Saturday, August 1, 2009

more than human

So! I finished reading Pattern Recognition, and I loved it even if the ending was a little less than what I'd hoped for. I think maybe it was limited by the very thing I loved about it, which was that it was this cyberpunk adventure story set in a very realistic 2002. That meant the ending couldn't be too explosive, which is fine, but it was a little too real, and dragged a bit. Still, it was by far one of the most entertaining books I've read, ever, and I really, really loved the protagonist, despite her being a woman!

After I finished that, I wanted to read more Gibson, so I read Idoru, which was good and fun to read but not as good as Pattern Recognition, or Neuromancer, which I said before I didn't actually love that much. But that is in the context of my high expectations. It was well-written and provided everything I was looking for, and so Gibson has now cemented his place as my new Favorite Writer. But that isn't what I wanted to write about! What I wanted to write about is what I read after Idoru.

Last night I put down the book and thought, "what n
ow?" So I went to Barnes & Noble to find a new book to read. I was looking for something with the same cyberpunk aesthetic, but I also didn't want to read too much Gibson all at once and start to get annoyed with him, which is what usually happens when I get into a new writer. So I was wandering through the sci-fi section and looking at some Neal Stephenson books that looked decent but not thrilling, and I noticed this book that had been put back propped against the other books, so that the cover was facing out. The cover caught my eye because I liked the colors. The book was:

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. I read the back and wasn't sure if it sounded good or not, but I saw that it won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and it did sound kind of intriguing, so I brought it over to the cafe with me along with the Stephenson books. I read the first thirty pages in the cafe, and then bought it and brought it home and spent the next four hours reading the rest of it. I have never in my life read a book cover-to-cover like that.

Apparently this book is kind of a big deal. I had never heard of it, although I did feel like the author's name rang a bell. It was written in 1953, and was one of the first science fiction books to be recognized and acclaimed as having actual literary merit. It is difficult to give a concise summary of what this book is about. Wikipedia says:
"The novel concerns the coming together of six extraordinary people with strange powers who are able to "blesh" their abilities together. In this way, they are able to act as one organism. They progress toward a mature gestalt consciousness, called the homo gestalt, the next step in the human evolution." Okay, Wikipedia, that works. Basically there are several characters with unique abilities-- mind control, teleportation, telekinesis, hyper-intelligence-- who find each other and begin to function together as a single organism. The crisis of the story is really the moral crisis of how this unified being should operate within the world of humans. Which is all very interesting, but could make a really, really, bad story in the wrong hands.

What made it so satisfying was the way the story is constructed. There are three parts; each is essentially its own novella that builds off of the previous one(s). The focus, tone, point of view, and narrative voice change in each section. So, ultimately, the structure of the novel mirrors the plot, because each of these strands is unique and fascinating on its own but functions more powerfully as a part of the whole. The other thing about the story and the writing is that it manages to be actually legitimately surprising. There are some plot twists as well as some traditional moves, but because they are occuring alongside each other, you don't know which to expect, and they end up both being exciting to read because of it.

I definitely do not think this book would be for everyone, but it does seem to have gotten pretty stellar reviews across the board, and I am surprised it does not show up more often on lists of "important" science fiction. Still, I would recommend it solely on the basis that it is just so different from anything else I have read, and because I'd like to know if others respond to it the same way I did.

Monday, July 27, 2009

more books and a movie

I have been having good luck with fiction lately. Valis was really outstanding, and took a bizarre turn somewhere in the middle that I did not expect; that made me happy. Then I read A Scanner Darkly because on the Amazon page for Valis everyone was saying that it was his best work. So I was expecting a lot from it. Mostly it lived up, but at times it had a sort of nauseating effect that I did not enjoy but also recognize as intentional. The biggest problem with it was that it did the same thing that all of Dick's books that I have read (except for Valis) do, which is that it appeared to end about three times before the actual ending. He seemed to have a real problem with endings. There is always one wonderful chapter near the end that would be the perfect closing, and then he insists on including three or four more chapters after that. It gets boring.

After that I read The Whit
e Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I found it delightful. I am not sure that it was as profound as all the blurbs on the cover made it out to be. But it was deeply enjoyable to read. I am going to add it to my list of independent reading books for my 10th graders (10th grade English is World Literature). I will say that it is the first Indian book I have read that is not excessively lyrical. It is an especially nice antidote to a book like The God of Small Things.

Now I am reading William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition. I am loving this book enormously for several reasons. I need to start by confessing that I did not really love Neuromancer, try as I did. I didn't like any of the characters, and it was hard to stay interested in it. What I did like about it was that it was well-written and charming and funny. This book has all of that, but also has characters who I like and a plot that keeps my interest.
The best part is that it has a female main character who is the exact antithesis of every science fiction heroine ever. I almost did not buy this book when I realized that the main character was female, that is how much I hate science fiction females. But this main character is alarmingly and disarmingly human, and feminine. She is a person, not a badass doing-things-that-men-do and looking-sexy-while-doing-them chick. She has flaws and vulnerabilities while still being independent and not hyper-sexualized.
The other thing that I like about it is that it was written in 2003 and, for all intents and purposes, takes place in 2003 or shortly thereafter, but it is written through this sci-fi lens that makes all this very real technology seem ve
ry futuristic. With one notable exception, everything the characters do and work with exists right now.

Also, Will and I saw Moon and it was absolutely wonderful. I don't really know how to explain this movie without giving too much away. We didn't know very much about it before we went and saw it; we had read a very minimal review of it which compared it to Philip K. Dick's work and that's why we decided to see it; I can say that the comparison is definitely apt, in the best possible way. There is essentially only one character in the movie, played by Sam Rockwell, and I am not even sure if I have ever seen Sam Rockwell in any movies before, but he does a really terrific job in this one. The story unfolds in a way that gives the audience a lot of credit and doesn't spoon-feed them at all, and it keeps a very steady, tense (but not edge-of-your-seat) tone throughout. It is a very smooth ride. I recommend it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

the Gates situation

When I am at home, I get my news through the internet and NPR. At the moment, though, I am visiting my mom and since she watches television I have been seeing the TV coverage of this Henry Louis Gates debaucle. It is rather alarming. I have also been watching it unfold on Facebook, where most of my white friends who are saying anything about it are saying "why are people so quick to cry racism," and most of my black friends who are saying anything are saying "this is clearly racist."

I was not there and do not know either of the men involved. Neither does Barack Obama, but I really can't fault him for saying that the police acted stupidly. They did. According to the police report, so did Gates. I don't think that admitting that both parties behaved inappropriately is at all problematic. The assumptions that one man behaved in a way that was racist or that the other behaved in a way that was disorderly or crazy are where the problems start.

Here is what I see:
1. Gates responded in an aggressive manner to the police.
2. The police responded to Gates' aggression by arresting him.
3. The arrest would not have been made if Gates were a white man of the same status, but that is because
4. A white college professor would not have responded that way to the police, and in fact
5. The police wouldn't have been called in the first place.

So to say that race does not play a role in this situation is absurd. I think a lot of (white) people might want to argue that the situation had nothing to do with race until Gates made it about race with his (alleged) "this is what happens to black men in America" comments; I would disagree with that. This is what happens to black men in America.

Part of our difficulty in accepting this case as a manifestation of racism or racial bias is that we--Americans, both white and black--have an antiquated notion of what racism looks like. Our ideas about racism are left over from the 1960s. We like to believe that we live in a "post-racial" society because we don't kill black men for looking at white women anymore. Our idea of what a "racist cop" would look like is a white cop looking at a black man on the street and thinking to himself, "I'm gonna get that n-----." Racism doesn't look like that anymore, at least on a large scale. It is more complicated, systemic, and institutionalized, and the people who benefit from it or demonstrate it cannot be labeled as categorically "bad" anymore. Day-to-day racism now looks more like what happened in Cambridge: a respected and seasoned officer responds to aggression from a black man as more highly disruptive and threatening than he would interpret aggression from a white man; he makes an unnecessary arrest. And then both white and black people, who do not want to admit that we have racial problems in this country that are so complicated and deep-seated that they will take hundreds of years to resolve themselves, jump to conclusions leftover from a different time in our cultural history: either, "this man arrested a black man who didn't deserve to be arrested, therefore, he is a bigot," or, "this man previously gave CPR to another black man; that is not what a bigot does, therefore, race played no part in this."

Here is where I think the crux of the problem lies: white people have been taught that to be a good person means to be "color-blind," which, we later learned if we spent any time with black people, means pretending that everyone is white. We think this is a good thing because we think it means that we are refusing to accept stereotypes; what we don't understand is that much of what we have been taught to see as "stereotypes" are simply evidence that there is, in our country, a black culture that is different from the white culture. For some reason we don't want to admit this-- even though we know that it is important to "celebrate" the cultural differences between people of European descent and, say, recent transplants from India. We want to ensure that Indian immigrants don't lose their "rich culture" as they become a part of the United States. That would be bad, it would be racist. And yet we still cannot allow black culture and white culture to exist separately and respectfully of one another.

I have this poster in my classroom that attributes this quotation to Ralph Ellison: "America is woven of many strands; I would recognize and let them so remain. This is not prophecy, but description." Michael Eric Dyson, in his commentary on the Gates situation, wrote that Gates was essentially arrested for "talking back, and talking black, to a white police officer." That is what makes this an issue of race. Race is culture. Black culture is one strand of America. Refusing to recognize it and let it remain does not make us "color-blind," it makes us whitewashed.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


One of my favorite hobbies is listening to other people's conversations. This has become a more fruitful pastime since moving to Charles Village, which is populated by a delightful mix of hippies, hipsters, douchebags, and academics. So, I decided that another thing I can do with this blog is start writing down the things I overhear. I have this wonderful lab notebook with numbered pages which I was using to take notes for my thesis, but now that that is finished I can use it to transcribe conversations and then copy them here.

This one is from today. I was sitting in the sculpture garden at the BMA and reading, and this group of four people came and sat down next to me. They were probably in their mid/late 30s. They looked... earthy. Probably all of their clothes were organic. There were two couples, I will call them A&B and Y&Z. A&Y were the men. A&Z were doing most of the talking. I think there was some kind of frustrated love connection between the two of them. Their respective partners were not talking much. Actually, Y did not talk at all. B talked a little bit, and of the three of them, I liked her the best.

This particular exchange started with them talking about how they "hate" it when people refer to them as "arty" or "artsy" (they obviously did not really hate this at all).

A: I don't really think I'm 'arty'... I think most of it is just noticing the obvious things. I mean, if people just thought more about it, they'd have the same responses I do. Most people don't even think about things.
Z: Yeah, like [some woman's name]. I've tried to explain to her... she just doesn't get it.
B: Well, [woman] doesn't get a lot of things.
A: She always says she doesn't like something because it looks as if 'a 7-year-old could do it.' Those are her exact words. I'm always like, 'wow, that 7-year-old has gotten pretty good over the years! That's one talented 7-year-old!' HAHAHAHA.
B: Yeah, but the point is that someone did do it.
Z: I know, like I was telling her about the one exhibit that [artist] did, where there's a room that is just full of white canvases, like, canvases painted white. And she thought that was, like, the stupidest thing she'd ever heard.
B: Oh, the one in New York?
Z: I think so.
A: I loved that. I don't know, I could just stare at that all day.
B: Then there's that whole thing with the actual 7-year-old, where they took some paintings that a real kid did and took them around without saying who did them, and I guess people were flipping their shit over them. But that's been, like, discredited or something.
Z: Yeah, because some of the paintings were actually really good.
A: It's true; there was some really interesting stuff going on with the spatial relationships in the paintings. I mean, it's obviously, like 7-year-old-style abstractions, but she's actually quite talented.
B: Maybe she is autistic.

From there, they went on to discuss the following points:
  • The non-existance of autism ("Just think of how many great minds we would have lost due to medication if they'd thought that way back then.")
  • The evils of modern medicine, including OTC pain relievers, which they all agreed were a great bane on society.
  • The benefits of drinking female urine.

Friday, July 17, 2009

my cats

Here are my (our) cats. Aren't they nice? Sorry for the back lighting.

Cat #1 is Puck. He is the oldest, and the fattest, although this picture does not do justice to his girth. He is about 4 years old. When he was a kitten, and really for the first couple years of his life, he was a complete headcase. He was very, very needy and affectionate, but also very aggressive and would bite an scratch sometimes. And he did not get along well with other people who took my attention away from him. Now he is much, much more subdued. He is sweet, quiet, and docile. He loves people. The reason for the change in his personality is cat #2:

Sofie. I think Sofie is just the prettiest thing. She is somewhere between a tabby and a tortoiseshell because her face and legs have stripes but her body doesn't. It is hard to see her colors in this picture, but she is red and brown. She is very long and sleek, and she is usually very quiet and kind of does her own thing. But when she decides that she wants attention she gets very noisy and restless. She doesn't do a very good job of sitting still while she is being petted, unless you are rubbing her belly. She invites people to rub her belly by doing what Will and I call a "Sofie roll," where she makes herself extremely long and flops around on her back until you pet her.

Cian is the newest cat and obviously the most photogenic. He is 9 weeks old and a grey tabby with a spotted belly. This girl Will knows found him behind her house and sent out a mass email to find someone to adopt him, so we did. He is the sweetest thing in the world and also extremely energetic. He is too cute to even tolerate. The other cats are gradually warming up to him. They hissed at him at first but now they let him sit next to them and eat with them and watch them poop. He tries to play with them, but they are not at that point yet-- although he and Sofie have played with the same toy together a few times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


So in addition to reading books, I am also watching a lot of movies. Some of them are not worth saying anything about, even though I've enjoyed them. But there are a couple that I will comment on.

I know that The Last King of Scotland came out and won academy awards and everything several years ago, so this is old news. However, I really, really loved this movie. Partly because I really love Forest Whitaker and most things that he does. Did he win best actor for this movie? He should have.
What I did not realize about this movie, though, was that it is actually about a Scottish guy, played by James McAvoy, and not really about Forest Whitaker's character of Idi Amin. Not only that, but I did not realize that McAvoy's character is actually fictional, which creates a very weird dynamic, I think, for the viewer. If the movie relies on McAvoy's character as a vehicle for humanizing
Amin, which I think it sort of does, then doesn't the fact that this is a made-up character kind of negate the purpose of the story? Maybe the point of the movie wasn't to humanize Amin, but to showcase his brutality, revealing the naivety of someone like McAvoy's character who would idolize him only out of a white/European fascination with Africa.
So, I'm conflicted about what I was supposed to take away from this movie. A third option is that the point of the movie was to make me feel conflicted. Regardless, I was very taken with it. I have a hard time sitting and watching a movie in one sitting without getting bored. I did not have this problem with The Last King of Scotland, and I think that says something about the caliber of the film.

A movie I did not make it through without getting bored, but which I feel warrants writing about anyway, was Bronson. I do not know if this movie was good or not. I am pretty sure it was not "great." I think it was somewhat clear what the filmmakers were trying to do, and also that they did not accomplish this 100%. The movie is about a sociopath who becomes "England's Most Famous Prisoner" because of his unrelenting violence to himself, other prisoners, and authorities; his self-proclaimed goal is to be famous, and he makes sure that he stays in prison so that he can maintain his fame. The thing about the movie is that it uses these Kubrick-ish, surreal storytelling devices, but it isn't really clear to what end. It sort of starts to make sense when the character starts drawing pictures and making other art that the surrealism comes from his own perception of the world around him. And that his violence is an extension of that.
Because I am reading that Foucault book, this movie was interesting to me because of the idea of the prison as a punishment inflicted on the soul. My interpretation of it, based on that, was that if a person condemned to public torture can escape punishment to the body by mutilating his own body first (Oroonoko), then a person condemned to imprisonment can escape punishment to the soul by manufacturing his own depravity (Bronson), making himself soulless.

I'm having trouble thinking of other movies I've watched recently that were interesting to me. These are the two that stand out. We also watched The Cell, which I loved because of the way it looked, but which there really isn't much to say about. Later this week we are going to go see this new movie called Moon, which I am really excited about and will write about when we see it.

The next post I write will probably be about my cats.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

books I am reading

I have a pathetic attention span, so I am always reading at least two or three books at once. Usually one fiction and two nonfiction. Right now all of the books I am reading are exceptionally good.

I only recently started reading Phillip K. Dick, and I feel sad that I neglected him for so long. Valis is the fiction book I'm reading right now. It's a bit hard to describe. It is autobiographical, but written in the third person, about the religious and spiritual experiences that Dick had and wrote about in his Exegesis. Because of the voice, there's an interesting balance between his acknowledgement that he (or, the main character) is insane and the conviction that what he experiences is valid and spiritually significant. When you hear people describe this book it usually sounds like they're talking about the ramblings of a schizophrenic, and that's what I was prepared for. It's really not. There's a lot more to it than that.
When I w
as in college I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that was 8 years ago so I don't claim to remember it accurately, but I think this book reminds me of that. From what I recall, the narrator of that story was losing his mind, and knew he was losing his mind, but was trying to maintain his grip on reality just long enough to document the revelations he was having that, even though he knew they were caused by his illness, he recognized as important. There was the same tenuous relationship between sanity and insanity.
I have only read the first six chapters of this book and I am not really doing it justice the way I'm describing it here, so I'm going to move on.

Another book I am reading is Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. I am a little bit obsessed with Foucault. I skimmed the first half of this book when I was in college and writing a paper on torture and self-mutilation in this 17th century novel called Oroonoko. That was my first experience with Foucault and he hasn't really ever gone away, but he came to the forefront again when I was doing research for my master's thesis last month. So I was reading some of his shorter work, and then Will and I watched this movie called Bronson, which is about a prisoner and made me want to read this book again, more carefully.
It is rather dense, which is what I found frustrating about it the first time around. Maybe dense is not the right word; "dense" implies that a lot of complex information is being thrown at the reader at once. This is sort of the opposite. It is so verbose that it is difficult to pay attention to it sometimes. I think that style was en vogue at the time.
Anyway, what I like about this book, and what makes it important, is the analysis of the relationship between the state and the prisoner. In the story "In the Penal Colony," Kafka imagines a machine used for torture and execution that literally inscribes the broken rule on the body of the condemned with needles again and again until he is impaled. Part of what Foucault is arguing is that as we've moved from torture and public execution to imprisonment, the subject of punishment has shifted from the body of the accused to his soul. The movie Bronson is a w
onderful surreal depiction of this. The character annihilates his soul in order to render his punishment ineffective.

The last book I'm reading is James Paul Gee's Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling. I adore James Paul Gee with every ounce of my being. He is a linguist and cognitive scientist who writes about how and why people learn and why our schools are so often ineffective. His main argument in this book, oversimplified, is that a) learning is a cultural process b) because it is a cultural process, it is inextricably tied to identity, and therefore c) if we don't do anything to help students identify with the culture of academic discourse, they aren't going to be motivated to learn. This seems obvious, but it is in radical opposition to the way educational legislation is going.
What I like especially is that he uses the experience of playing a video game to create a framework for the conditions necessary for learning. He wrote a whole other, less "academic" book on video games and learning, which I also read. Games invite the player to jump right in without a lot of boring preparation, learn skills through experimentation, and choose among varying levels of linearity in the narrative they participate in. They also don't punish the player for taking risks and pushing themselves (as long as you remember to save). I think that's really different from what happens in the traditional classroom.

Now that I've written about all these books, I also want to write about the movies I've watched recently. So you can look forward to that, coming soon.