Friday, February 27, 2009

So, what's the big deal?

NOW READING: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is kind of like one of those moments when you have been hearing so much about something for so long that it could not possibly be as fantastic/scary/earth-shattering as it has been built up to be by the sheer amount of upbuilding. You know, like Amelie...The Blair Witch Project...The Catcher in the Rye...(ahem)Harry Potter... I'll even give it up to my peeps (of which I have several) who have proudly made it through three decades or more without seeing It's A Wonderful Life. That film IS wonderful, but you're right: it will never live up to all you have heard about it. At this point, it simply can't.

However, I would like to point out that this is only kind of like one of those moments. Because the work of art of which I now partake, the work of art about which I have heard so much for twenty years, the truly big famous deal, is not just big and famous and built up subjectively, and it is not a mere subject of enthusiastic acclaim, but it also was, like, objectively a big deal. It sent Salman Rushdie into freakin' hiding! A "fatwa" was issued against him, and all those involved in the publishing of the book. In fact, I recently learned, several of the translators and publishers in countries around the world were attacked and while some survived assassination attempts, the translator in Japan WAS stabbed to death.

Perhaps more shocking: the fatwa is still in place. If it weren't so murderous and wrong, it would just be pathetic. You want to kill someone for writing a book? Give me a break!!! Only it's not pathetic, because it's a threat to people's lives.

Now, I will (obviously) go on the record as saying that any such death threat to anyone for simply writing anything is so clearly unacceptable it's not even up for debate.

But my goodness, when I finally get around to reading the book I would at least expect there to be something to it. Something shocking, let's say. Something blasphemous and juicy. Something that could at least purport to try to pretend to be "worth it."

Yeah, not so much. It's kind of a silly, whimsical story. I'm 150 pages into it. As a book it's somewhere between average and good, but I am definitely carried along in reading by my fascination that this? THIS?! is what has motivated some twisted people on this planet to be violent. I just can't believe they actually feel justified in doing so.

I was already a huge supporter of Salman Rushdie, just for the idiocy of the whole thing against him. But now I'm reading this and all I can say is -- really, though?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Let's eat!

NOW FINISHED: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
NOW READING: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Ishmael, for all its silly contrived gorilla-ness, made me seriously consider a thing or two. Among the thing(s) was the very notion of agriculture. As he interrogates the narrator, Ishmael opens our eyes to the fact that everything we've grown up learning about the agricultural revolution is the mythology of our culture. We learn about the cradles of 'civilization' as the beginning of it all. But of all of what? There were peoples before that, and some peoples continued living the old ways without dominating the land for years after that. There are even some such peoples around today, though fewer and farther between, and we civilized folk tend to call them "primitive."

Now, one of the things that Ishmael helps the narrator realize is that we defy the laws of nature with our agriculture. As opposed to hunting and gathering, if you will, we have ceased accepting that this or that food will be available in limited amounts, and we store it up and more importantly we insist that we have X amount available for ourselves at all times. Do you ever see the lion kill more than one gazelle, putting some aside for tomorrow?

Whether you are into the touchy-feely earthy-crunchy stuff or not, it is interesting to ponder agriculture. A few days after I finished Ishmael, Brian and I were eating dinner at our neighborhood Peruvian restaurant and pondering many things and he was talking about Anthony Bourdain, whom we love to watch (who doesn't love Anthony Bourdain?) Brian was saying how much he loves the way Bourdain gets at the heart of a culture by eating the food there, and it suddenly dawned on me in that way things will dawn on you when you are munching and pondering things, that that's the whole point. The whole point of Ishmael and of us. Agri-culture. Field cultivation. Our whole concept of "culture" IS a concept of dominance, but also creation. It's as if producing food gave us cultures, and that is in fact why each culture has representative food. Meanwhile, the "primitive" peoples are handing down over the millennia the ways of their ancestors and all kinds of wisdom and guidance about the right way to live. Did we lose that wisdom by turning the focus to food? Is it possible to pass down both?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

No, I ain't gonna work on the farm no more...

NOW READING: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

I should be saying a lot more about Ishmael. It's really grown on me. But not in a normal novel way. I give Quinn an A+ for his Philosophy 101 essay but I still don't really understand how (let alone why) he decided to make a "novel" out of it. It is barely, barely, barely a story. And there are barely characters. Just dude and Ishmael, with the occasional forced interaction with a janitor or carnival roustabout or something.

But I get excited about my periodic checking in! I look forward to my little nightly gorilla lesson. I am almost finished with the book, actually, and I'm eager to see what dramatic little exhortation will be used to send the reader back out to the world.

Most recently, Ishmael has taught the narrator and me about how the story of our civilization, our post-agricultural revolution civilization(s), were destined to fail. Ishmael has also taught us that we are totally misguided in how we look to the story of Adam and Eve as the meant-to-be dawn of our culture, when it is really more of a cautionary tale about how Adam/Cain/dominion slays the pastoral lifestyle... In fact, I have a whole deep thought to share about the meaning of food in culture, and of agriculture. But I'm tired tonight so I might save that for tomorrow. Tonight, it's straight from the gorilla's mouth.

"Whenever a Taker couple talk about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, they're reenacting the scene beside the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They're saying to themselves, 'Of course it's our right to apportion life on this planet as we please. Why stop at four kids or six? We can have fifteen if we like. All we have to do is plow under another few hundred acres of rain forest -- and who cares if a dozen other species disappear as a result?"
--page 181

Funny, just today I was reading octuplets' mother news and caught a clip of Jon & Kate Plus 8...

Monday, February 02, 2009

There is only one Ishmael

Well, actually, I guess there are two. But I mean only one post-biblical literary Ishmael. In Moby Dick. I guess it's sort of funny how I just discounted the original Ish, eh?

Anyway, I am currently reading my 'Q' author. This brings me to the upstart, wanna-be Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Ishmael in this book is a gorilla. A gorilla teacher. How can a gorilla teach his pupil? Well, in this case he "talks" via a sort of telepathic communication to his earnest, ex-hippie kind of narrator.

If this is all starting to sound very new age and perhaps silly, well, it is. I've heard about this book for a while, mostly that a)some book lovers I know hated it and b)these days, some high schools are making it required reading. But only adventurous high schools. Of course both of those things did nothing to promise me it would not be very new age and perhaps silly.

I'm having novel issues with it again, as I have with some other letters (O, J...) This one strikes me as particularly not a novel, not even a thinly veiled memoir or anything. It's more like a metaphysical self-help philosophy book that Quinn makes into a novel by giving it two "characters" who have the conversation, instead of Quinn just writing his philosophy for the world to see. I'm 157 or something pages in, and the man and his instructing gorilla never go anywhere or do anything. The man leaves at night and comes back the next day for more instruction. The whole book is dialogue, nearly.

So if one can handle all that and get over the fact that 'Q' is not going to be a novel, what then does one think about Ishmael?

Well, it's a little weird. (Obviously.) But I kind of like some of its ideas: humans think they're not subject to the laws of nature, etc. Most recently, the idea that the gods had a perfectly good reason for telling man he'd "surely die" the day he tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge was pretty fun. I liked the explanation behind that. But I am still convinced as I read it that I'm secretly sitting in Philosophy 101 and not actually reading a novel.

I read a slew of reviews on Good Reads that totally ripped Ishmael up one side and down the other. I half agreed with them. The book is really kind of silly, and yet not. I am currently quite amused with myself when I think, "hmm, I'll just go off and check in with my gorilla for a little while."