13. Fist Stick Knife Gun, a graphic novel

by Geoffrey Canada
adapted by Jamar Nicholas

To adapt an extensive piece of writing to a graphic novel has its benefits - easy readability, fun, a summary of the text, a graphic interpretation, or translation, in a way - but it can be like removing ones guts and replacing them with pictures of some of the guts.  It ain't the same.  Something is lost and it hurts.

But the graphics are good and many more kids will read this than Canada's original autobiographical argument.

12. Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems

by Billy Collins

I'll just post one and hope he doesn't mind.  It is not the best one in the book but certainly my favorite:


What do you think of my new glasses
I asked as I stood under a shade tree
before the joined grave of my parents,

and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,

one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,

and the difference being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell one from the other.

They make you look very scholarly,
I heard my mother say
once I lay down on the ground

and pressed an ear into the soft grass.
Then I rolled over and pressed
my other ear to the ground,

the ear my father likes to speak into,
but he would say nothing,
and I could not find a silence

among the 100 Chinese silences
that would fit the one that he created
even though I was the one

who had just made up the business
of the 100 Chinese silences--
the Silence of the Night Boat

and the silence of the Lotus,
cousin to the silence of the Temple Bell
only deeper and softer, like petals, at its farthest edges.

11. Last Words

by George Carlin

George is dead now.

He would prefer the bluntness of that statement to "George has passed on," or, "George is in a better place," or "George expired."  He'd rant about the latter, how he's not a friggin egg, or curdled milk.  He'd like dirt nap.  He'd like the sportiness of kicked the bucket and would kill himself exploring where the fuck that one came from.

George Carlin is one of my heroes and went kaput, croaked, cashed it in, liquidated. Went bye-byes.

Gone to the big shit-piss-fuck-cunt-cocksucker-motherfucker-tits in the sky.

I can't believe tits makes the list.

But before he became at room temperature he wrote his autobiography.  Tony Hendra had to fix it up a bit before publication but it's all George.  What I especially like about it is the no-joke frankness about his life.  As many memoirs do, it begins with his Irish-Catholic childhood of meager means. He then tells the story of a guy who nearly lost his soul making an ass of himself in television for over a decade before finding a more genuine voice.  His genuine voice is something I like about America.

As a kid I would borrow my friend Brian's Carlin albums and secretly study (obsess over) the filth and wisdom.  I couldn't believe my ears. I could not believe that someone was saying those things about language, society, Congress, the President, the church, himself... me.  His voice, replayed over and over again in secret, saved me from living a clean, wholesome life that would not be my own.  And now, to read in his memoirs that some nut job had saved him from the same fate makes me feel a part of something really fucking important.

Thanks George for all the "flashy word shit."


10. Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro

There is no way to meaningfully review this one without spoiling the plot. So read on if you don't mind a big, fat spoiler.

Thirty-one year old Kathy is reminising about her early days in an elite British boarding school.  This school and it's students are special, though, as it is a place where human beings are cloned to provide donor organs for transplants.  Their lives are incredibly sheltered and controlled but they are in effect allowed to live near fully human lives at school.  However they will never get married, have careers, or grow old and die.  They will die in their thirties of organ donations.  Kathy, our narrator, spent the decade after boarding school being a "carer" for those donating their organs.

Interesting philosophical shit.  I liked thinking about it while reading.  The plot is mostly centered around their childhood friendships, education and the mysteries around their existence.  It is an uneventful plot for the most part but it accomplishes enough character development for the reader to experience their humanity while knowing that they are bread only to be donors.

They don't rebel.  They don't seek alternatives to their fate.  A testament to the power of education.

Boring plot.  Interesting ideas on possible future ethics.

9. Ecotopia

by Ernest Callenbach

Brother Dan sent this one to me in the mail.  It seems so subversive getting a book in the mail.

I enjoyed this one.  Folks living in a big chunk of northern California, Oregon and Washington secede from the United States and create their own eco-friendly state that is closed off from their former nation.  Twenty years later a news reporter, the first one in all that time, is given access to Ecotopia for the purpose of informing Americans about Ecotopia and as a sort of ambassador from the United States sent to establish a new friendship.

The novel is structured by the reporter's published new pieces interspersed with his personal diary entries.  In many ways this is the quintessential liberal sci fi novel of the 1970s.  Ecotopia is a blueprint of a well balanced society where humans live in near-perfect balance with nature, women are liberated, and... well, you get the idea.  I enjoyed reading the novel.  However, it's got a few problems:

1.  In order to create this highly descriptive blueprint the author sacrifices plot.
2.  As my brother says in his review, there is no voice of dissent in Ecotopia.  It's as if everyone in northern Cali, ORegon and Washington were 100% behind the secession and creation of this extremely controlling ecostate.  It underestimates, or ignores, the libertarian presence in those states. And the polluters.
3. During the ensuing 20 years why would the United States not invade and reconquer the seceded states?  There is mention that Ecotopia has planted hidden nuclear devices in key U.S. cities to be detonated in the event of such an offensive, but it is only mentioned in passing.  Also, wouldn't the use of such nukes be against Ecotopian philosophy?

These issues are not easy to put aside while reading because it is so necessary to resolve them in order to believe in such a possibility.  And believe me, I do wish for much of what is accomplished in Ecotopia.  However, I know such things will not exist in our lifetime without extremely violent force.

a poem from The Black Riders

by Stephen Crane

Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page.
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.

also this odd one unrelated to the above:

A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.

8. The Chrysalids

by John Wyndham

This was a great 1955 sci fi book about young man and his friends who live in a close-knit community of religious fundamentalists bent on genetic purification as a way of "getting back" to a state of perfection as it was for the Old People before a devastating nuclear war.  Their new religious dogma, which includes intolerance of any genetic abnormality (a sixth toe, for example), leads to a closed, fearful society that is always on the watch for pretty much anything different.

Our hero, David, and a small group of his friends share a remarkable secret, one that, if discovered, would lead to their destruction at the hands of the community.  Abnormal plants are destroyed.  Abnormal livestock are destroyed.  Abnormal adolescents are destroyed.  The community is ever-dilligent in their efforts to rid itself of anything that deviates from "the norm of God's creation".

David and his friends come to realize that they too are deviants as they possess telepathic powers that would surely get them "eradicated" if ever detected.  These powers, however, can also lead to unimagined freedom for them... if they can escape to the Fringes.

As it is with a great deal of post-WWII fiction, The Chrysalids is a condemnation of Nazism and an exploration of the potential of humanity after the war.  Clearly, nukes play their role in both creating awesome physical and psychic pain worldwide, but in the sci fi genre the same nuclear event is seen as creating a sort of second chance for humanity as well.  I especially like this novel because it warns of the dangers of  religious and scientific dogma that argue that there is a certain human who is "perfect" and defined by those in power at the time.

Good stuff and a fun adventure.

7. The Undiscovered Self

by Carl Jung

All of Jung's concerns are with individual liberty. Reading this little book was somewhat of a spiritual and intellectual revival for me. That always happens with this guy's work.

Ultimately everything depends on the quality of the individual, but the fatally shortsighted habit of our age is to think only in terms of large numbers and mass organizations, though one would think that the world had seen more than enough of what a well-disciplined mob can do in the hands of a single madman. Unfortunately, this realization does not seem to have penetrated very far--and our blindness is this respect is extremely dangerous. People go on blithely organizing and believing in the sovereign remedy of mass action, without the least consciousness of the fact that the most powerful organizations can be maintained only by the greatest ruthlessness of their leaders and the cheapest slogans...

...Curiously enough, the churches too want to avail themselves of mass action in order to cast out the devil with Beelzebub--the very churches whose care is the salvation of the individual soul. They too do not appear to have heard anything of the elementary axiom of mass psychology, that the individual becomes morally and spiritually inferior in the mass, and for this reason they do not burden themselves overmuch with their real task of helping the individual to achieve metanoia, or re-birth of the spirit. It is, unfortunately, only too clear that if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption. I can therefore see it only as a delusion when the churches try--as they apparently do--to rope the individual into a social organization and reduce him to a condition of diminished responsibility, instead of raising him out of torpid, mindless mass and making clear to him that he is the one important factor...

Oh, fun. He goes on to remind the reader of what happened to Jesus and Paul, prototypes of individuality, when they went their own individual ways, disregarding public opinion.

Here's a challenge:Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself. Or, to put it more simply: drive or drift. Drive or drift. I like that problem.

Finally: To this question there is a positive answer only when the individual is willing to fulfill the demands of rigorous self-examination and self-knowledge. If he follows through his intention, he will not only discover some important truths about himself, but will also have gained a psychological advantage: he will have succeeded in deeming himself worthy of serious attention and sympathetic interest.

Anyway, it was 125 pages of Jungian challenge. Loved it.

Salem's Lot

by Steven King

I thought this was going to be a re-read, but it turns out I had never read this one. What a great book! As is typical King, the setting is a small isolated town in Maine that falls prey to incredible evil. This time: vampires, and not the Twilight clowns. These vampires are the ones from our childhood nightmares.

You know the aging adage: today's science fiction is tomorrow's reality? Well, what if today's horror were to be tomorrow's reality? Well, after reading Salem's lot I have one reason to support the Catholic Church, or at least the mass production of their relics!

Here's a fun excerpt of early King meta-fiction. An aging, single guy climbs the stairs of his own house to confront whatever hellish phenom is in an upstairs bedroom.

Going up there stairs was the hardest thing Matt Burke had ever done in his life. That was all; that was it. Nothing else even came close. Except perhaps one thing.

As a boy of eight, he had been in a Cub Scout pack. The den mother’s house was a mile up the road and going was fine, yes, excellent, because you walked in the late afternoon daylight. But coming home twilight had begun to fall, freeing the shadows to yawn across the road in long, twisty patterns—or, if the meeting was particularly enthusiastic and ran late, you had to walk home in the dark. Alone.

Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym…

There was a ruined church along the way, an old Methodist meeting house, which reared its shambles at the far end of a frost-heaved and hummocked lawn, and when you walked past the view of it’s glaring, senseless windows your footsteps became very loud in your ears and whatever you had been whistling died on your lips and you thought about how it must be inside—the overturned pews, the rotting hymnals, the crumbling altar where only mice now kept the Sabbath, and you wondered what might be in there besides mice—what madmen, what monsters. Maybe they were peering out at you with yellow reptilian eyes. And maybe one night watching would not be enough; maybe some night that splintered, crazily hung door would be thrown open, and what you saw standing there would drive you to lunacy at one look.

And you couldn’t explain that to your mother and father, who were creatures of the light. No more than you could explain to them how, at the age of three, the spare blanket at the foot of the crib turned into a collection of snakes that lay staring at you with flat and lidless eyes. No child ever conquers those fears, he thought. If a fear cannot be articulated, it can’t be conquered. And the fear locked in small brains are much too large to pass through the orifice of the mouth. Sooner or later you found someone to walk past all the deserted meeting houses you had to pass between grinning babyhood and grunting senility. Until tonight. Until tonight when you found out that none of those old fears had been staked—only tucked away in their tiny, child-sized coffins with a wild rose on top.

He didn’t turn on the light. He mounted the steps, one by one, avoiding the sixth, which creaked. He held on to the crucifix, and his palm was sweaty and slick…

He hits on so many of our worst nightmares in this two pages. Despite being a somewhat solid adult I still have those fears that well up and wash over my otherwise rational mind. For me, never in the city. Always among buildings in rural areas. So this was a fun read.

5. "Common Sense" and "The Age of Reason"

by Thomas Paine

I picked up Common Sense for a re-read after brother Dan read it recently. Once again I was struck by the sheer guts of such revolutionary writing. The pamphlet was wildly popular in the colonies leading up to the war, effectively arguing for independence from English monarchical rule and the establishment of a government that held individual rights above all else. It also spells out ideas for a radical new republic. Good stuff.

It was an important reminder of what the true purposes of government should be in this country and how closely power should reside with the people. Wow, are we a far cry from that!

The Age of Reason is a tract on religion Paine wrote later in life. He weighs in on religion in a way that both respects the right of all to express ideas... and rejects religion! He is certainly not an atheist as I have so often read and heard, but lays out a convincing criticism of Christianity as it has been practiced - specifically the use of the bible, the establishment of "churches," etc. He is especially concerned with the freedom of ideas and how religious systems tend to be designed to fix those ideas and assert authority and power over them. For example, the Christian assertion of exclusivity (there is only one true God, Jesus is the only way to Heaven, all other religions are incomplete or false, etc.), despite the fact that Biblical stories and ideas were recycled from older religions and mythologies, which is why people were able to believe in immaculate conception, Jesus dying and then rising through the air to Heaven, turning water into wine for a wedding, making loaves and fishes from thin air, 40 days and nights in the desert, etc.). Oh, they are great stories and speak truths about deity and humankind. Paine's concern, though, is that people have come to use OTHER people's accounts of the deity, OTHER people's revelations, to instruct their lives and beliefs. In an "age of reason," the reasonable person must either do some measure of self-deception, or lying, or stick one's head in the sand in order to maintain a belief in mythological Biblical stories and the pastor's reinforcement of those stories as instruction for living life today.

Paine is mostly concerned with individual liberty and attacks religion for its attempts to corner the market on ideas and ultimately people's lives, either out of benevolent concern for them, or for power, or profit.

I very much appreciated reading this tract as I have been feeling similarly about Christianity for the past decade. I am with Paine in the assertion that if you, or your community, have experienced a revelation (hopefully from the deity, not from some other's claims) and other people have not, perhaps it is only for you. Leave everyone else alone to have their own revelations and form their own ideas. Honor them by refraining from the impulse to claim your own revelation as the only truth, the only way, the only...

4. Shutter Island

by Dennis Lehane

I really like Blake's review of this book. Wow.

I read the novel after watching the movie and really enjoyed it. My biggest problem though is that the movie leaves very little of the novel's details out (which is rare), so reading the novel was amazingly familiar territory. Still, it's a fun thriller with a human darkness that Lehane is great at creating. I am only familiar with Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and now Shutter Island (does he have others?) but it has become clear that one of his prevailing themes is child abuse and murder. That's the darkness that I'm talking about. So there is the great thriller aspect -- wily cops, inept cops, unknowing regular folk, really bad criminals, corruption, confusion -- all the things you need to make for small human disasters, but he is also a master at the plot twist. Brilliant.

But underlying the usual thriller motif is this profound tale of loss, guilt, suffering and sometimes redemption. Great stuff.

3. Horace's Compromise

by Theodore Sizer

The title sounds like a novel. It makes me think of Sophie's Choice. But no, this is a call to arms for school reform! As such it is a very good one. But... yawn.

2. Zeitoun

by Dave Eggers

This is a fine work of non-fiction.

Addulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun lived and work in New Orleans when Katrina arrived and then the levees broke. In fact they still live there. This is their story of how they survived the country's worst natural disaster in a century. But that is only one dimension of there experience. The rest is downright Kafkaesque. Read it and you'll know.

Really, this one is worth a read. It's due in paperback in June.

1. Little Brother

by Corey Doctorow

A nice rebellious little book.

2009... 2010

27. I'm alright with that.