. These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major first stirred them to rebellion. If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak, as she had protected the lost brood of ducklings with her foreleg on the night of Major’s speech…Whatever happened she would remain faithful, work hard, carry out the orders that were given to her, and accept the leadership of Napoleon. But still, it was not for this that she and all the other animals had hoped and toiled… Such were her thoughts, though she lacked the words to express them” (58,59). 

Furthermore, I find the sheep with their constant bleating of the “four legs good, two legs bad” [not to mention the later mantra of two legs better] to be an ideal and savvy representation of how the minor details and weapons of the regime can end up being the reason the leader succeeds. Throughout the story the sheep’s repetitive bleating of this simple indoctrinating ideology either distracts the animals from their attempts to create dissent or suitably interrupts the flow of argument so that any rebellious attitudes are abandoned, and is therefore an adept metaphor for both the simple and the more complicated tools through which such brainwashing and convincing can be achieved and applied. “Napoleon was better at canvassing support for himself in between times. He was especially successful with the sheep. Of late the sheep had taken to bleating ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ both in and out of season, and they often interrupted the Meeting with this. It was noticed that they were especially liable to break into ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ at crucial moments in Snowball’s speeches” (31,32). Even the simple pageantry and minimal compensation of medals, awards, speeches, marches, uniforms, and gatherings serve to fortify this feeling of camaraderie and success in even the most abysmal, abusive and essentially hopeless group. In their desire to be appreciated and their quest for a sense of belonging, people often accept poor substitutes for what they truly desire, for in the end, some compensation often seems better than acknowledging that your dream has failed and your happy ending might never arrive. Therefore although they are stripped of their encouraging song “Beasts of England” (59) and are forced to accept the meager substitute of the short “Animal Farm” poem, and even though “somehow neither the words nor the tune ever seemed to the animals to come up to ‘Beasts of England’” (60), they accept it as inevitable and simply learn to do without even the paltry comforts they had enjoyed previously. Like the inability to remember whether the past had indeed been worse because the intense desire for success is actually permitting the false illusion of improvement to go unchallenged and unrecognized (with some help from Squealer’s creative accounting skills), this slow acceptance of the new way as perpetually better, regardless of evidence to the contrary, is a remarkable development in the creation of a regime and allows any number of sins to go unnoticed or be forgiven.

“some of the animals remembered-or thought they remembered-that the Sixth Commandment decreed: ‘No animal shall kill any other animal.’ And though no one cared to mention it in the hearing of the pigs or the dogs, it was felt that the killings which had taken place did not square with this…[when they looked at the list on the barn] It ran: ‘No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.’ Somehow or other the last two words had slipped out of the animals’ memory. But they saw now that the Commandment had not been violated; for clearly there was a good reason for killing the traitors who had leagued themselves with Snowball” (61).

“On Sunday mornings Squealer, holding down a long strip of paper with his trotter, would read out to them lists of figures proving that the production of every class of food-stuff had increased by two hundred per cent, three hundred percent, or five hundred percent, as the case might be. The animals saw no reason to disbelieve him, especially as they could no longer remember very clearly what conditions had been like before the Rebellion. All the same, there were days when they felt that they would sooner have had less figures and more food” (62).

“All orders were now issued through Squealer or one of the other pigs. Napoleon himself was not seen in public as often as once in a fortnight. When he did appear he was attended not only by his retinue of dogs but by a black cockerel who marched in front of him and acted as a kind of trumpeter, letting out a loud ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ before Napoleon spoke. Even in the farmhouse, it was said, Napoleon inhabited separate apartments from the others. He took his meals alone, with two dogs to wait upon him, and always ate from the Crown Derby dinner service which had been in the glass cupboard in the drawing room. It was also announced that the gun would be fired every year on Napoleon’s birthday, as well as on the other two anniversaries” (62). Ah…the subtleties of the power-hungry dictator.

“Napoleon was now never spoken of simply as ‘Napoleon’. He was always referred to in formal style as ‘our Leader, Comrade Napoleon’, and the pigs like to invent for him such titles as Father of All Animals, Terror of Mankind, Protector of the Sheepfold, Ducklings’ Friend, and the like. In his speeches Squealer would talk with the tears rolling down his cheeks of Napoleon’s wisdom, the goodness of his heart, and the deep love he bore toward animals everywhere, even and especially the unhappy animals who still lived in ignorance and slavery on other farms. It had become usual to give Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune. You would often hear one hen remark to another, ‘Under the guidance of our Leader, Comrade Napoleon, I have laid five eggs in six days’; or two cows, enjoying a drink at the pool, would exclaim, ‘Thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon, how excellent this water tastes!’ The general feeling on the farm was expressed in a poem entitled ‘Comrade Napoleon’…and [Napoleon] caused it to be inscribed on the wall of the big barn, at the opposite end from the Seven Commandments. It was surmounted by a portrait of Napoleon, in profile, executed in Squealer in white paint” (63).

“The pigeons had been told to avoid Pitchfield Farm and to alter their slogan from ‘Death to Frederick’ to ‘Death to Pilkington’” (66).

“The pigs were in ecstasies over Napoleon’s cunning…the superior quality of Napoleon’s mind, said Squealer, was shown in the fact that he trusted nobody, not even Frederick. Frederick had wanted to pay for the timber with something called a cheque, which it seemed was a piece of paper with a promise to pay written upon it. But Napoleon was too clever for him. He had demanded payment in real five-pound notes, which were to be handed over before the timber was removed” (67).

“Smiling beatifically, and wearing both his decorations, Napoleon reposed on a bed of straw on the platform, with the money at his side, neatly piled on a china dish from the farmhouse kitchen. The animals filed slowly past, and each gazed his fill. And Boxer put out his nose to sniff at the bank-notes, and the flimsy white things stirred and rustled in his breath” (67).

“Squealer, who had unaccountably been absent during the fighting, came skipping towards them, whisking his tail and beaming with satisfaction. And the animals heard, from the direction of the farm buildings, the solemn booming of a gun.

‘What is that gun firing for?’ said Boxer.

‘To celebrate our victory!’ cried Squealer.

‘What victory?’ said Boxer. His knees were bleeding, he had lost a shoe and split his hoof, and a dozen pellets had lodged themselves in his hind leg.

‘What victory, comrade? Have we not driven the enemy off our soil-the sacred soil of Animal Farm?’

‘But they have destroyed the windmill. And we had worked on it for two years!’

‘What matter? We will build another windmill. We will build six windmills if we feel like it. You do not appreciate, comrade, the mighty thing that we have done. The enemy was in occupation of this very ground that we stand upon. And now-thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon-we have won every inch of it back again!’

‘Then we have won back what we had before,’ said Boxer.

‘That is our victory,’ said Squealer.


They limped into the yard… [Boxer] saw ahead of him the heavy labour of rebuilding the windmill from the foundations, and already in imagination he braced himself for the task. But for the first time it occurred to him that he was eleven years old and that perhaps his great muscles were not quite what they had once been” (70,71).

“It was announced…that Napoleon had created a new decoration, the Order of the Green Banner, which he had conferred upon himself” (72).

“It was a few days later than this that the pigs came upon a case of whisky in the cellars of the farmhouse…At about half-past nine Napoleon, wearing an old bowler hat of Mr Jones’s, was distinctly seen to emerge from the back door, gallop rapidly round the yard and disappear indoors again…[Squealer] called the animals together and told them that he had a terrible piece of news to impart. Comrade Napoleon was dying! A cry of lamentation went up. Straw was laid down outside the doors of the farmhouse, and the animals walked on tiptoe…As his last act upon earth, Comrade Napoleon had pronounced a solemn decree: the drinking of alcohol was to be punished by death…[the next] day Napoleon was back at work, and on the next day it was learned that he had instructed Whymper to purchase in Willington some booklets on brewing and distilling…a few days later Muriel, reading over the Seven Commandments to herself, noticed that there was yet another of them which the animals had remembered wrong. They had though that the Fifth Commandment was ‘No animal shall drink alcohol’, but there were two words that they had forgotten. Actually the Commandment read: ‘No animals shall drink alcohol to excess’” (72,73).

“For the time being, certainly, it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations (Squealer always spoke of it as a ‘readjustment’, never as a ‘reduction’), but in comparison with the days of Jones the improvement was enormous. Reading out the figures in a shrill rapid voice, he proved to them in detail that they had more oats, more hay, more turnips than they had had in Jones’s day, that they worked shorter hours, that their drinking water was of better quality, that they lived longer, that a larger proportion of their young ones survived infancy, and that they had more straw in their stalls and suffered less from fleas. The animals believed every word of it…But doubtless it had been worse in the old days. They were glad to believe so. Besides, in those days they had been slaves and now they were free, and that made all the difference, as Squealer did not fail to point out” (75).

“[The pigs] took their exercise in the garden, and were discouraged from playing with the other young animals. About this time, too, it was laid down as a rule that when a pig and any other animal met on the path, the other animal must stand aside: and also that all pigs, of whatever degree, were to have the privilege of wearing green ribbons on their tails on Sundays” (76). I like this element of ethnocentrism too…it really completes the metaphor.

“Napoleon had commanded that once a week there should be held something called a Spontaneous Demonstration, the object of which was to celebrate the struggles and triumphs of Animal Farm…by and large the animals enjoyed these celebrations. They found it comforting to be reminded that, after all, they were truly their own masters and that the work they did was for their own benefit…So that what with [the Demonstrations], they were able to forget that their bellies were empty, at least part of the time” (77).  Propaganda is always such an indispensable tool for controlling and manipulating the population.

Despite his irritatingly naïve nature, Boxer is such a charming and inherently doomed character. When he falls he says, “ ‘I had only another month to go in any case. To tell you the truth I had been looking forward to my retirement. And perhaps, as Benjamin is growing old too, they will let him retire at the same time and be a companion to me’” (80). For me, the most depressing element is not that Boxer is destined to face a heart-breaking realization—or, at the very least, be profoundly disappointed and confused that the promises he depended upon were just an illusion—but his wish that they would allow him to remain next to Benjamin. Not only is he stripped of his life and his so incredibly-deserved retirement, but he is robbed of his dear friend as well, and even the opportunity to say a proper goodbye and spend his remaining hours peacefully among loved ones. Even his meager dreams are refused him; “Boxer professed not to be sorry for what had happened. If he made a good recovery he might expect to live another three years, and he looked forward to the peaceful days that he would spend in the corner of the big pasture. It would be the first time that he had had leisure to study and improve his mind. He intended, he said, to devote the rest of his life to learning the remaining twenty-two letters of the alphabet” (81). I find this last sentence to be one of the most charming in the entire book, although it inevitably brings forth the concepts of intellectual superiority and the unfortunate trend that has occurred (particularly with globalization and its consequent sharing of language and potential for increased knowledge and competition), in which natural intelligence is mistaken for virtue and those with natural gifts are treated better than those who worked harder but couldn’t match their competitors’ inherent capabilities.

As dismal and depressing as it may be, I love the scene in which “The animals crowded round the van. ‘Good-bye, Boxer!’ they chorused, ‘good-bye!’

‘Fools! Fools!’ shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. ‘Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?’…in the midst of a deadly silence he read:… ‘Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler’…Boxer was trying to kick his way out. The time had been when a few kicks from Boxer’s hoofs would have smashed the van to matchwood. But alas! his strength had left him; and in a few moments the sound of drumming hoofs grew fainter and died away…Boxer was never seen again” (81,82,83). Ironically now that they have used up his strength, he can no longer escape their grasp which he had until that moment chosen for himself. It’s tragic that our own actions often result in our destruction, and had we made a different choice at the crucial moment we would have been saved.

Furthermore, Squealer steals the one redeeming consequence of Boxer’s death, which is the opportunity to enlighten the animals and expose their leader for what he truly was. Much like he does in other works, Orwell chooses to represent one ideal or realization as the embodiment of salvation, and then slowly pulls it from the grasp of his characters as the reader witnesses their descent into a doom that only they can anticipate, and is forced to hope until the last moment that they will be released from the terrible clutches of fate and recognize the truth that lies just beyond their reach. It is very beautiful, well-crafted and magnificently sad, and is eerily similar to his final scene in 1984.

“Squealer…had, he said, been present during Boxer’s last hours… ‘At the end, almost too weak to speak, [Boxer] whispered in my ear that his sole sorrow was to have passed on before the windmill was finished. ‘Forward, comrades!’ he whispered. ‘Forward in the name of the Rebellion. Long live Animal Farm! Long live Comrade Napoleon! Napoleon is always right.’ Those were his very last words, comrades.’” (83).

“The windmill had been successfully completed at last... [but] had not after all been used for generating electrical power. It was used for milling corn, and brought in a handsome money profit…the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally” (86).

“Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer-except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs. Perhaps this was partly because there were so many pigs and so many dogs. It was not that these creatures did not work, after their fashion…the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’ and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered they were burnt in the furnace. This was of the highest importance for the welfare of the farm, Squealer said. But still, neither pigs nor dogs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them, and their appetites were always good” (86,87).

“Only old Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be, much better or much worse-hunger, hardship and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life” (87).

“And yet the animals never gave up hope. More, they never lost, even for an instant, their sense of honour and privilege in being members of Animal Farm…their hearts swelled with imperishable pride, and the talk turned always towards the old heroic days, the expulsion of Jones, the writing of the Seven Commandments, the great battles in which the human invaders had been defeated. None of the old dreams had been abandoned... it may be that their lives were hard and that not all of their hopes had been fulfilled, but they were conscious that they were not as other animals…No creature among them went upon two legs. No creature called any other creature ‘Master’. All animals were equal” (87,88).

“The sheep spent the whole day there browsing at the leaves under Squealer’s supervision…He was, he said, teaching them to sing a new song, for which privacy was needed…It was just after the sheep had returned…that the terrified neighing of a horse sounded from the yard. Startled, the animals stopped in their tracks. It was Clover’s voice…all the animals broke into a gallop and rushed into the yard. Then they saw what Clover had seen. It was a pig walking on his hind legs…finally there was a tremendous baying of dogs and a shrill crowing from the black cockerel, and out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gamboling round him. He carried a whip in his trotter… as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating of- ‘Four legs good, two legs better!” (88,89).

“Without saying anything she tugged gently at his mane and led him round to the end of the big barn, where the Seven Commandments were written… ‘My sight is failing,’ she said finally…But it appears to me that the wall looks different. Are the Seven Commandements the same as they used to be, Benjamin?’ For once Benjamin consented to break his rule, and he read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL

BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL

THAN OTHERS.

After that it did not seem strange when next day the pigs who were supervising the work of the farm all carried whips in their trotters…

A deputation of neighbouring farmers had been invited to make a tour of inspection…That evening loud laughter and bursts of singing came from the farmhouse…[the animals] peered in at the dining-room window…There, round the long table, sat half a dozen farmers and half a dozen of the more eminent pigs, Napoleon himself occupying the seat of honour at the head of the table…as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs?...what was it that seemed be melting and changing?...a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials…Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which” (90,91,94).

This is such a poignant and beautiful ending, and completely and eloquently encompasses the themes that have dictated the story’s previous sections. Napoleon’s reinstatement of the title “Manor Farm” is an effective and clever device that communicates the point extremely well and is very impressive. I was thrilled to see such a profoundly perfect ending to such a wonderful book, and I look forward to reviewing his others.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited

Although I found it to be inconsistent, I enjoyed this book. It was so poignantly moving and emotionally honest at moments, but occasionally forayed into long descriptions and discussion that were distracting and didn't really add to or improve the story.
I also feel it is unfortunate that there is no clear conclusion about Sebastian, since I think we was one of the more interesting and potentially important characters in this work.
I found Waugh's habit of introducing the reader midway through the story to be somewhat disorienting and unsettling at times.  While I've encountered this convention before, and I do appreciate his efforts to recapitulate what has occurred in the time since the last chapter or event and how they connect, I might have enjoyed it more without this occasional breaking of fluency (although I wouldn't change the overall perspective of the book as having taken place in the past for a man who is revisiting Brideshead in the present. That I did enjoy- it was simply the various smaller diversions- such as the unexpected introduction of Julia at parts out of context and the progression of their relationship being expressed primarily through vague flashbacks and conversations- that really irked me.)
I particularly enjoyed the subtle humor and wit of Waugh's in phrases such as the following: "'Give him time. I've known worse cases make beautiful deaths'" (311). 
Furthermore, I found Lord Marchmain's deathbed conversion to be somewhat contrived (much like the ultimate unexpected and anachronistic endings that were often stuck on the end of the Marquis de Sade's work and seemed utterly unsuitable for his entire stories but were nevertheless attached, I presumed, to please the Church, government and society that still refused to endorse his writing). I would have felt this work to be much more cohesive and integrated if Marchmain had not repented [and for Charles not to have changed his mind at the last moment about Marchmain's conversion, for that matter] with no discernable explanation or rationale.  
Ultimately, I like the book but I hope his other works entail the best styles and themes from this one, and a minimum of the cluttered and inexeplicably fragmented writing that I feel damaged this text and made it much less readable and enjoyable.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Niels Hoyer (ed) - Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change

Man into Woman: The First Sex Change- a Portrait of Lili Elbe. 
I was very interested to find out about how sex changes were treated in the 1920s and '30s, particularly considering the lack of both medical knowledge and general acceptance (in European culture, at least) of multiple gender identities. 
First- on a trivial note- I was interested to read the phrase "throw up the sponge" (34). I'm familiar with the colloquialism "throw in the towel", but this was entirely strange to me. [According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was used in 1860 in the same way as "throw in the towel" is used now- to submit, or give in- and referred to "the practice of throwing up the sponge used to clean the combatants' faces, at a prize-fight, as a signal that the 'mill' is concluded"]. 
I loved the reference to feeling like "a wretched grub which is waiting to become a butterfly" (34). What a beautiful phrase.
"The reason why he [Andreas] turned his back in early manhood on Copenhagen...was because...In Copenhagen he had frequently been obliged to hear how much his pictures were preferred to those of his wife. And that was perhaps the worst thing that could be said to him. In Paris, where the contrary was generally the case, he felt at home for this very reason. He felt his wife's successes as his own successes, for his dominant characteristic was chivalry towards his wife, as towards women generally" (42). [As he wrote this himself as a prospective obituary, I can only presume that this was a legitimate and sincere intimation]. What a completely charming and lovely person! I don't know if his inherent tendency toward feminine empowerment or his sensitive side was partly  responsible for this chivalry, but he seems to me to be wonderful. I've only known a couple of people in life who have exhibited this, and it is unusual enough even in fiction. I expected to discover in this book the story of a struggle toward achieving identity, but I never anticipated finding such a marvelous personality on its own. 
Here's another outdated phrase; "neck or nothing!" (52) [occasionally "neck or nought"]. According to the OED, it is "determination and readiness to venture everything or to take all risks", or as a noun, "a situation requiring such determination". This makes perfect sense, and it's actually quite a charming phrase also.
I enjoy the delicate and gentil writing, such as "received Andreas in a very considerate manner. He put a series of questions which, although of a delicate nature, were answered by Andreas without the least hesitation...Andreas exerted all his will-power to exclude thought" (52).  
Ironically enough, the patient himself seems to be sensitive to, shocked by, and even mildly intolerant toward other people struggling with their own gender identities. "He felt intensely uncomfortable. In this large room a group of abnormal persons seemed to be holding a meeting-women who appeared to be dressed up as men, and men of whom one could scarcely believe that they were men. The manner in which they were conversing disgusted him; their movements, their voices, the way in which they were attired, produced a feeling of nausea" (54). 
I love the exaggeration inherent to such Victorian-era (and post-Victorian literature) such as "The shame of shamelessness is something that actually exists...in an effort to banish the feeling he had of standing there as if in the pillory. His emotional life was undergoing an ordeal which resembled running the gauntlet. And when this torture [an investigation into his emotional and psychologial state of "a thousand penetrating questions"] came at last to an end, the inquisitor dismissed him" (54,55). Awesome.
~~~~~~~~~

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Steve Dublanica (The Waiter) - Waiter Rant

Having read http://waiterrant.net/ in its entirety, I was very interested to finally read the book. However, I soon discovered that unlike the blog, which was primarily focused around the food service industry itself, the book tends to reflect quite a bit on the author's life. Perhaps it just seems this way because a blog is expected to be personal and heavily biographical, but in any case, I was disappointed to discover that the content of the book wasn't proportional to that of the blog. For instance, rather than creating a balanced perspective of fellow waitstaff, management and customers along with a picture of his own life and foray into the world of writing, this seemed to follow the waiter himself through his travels at the expense of the amusing and informative stories that attracted me to the blog in the first place (for example, a lot of attention was paid to the development of the book, although I noticed a distinct and somewhat surprising absence of fantasies about red-headed women with belly-button rings). A lot of the material in the book is fairly general, and I find that a lot of it was transmitted just as effectively (and more interestingly) through specific stories and restaurant interactions. Furthermore, the characters and relationships portrayed were some of the more dysfunctional ones, which gave the book a rather pessimistic feel rather than the philosophical and quixotic perspective I noticed online. Simply, I think I would have preferred more condensed reference to the staff and more in-depth attention to the varied array of customers and how you as a server interact with them.
It was quite good- don't get me wrong- but I can't help noticing the ways in which it could have been even better.
Having said that, I have some particular comments about the book.
"The world's a big place. You can't do or be everything, nor should you. Life is bigger than any one man. But when you read about other people's lives, when you read their stories, you catch a glimpse of a world bigger than your own. You may never travel a hundred miles from where you were born, but if you read stories, you'll get to see the entire world. You'll enter into the Great Mystery" (189).
Alternately, "'People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you're going to see just about all that you can handle'" - Auggie Wren from Smoke (191).
I was a little surprised to read that The Waiter comments that "doctors say one or two drinks a day are actually good for you" (213), which is apparently true of protection against heart disease, ischemic stroke or dementia, but is also being increasingly contrasted with studies that indicate that it's a fine line and that even marginally exceeding the limit may even endanger your health in general. Besides an increased risk of "cancers of the mouth, esophagus, liver, bladder, pancreas, and colon" from even moderate consumption- and this data about breast cancer- there are the obvious concerns about "liver disease, damage to the brain and pancreas, and hemorrhagic stroke", damaging heart muscle, and the obvious and immediate results of drinking that can have terrible consequences of their own. (http://www.wellnessletter.com/html/fw/fwLon07Alcohol.html)
Furtermore I was very surprised to notice that according to this site: http://www.drinkingandyou.com/site/uk/biggy.htm , Canadian recommendations for alcohol consumption appear to be half of what is suggested in the United States (for men). I find the notion of two drinks a day to be quite excessive- perhaps I'm overly-uptight, but it does add up quite quickly to a large number of units.
In any case-particularly considering recent evidence that links alcohol consumption to high rates of breast cancer in women with certain genetics- I would be conservative rather than liberal about safe alcohol consumption limits. The highest recommended level I've found (from American authorities) is 2 drinks/day for a male (1/day for females) - but note that this is referring a specific number of alcoholic units and can increase significantly (and inobtrusively) with even a few drinks being turned into doubles or a couple of nights a week becoming binge nights. So beware, everyone out there- there is some evidence that alcohol can help you, but there is a lot of evidence that too much can hurt you. So be careful!
I was also a little surprised to discover that The Waiter himself commits many of these sins himself. Lateness, abusing his power to monopolize the POS computer (particularly my least favorite- logging out other workers while they were placing an order) and other things can only foster a sense of resentment. For all his bluster about poor management, these things go beyond just annoying personality quirks or habits- these are the kind of things that bump you from the category of "annoying coworker" to, well.. something I won't type here. Furthermore, I don't care HOW big an emergency it is- bumping other servers (especially physically) can only destroy the flow of the restaurant and inevitably disrupt the harmony of the servers. Even the Waiter's admitting to intentional flatulence didn't really bother me THAT much- since repressed resentment has to come out somehow, and it's better than spitting in someone's food- but this has effectively worsened my opinion of him personally. The worst part, however? After acknowledging these things, he excuses having lied about a dropped tampon by declaring that it's her fault because she didn't keep her "bodily functions private" (236). I assure you that if the Waiter were a female, he would be complaining about menstruation as vociferously as anyone else (judging by the myriad of other things he openly admits to complaining about), but mostly, it's so petty to justify his actions by blaming women for carrying tampons. If it weren't tampons, I'm sure he would tell her she had toilet paper stuck to her shoe- which would conveniently work any time of month.
In any case, I was a little saddened to discover that the inherent dignity I thought I had detected in his blog was either intermittent or gives way under pressure- either way, it's sad to hear that even The Waiter subscribes to the same levels of petty and unkind behavior he so harshly judges others for. And I don't care if "not doing something you're not supposed to be doing isn't a sign of virtue. But in the restaurant business it almost is" (236), because this isn't about business, and it isn't about compensating on the job for what you've suffered. It's about treating fellow human beings with some respect, and every time you bump another server- physically or otherwise- doesn't help to fix whatever suffering you've endured. It simply denigrates you to the level of those you feel you're superior to.
Furthermore, I'm pretty sure that when you promised Russell Crowe that you'd never write about him again (239), he didn't care whether or not your fingers were crossed- mentally or otherwise- and I'm guessing that he wasn't just talking about your blog. You may have waited for the book, but I'm guessing that putting something into the indelibility of print impresses him even less than a blog. Just a thought.
As painful as it must be to hunt all over the restaurant for printer ribbon- at least you should be glad to find some, even if it is beside the dried pasta (244). It sure beats running frantically to the closest store to buy basic supplies because your boss is incapable of ordering proper amounts and refuses to let you control the ordering. Or even worse, as you demonstrated, the AC and the computer could simultaneously fail. So just remember that as bad as it gets, it could always be worse.
(By the way, you seem to internalize everything into your sphincter. Interesting anatomical response to stress.)
"That's like finding out someone paid a hit man $39.95 to bump you off. It's insulting" (258). I love it. And I sympathize completely... all you can hope for is that after you leave, they'll realize bitterly just how valuable you were. Sometimes that's all you can expect.
"Restaurant owners don't have any friends. This marks you as a clueless poseur the moment you walk in the door" (290). Particularly if you call them "The Owner". I would expect them to at least request the owner by name. If they don't call him by his first name, they're obviously not friends. As the Waiter has mentioned, it's sad when people assume that just because the owner has chatted with you and appreciates the vast amount of money you spend at his establishment, they're your friend. Money can buy a lot of things, but it doesn't buy friendship. Usually.
Also- I have to disagree with the issue of men placing their cell phones on the table when they sit down (291). The only reason you wouldn't do this is if you keep the cell phone in your pocket while sitting down (which hopefully means that it's tiny enough not to leave an awkward bunch in your pants), you're not waiting for a call on silent, or- heaven forbid- you have a hideous belt-clip on your phone. I would rather see every single diner keep their cell phone on the table than have to look at cell phones dangling from people's belts, a la 1992. Furthermore, if someone wants to put their cell phone on the table, it prevents them taking 20 minutes rooting around trying to answer the phone while that "stupid Godfather ring tone" dazzles everyone within hearing range. So as long as people conscientiously move their cell phones when you're trying to set down plates and don't let them get in your way otherwise, I think having them on the table is definitely the lesser of many evils.
Additionally, I can't help but recognize the patriarchal slant of much of this book. Comments like "recovering on the couch while watching Nigella Lawson's breasts bounce" (151) doesn't offend me as much as it makes me think of you, The Waiter, as adolescent, immature and ultimately interested in appealing to only male readers. While that's not a crime, it does reduce my enjoyment of the book somewhat. Just imagine how you would feel reading a presumably gender-neutral book and finding a passage like "having time to sit on the beach and gazing at curvaceous penises". It doesn't ruin it, but it sure makes you feel like the book isn't meant for you- and I assume that alienating your target audience (which is presumably people like me, since I purchased your book) isn't your goal. You might want to keep that in mind for your next work!
Finally, I believe you used the phrase "retarded" in this book. Although I can't remember where- and I'm resisting the urge to re-read the entire thing just to find this phrase- the context is irrelevant because in my opinion, that is something that is never appropriate. Being mentally challenged isn't a voluntary state. Therefore using it as derogatory slang (or even to legitimately address someone who is mentally challenged as you do in your July 6, 2005 blog post) demonstrates that you don't grasp just how fully insulting this phrasing is. Can you imagine if someone used "Steve" or "Stevish" as a general insult? If everytime someone got drunk, tripped and broke something you said, "Man, you're Steve today" or something similar? It's not about political correctness - and I'm aware that you've worked with various types of people in need and presumably have your own considered opinions about these things- but the word "retarded" should never be uttered by anyone under any circumstances. Furthermore, how do you think it makes people feel if they have a mentally challenged child, sibling or spouse and hear you use the word as a slur? It's something nobody should ever have to endure, and hearing it used as a general insult can only be distressing to everyone aware of what that word truly entails. Imagine how a "retarded" person would feel reading this book? I can only imagine how much it would hurt to see this kind of comment used for amusement with no regard of what it actually means. At this point, "man's inhumanity to man becomes that much easier to ignore" (201)... or, unfortunately, as you have shown, perpetuate.
After reading this, it doesn't surprise me that much that other servers like Saroya aren't jumping over backwards to help you when you're in trouble (273). Sometimes karma happens pretty quickly.

Ultimately though, what distresses me most is the phrase "two-dollar Bankok whore" (187). I can only assume- from having read some of your fiction on your blog- that the insensitive 1920's detective novels have altered your sense of what is ultimately acceptable in modern prose. I can assure you with complete certainty that if you had ever actually seen a two-dollar Bangkok whore, you would never even think such a terrible thing again, much less print it. It is bad enough that young women are pressured into selling their bodies, youth, health and safety to survive (you think being a waiter is tough? Try pleasuring drunk tourists for insanely low wages when you've barely reached puberty because you have no other way to support your family), but having you so lightly refer to their plight is saddening and destroys whatever point you were making. Furthermore, as I indicated above, it makes me significantly less sympathetic to your plight of working in a relatively safe, clean environment in a restaurant in the United States when you bring up the Asian sex trade industry, no matter how flippantly. Just picture that "two-dollar Bangkok whore"- or go get a picture or watch a video if you don't know what I'm referring to- and then think about the fact that this:  




















(http://www.the-diplomat.com/article.aspx?aeid=3416)
(http://www.flickr.com/photos/therainbrothers/2342252151/)(http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/photogallery/2008/05/31/1211654362234.html)
(http://www.flickr.com/photos/jphulme/2152899769/)
is what I think of when you say it.

Finally, if you want to be "'The best man in his world and a good enough man for any world'" (268), "Who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.'" (268), you need to do more than get rid of fear. You need to put yourself into the place of others and recognize that your comments do impact this world, and even justified cruelty perpetuates the cycle of unhappiness.

~~~~
Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy this book. Through it I also got to vicariously experience some things I've never personally encountered. For example, I've obviously seen many people specifically request a certain table because it's close to the fireplace or has better lighting, but I've never seen people freak out over getting a "better" table (198). Perhaps there is some social hierarchy that applies to New York that doesn't really work in my ~1 million-population prairie town, but in any case I've never witnessed that- even in some of the more expensive restaurants in the city. Don't get me wrong- people go insane for a myriad of reasons. But table placement isn't generally one of them (perhaps we're naturally gifted at reserving our tables in advance and we're not too picky about what we end up with?)
Although I liked the book, but it didn't have the same light feeling as the blog. While there was still a lot of serious contemplation in the online posts, I appreciated their concise and interesting format. I suppose it's inevitable that a book will be formatted in such a manner that the pleasantly-fragmented style of the blog is lost, but I still can't help thinking that some of the charm of the online version was lost when it was converted to print. Ideally, I would simply have taken selective posts and printed them in conjunction with appropriate alterations rather than compressing the material into traditional chapters.
Overall, I enjoyed the book- but I would advise reading the blog as well. Together they provide a much more comprehensive view of The Waiter's opinions, and it's interesting to see the changes between a relatively quickly-developed piece of prose and the polished format of the book. It's the first blog I've ever seen converted to book form, and it's interesting to see how the transition is accomplished. Despite the issues I have with the book, I have to say "Well done, Waiter". I look forward to "At Your Service!"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Jeannette Walls - The Glass Castle

I read this book a little while ago, so my recollections are fairly vague.
I found it to be well written, interesting and very moving, but I did not enjoy reading it whatsoever. I spent the majority of the time it took to finish the book in horror at the parents and system that allow children to suffer this way.
I would like to imagine that things have improved since the authour's childhood, but I'm guessing that it's not the case. While it is common knowledge (and generally accepted as unfortunate but inevitable) that children in other countries often suffer from lack of food, care and appropriate stability, it is not often realized that children in America are not always free from such troubles. Aside from the issues such as effective education or the childhood obesity debate, there are many families whose children are legitimately suffering from a lack of food, safety and psychological stability needed to allow them to properly develop without trying to raise themselves as they attempt to manage their parents.

It's been argued that the author's parents were full of life and enjoyment which gave her some happiness, but in my mind there is no excuse for that kind of abuse. I don't care if they taught her how to enjoy the world and gave her a unique perspective on life; the fact remains that what they did surely stunted her sense of security (not to mention her health, beyond her burns as a child) and her sense of how the world works.
Essentially, they were acting like selfish children themselves, and they deprived their children of the upbringing everyone deserves. I believe that people have a strong responsibility toward their children, and if they cant provide a home equipped with more than adventure and occasional exhibitions of love, they should be forced to relinquish their upbringing until they can provide adequate surroundings. I am certain that it would have caused Jeannette considerable pain to have been removed from her parents' care, but the fact remains that she endured things that no person- never mind a child- should have to endure. For this reason, I can not think of this book as anything other than a profound argument for supporting Child and Family Services. I pray that if I am ever in a situation where I can help someone suffering like this that I will take it, and furthermore - God forbid- if I myself ever discover that I have to choose between my own selfish enjoyment and giving up someone I love for their own benefit, I pray that I would have the strength to do what is best for them and not just what is most interesting for me.
I feel that their failure to appropriately love their children (by caring for them properly, such as by selling the land [in Texas, I believe] for the sake of their current and future happiness is unforgivable, and for that reason I am unable to see her parents as anything other than cautionary tales about childrearing and how it should NOT be done. I find myself profoundly angry at these parents- even more so than the FLDS parents I posted about in Stolen Innocence- because unlike the members of a cult who are motivated by religious necessity, they should know better. Anyone should know better.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Elissa Wall - Stolen Innocence

Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs.

I found this book to be profound and moving. It was wonderful to to hear this story from an inside perspective free of the rumours and myths of questionable sources (such as the media) who report on the subject second-hand and without providing appropriate context.
Having seen religious fanaticism and even participating to some extent, I found this account to be both informative and emotional. After hearing so much about these events (especially since the relatively recent raid on El Dorado), I was thrilled to find a first-hand account of not only a critical participant in the FLDS, and not only a victim of Warren Jeffs' rule, but the woman whose courage helped bring Warren Jeffs to justice. Without her it is impossible to know how long he would have managed to continue not only evading the law but tormenting so many other young women (and young men who have no reason to think their actions [no matter how hideous] are not advocated by God through the Prophet).
I appreciate the level of detail included in the book and while I'm sure it was incredibly painful for her to publish the intimate details of her experiences- particularly the rapes and the miscarriages- I think it was absolutely essential to the value of the work. Only by exposing the true extent of Jeffs' actions could she truly demonstrate who he is and how he should be dealt with, and her book was a beautiful way of accomplishing that.

I am tempted to think that as horrendous and traumatic as it must have been for her to suffer two miscarriages, there is some poetic justice in the fact that none of her pregnancies from Allen were carried to term, but the two pregnancies with her chosen husband produced two beautiful, wanted children. Obviously I understand that the primary reason for these successful births (according to what I read in the book) was the medical treatment she received for her blood type rather than some miracle from God, but it is appropriate that she not have to bear a child of a man she hates, in an emotional prison, but the children of a man she loves in a state of freedom and happiness.
Primarily, I was so thrilled to discover the happy ending to her story, but I'm saddened to discover that not only did she suffer so much and will always carry the burden of that past, but that others (including her family) are still stuck in that terrible vortex of lies, manipulation and religious abuse.

I hope that her brave actions help those she loves to free themselves from the FLDS, and I'm so glad that I got to read about her story and hear the truth about what has really happened behind the closed doors of this group. I hope too that with Jeffs' capture, this damaging and misled faction will return to the previously-happy and fair (or at least better) state it once held, and that those suffering from it will find solace in an alternate way of life free from control and pain.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A.J. Jacobs - The Year of Living Biblically

I was interested to see not only what a year of living biblically would entail, but what the process of adhering to the bible would end up being. There are so many differences between various Biblically-inspired religions and factions that it understandable that the author chose a relatively broad yet intense set of requirements (for example, his time with the Amish, his explorations into fundamental Judaism). However, I did find that the eventual book was quite biased toward traditional Judaism at the expense of a deeper look at other religions (although it's been a while since I read it so memory might not be serving me accurately as to the proportion of coverage).
In any case, I quite enjoyed this book. I felt that while it wasn't particularly applicable to all people due to the personal nature of so much of it, and it consequently read more like a diary than the strictly-religious adventure I had anticipated, I liked the application of this fundamental Biblical rhetoric being applied to the life of an ordinary, relatively-unbiased guy.
" 'the animal sacrifices weren't important. The important thing is to 'Do justice. And to love mercy. And to walk humbly with your God.'" (37).
- I was delighted to discover the mercy and compassion Abrams found during this period. So much of what people hear of religion is the element of fear and anger rather than love and grace, and I myself have had a long journey from a childhood of religious fear to a belief in God's love over fear of his angry judgement. Therefore I was especially gratified that so many of the authour's mentors seemed legitimately connected to their roles and spiritually generous rather than petty and narrow-minded.
"How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It's not like the Bible has a section called 'And Now for Some Crazy Laws.' They're all jumbled up like a chopped salad" (43).
"the Handy Seat is my little island of cleanliness. There's something safe and comforting about it" (52).
"As indisputable as the fact that the sun is hot or that Charles Darwin married his first cousin (the latter of which I learned in that encyclopedia and can't get out of my head)" (56).
"He argued that the developed nations should forgive third-world debt. Often these IOUs were left over from corrupt regimes. The Bible says that everyone deserves a fresh start. The Jubilee movement they started has resulted in massive cancellations of debt by England, France, the U.S., and others. They got a huge publicity boost when Bono and his sunglasses joined the cause. Here's what he said about Jubilee in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2006" (64,65).
"Martin Luther advocated sola scriptura in reaction to the CAtholic Church. At the risk of muddying matters, Catholicism is somewhere between Judaism and Protestantism in terms of biblical interpretation. Like Judaism, there's a middle step between you and the Bible- -namely the church doctrine. But the Catholic church's mandates are generally slightly less elaborate and complex than those of the rabbis...I'm trying to follow the word. When the Bible says, 'an eye for an eye,' I don't want to soften it to the rabbinically approved 'some money for an eye.' When it says smash idols, I want to smash idols" (70).
"'you shouldn't sing to people with a heavy heart. That'd be like rubbing vinegar in the wound.'
'So you're not going to sing to me?'
'No.'
David seems grateful for the wine, and no doubt the lack of singing as well. I love it when the Bible gives Emily Post-like tips that are both wise and easy to follow" (71).
"the Puritans left England in large part for the freedom to follow the fourth commandment. The Puritans took the Sabbath seriously: no sports, no dancing, no smoking, no visiting. You must attend church, but the Puritans 'punished anyone who got there with unseemly haste of on too showy a horse... You can see traces of the Puritan influence today--just try buying liquor on Sunday morning in Manhatten" (72).
I found this particularly interesting: "You can't make words, so Scrabble is often considered off-limits (though at least one rabbi allows Deluxe Scrabble, since the squares have ridges, which provides enough separation between letters so that they don't actually form words)" (72). I would LOVE to have heard the argument that prompted this decision, because I can not conceive that the original proclamation wasn't intended to in some way prevent the mental exertion of forming words and that their physical formatting is largely irrelevant.
Jehovah's Witnesses "don't believe in the Trinity. Jesus is not God, but instead God's first creation. (This belief is why they are sometimes seen as belonging outside of Christianity.)" (75). Why would they ever be included IN Christianity? Followers of God, perhaps, but CHRISTians? The very name of the religion specifies that Christ is the center of the belief system, not a peripherally-involved character.
Furthermore, Mormans believe that "Armageddon is coming soon-- and believers will be resurrected and live in paradise. But most righteous people won't live in heaven. Almost everyone will live in a paradise here on earth. Heaven will be reserved for 144,000 pious souls who will reign with Jehovah as divine administrators" (75). What a very tragic viewpoint. If you are the 144,001st most righteous person to ever live, you still don't achieve heaven where you will be with God. And being the 144,001st most righteous person would be no easy feat, either.
"The Witnesses don't celebrate Christmas or Easter, as neither holiday is mentioned in the Bible. Birthdays are also out: The only two birthdays celebrated in the Bible were those of evil people--one a Pharoah and one a pro-Roman Jewish king" (75).
Finally... "There is no hell. The Witnesses believe hell is a mistranslation of Gehenna, which was an ancient garbage dump. They say that nonbelievers simply die at Armageddon, rather than being thrown into an inferno. 'How can you have a kind and loving God who also roasts people"' he asks" (76). This is, of course, a main problem that many people have with any religion that DOES advocate severe punishment such as hell.
"On the other hand, there are plenty of times when life takes precedence over obeying rules. Jesus lashes out at the Pharisees who criticize his followers for gathering grain on the Sabbath. Likewise, in modern Judaism, life trumps all. Even the most kosher rabbi would allow his followers to get pigs' valves put in their hearts if necessary (despite a misleading Grey's Anatomy plotline to the contrary)" (77) To be fair, though, the girl was the one who insisted that she shouldn't have a porcine valve, not any rabbis (as I recall), and she was peculiarly stubborn while those around her were more liberal and reasonable.
"Bertrand Russell--the famously agnostic philosopher--said there are two kinds of work in this world: altering the position
of matter on earth, and telling other people to alter the position of matter on earth" (80). I agree and I find that unless I do something every day to move matter myself- doing the dishes, gardening, brushing the dogs- I feel out-of-touch and restless. I have to say that to me, this is like the difference between those who have had "real" jobs in which they have been trampled, shot down, abused, forced to work with the public, and generally instructed on what it's like to be a working person. The rest are those who have gone directly from school to a profession or a teaching position and have never once had to deal with a customer complaint, field a return, or wait through a 15 minute phone call of some irritating and insane customer who grates your nerves and destroys your day. While some people develop an appropriate sensibility about others without these experiences and some who have these experiences never develop an ability to understand others, I find that in general, anyone who has gone through the trials of ordinary, demeaning working life in the "real world"- for even a relatively short period of time- is a fundamentally more understanding and improved person than those who have not. Although again, this is a vast generalization that by no means applies to everyone. I feel that moving matter is the same way- some people move themselves and move things themselves,
while others only know how to direct other people to work and to move everyone's things to their liking.
"Did I really need to get so angry at the juggler at the street fair who stopped juggling to take a cell phone call? And then talked for, like, fifteen minutes while Jasper looked on all eager and hopeful?" (81). It's a lot easier to suffer than to watch someone you love suffer, I find.
The Prophets "berate the hard headed rich who lie on beds of ivory and sip wine contentedly and 'trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth'" (88). I wish the entire planet would take a note from this. Seriously.
"Maybe my alter ego Jacob is in the prophetic tradition of Ezekiel. I hope so. On the other hand, he could be way off. I imagine that for every Ezekiel, there were a couple hundred false prophets walking around Jerusalem with, say, loincloths on their heads and eating clumps of dirt" (89).
"Even with pebbles, it i surprisingly hard to stone people... I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on his shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history--I said, 'I'm sorry,' and then leaned down to pick up the pebble. And he leaned down at the same time, and we almost butted heads, and then he apologized, then I apologized again. Highly unsatisfying" (92).
"As for supplication, I'm doing it, but I feel greedy asking God to help my career. Should I really be cluttering His in-box by asking for better placement of The Know-It-All at airport bookstores?" (95).
"In Deuteronomy, the Bible says that we should thank the Lord when we've eaten our fill--grace after meals, it's called. Christians moved grace to the beginning of the meal, preappetizer. To be safe, I'm praying both before and after" (95). At this point, I think it would feel sacrilegious to pray after I'd eaten, as though the food weren't properly blessed or something. Since I'm used to it, I suppose, it feels normal that I thank God before I partake rather than after I've had all wanted. Although maybe I'm just lazy and don't want to worry about forgetting to pray after the meal is over.
"if you really want to be biblically safe, you should go much further. You should avoid almost all negative speech whatsoever...'any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual-even when the slanderous or defaming remarks are true-which if publicized to others would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, anguish, or fear'...In Hebrew, evil tongue is called Lashon hara, and the rabbis compare it to murder" (99). I used to be quite disciplined about this but recently I've gotten pretty comfortable with having an evil tongue. I should probably work on that.
Regarding his attempts to forego imagery and drawing and how it became difficult to play with his son Jasper: "I figure Platonic shapes are OK. I make a circle.
'Car!'
'You want to see a square?' I make a square.
'Nemo,' says Jasper. (Nemo is Jasper's word for any type of fish; as a good protoconsumer, he speaks in brand names.)
'Here you go' I say, making an oval. I'm starting to run out of shapes.
Jasper seems disappointed by my Play-Doh geometry. I feel ridiculous for refusing to make him a fish, but I also know that I have to do this experiment full bore, or else I'll risk missing out on key spiritual discoveries. No cutting corners" (105).
These moments in the book are some of my favorite (although, as I said before, they're increasingly personal and less strictly about the religious elements involved). Not only the humour and wit, but also a demonstration of Jacobs' dedication to this task. I too am a perfectionist- one who can never complete something too perfectly, and who must attempt to do everything as well as possible or not at all. This gives me tremendous respect for him and makes the book increasingly valuable, for I feel that I can trust that he fully underwent the experience as I would have done, and that his resulting ideas are consequently valid.
I ADORE the fact that some 14th-century German Jews refused to create the likeness of a human, but were happy to "bird-headed humans" in their books because "the commandment forbids the likeness of anything in heaven or earth--and, technically, bird-headed humans don't exist in heaven or earth" (106). Although I have to say that in my opinion, this loophole doesn't work. It's like drawing a tiny hippo next to a large robin and arguing that real hippos aren't that small, so it isn't a representation of something on earth. Then again, at this point in history they may also have been arguing that the earth was flat or that bathing caused illness, so I really can't say that I'm surprised that their reasoning was significantly different from mine.
"If everyone on earth is descended from two identifiable people--Adam and Eve--then the 'family of man' isn't just pabulum. It's true. The guy who sells me bananas at the deli on 81st Street- he's my cousin" (107).
I also agree with the comment about human pride and its conflicting combination with excess humility. It's baffling to have two such strong and opposing convictions thrown at you- and as someone who has struggled with these ideas all my life- I can tell you that it never quite balances out to any reasonable conclusion that makes sense to the human mind (or my human mind, anyway).
Note to the author- the anecdote about the code word "Helmet" is my favorite in the book. I've relayed to my mother- and although it's on different issues- I have a feeling that this system will prove to be invaluable. So thanks for the laugh and the free communication tools.
"It's just that these kids are so fragile, you know? They've only got that mushy little skull separating their brains from the sidewalk. They have only two years of an immune system built up" (108). I couldn't agree more. I've literally spent hours wondering how any human beings actually make it to adulthood, and the only conclusion is that it's a consequence of their caretakers losing years of sleep and all their hair turning grey.
Oh- and for the record- I agree with Julie that it's "demented" for you to want Jasper to live in the same town as you, and to not develop interest in other countries as a precaution. The single greatest thing about my life has been my exposure to the world around me, and the further I go from home the better a person I become, and the more I understand myself. So my advice; don't hold Jasper too closely or when he breaks free he might wander really really far.
"'It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting' - Ecclesiastes 7:2" (109). Oddly enough, I actually agree with this sentiment, and not just for religious reasons.
"The Lord will 'smite you with... mildew'" (113). Of all the curses I've not heard of, this is probably the most peculiar. Is mildew really that terrifying? I guess perhaps it would be a LOT of mildew but in any case, it's something I would never have expected. (113).
"It goes on to say that you shall be reduced to eating your own children [perhaps this is the source of all the bizarre anti-Semitic urban legends about people eating their children in times of desperation. Probably not, but it would make more sense than anything else] and trying-unsuccessfully- to sell yourself as a slave. That's right. You aren't good enough for slavery" (113).
I learned quite a lot from this book about Jewish compassion and - to be more specific- the wisdom of Jewish elders. Not having known many rabbis and never having been deeply exposed to the religion itself, I didn't really have any idea of what most (or the worst and best) rabbis were like. I'm glad to hear that their interpretations tend to be compassionate and flexible for good reason, as Jacobs points out with his mention of the Chasid Shote on page 119.
*On a personal note, the idea of intercessory prayer [ON DEMAND, that is] drives me CRAZY (page 127). It makes perfect sense to me when it's for someone I know or for a condition that I personally decide is worth praying about or that touches me enough to pray about, but I can't stand it when random strangers ask for prayer or people DEMAND that God give them something (especially something trivial) without realizing that they should be praying for HIS WILL to be done. Don't get me wrong- I'm happy to pray for any random person who asks for help, and I do. I just think it's peculiar and I don't think we should treat prayer so lightly and as a wishing well from God. Although I think Abraham's efforts are beautiful and self-sacrificing, I can't imagine that God would be pleased with humans expecting their every little wish to be granted simply because they took a moment to specifically ask Him about it. Although it makes me feel better to balance it out with thanks- if I thank him for a number of things and then ask him for something (ending with "Your will be done"), and if I'm generally thankful for what I have rather than constantly desperate for more, I don't feel this way as much. But it still tends to irk me sometimes.
Don't even get me STARTED on intercessions from the Saints. Catholicism and I don't agree about a lot of topics, and that's an important one. But I digress.
I too am baffled about the Song of Solomon and the Bible's general views on sex. And I to feel that although it does seem to imply that the lovers are simply young, in love and unafraid to show it (134), I can't help feeling taunted that "The Bible isn't free-love manual, though", particularly (as Jacobs points out) in the case of homosexuality. As someone who believes that homosexuality is a natural orientation, I find it hard to reconcile the Bible's demands on this topic with God's messages of love.
Not to mention polygamy... the advice of Paster Don (page 136) that he has seen "preemptive strike" polygamous marriges work (where a man simply gets married to a second wife and only afterwards announces it to his first) is astounding to me. If my husband came home and announced to me that he'd married and slept with some other woman, I would have lawyers dividing our assets before he could finish explaining himself and introduce me to her. I'm assuming Pastor Don was speaking of people whose wives were already more accepting of this kind of marriage anyway, but it's certainly not something anyone I know would embrace or even begin to tolerate. [Speaking of which- I'm not actually morally opposed to the idea of polygamy or people choosing for themselves what form their marriages should take. What I AM against is the institutionalization of polygamy that has recently been exposed in certain FDLS groups in the United States such as Warren Jeff's group, which consistently marginalizes and brainwashes both women and men for the benefit of just the leader. That kind of abuse- particularly against children- is what concerns me, not the plural marriages].
I have to say that I love Mr. Berkowitz and his dedication to truth amidst his passion. "Well, I don't do that. That's an exaggeration. But I like to be on time. I don't want to run like a madman. I walk briskly" (142). Awesome.
I like the ideas about "freedom from choice" (142). I agree that a certain amount of mindlessness is liberating, and that all too often our physical or trivial preoccupations inhibit us from being fulfilled on any other level.
I love the analogy that the Bible's conflicting rules are "like an M.C. Escher drawing. It hurts my brain" (143). Me too, Mr. Jacobs. Me too.

Now this is my favorite part of the book- the discussion (well, the section, anyway) about the sins of the father being visited upon the sons. I feel that I have been enlightened through this section, and that I now understand this more fully and can feel at peace about these seemingly-vengeful passages. So thank you, Mr. Jacobs. If you wonder whether your book actually did fulfilled any purpose aside from being a very interesting and stimulating experiment for readers to vicariously experience, please know that it has.

"perhaps in vitro fertilization is the same. It's ethically complicated, but maybe our child will be great. Or maybe I'm justifying like crazy here" (147). I recommend the movie Gattaca for a less-religious and very entertaining treatment of this subject.
"sometimes- the entire world takes on a glow of sacredness, like someone has flipped on a unfathomably huge halogen lamp and made the universe softer, fuller, less menacing. I spend a lot of time marveling...I feel like I just took my first bong hit. I feel like Wes Bentley rhapsodizing about that dancing plastic bag in American Beauty" (153). Whew. I thought I was the only one.

I too wonder about the importance of sacrifice in our lives, but since I'm Christian and I believe that Christ already died for my sins (and the rules of the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures are no longer applied), I'm conveniently excused from worrying about it. It feels like a cop-out but I think the argument stands well enough for my current peace of mind.
"I know the rotisserie chicken I get at Boston Market did not die of natural causes. It did not drift off to eternal sleep in its old age surrounded by loved ones and grandchicks at a chicken hospice. It had its throat slit too. But modern society has done an excellent job of shielding me from this fact" (164). I understand completely, and I too am thankful that God has spared us this requirement.
"My hope had been to leave cucumber 'gleanings'" (166). A fantastic quote, whether in or out of context.
"When I strummed my harp during a recent stroll...a white-haired man near Rockefeller Center started yelling at me 'A ten-string harp? The Bible actually says an eight-string harp, not a ten-string harp!' He could have been playing with my mind, or he could have been your garden-variety crazy, hard to tell" (169).
"Why the food taboos? The Bible itself doesn't give a reason. I'd always though they developed as a primitive way to avoid trichinosis and other nasty diseases...The more popular theory nowadays is that the food bans were all about creating holiness and separation. The Isrealites wanted to keep themselves apart from other tribes such as the pork-loving Philistines. They were marking their territory with menus" (170). If so, this seems to me to be a rather unfortunate selection of convenient, delicious and easy-to-raise creatures (particularly rabbits and pork).
Another charming anecdote:
"'Do you know if the piecrust is made with lard?'
'I don't think so, but I'll check.'
'Thanks. I can't eat lard.'
'Allergies?'
'No, Leviticus.'
It's a conversation stopper, that one" (171).
"'Mr. Jacobs, Unfortunately there would not be any way for us to guarantee the age of the plants from which our suppliers pick the blackberries'" (172). Awesome.
"(My aunt Marti, the vegan and animal rights activist, found out about my honey eating and sent me a rebuking email. The subject header was 'The bitter truth about honey.' She listed all the ways the commercial honey industry mistreats bees. I won't repeat it here, but her description of artificial bee insemination was disturbingly graphic. She signed the not, 'Your eccentric aunt Marti.')" (173). I love it. Not the abuse, of course, but the eccentric aunt Marti.
I was delighted to learn about the unavoidable bug fragments in all commercially-produced foods (176), how the Bible can promote "solitaire version[s] of musical chairs" (177), that someone else has respect for the elderly beyond the moments when they're particularly vulnerable (178), that the Talmud bans walking constantly in a proud and non-humble posture (178), that kindness can be misinterpreted and get you into all kinds of peculiar trouble [although I too am familiar with the high that accompanies unrequired good deeds] (179), you shouldn't "round the corners of your heads. -Leviticus 19:27 (KJV)" which must be upsetting all those women who still subscribe to the hair styles of the 1980s (180), that a new set of tassels can really change your look (180), "Apparently the pagans cut and shaved the sides of their hair short, perhaps, says one commentator, to give it the shape of a 'celestial globe,' perhaps as some sort of mourning ritual" (what happened to the ban on rounding your head?) that is a challenging fact for those who are not "a robot or carton sponge" and whose heads are "reasonably ovoid" (182).
Furthermore, there are intricate rules about how to treat mother birds sitting on their eggs- which can be fulfilled in Manhatten apartment buildings, thankfully (185), but it's challenging to know when it's correct to follow the rules and when it's better "not to pester the pigeons with a high-wattage flashlight and a crazy dance" (188).
I am scarily familiar with the habit of retroactively and irrelevantly bargaining with God that is "a macabre game, and a waste of God's time" (189). I'm sad to say that a good portion of my childhood was spend playing games in my head such as "If my feet aren't touching the ground when the teacher stops talking, I'll get to go to the movies" and other such nonsense. Sometimes it was more sincere, but often it was simply compulsive and pretty OCD. I managed to quit it, but I'm glad to find out that I'm not the only one.
However, sometimes it seems to work. Apparently prayer can work in mysterious - and speedy- ways (190), but I'm hoping that the 'killer bionic hornets' don't end up being so directly successful (192).
And if Revelation was indeed referring to then-current political climates, I fear for how today would have been described (192).
It's an interesting theory about dedication and belief, but I'd be interested to hear if it's true that perhaps "spirituality attracts [one] for its novelty factor" (193). I wonder what the eventual determination on this issue was, and if the impact of having the commandments branded onto your consciousness continues to affect you in the distant future (197).
"I used to envy Jasper whenever I rolled him into a human burrito in his swaddling blanket" (199). I don't know which is my favorite phrase- "human burrito" or "swaddling"- but I love them both. Great mental images.
"'He who winks his eyes plans perverse things... -Proverbs 16:30'" (205). Oh man am I in trouble, although my winks are generally not of the creepy type [at least they're not intended to be], and I hope they don't invite the "winkee into being a part of [my] little cabal" (205).
It's also an interesting exercise to remember the difference between religion as a self-serving institution/set of practices and a way of pleasing God (208), and to think about the "Jerusalem syndrome" (209), which I have experienced in enough European churches to understand and sympathize with completely.
I love the story of the shepherd's rod (212), and the practice of throwing stones at wayward sheep to get them to return to the flock (212), which is a pretty adequate metaphor for a lot of parenting and teaching techniques.
I can believe that "only the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism" (213), although I'm pretty glad I happened to have been born in a country that has embraced this idea.
It's nice to be "used to understatement and hedging and irony", and it is interesting to question the nature of God's desiring our praise (220). Although it's nice to know that your creations appreciate you- if you raise puppies, it's nice to see that they love you, and if you cook something it's nice to know that it tastes good. So I can see how God might appreciate praise from his creations, but it does feel strange to be prompted for this praise, because then its sincerity might legitimately be questioned.
My mother has always used the phrase "God willing" (236) completely sincerely every time she mentions something that hasn't already happened, and it's not only endearing, but has helped me to develop a more grateful attitude. When I get off a plane, I find myself thanking God that we've landed safely even if all the other passengers are moaning about how it was late or crowded. The little things seem more significant, and it's easier to appreciate the world when you realize how easily it could all be taken away, how fragile life is, and how important it is to "squeeze all I can out of that vapor" (237) of life.
I've always been interested by the story of Jacob and Esau, and I like the treatment this book gives to the subject (239) although like the author, I find the breadth of translation, meaning and interpretation to be daunting to say the least.
I was unaware of the impurity laws regarding other men (240), although I have to say that I'm comforted that women are not the only ones to suffer from being occasionally ostracized due to their bodily functions (as Jacobs points out on page 241).
I adore the fact that the author's father checks the Amazon ratings daily for his son's rankings, and always represses negative reviews, "which makes him want to hug [his father]- if [they] weren't both so repressed (242). I can relate to this in so many ways.
--> Here's a contraindication to the entire concept visited previously about the "sins of the father will be visited on the sons" concept. If indeed that is a warning to be a good person to perpetuate happy, healthy children rather than a curse on future generations, then what is this about? Does it imply that Ham's sons are suffering for having learned from their father's terrible ways, or is it actually indicating that their suffering is directly resulting from this sin? I don't really appreciate the ambiguity here, but since that's one main point of this entire experiment/book and something the author has suffered from excessively during this journey, I can't really complain.
I love the exchange of "'Oh, religious?' He puts his hands in the air and backs away. He looks flustered, like he just stepped on my cat's tail or got caught feeling up my wife. 'Leave it there, leave it there'" (243).
I also love the concept of having a "one and only rabid fan" (243), and I'm frankly kind of surprised that his intern accepted the proposal of being called a "slave" (245), not so much because it's demeaning- considering that I imagine being an intern would generally involve a LOT of demeaning elements beyond that- but because it makes you wonder what someone's second demand would be if their first one is to call you a slave. Although it does make perfect sense that the "closest thing to legal slavery in modern America" is an "unpaid internship" (245). I would have to completely agree.
From what I can tell, the most obviously dangerous ramification of confusing and conflicting Biblical advice is the possibility of misinterpretation- or even worse, deliberate manipulation of what's written (247) to correspond to your own wishes.
"Life isn't just a series of molecular reactions. There's a divine spark in there. The official term is 'vitalism'" (248), and it's nice to hear that there's an official term for it and I'm not the only one to subscribe to this idea.
Too much of faith is reduced to the "just in case" rationale (249), and it's too easy to get caught up in the mentality of preventing going to hell and just doing whatever is necessary to squeak your way into heaven. It's something I've experienced myself, and I can understand the perspective of agnostics and athiests when so much of religion is treated like an insurance policy against condemnation or eternal punishment.
"...this kindly old octogenarian woman tells me that she is worried about making it across Boradway's six lanes alone, and could I maybe help. I'd be glad to. Though actually ecstatic is a better word...I am so happy about the situation, I stay with her for another several blocks, which, oddly enough, doesn't creep her out" (249).
"'It's a different way of looking at the world. Your life isn't about rights. It's about responsibilities'" (251).
There's an interesting quote from Matthew 5:17-18 which describes that "till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (254). That does lend some credence to the ultralegalist camp, I suppose.
Then again, the contrasting concepts of Matthew 22:37-39 are just as profound, and I should probably examine the nature of Jesus' actions repudiating the Old Testament rules before I accept them wholeheartedly.
I sympathize with the feeling of connecting to one's roots/upbringing, and the idea that you should try to adhere to your own family beliefs. It must be interesting for people with committed parents of vastly differing heritages- I wonder if they end up conflicted, or just more open-minded than others?
In reference to Jerry Falwell, I find it encouraging that someone else recognizes that his "version of Christianity bears practically no relation to Jesus's message...'and in most cases, it's the exact opposite of Jesus's message. Jesus's message was one of inclusion. Theirs is of exclusion'" (258).
The references to Falwell's ideologies regarding homosexuality and pretty much every other element of humanity are distressing, but not surprising. Although I found it charming to say that "his magazine crowbarred poor purse-carrying Teletubby Tinky Winky out of the closet" (260).
"Sometimes you'll get a crazy 'Let's assassinate Hugo Chavez'-type comment" or information about "'age-defying protein pancakes'" but apparently "the radical wing of the Christian right is a lot more boring than its liberal detractors would have you believe"... although the mention of '"soul winners'" does smack of a daily life involving something other than cheerily spreading happiness and acceptance (262).
I love that in response to the "gay issue", one of Falwell's pastors, Tom, has "'a lot of gay friends'" who actually turn out to be "formerly gay people trying to overcome their gayness" (263). And I love the summary of the love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin concept as similar to "saying that we should love Jesse Jackson, except for the fact that he's black" (263). Ahh.. intolerance. All types of intolerance coalesce so nicely, don't they?
I find the arguments dispelling the anti-gay parts of the Bible to be tenuous at best.
In the same way that the Bible seems to denigrate women, I do think that the Bible shouldn't always necessarily be interpreted in the most friendly way possible, and I think the passages on homosexuality are pretty clear (266,267), particularly in passages not quoted in this book. The concept that Biblical homosexuality is a reference to disgrace rather than romance seems like re-contextualizing rather than contextualizing appropriately, and just as the Bible seems anti-female, I think it is legitimately anti-gay. (Since I myself am female, I don't say this with disregard for the significant impact the Bible's comments have had on gay people and their treatment in society; I simply feel that to summarily dismiss this as a misunderstanding of translation is overly -optimistic and not particularly sensible).
"I feel myself becoming an extremist--at least in some areas. Like with my obsession with gratefulness. I can't stop. Just now, I press the elevator button and am thankful that it arrives quickly. I get onto the elevator and am thankful that the elevator cable didn't snap and plummet met to the basement...thankful that Jasper is home and healthy and stuffing his face with pineapple wedges" (268). I occasionally fall into this spiral too.. it's kind of addicting, actually, especially in a life and culture where I am so legitimately blessed.
The matter of Biblical interpretation will never be adequately sorted out, and it's inevitable that different groups will choose different positions and irritate those with differing opinions, but sometimes I have to agree that perhaps we should be taking the directives of being peaceful, helping the poor, and loving one another more seriously (270).
I too am intensely distressed to see political and religious topics mangled up together- in the same way that some people equate war with America (as some people do), it's really concerning to see "'Fighter jets mixed up with the cross'" and God Bless America equated with religious dedication (271). This is such a terrible symptom of the way religion has been manipulated to promote all the wrong things, and eventually, xenophobia and hatred. It's no coincidence that America is increasingly hating non-America along with non-Christianity, and the increase of religious intolerance (such as anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly in the wake of 9/11) is both astonishing and profoundly saddening to me.
Also, apparently "Christians should not seek political power but instead seek to have ''power under' others--winning people's hearts by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did.'" (271,272). What exactly about Rick Warren screams "sacrifice" or "avoidance of power"? Furthermore, doesn't it defeat the purpose of sacrifice and kindness to be secretly questing for "power under" the recipient?
I appreciated Jacobs' mention of the copyright symbol on Warren's work, even if he does tithe 90%. And I'm not sure whether I'd prefer that Pastor Warren not mention his donations (to increase the legitimately selfless and Christian nature of the giving) at all, although I like that it's in fine print. Of course this is a frivolous complaint, but since the entire book is about living by Christian principles I don't think it's an unreasonable thing to think about- especially considering Jesus teaches that "When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men" (272).
I too tend to engage in conditional forgiveness, in which I mentally tabulate what is owed to me as a result of my kindness/compassion and I think I need to work on this - but at what point do you forgive things that perhaps shouldn't be forgiven or are still happening? Forgiveness is hailed as a cardinal virtue, but I don't know if it's unilaterally the most productive action to take in every situation (274).
Oddly enough, when I was young I also used to feel I was being secretly observed, although I wasn't hardcore enough to "brush my teeth in a rakishly nonchalent manner" to look "cool even when doing dental hygiene" (275). I think it was compounded by the awareness that God was always watching and judging (remember, I tend to focus on the judgement rather than the love).
I love how Jacobs applies these lessons to his parenting- in particularly astute fashion. "The best punishment should be a sacrifice--you sacrifice a pleasant afternoon, you sacrifice some in-the-moment affection, to give them a better future" (279). Along with all the times parents drug their kids with sugar, pacify them with toys or throw them in front of the TV to sedate them, I think one of the most frequent and terrible parenting techniques I see is parents who not only spare the rod but directly spoil the child for their own enjoyment. I can understand people desperately needing a break from their kids and trying to get one while the kid is occupied with games or TV, but it's quite a different thing to let your children do whatever they want and wreak holy hell as they "express themselves".
Finally, it drives me absolutely insane to see parents who don't adequately train their sons to be responsible adults. I have met so many boys- in all stages of life- who simply can't process the idea that communicating with their girlfriend, helping to do the dishes, mowing the lawn, occasionally giving her a break by volunteering to babysit the kids or make dinner. Their parents never taught them even the most basic rules of relationships, and boys seem to be raised these days just as manuals from the 1950s recommend. They're taught that they need to be strong, silent and the breadwinner, but they're not taught anything about how relationships work in today's society where women are often in the business world and are responsible for more than just housekeeping and being a subservient piece of decoration. Obviously not all women were like this in the '50s, but since the rise of feminism you would think that things would have changed somewhat. Clearly I'm biased- but I do feel that my argument is legitimate, and it does correspond well to the notion that a certain degree of discipline during childhood correlates to more responsible, balanced and happy adults (279).
It is remarkable how swearing can either be commonplace and seem completely normal, or can be a shocking and startling occurrence because you're not used to it (282). Even the basic censoring that we do depending on who we're around changes our attitude more than one would expect, and it's interesting to see how we can selectively manipulate this personal censorship.
I like the descriptions of the "status-quo motif and liberation motif" perspectives (284). At the moment I'm opting for obeying neither (to some extent), and so far it's been working fairly well.
I do find it peculiar that Jesus would say "seventy times seven" if he meant an infinite number (289), since humanity has enough to try and decipher from the Bible without having to make assumptions about even the most simple of directives.
At least God gives us an out by suggesting that we shouldn't be obsessed with taking everything literally (290), which is a gleaming ray of hope in the challenging quest to obey God and the Bible, in which we don't even understand all the words (307).
Sometimes I wish I had a preacher who punctuated his sentences with "huh" (297). Preaching is all too often solely a scholarly exercise with no attempt to invigorate, and it would be nice to occasionally have some real enthusiasm coming at me where religion is concerned.
I love the following: "'Humans are a fascinating species.' As if our struggles are all for his intellectual amusement" (276).
I have to say that I concur about the likelihood that the sexiest Soup Kitchen volunteers are consistently out front is intentional. As Peggy once put it on "Mad Men" when developing an ad campaign for popsicles, the "Catholic Church knows how to sell things". Do they EVER.
I think if someone offered me the chance to wash my feet (304), I'd probably take them up on it. But given that I'm constantly traipsing around in broken flip-flops, my feet are generally significantly dirtier than the bottom of most people's shoes, so I'd likely have to wash my feet with a lot of soap, RUNNING water, and some kind of drain to wash away the filth. And I definitely wouldn't let someone else wash my feet for me- I agree, it is a surprisingly intimate thing.
I find it unfortunate that a random passer-by felt the need to give you the finger just because of what you were wearing (305), but it doesn't surprise me that in an enormous metropolis like New York, the swirling anger and pent-up frustration is eventually expressed toward even the most inoffensive and peaceful inhabitants.
"'He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.'-Proverbs 17:5" (310). I don't know if I've just been brought up Biblically enough that I've incorporated this into my world view, but I've always been the kind of person who feels sad when toddlers fall over on America's Funniest Home Videos or when a hearse drives by. Maybe I'm just an "overly virtuous sap"... but I haven't yet watched Pay It Forward. Fingers crossed...
I'm counting on God's promise that we're not accountable for every tiny thing... although sometimes I think I'm missing some of the really important rules (314).
I find it really peculiar that Orthodox Jews are required to be absent while their wives give birth. If he was present for conception, I can't imagine that God would want the husband to leave his wife to go through something so traumatic alone (314)- especially since he's partly responsible, and he will be sharing in the benefits of having the children. It just seems odd to me that God would give men the role of impregnation but biologically, nothing beyond that.
Furthermore, I find the purity laws to be particularly troubling in cases like these. If a woman is impure for a week after giving birth, I can only imagine that it would necessarily deprive her of the comfort and enjoyment of her husband's closeness immediately after the birth (315). What happened to the beautiful, iconic image of the new parents snuggling around their new baby, a happy, close little family? These rules don't seem just strict but against the reasonable biological expectations of people in the most beautiful moments of their lives.
I find it sad that some circumcised men feel deprived (318), but it makes me think of intersex, hermaphrodite, and multiple-gendered people and how marginalized they are. As distressing as a lack of foreskin must be, it brings into sharp relief the magnitude of the struggle that people face when undergoing transgender operations-not to mention the sometimes-lifelong struggle for identity and the discovery of true inner identity. So I wish these men all the best with their re-circumcisions, but I'm fairly certain that regardless of modern medicine's advancement, nothing can ever reproduce what you would have had if you could go back in time to infancy and grow up with a naturally-developing genital area full of foreskin and happiness. There are very few surgeries that can actually restore sensation to any part of the human body, and I seriously doubt that even the most skilled surgeon could reconstruct something so fragile and sensitive to any degree that would resemble natural foreskin development.
As for the notion of "Cafeteria Christianity" (327), I think that what fundamentalists are missing is the fact that the Bible hasn't been selectively picked over and just accepted for the "nice parts". Instead, in keeping with Jesus' command that we live with compassion and practice love over the harsh judgement of the Old Testament, we need to recognize that God's love forgives more than his judgement condemns, and that the greatest thing is indeed love. Therefore any rules that contradict the love of God and Jesus (post-crucifixion and resurrection) are displaced in favor of the new canon of compassion established through Jesus's sacrifice. In other words- there is a rationale. Just not as judgmental and harsh one as fundamentalists might feel accountable to. It is important to remember that "no one is righteous--not even one" -Romans 3:10 and that without this compassion, NONE of us can uphold the law and none would be saved. Furthermore, we can't be obsessed with following the words of the Bible (329) at the expense of what God tells us directly in prayer and through our life experience, and it's this philosophy that provides the foundation for less-fundamental Christianity.
Although the photo-of-beardless-face-on-a-stick seems a little bit helmet (when it would be undoubtedly easier to just shave it off in two stages, even if only over the course of a single day), I find it endlessly charming and beyond adorable (330). You're bound to make some mistakes no matter what you do, and it's better to err on the side of love, compassion and caring.
"my beard has been with me for so long, it's taken on its own identity, almost become a living organism. I feel like I'm losing a pet rabbit" (330). Although if it gains your wife's approval, I'm sure it's well worth it.
I find it absurd that one Catholic argument against IVF is that it generally involves masturbation (or, as my favorite euphemism would put it, "self-abuse"). This is almost as absurd as the Church's argument against condoms (being that they "disturb the natural sex act"- similar to the fundamentalism in other areas where literalism and strictness is favored over rationality and the compassion of preventing AIDS, other transmittable diseases, and overpopulation in already-overburdened areas). The argument about "killing" fertilized eggs makes some sense, but surely the procedure could be refined to eliminate this problem- at least as far as it extends to pre-implanted eggs (337).
I've always found the issue of Onan wasting his seed to be rather odd (especially since God had smitten his brother for being disobedient/evil in the first place)- although not as peculiar as the rule that Onan be required to impregnate his ex sister-in-law in the first place. Then again, it's a rather odd reversal of evolutionary biological imperative (which doesn't work for some Christians anyway) that he would specifically not wish to have as many children as possible, even if they would be considered his brother's (338). I suppose it's essentially regarding the selfishness he showed in not sharing his seed although God had commanded him to, particularly since it would appear that this failure to produce a child would have resulted in Oman inheriting his brother's fortune that would otherwise have gone to his own biological child as his brother's legal heir (http://books.google.ca/books?id=zlQ4chBCC5oC&pg=PA436&lpg=PA436&dq=Genesis+Tamar+notice&source=web&ots=asbBUrw6f9&sig=vefeB3XIQiuvEIgHMGSZqqhtpR4&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=13&ct=result). Furthermore, as I recall, Tamar didn't notice him doing this repeatedly- even though she did want to have his children. I find that to be even more peculiar.
I think that the perspective of Revelation as a "short-term prophecy about the Roman Empire" (338) is very interesting, although I'm not sure if the facts are really historically compatible.
Perhaps the lamb's blood is supposed to be drained and then cooked out of the flesh. I suppose that with a combination of the two processes, the blood could be nearly eliminated (339).
I agree that Jesus having been married wouldn't have been particularly troubling theologically (340), but I find it really strange that everyone loves the idea of Mary Magdalene and Jesus being somehow involved, even if only marginally.
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As I had expected, the book didn't seem to draw any real conclusions aside from the fact that participating in religion can perhaps help to enrich your life and even help you to become a better person (along with exposing some of the Bible's more ridiculous mandates and trying to make sense of them- and largely succeeding, in my opinion). Even so, I felt it was satisfying and interesting as a study of one man's journey to be in the world but not of it.

Finally.. if you happen to be reading this, A.J. Jacobs and you've managed to wade though this enormous blog post (or at least skipped to the end, hoping for a conclusive comment)... "If Noah were alive today, he wouldn't be wasting his time checking out what blogs said about him. He'd be down at Home Depot buying more lumber. Starting today, I'm going to be like Noah" (152). Now go out there and either hug your family or write another book for me to read! ;)

PS- Mr. Jacobs, if for some reason you don't like me quoting so excessively from your book online, I'd be happy to take this post (or just the portions from your book) off the blog. I keep this as much for my own recollection/records as I do for blogging purposes, and I in no way wish to infringe either on your copyright or your comfort level. I won't be offended by such a request, either, so please mention it and I'll remove it immediately.