Book

Review of “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe

6014518 How does one review such a timeless classic as Robinson Crusoe without calling into question the justice it deserves?  Considering how well received this book has been by readers over the ages, it seems difficult for me now to tackle such a review, especially since so many people hold it dear to their hearts and memories.  After all, this is one of those books widely read even by those people who normally aren’t well read to begin with.  In fact, my first exposure to Robinson Crusoe was actually back in the day, but therein lies an injustice, if I may call it that.  We weren’t required to read the whole book, but rather excerpts from it, to which I can’t recall from which part.  So, for me to say that I had read Defoe’s seafaring adventure and to say that I knew it would be false.  Partly, because this is one of those books that people who aren’t widely read can talk about, even if they’d never read it.  Before a few days ago, I couldn’t honestly say that I had read Defoe’s work from cover to cover;  I had only read excerpts from it, hence why I decided to pick it up and give it a go.  [Beware, spoilers lie ahead if you haven’t read the book yet.]

Here is an adventure of a caliber unlike any other.  Crusoe is a man who leaves his parents behind, against their good wishes, to become a sailor.  He sails the world, becomes a slave in some Moorish country, becomes a plantation owner in Brazil — one of the Spanish colonies, at the time — and becomes shipwrecked and stranded on a deserted island for some 27 or so odd years.  His time on the island, obviously, isn’t poorly spent as one might imagine for a novel of this length, for he occupies himself with surviving off of the fruits of the land and all that is provided to him through “Providence.”  In the beginning of his extended stay, he considers himself destitute and miserable; however, his faith in the divine proves itself stronger, as he considers how well-off he is on his one-man paradise, given all of the circumstances surrounding his situation.  After all, he manages to salvage much from his wrecked ship before the sea claims her.  Once he learns the island and settles in, he tends to his daily routine, explained in such detail only attributing to an Englishman, until he stumbles upon the ghastly remains of a cannibalistic feast on some part of the beach, something he was all the while oblivious to during his time on the island. From here on out, the whole tone of the book changes, a testament to Defoe’s strength as a writer.

From this point in the novel, Crusoe becomes apprehensive and fearful of the potential fate that might await him, should he be discovered by these unknown adversaries.  The test of time proves his fears to be true, that cannibals are visiting the island and feasting on their victims, until one day, he braves the dangers with his muskets and frees one of the potential victims from a miserable doom.  A cannibal himself, whom he comes to call “Friday,” Crusoe teaches him the Christian way of living, converting him away from his heathen ways.  Loyal to Crusoe through and through, Friday becomes an asset to life on the island and begins helping with the daily chores.  The adventure doesn’t end here, though, as more circumstances arise that demand to be dealt with.  Crusoe rescues more victims from other cannibals, who know about other Spanish survivors living among the cannibal tribe (wrap your head around that one); he even rescues a doomed English captain (a fellow countryman) and his loyal first mates from mutineers who had taken over a ship.  This, in turn, ends up being his deliverance from his time on the island, ending in a well-to-do Crusoe who returns to riches and wealth saved for him by trustworthy folk, whom we only briefly learn about in the beginning of the book.

The plausibility of such a story isn’t too far-fetched, especially since many sources claim that Defoe based his novel on the stranded accounts from one Scottish-born sailor, Alexander Selkirk; however, Defoe’s faith in humanity, as revealed by Crusoe’s accounts upon his return to civilization after his deliverance from solitude, seems in my opinion a bit naive and unrealistic, considering the time period for which the story is based.  Crusoe returns to civilization, encounters ship captains whom he sailed with 27 years ago, recounts his story to them, and suddenly finds his wealth returned to him that very instance.  If this is some narrative strategy from Defoe’s time, perhaps a means of bringing closure quickly to an otherwise long story, it is beyond me and my knowledge for the writings of this time.  One thing about Crusoe that remains clear, however, is how resourceful he is in his ways.  For being a tradesman, Crusoe manages to live his time on this desolate island well to do with his goods, which is what really lies at the heart of this book — making good with what is provided to you through God’s will.  The book reads like a sermon pedestal for Defoe, to preach his interpretation of divinity onto his reader, no doubt a characteristic of any writing at the time of its publication in 1719.  If you can muscle your way beyond these religious undertones in the book, then Robinson Crusoe is a good choice for you.  Regardless, this timeless classic of endurance and perseverance during a time of hardship will always remain an exciting addition to any reading list, striving to teach the classics.

 

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Review of “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke

It was one of those night skies that I will never forget.  The Milky Way galaxy was spread across the sky in all of its awesome glory.  Never before had I seen such splendor as this.  I felt its pulse, the same as I can feel my own.  The night sky felt alive!

Perseid_and_Milky_WayI remember the moment well.  I was on maneuver in Hohenfels, Germany, and the night was calm and clear.  We were staging to go out into “the box,” as the training area was called, so there was little for us to do that evening but wait.  Given the remoteness of our location, there was virtually no light pollution in the sky, which set the evening’s mood perfectly for a star-filled sky the likes of which I had never seen.  I walked away from the buildings we were living in to find a secluded spot, away from the bustle of my comrades, and laid down upon a bed of grass to watch the night sky.  Many of my friends were busy playing spades or doing their laundry at the automat, but I wanted my peace away from it all.  I wanted to take in this rare moment, and I did.  I spent hours that evening just lying on the ground, watching the stars as they worked their way across the sky. Shooting stars cascaded across the night sky like mystical rain, and in that moment, I realized that the Earth was moving; the moon was more than a luminescent sphere in the sky, rather it was an instrument of perfect symmetry with the Earth, both dancing their waltz around the orbit of our sun.  I envisioned the sun casting its rays of light upon the surface of the moon, and how other planets took their rotational turn around the sun at that same moment.  The universe was moving, and I could feel its movement in my very soul.  I did nothing but watch on in wonder.  I had never taken a moment like this to myself, alone and self absorbed as I was to ponder and contemplate my place on this planet, an intricate system of life that is able to thrive because of oxygen and various other elements contained within its gravitational influence.  The only thing separating me from the vast openness of the universe was our atmosphere, a component to life on this planet that we often take for granted; for without it, we would be nothing but a lump of rock floating through space.  I stared out into the cosmos, enthralled by its complexity. Yet, lying there on the ground like that, observing the universe around me, made everything feel so simple, regardless of the complexity of the universe’s mechanics, if such a paradox could exist.  I was having an Olaf Stapledon moment.  To put it simply — I was awestruck.

One video found on TED by philosopher John Silva suggests that I am not the only one to have had a moment like this.  In fact, he claims that feelings of awestruck lend themselves to our biological advantage as a species for survival.  These moments of awe are what fuel our passion, imagination and will to learn about the universe we live in; they motivate and compel us to live not just in our present moment, but in the future.  While scientists seek to rationalize and explain the universe at large, others seek to explore the universe in their own way.  Their imaginations guide them into the cosmos, allowing those of us willing to listen along for the ride.  One such author is Arthur C. Clarke.  A Science Fiction (SF) writer of legendary status, his works explore the concepts of life beyond our planet and the full spectrum of the universe with such vivid imagery, it is inspiring to read his works.  SF writers who embrace the genre often use the compelling evidence of the scientific community and its discoveries to extend new questions derived from their findings to a new level, one where the imagination is only limited by the capacity of the writer.  Clarke was one of those writers who seemingly transcended what the genre was capable of, taking SF to new levels of the scientific imagination.  One of his short stories only affirms this, “The Star,” written in 1955 and published in The Nine Billion Names of God, an anthology of short stories signifying the best of his works.  While questions of faith and our place in the universe are central to the theme of this short narrative, anyone who picks up this story to read it will be left wondering about more than their relationship with a higher power, but about time and its influence over our lives.

When I finished reading it, I could not help but think back to that moment in Hohenfels, laying there in the dead of the night contemplating my existence.  All sense of time was lost, except for what the perpetual motion of the night sky afforded me.  The moon idly swept across the sky, and it felt as if I could feel the movement of the Earth below me. Actually, it made me feel small and puny, like an insect under a boot. I was not depressed by feeling infinitesimal, but rather I felt like a part of it.  My time and place on this planet are important to me; I am here now, living my life, and I feel I have a sense of self-worth in my daily affairs.  I live as others have lived before me.  I am learning about the world around from the voices of the past, as others have done before.   Reading this story made me realize that watching the night sky as I did that evening is looking upon the infinity of time, no different than any astronomer would do looking upon images through a telescope, such as the deep field image taken from the Hubble.  Astronomers and physicists are uncovering the past of the universe in the same way historians and archaeologists are unearthing our cultural identities.  I feel compelled to ask whether I am indeed a mortal being, or something much more than this, an immortal who will live on through the life that continues beyond me.  My role on this Earth may be a small fragment when compared to the grand scheme of the universe, but I have a role to play in it none-the-less, whatever that role may be.  Only by living will I be able to tell.

The Short Story

In Clarke’s “The Star,” humankind has a similar fascination with the stars, our exploration of them conflicting with our sense of self within the divine order of God’s will.  In fact, this is the central conflict within the story, played out by a protagonist who is a man of the cloth, ordained in the ways of the church, an institution in Clarke’s vision that has learned to embrace science as a means of justifying itself.  This father is not one you would find governing any parish on Earth, rather he is returning from an epic journey to the “Phoenix Nebula,” a cloud of dust born out of the cataclysmic ending of a star, a supernova.  Their original mission was to learn as much as possible about the process a star goes through to become a white dwarf, a body of mass incomparable to anything found on our Earth, and to analyze the aftermath of a supernova.  What they discover as they enter the dusty nebula is something quite unexpected.  By this point in the story, dated around 2500 A.D., we know that humanity has been trekking through the stars using a technology Clarke calls a “Transfinite drive.”  This engine allows us to move throughout the Cosmos in measurements of light years, quite necessary considering the distance to the Phoenix Nebula, which we learn to be over 100 light years away from our solar system.  What they find when they arrive, though, is quite extraordinary:  a planetary system that survived the destructive force of the supernova.  The narrator describes their initial reactions to the planet and what they found there: “The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster.  We landed, and we found the Vault… Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning.  A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality” (Clarke 306).  We learn from this expedition that everything this civilization sought to protect, the “fruits of their genius” were placed in this Vault on the most distant planet away from their unstable sun in the hopes that it would survive and someone would find it.  And, we did.

The weight of this discovery plays heavily on the crew of the ship, as it makes its return voyage back to Earth.  The father on board struggles with his faith in God and His will, having gained knowledge of their demise from interpreting their cultural records stored within the Vault.  Our narrator questions His motives, “This tragedy was unique.  It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth.  But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors — how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?” (307).    While it is an important question to ask in terms of our own race and how many of us see God’s influence over our lives, what I find more significant to this is the manner in which they rekindle their existence.  Granted, this terrestrial planet and its life forms cease to exist in a biological sense;  however, they live on in spirit and in mind through the discovery of their Vault.  It is only fitting that the nebula this crew discovers this extinct civilization in is called the “Phoenix Nebula.”  Like the mythical bird of legend, this culture raises out of the ashes of its planet’s ruin at the hands of its rogue star, having preserved remnants of their culture for another exploratory race to uncover.  Like archaeologists, the astronauts unearth the Vault and collect their secrets, secrets that were otherwise meant for immortalizing a race that was faced with its extinction.  This Vault is no different from a time capsule one would bury in the backyard.

Conclusion

I once buried a time capsule with my friends in the backyard.  My friends and I collected our things, action figurines and baseball cards mostly, and buried them in a lunchbox, in the hopes that one day someone from the future would find it.  Ironically, we have long since forgotten where we buried this relic; nevertheless, the concept of the time capsule remains the same in Clarke’s story.  This got me thinking — what would humanity place into its Vault if we learned that our sun was unstable and would nova in the near future?  How would we preserve our race for future beings to discover?  Would we place the National Archives in this Vault, preserving documents of significant importance to our civilization?  Would patents and manuscripts of our technologies be placed therein?  What about the blueprint of our own biological code, the Human Genome Project?  Would this be placed in the Vault, as well?  Or would we loss sight of ourselves, being taken over by the emotional burden of realizing the inevitable demise of our race? (I recall the Lars Van Trier film Melancholia to prove my point here)  I like to think we would keep our “cool” in the face of such peril, for the sake of continuity, just like this race of beings did when their star exploded.  After all, is that not the point of science and our ambition to chronicle our environment and to learn about the universe we live in?  To see to it that future generations are able to expand on this knowledge base, and to learn what it means to exist in the time-space continuum on this little planet we call Earth; one of eight (nine, if you’re still a believer) planets we inhabit in our solar system around the sun; one star that resides within the Milky Way Galaxy; one of many galaxies that make up the overwhelming vastness of the universe, and my description here really does it no justice.

I’m curious to know of my readers: have you ever buried a time capsule?  What did you place in it? 

Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. “The Star” (1955).  eFictions. Eds. Joseph Trimmer, Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 303-307. Print.

Image source:  Inaglory, Brocken. “Perseid and the Milky Way.” 12 Aug. 2007. Image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 06 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

Zombies in our Midst: A Cultural Analysis

 

SinNight of the deadce I recently finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z, I thought I would post back up this essay that I wrote about zombie culture on my blog.  I wrote it a couple of years ago, but took it down for whatever reason.  Since I finished the book, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the topic.  After all, there is no denying the hype that exists around zombies these days.  In fact, whether looking for a book at the library or scanning the shelves at your local movie rental, these monsters seem to be everywhere you turn.   They are certainly not the prettiest things to look at, either.  By their very nature, they are rotten to the bone and keep getting gorier and gorier with every film.  They used to walk stiff-leggedly through the night, searching for brains, but now, they chase their prey down in mob fashion.  Hollywood keeps making it easier for these zombies to overwhelm survivors who haven’t died yet. One minute they’re limping and moaning, the next they’re running and snarling. They just keep getting meaner and meaner. No surprise really. When you stop to look at a list of movie titles available from Wikipedia, the zombie movie, arranged by year, is produced by the droves annually and has been since film production studios were able to produce films, so they need to do something to keep these slow moving mobs interesting. Budgets usually don’t help either. Earlier films managed to make really scary backdrops with hardly anything going for production crews. According to Zombiepedia (yes, such a website exists), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed and produced on as little of a budget as $114,000. Regardless of the budget or theme, the film industry pushes the zombie movie through the production lines, because it is what most people want to see.  They are high in demand.  But why?  What is the fascination? Because we want to live to tell about it, that’s why.

HvZZombie culture is not just limited to the big screen.  In fact, it is invading college campuses all across the nation.  HUMANSVSZOMBIES is an organization devoted to social networking campus-wide events, where users can label themselves as either human survivors or zombie menace, in order to socialize and roleplay zombie apocalypse scenarios in a real-world setting.  I say campus-wide, but what I really meant was worldwide, as the influence of this organization seems to have quite the reach.  The location finder (Googlemaps) they have on their homepage shows their registered users extending even to remote countries like Kyrgyzstan, located in Euroasia.  So what does this glorified game of tag ultimately mean, in terms of the apparent obsession that people have with zombies?

While a game like this may be “fun” to play when it is not exam time, there are others who take the idea of a zombie apocalypse much more seriously.  Guns and Ammo magazine seems to have picked up on the fascination, as they offer an entire series of blog articles on their website titled “Zombie Nation.”  Their tag line: “When you’re helpless against the zombie horde and their blood lust, don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Get your tips, tactics and gear for zombie defense here” (Guns&Ammo).  There’s something disconcerting about a magazine that advocates second amendment rights, but uses a theme like the zombie apocalypse to inform their readers of “responsible” gunmanship.  One of the articles, for example, is about the Kel-Tec shotgun.  Tom Beckstrand, a demonstrator for the “Zombie Nation” column, advertises and promotes this tactical weapon when he states in the video: “If you’re going to carry a shotgun in the zombie apocalypse, this is a good one to have” (0:24, “Ultimate Zombie Shotgun).  He, then, proceeds to unload the 14-round magazine this .12 gauge pump-action shotgun is capable of holding into a series of zombie paper targets. “Alright, that was fourteen rounds of twelve-gauge goodness,” he concludes the video with.  What a safe feeling it brings to know that such tactical weapons are available on the open market.  Just think, weapons like this are being stockpiled and bunkered in American homes right now for the “coming” zombie apocalypse.

But, I digress.  This is more of a by-product with the fascination that surrounds the zombie, not an explanation for its influence over the American mentality.  Interestingly enough, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governmental agency responsible for the nation’s immunal security, offers some insight into this fascination for the undead when director Dr. Ali Khan is quoted from a CNN interview to illustrate why they are using the zombie apocalypse theme to promote preparedness: “It’s a good metaphor for where you have complete disruption” (qtd. in Greene). He goes on to suggest that the same level of preparation needed for a pandemic or a natural catastrophe would be the same if the world were to be plagued by a zombie infestation.  It’s a step in the direction they want people to think in when it comes to a disaster, where they want people to survive and fend for themselves when the social system in place is disrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.  In every way, they’re promoting survivalism.  In fact, from their Public Health Matters Blog, the CDC states:

When you walk up to a person and start talking about the undead they have all kinds of preparedness ideas, most involving food, water, and other life essentials which just so happen to be the same items that we recommend people put in their disaster kit. So, the old adage really holds true, if you’re prepared for zombies, then you’re prepared for anything (Zombie Nation).

Is this what we find fascinating about them?  Because we would rather be survivors than mindless zombies?  Perhaps watching a zombie film is not about watching a gore-fest, per say, but to see how we could potentially survive such a scenario.  As the quote above states, many people have their own ideas about preparedness when they talk about the undead.  Some believe that the possibility, although highly improbable, exists, so these people toy with the idea and concoct a hypothetical strategy for survival against an imaginary foe.  An exit plan, if you will, for when hell on Earth ensues.  As improbable as they may be, though, zombies are still dangerous — not just to the protagonists in the zombie story, but to the American way of life, in general.  They represent a much larger threat; one that is not detrimental to our physical, bodily condition, but a threat that is more psychologically restrictive.  With the violence our culture is often exposed to, both factual and fictional, most Americans like to think they can handle a zombie single-handedly.  But, when it comes to the zombie horde, closing in and cutting off all avenues of escape, liberties are at stake.  A person trapped cannot help but die an agonizing and terrible death.  To make matters worse, that individual rises again to join their ranks.  To this end, it goes against the very notion of being free and living your life the way you want to.  Is this not something Americans pride themselves with over anything else?  Once an individual turns into a zombie, he or she is no longer capable of their own free will, rather they become a part of the mob that makes up the undead.  This scares Americans.  Perhaps this is why the CDC uses the zombie as a means to encourage people to think for themselves in terms of their own survivability during a disaster.  Most people will listen and act when their civil liberties are at risk.

An article written by Stephen Gertz, then a senior English major for the project “An Exploration of Modern Monsters,” headed by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan in 1999, addresses something similar about the notion of free will and the zombie, but he draws his conclusions by looking at the root of the zombie’s origins in Haitian Voodooism.  He declares that “by ‘controlling’ another person and eliminating that persons [sic] ability to make choices, let alone engage in conscious thought, the ‘controller’ has reduced that person to the level of an animal and has robbed him of his humanity” (Gertz).  The “controller” that he is referring to here is known as the bokor (evil sorceror) and the houngan (healer) in Haitian Voodoo, both who are capable of zombification through the use of a powder, where the victim is drugged into a zombie-like state, rendering them as “zombi astral” (Jacobi).  Wade Davis talks about this type of zombie in his widely acclaimed book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, an inside look at Haitian Voodoo and the secret societies that exist around it.  When the poison is used by a bokor or a houngan, the soul of the victim is released and becomes trapped.  He writes, “‘In that bottle was the soul of a human being… the control of which is an ominous power.  It is a ghost, or like a dream; it wanders at the command of the one who possesses it. It was a zombi astral captured from the victim by the magic of the bokor'” (Davis 167).  Clearly, an human being is placed into jeopardy when such a poison has the ability to render a person soulless, but this type of zombie that Gertz and Davis describes is more malevolently created by the hands of a witch doctor.  This is not the same zombie — zombi savanne — that returns from the dead (Jacobi); it is not the zombie that George A. Romero reinvented with Night of the Living Dead.  This zombie rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and is controlled by no one but its own urges.

The zombi astral, then, is in every way the literal theft of the human soul from a poisoned victim, and the loss of free will imposed by such an act is undeniable.  But, does the zombi savanne, the undead corpse that returns from the dead to stalk the earth, still fall under the debate about civil liberties and the threat against the American way of life?  It certainly does.  Death, in the present hypothetical context, is not a release from the throes of life, because the individual who dies is doomed to turn into one of them.  This is what makes the zombie so menacing.  It is not enough that one should be ravaged by a mob of flesh-eating monsters, but that the condition is viral and spreads with each attack.  This is where the power of the zombie narrative exists.  This is what makes for compelling stories of survival.

Books like The Zombie Survival Guide, authored by Max Brooks in 2003, are popular for this very reason.   People want to read about ways in which they can survive a zombie apocalypse.  Afterall, who wants to become a zombie?  The AMC original series, The Walking Dead, is in its fifth season now, because most viewers want to know what happens to the survivors.  Their quest for survival and liberation from the oppressive and ever hostile zombie makes for compelling story.  We watch these shows always from the perspective of a survivor, someone whom we are sympathetic with, because we ourselves want to think we can survive such an event, too.  A book like this offers strategies and tips, all hypothetical, of course, that we can consult, much in the way of a Boyscout Handbook.  Afterall, does not the survivor, pitted against all odds against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, appeal to our gun-crazy, survivalistic, free-thinking society?  If anything, it makes for a compelling and dramatic storyline — the more apocalyptic and dire the backdrop, the better.  WWZMax Brook’s World War Z, a collection of testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” which was very entertaining, given all of the different perspectives Brooks offers.  At one point he even shows what the zombie apocalypse looks like from an astronaut’s vantage point on the International Space Station.  Needless to say, it was a well-thought series of stories about a significant event, which Hollywood had to put on the big screen.  It was adapted and released as a film starring Brad Pitt back in 2013, making it the exact type of plot that attracts viewers.  It is post-apocalyptic and barren — a no-man’s land.  This is the direction that Hollywood film-making seems to be taking us, too.

In post-apocalyptic America, the rules change.  It is the wild, wild west all over again.  Lawlessness and zombie menace make life for survivors difficult and rugid, but they are free from the bonds of social restraint, from the bonds of government.  These survivors are where the appeal lies.  They are not limited by rules and regulations.  They do not live the mundane lives, where routine dictates what comes on the dinner table or what we wear when we go to work six days out of the week.  In fact, the more alone they are, the better.  There are no ties or commitments to be made.  It is simply a matter of fending for oneself.  In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, three survivors coup themselves up in a retail mall, where they clean out and barricade themselves inside for protection against the zombies that roam the land.  One of the protagonists, Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is injured at one point in the film, where he is laid up in the storage room they turned into their home. There, he slowly rots from the viral infection that spreads from the attack.  Peter (Ken Foree) watches the heart-wrenching transformation from human to zombie and shots him once he turns.    This is one of the drawbacks that the zombie narrative plays on its survivors; the protagonists are forced to consider and do things that often go against their conscience, their very nature, in order to survive.  At first, they see the zombies as humans — from a distance — until they are up-close and aggressive.  Once they are forced to defend themselves, their demeanor becomes hardened.  They do not sympathize with the dead and are desensitized by the violence around them.  It becomes easier for them to do the harder tasks, like surviving.

There is a certain appeal to the zombie horror movie that people will acknowledge.  Any way you look at them, they make for intriguing but grisly stories.  We see these people placed in horrific environments, where they are forced to fend for their right to live.  Each turn the story takes leaves us predicting who amongst the cast will be killed and how.  As horrible as this may sound, it is something we are used to.  The exposure most Americans have to violence is commonplace, ranging from the sensationalized evening news to prime-time television,  making a topic like the zombie apocalypse an interesting one for some.  Therein lies the truth to the zombie myth in America: it is the by-product of a culture that thrives and profits off of violence.  We like to watch as the human condition is pushed to its limit.  Just looking at how Guns and Ammo‘s “Zombie Nation” column or the CDC’s “Preparedness 101” blog uses zombies to reach out and peek the interests of people is certainty of this.  Culturally, we are saturated in violence, so we long to sympathize with those who survive situations we would not otherwise want to be in.  It is thrilling, in a way: the anxiety that comes with isolation and the inescapability of death.  Some of us, though, would rather survive and live to tell about it than have our will to live taken away from us.

 

Works Cited

“About HVZ.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies.Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis and Magic. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1985. Print.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero.  Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger. United Films, 1979. Film.

Gertz, Stephen. “Zombie Symbolism.” An Exploration of Modern Monsters. Ed. Eric Rabkin. University of Michigan, Fall 1999. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Greene, Richard A. “Ready for a Zombie Apocalypse? CDC has Advice.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 19 May. 2011.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Jacobi, Keith. “Zombies, Revenants, Vampires, and Reanimated Corpses.” Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience. Ed. Clifton D. Bryant, and Dennis L. Peck.  Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009. 1002-06. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Poole, Eric R. “Enough Gun for Zombies: Kel-Tec KSG Tactical Pump Shotgun.” Guns and Ammo: Zombie Nation. Intermedia Outdoors, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Ultimate Zombie Shotgun: The Kel-tec KSG.” Youtube. GunsAndAmmoMag, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Matters Blog.  19 May, 2012.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Image Source

Romero, George A.  Night of the Living Dead. 1968. Screenshot. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Jul. 2006. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

“The Humans vs. Zombies Logo.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies. Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

Review of “Knowing the Enemy” by Mary Habeck

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on TerrorThe world over seems to be in a miserable state at the moment. Watch the news for any given amount of time and you will most certainly hear about Islamic extremists instilling chaos in some part of the world.   One could even argue that Jihad and terror have become buzzwords in the media, but with little wonder considering how groups like Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaeda openly claim responsibility for attacks in the name of their religion, attacks such as those in Tunesia, Nigeria or Yemen, for example.  In fact, Tunesia could be considered a place that is volatile to extremism, given the March attacks made toward the Bardo national museum in the capital city of Tunis, to which responsibility is now being claimed by ISIS-inspired militants; Yemen is another hot spot for such activities, what with al-Qaeda fighters freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on a prison in the port city of Al Mukalla, one New York Times article recently reports; and let us not forget the recent deadly attack made toward a university in Kenya by al-Shabab islamists, where at least 150 people were killed. All of these recent events are but a small fraction when considering the majority of terror-related news that seems to be streamlining the “front pages” of many news outlets in the west.  What does all of this mean, though?  What is a simple man, living a simple life, suppose to make of all this turmoil and carnage?  What is the point to the bloodshed and beheadings that act as trademarks to their systematic design?  It is with questions like these in mind that I take to the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, by Mary Habeck.

Habeck, an associate professor at John Hopkins University, writes an analysis on fundamentalist Islam in her 2006 Yale University Press book, in an effort to make sense of the attacks led by al-Qaeda extremists on the World Trade Center in September, 2001. Her research about jihadist ideology reveals an archaic form of right-wing thinking, where the word of three texts — the Qur’an, the hadith, and sira, which are a series of “sacralized biographies” about the life of the prophet Muhammad, which give insight into his “calling” as a political and spiritual leader — serve as the basis for their fundamentalism. In many ways, the life of Muhammad serves as the “model for the acquisition and use of power,” deeming these sacred texts as the guidelines for “defensive and offensive strategies of Islam at every stage of this global confrontation [known otherwise as jihad] over a very long time” (qtd. in Habeck 138). For example, one way of thinking derived from these texts lies in the concept of jahiliyya (ignorance), in that everyone is ignorant and blind in the world until they become enlightened by Islam, as the state of the Arab world was before Muhammad brought his message unto the people (Habeck 65).

Not everyone agrees with the interpretations these jihadists make of the sacred texts. As a matter of discourse, Habeck makes several references to this, reiterating throughout the book such assurances as:

the jihadist commitment to offensive warfare, their belief in terrorizing entire populations, their views on prisoners of war and booty, and their deliberate targeting of innocents have not found widespread support among the vast majority of the Islamic world (133).

This could be as much as to prevent any liabilities or offense for her scholarship and thesis, as it is to convey the truth of the matter.  For example, many scholars believe that jihadists never give “full interpretive weight” to the circumstances relating to the past, but instead pull loosely from the texts to meet and satisfy their own agenda. This blatant show of abuse towards interpreting these texts implies their desire to manipulate and control their followers, which Habeck believes is “one of the most important aspects of the current conflict, for the struggle over who controls the Qur’an and hadith is, in many ways, the key to the upheaval in the Islamic world” (53). She furthers her argument for this point when she writes, ” For many Muslims who take their religion seriously, the willingness of the jihadis to selectively ignore a thousand years of interpretive work and the traditional exegesis of the people of knowledge is a serious affront to their understanding of Islam” (55). This is creating an internal conflict within the Islamic world, where both fundamentalists and liberally-oriented modernists are claiming the sacred texts to be the “true voice of Islam” (42). The result has turned out to be a bloody conflict, with tensions and animosities running high from every direction.

Regardless the religion, this is generally the reaction made toward fundamentalism by more moderate and intellectually-oriented people in a given society.   Christian fundamentalism has a tendency to have a similar effect — picking and choosing– on many of its believers.  As one blogger from the Huffington Post puts it, “Few [Christian] fundamentalists care about the early church, the Gospels, the Catholic traditions, Augustine, Arian heresies, encyclicals and councils. Rather, they blend Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism for a peculiar American strain of bullshit” (McElwee). Whether it is preaching a right-wing agenda through sermon or picketing in protest over gay-rights, Christian fundamentalists seem to only listen to themselves.  As Habeck reminds us in her book, jihadists are no different: they pick and choose what they want to believe, which tends to be the more militant side of Islam (43).

Her argument toward jihadist ideology in a modern sense is not entirely clear, though.  As would be expected of a book covering a topic such as this, her argument attracts a lot of criticism. One reviewer from the website The American Thinker bluntly states that “Habeck’s scholarship is half-baked, meaning literally half done.” He goes on to justify his case: “After making it clear to us that jihadism has deep and historical roots in Islam, Habeck feels compelled to proclaim that jihadists have perverted ‘traditional Islam’ to suit their purposes, have moved contrary to the flow of ‘modern Islam’, and are heterodox in their condemnation of all of those who oppose… But repeating these statements time and again in conclusory fashion does not make it so, and she provides almost no source material or analysis of how the jihadists are in fact heterodox” (Yerushalmi). The book does maintain a repetitive feel at times, especially when considering some of the facts used in several of the chapters to discuss the historical roots of Islam fundamentalism. While the interpretations from such revolutionary thinkers like Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), to name a few (Habeck 18), are made clear early on in the book, she continually adds these thinkers’ ideals back into her dialogue, drowning out any discourse about the differences existing between modern jihadist groups.  Nevertheless, her book provides many insights into the topic, and I can see how parallels to what is happening in the Middle East exist with the fundamentalism she discusses. In fact, I noticed passages all throughout (see pages 64, 145, 148-149) that seemed to hint at the beginnings of such groups like ISIS, a fundamentalist group that did not rise to power until several years after her book was written.

Given her expertise on the subject, I was curious to know what her take is on the current volatile condition in the Arabian peninsula due to ISIS, so I pulled up an article she co-authored with Thomas Donnelly, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. There, they analyzed the current administration’s means of dealing with the Middle East thus far (as of January, 2014). They write that given the actions of the administration in their handling of the Benghazi attacks, the enemy is still largely misunderstood. “We still don’t understand the enemy,” she goes on to add, “more fatally… we do not understand the nature of the war.” That we don’t understand the enemy; that these al-Qaeda linked groups only reorganize and start anew once western intervention has packed up and gone home; that the terror network is more globally connected now than it was in the 80s and 90s; that, despite our “ebbing interest” in the region, the Middle East still maintains an interest in the United States, for better or worse: all of these facts weigh heavily on the decisions being made by the Obama administration during this political conundrum. Habeck and Donnelly make an interesting observation that has relevance to today’s understanding for the situation in the Middle East: “In sum, the state system — illegitimate and brittle as it has been — that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux” (Habeck and Donnelly). It would seem that the writing is on the wall, as the proverbial saying goes, but with the Obama administration taking a passive approach to Middle Eastern affairs — furthermore, partnering with nuclear-ambitious Iran to negotiate settlements when America’s most influential ally, Israel, fears for such an act to happen and may take matters into their own hands — there is little that could be done to thwart the shifting balance of power that seems to be happening at the moment. The United States has always acted in some way to keep “the worst from happening in the Middle East” (Habeck and Donnelly), but the restraint shown by the current administration leaves the mildly complacent international community to ponder, “what are we to do now?” Many nations have an interest in the Middle East, for whatever reasons there may be, political or economic, so these nations are left to “reshape the international system to [their] liking” (Habeck and Donnelly).   Whether this is a good move for America and her interests in global affairs, especially since many Middle Eastern players like Saudi Arabia, are at risk of finding more compliant bedmates, only time will tell.

For all my purposes, this book has done a thorough job in answering many of the questions that I have had about the Islamic conflicts that seem to be growing in scale in the Middle East. One thing stands for certain, these jihadists have many enemies and their agenda is grandiose in every means, but it is a real one, a threat to any who think differently from them. They are more than just a small band of violent people who have murdered innocent people, rather they believe that they are “honored participants in a cosmic drama” where the fate of the world will be played out to its ultimate end, victoriously or not (Habeck 163). Habeck, along with many other western scholars (see Samuel Huntington’s article) see a “clash of civilizations” taking place around the world, where an either-or mentality motivates jihadist groups like al-Qaeda to lash out at non-believers and to destroy them (162). How long this will last is hard to say, but if history has shown us anything, it is that totalitarianism seldom lasts for long. The only problem is that history has a tendency of repeating itself.

Works Cited

Habeck, Mary and Thomas Donnelly. “The Unmaking of the Middle East.” the weekly Standard 19.18 (20 Jan. 2014). Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Habeck, Mary. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

McElwee, Sean. “Five Things Christian Fundamentalists Just Don’t Get.” [Blog]. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post.com, Inc., 08 Jun. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Yerushalmi, David. “Knowing the Enemy: A Book Review.” The American Thinker. American Thinker, 9 Sep. 2006. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Further Reading

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22-49. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

On Reading the Novel “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

“What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually.  He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.  “It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty.  “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy.  Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold.  It steals up on you quieter than Will (a character in the book), and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires.  It burns, it does.  Nothing burns like the cold.  But only for a while.  Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it.  It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep.  They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end.  First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk.  Peaceful, like” (4).

And so begins the widely acclaimed, bestselling novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, the first of five books in the series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Many people recognize this fantasy series for the HBO televised adaptation that has been making headlines in the entertainment industry for five seasons now.  As widely spoken about as this story is, I don’t know too many people who have actually read the book, let alone the entire series.  No wonder, really, when you stop to consider the 805-page novel that makes up the first book alone.  I seldom have the time to read longer novels like this, but I have taken on the challenge to read the first book with a group of booktubers (YouTube vidbloggers who post reviews of books) during the month of March.  They are calling it the “Game of Thrones Readalong,” with a group discussion forum in Goodreads for those wanting to share thoughts on the book.  What better time to read this book than now, with a group of bookworms to share my ideas with.  So, I thought, why not.  I enjoy fantasy literature like this, and I have heard a lot about the story from friends.  Mind you, I have never seen the TV series, nor have I read any reviews about the book.  In fact, I am coming into this series with a clean slate, if you will.

This passage told by Gared, one of the Night Watchmen of the northern Wall, is found in the prologue of the book and seems to set the undertone for the story.   Using a wide array of vocabulary that seemingly fits the “cold” theme, Martin creates a plausible world around the wintery setting of what he calls simply “The North.” From the very beginning, the story is not an easy one to follow.   In fact, the first 100 pages or so are set in the northern reaches of Winterfell, the home to House Stark.  A very diverse cast of characters are introduced from the get-go, which makes it difficult to keep up with who’s whom, but the more often they are mentioned, the easier it becomes.  Enter King Robert and his family for a royal visit to the keep, though, and the character cast is made even more difficult to follow.  And so it is that the first conflict in the story is revealed, the setup of political intrigues so intricately crafted, that you can’t help but feel compelled to read further on in the story.  Don’t forget the introduction of our story’s antagonist from the parallel story of Daenerys, her marriage to the Khal Drogo and the backstory of her tempermental brother.  This gives the book a flair, in my opinion, that is seldom matched by other books in the genre.

Now, I have heard a couple of rumors about this book — the first being that Martin has a habit of killing off his characters, especially likeable ones.  After all, it seems to be one of the most talked about series at the moment, what with season five of the fantasy drama being released in April of this year.  But, I never really understood the sense or value of this — murdering off characters — until I started reading the book for myself.  If murdering a character in a story is not an effective narrative device, I don’t know what is.    In fact, the first attempt at murder has been directed toward Bran of House Stark, the seven-year old son to Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard, who happened upon the adulterous Queen Lannister and her lover in an abandoned tower of the keep during their visit to Winterfell.  Here we are, reading about Bran’s endeavors to climb the abandoned keep so that he may take in a view of his home one last time before departing to the southern kindgom with his father, when he overhears the Queen with her lover in seclusion, whispering ill tightings and foreboding plots while making love in the tower, a graphic and lustuous scene, no doubt.  Wanting to take a closer look at the two mysterious voices, he glimpses and recognizes the Queen, whom Bran reveals to the reader, but he does not tell us who the man with her is, even though he recognized him, too.  This was most certainly intentionally left out by Martin for foreshadowing purposes.  Suddenly caught, Bran slips from the ledge and falls, only grabbing hold at the last minute.  With an intent that borderlines malevolence, Martin goes on to write:

“Take my hand… before you fall.”  Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength.  The man yanked him up on the ledge.  “What are you doing?”  The woman demanded.  The man ignored her.  He was very strong.  He stood Bran up on the sill.  “How old are you, boy?”  “Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief… The man looked over at the woman.  “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing.  He gave Bran a shove.  Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air.  There was nothing to grab on to.  The courtyard rushed up to meet him (85).

What a moment!  The images of this young boy climbing the tower, of his innocence in only wanting to say farewell to his home, of the vertigo he experiences as he plummets down into the courtyard — these are what leave readers wanting more.  As Martin writes at the end of the book in his acknowledgments, “The devil is in the details, they say.”  Indeed, they are.  In fact, the intrigue of this scene doesn’t just come from the shove from the window, but more in the way Martin leads up to it.  He tells us earlier in the chapter that Bran has a habit of climbing things he shouldn’t be climbing and that his parents and guardians are always scolding him for doing so.  Suddenly, he falls from a ledge with no witnesses, making the whole drama surrounding the Queen to look like an accident waiting to happen.  Add to this intrigue the fact that he might live to tell about it, and you have good drama in the works.  Moments like these are what keep readers begging for more.

The second rumor I have heard, which has been reinforced by the South Park parodies during season 17,  is that Martin likes to add steamy, sensual details to his story.  I’ve only just finished the first 100 pages in the book, yet there have already been two sex scenes, if you will.  Albeit soft-core in nature, they are still visually gripping and erotic, an element I wasn’t quite expecting to find in a fantasy-based world.  Does it ruin the story?  No.  If anything, it helps create a more realistic and vulgar landscape, where people are quick to take what they want and indulge in their passions.  As I see it, this is also fitting to the feudal-based system, where pompous, hedonistic aristocrats live fanciful lives filled with pleasures (enter King Robert), all superficial traits to mask a deeper and harder truth –the reality of this realm.  These fleeting moments are written with clarity, further making Martin’s acknowledgment a suitable one for the story.  His fantasy world is a world of sin and hardship that is only made worse with the foreboding reminder made at several moments earlier in the story: “Winter is coming.”

I have divided this book into three sections, each at 200-page increments marked by sticky notes, with the intention to read one section each week.  At this rate, I should finish the book by the end of March, which happens to be the goal for the “Game of Thrones Readalong.”  A hat-tip to The Book Fox (click the link to check out her YouTube channel) for recommending this readalong.  I’m curious to see how Martin’s story unfolds.

Houellebecq’s Nightmare

Screen grab of Charlie Hebdo website taken on 7 January 2015

In light of the recent massacre that took place in Paris at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 06 January, 2015,  over an article about the controversial author, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, I am reblogging this post by Andrew Sullivan from The Dish, which sheds some light on the reasons why this attack on Charlie Hebdo took place.  Censorship through fear should not be tolerated, nor should a democratic society that values freedom of press or expression give in to acts of aggression like these. Stand behind your values, France.  We stand behind you.  My thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

The Dish

Charlie-Hebdo-Secondary2-320The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this morning coincided with the publication of controversial author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, which today’s Charlie either lampoons or praises (or both) in the cover seen to the right. Today’s attack was so clearly planned and premeditated that it likely wasn’t a response to Houellebecq’s book or Charlie‘s cover thereof, but there are plenty of parallels between Submission, which critics have derided as an anti-Muslim screed, and the offensive material that made the satirical weekly a target for Islamic fundamentalists. Ishaan Tharoor explains what the book is about:

“Submission” tells the story of France in the near future — 2022 — where a Muslim wins a presidential election against a far-right candidate and presides over the Islamization of French society. Persian Gulf monarchies pump in funds into new Islamic schools; teachers at the Sorbonne are compelled to convert to Islam; women slowly disappear from the workplace; polygamy becomes legally permissible. …

Houellebecq says his book leaves…

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Review of “The Wall” by Marlen Haushofer

(Reader’s note:  I wrote a series of notes on this review shortly after I finished reading the book, nearly a year ago, but I never managed to publish my thoughts until now.  Enjoy!)


The Wall

Now that I have finished reading The Wall, I will never think about our yearly vacations to the Austrian Alps the same way again.  It has been a growing tradition in our family to try to go skiing twice a year, once on Thanksgiving weekend and then again in March, at the end of the season.  For a couple of years we managed to do this yearly routine.  We would stay in a small village along the main road leading into the Oetztal valley. A small mountain brook fed by a waterfall some three hundred meters from the bedroom window and balcony ran by the vacation apartment where we stayed.  On the night of our arrival, we would go to bed early to have the chance to get to the slopes the following morning.  From there, we’d ski the whole day until before the last ski gondola would return to the valley below.  The view was always something to see.

Mountain pass panorama

Here is a panorama I took of the Austrian Alps the last time I went skiing in 2013.

I remember the first time I went skiing in the Alps.  Shortly after we’d arrived at the tallest lift station on the mountain, the wind picked up and a cold weather front came up over the neighboring mountain range.  It was really ominous, watching those milky clouds roll over the mountain like that.  I’d never seen clouds move the way they did.  There was nothing we could do but ski downhill.  We were in the mountains, and it was becoming clear that this would be my rites of passage, so to speak.  My partner went down the mountain with a cat-like grace, weaving this way and that. Clearly, thirty plus years of experience guided her the whole way down.  I could barely make a sweeping turn, on the other hand, what with this being my third time on skis.  I felt ridiculous as more and more experienced skiers passed me by.  What the hell am I doing way up here, I thought on more than one occasion.  Once, I had to side-step my way down the slope; it was just too steep for my skill level.  This and the pending doom that the clouds forbore only made me more anxious — and annoyed.  I still blame my partner for taking me down a red-diamond slope with a snowstorm just off the horizon. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy myself; after all, I did survive to tell the tale. What an adventure that snowstorm turned out to be, too.  A complete white-out at 2,500 meters.  I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone the path that I was skiing on.  There was nothing but raging snow, blowing this way and that, to remind me that I was on top of a mountain.  It was all one big blur, the whole three grueling hours of it.  Eventually I made it down to the middle station, drank a lot of Jägertee to calm my nerves and relaxed in the end at a thermal spa that evening, where I gave my aching muscles the rest they deserved.

Coming back to this book The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, I could think of nothing but my own experiences in the mountains as I read it.  How rugged and hazardous living there could be, especially if it was without the support of some fraction of civilization.  The thought of living alone, the way she does in the novel, with no one to aid, comfort or console you, is tormenting, not only for her but for us as readers, as well.  To consider how this story came to be is somewhat puzzling, too.  From one day to the next, she is alone, terribly alone, because of the wall:

I couldn’t see what he was so frightened of.  At this point the road emerged from the gorge, and as far as I could see it lay deserted and peaceful in the morning sun.  I reluctantly pushed the dog aside and went ahead on my own.  Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s [the dog] obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.  Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs.  Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air.  I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane.  Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears.  My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it  (Haushofer 8).

From this point on, this unnamed narrator struggles to survive in a world where only her and her animals exist.  All other traces of humankind are frozen on the other side of the wall, an invisible barrier that keeps her trapped within a mountain valley.  At one point during her survey of the valley, she describes a man she finds on the other side of the wall: “The man by the stream had fallen over and now lay on his back, his knees slightly bent, his cupped hand still on his way to his face.  He must have been knocked over in a storm.  He didn’t look like a corpse, more like something excavated from Pompeii…. rather like things that had never been alive, entirely inorganic” (Haushofer 45).  In the end, she finds companionship with the animals living with her inside the wall, her dog companion, Lynx, and several cats, who all help her maintain her sanity.  That, however, does not go untested without its trials and tribulations.  There is a return to nature of sorts in this novel and that means more than simply existing.  She is no different from the animals she natures and cares for in the novel, but at the same time, she is more than that.  She mostly tells us about her experiences behind the wall through a reflective journal, but traces of her thoughts, her memories are periodically forced to the surface throughout the text to reveal clues to her past.  And she struggles with those memories, for better or for worse.

Snowfall

Ultimately, she is alone.  Except for the many animals around her, she is terribly alone.  These animals become characters.  They take on a life of their own.  She survives because of them and they because of her.  The tragedy at the end of the novel rips the reader from the comfortable complacency that settles and takes hold and forces us to loath what happens — more so, how it happens.  To reveal this point in the plot would spoil the whole novel, but it is in this moment at the end that the strength of this female protagonist comes shining through.  Even after something tragic like this happens, she still goes on living.

Whether you look at the book from a feminist point of view, with the female protagonist struggling to survive in the mountains behind an invisible barrier or from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, with a hint of her isolation being self-imposed, almost as if she is living in a personal hell, if you will, one thing remains certain of this book:  it is not easy to analyze.  Some would argue that the novel is SF (science fiction), but the only reference that suggests any possibility for such a genre classification lies in the very early parts of the book, where she says something about “nuclear wars and their consequences” (Haushofer 3), but claiming it to be such is a bit far removed from any SF sub-genre I can think of.  It could very well be an existential novel, one where she must learn to find her place in nature.  There is one point in the book that I found to be supportive of this idea, and it rests with the appearance of a white crow:

This autumn a white crow appeared.  It always flies a little way behind the others, and settles alone on a tree avoided by its companions.  I can’t understand why the other crows doesn’t like it.  I think it’s a particularly beautiful bird, but the other members of its species find it repugnant.  I see it sitting alone in its spruce-tree staring over the meadow, a miserable absurdity that shouldn’t exist, a white crow…. It can’t know why it’s been ostracized; that’s the only life it knows.  It will always be an outcast and so alone that it’s less afraid of people than its black brethren.  Perhaps they find it so repugnant that they can’t even peck it to death.  Every day I wait for the white crow and call to it, and it looks at me attentively with its reddish eyes.  I can do very little for it.  Perhaps my scraps are prolonging a life that shouldn’t be prolonged.  But I want the white crow to live, and sometimes I dream that there’s another one in the forest and that they will find each other (222).

The white crow showing up is no coincidence in terms of the plot development, either.  It appears just before the tragedy and becomes a point highlighted by the narrator even again in the final lines of the story, after she’s lost everything else.  “The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest.  When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow.  It will already be waiting for me” (244).  It would be easy to link this white crow to her own character, an outcast of sorts, left to die alone, outside of the security of the flock.  The black crows are bully-ish, scavenging and taking what they want for themselves, carrion opportunists that would eagerly jump at the first chance for a meal.  But, this white crow is different.  It separates itself from the flock, much like our narrator, contrary to exile being involuntarily imposed on her.  Perhaps the ostracized bird is forced to stay away, too, a thought worth thinking about.

On a side note to my existential thoughts here, the crow was once commonly known to be white in Greek myth.  It was only through tragedy that the black crow was born.  According to Cassandra Eason from her handbook on Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols, the story goes that Coronis, the daughter to Phlegyes, became pregnant by the god Apollo, who left a white crow to watch over his beloved mistress at the city of Delphos.  Coronis, however, went off and married the hero, Ischys, despite her previous affections for the god.  Upon learning from the white crow that reported everything to him, Apollo slew Coronis and Ischys, and in his anger turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news.  Apollo claimed the child born unto the world and named him Asclebius, who later became the healer semi-deity (66).  Seeing the symbolism of the white crow here as the bearer of bad news might help to foreshadow certain events in the novel, but that would require a certain amount of knowledge on Greek mythology to see it coming.

Whatever way you look at the book, there are many reasons why I feel this book is a genuine work of art.  Written by an Austrian writer who clearly had a way with the world she was raised in, Marlen Haushofer told a tale of isolation, despair, but above all else hope that is so convincing, it may very well bring you to tears.  If nothing else, it will leave you thinking about it for a very long time. This is the perfect novel to read on a cold, wintery day, albeit I would not recommend it for those who may be weary at heart or who find themselves easily depressed.  In fact, I would recommend drinking a hot cup of tea (perhaps a Chai) while reading it or going for a run once you’re done.  Whatever you do, though, go out and meet a friend or talk to a neighbor.  Go out and be social, because there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re alone, or taking for granted what may not be there someday.

Works Cited

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. Googlebooks. Web. 08 Aug. 2013.

Haushofer, Marlen. The Wall. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. Berkeley: Cleis Press, Inc., 2012.  Print.

Review of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the AfterlifeWhile I was in graduate school, my dissertation supervisor recommended that I read her book on trauma and psychoanalysis (no surprise there).  It was a good recommendation for the direction my thesis was going, and I learned a lot about psychoanalysis from it. But, by the end of the book, I noticed something that immediately peeked my interest.  In her final chapter, she wrote about her experiences as a victim of the London city bombings back in July of 2005 and the dissociation that came from it.  She was traveling on one of the buses when a bomb planted by a suicide bomber detonated near her.  She wrote a few months later in the closing chapter of her book about having survived the attack:

“I can talk about the bag, blown open, like the picture of the one on top of the bus, with smoke and white yellowy sick oozing out all over it.  And yet, how to talk about such a near encounter with death, about you and me in the carriage?  So near and yet, I was so far away.  I climbed out of my body when the explosion happened and hovered somewhere above my head, looking on as the film unrolled.  As I write, it is just over three months now and I am no nearer to working out what this has meant, or how I explain it, least of all what I think or feel about you” (Campbell 189).

The you in this narrative would appear to be the terrorist responsible for the bombings, and this is her way of dealing with her situation.  This story reveals how she copes with the anger she feels toward her would-be attacker.  She later goes on to write:

“I feel cemented to my seat alongside the crowd, bearing witness to your death drive as some kind of avant-garde, awe inspiring act.  And so I reject that narrative; I don’t want you up there as some avenging angel.  Who wants to live with that kind of fear or hate?  Besides, I don’t want to write about, or be read into, being your victim” (189).

What immediately drew me to her story was how up-close-and-personal she was with death; and here was a woman whom I spoke with on a weekly basis for help with my dissertation.  I felt empowered by her story, empowered by the fact that she lived to tell about it, so when I encounter stories like hers or Sonali Deraniyagala’s (I wrote about her memoir a while ago), I feel compelled to try to make the most of my own life because of them.

But it isn’t easy for people like Campbell or Deraniyagala to simply go on living.  The trauma they experienced makes that difficult for them.  The dissociation Campbell felt immediately after the bombing had a lasting impact on her body, both physically and psychologically.  It will be a moment she will have to deal with for a very long time. Near-death experiences (NDE) like hers are not so uncommon, though.  In fact, one could say they happen all the time.  Films like Hereafter (2012), directed by Clint Eastwood,  or Flatliners (1990), by Joel Schumacher, are good examples showing the ways mortality and NDEs captivate our imaginations.

A near-death experience, I imagine, is a very subjective thing when you stop to consider the circumstances involved with such an experience.  Some people describe their moments with crystal-clear depictions for what happens to them, while others fail to find the words to describe theirs.  A simple search online for the testimonies from people who’ve undergone NDEs will reveal one thing for certain:  a lot of religious rhetoric about having “found God” or about having “spoken to Jesus” or possibly even about “Hell really existing” persists around this topic.  Whether Campbell spoke with God during her out-of-body experience or if Deraniyagala saw Jesus Christ helping her out of the tsunami waters remains to be seen (they never disclosed this information in their narratives); however, no matter what way you look at such experiences, it is difficult to ascertain the universal truth to anything other than what may (or may not) be considered an overly emotional reaction to having cheated death.  Unfortunately, the subjective nature of the stories that come from NDEs, in my opinion, aren’t adequate enough to prove, much less to validate the existence of a higher power, no matter what level of educational and professional experience a person on this planet may have.

Enter Eben Alexander, M.D. with his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.  I was intrigued by this title for one reason — a learned man of science experiences a near-death situation and writes a book about it.  I assumed the book would hold some potential for an empirical inquiry into such a narrative, which the author moderately attempts to do, yet as most of these NDEs go, it falls short by making claims that are unsubstantiated with anything other than a feeling, however overwhelming it may be.  Alexander goes through great efforts to describe different perspectives during his time in coma, using names for these unearthly realms like “Gateway,” “the Core,” or “the world of the Earthworm’s Eye-view.”   It seems clear to me that this man struggled to find a concrete way to describe his situation, maybe even getting caught up in the rhetoric of a Christian dominated theme.  After all, have the Christians not preached the fire and brimstone version of Hell and the splendor and magnificence of the pearly gates of Heaven for over six hundred some odd years now?  It would be easy to jump on that bandwagon after coming out of a seven-day coma, especially if what happened was emotionally moving.  No doubt, it was.

I must give some credit to this man’s story, though.  While I personally do not buy into his visions of the afterlife, that does not mean that the tension created by his having contracted an extremely rare and severe case of E. Coli bacterial meningitis “out of thin air” (Alexander 24) is not compelling.  On the contrary, his situation is a dire one, filled with dramatic moments that his family no doubt had to deal with.   Being in coma is no laughing matter, and this story illustrates well the strain such situations cause a family to go through.  But, like so many other critics of the book, I don’t believe his hypothesis on the afterlife, which is unarguably the sole reason he wrote the book.  As one critic for Scientific American wrote, “The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces… is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead” (Shermer).  In the end, he is a neurosurgeon who went into coma due to a unique illness, experienced a NDE because of it, and seeks to lay claim to a universal truth that will undoubtedly be true only to him.  Until I have my own NDE and experience similar things for myself, I remain the skeptic that I am.

Works Cited

Alexander, Eben. Proof of Heaven. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.

Campbell, Jan.  Psychoanalysis and the Time of Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Shermer, Michael. “Why a Near-Death Experience isn’t Proof of Heaven.”  Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc., 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Review of “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster

In The Country Of Last ThingsI’m a fan of utopian and dystopian literature, so when Paul Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things was recommended to me, I dropped what I was reading at that time and set to it immediately.  I was drawn into Auster’s imagery right away from the beginning; in fact, many of his descriptive passages were quite harrowing, setting the scene of this futuristic no-named city well, but I found that the more I read, the more the book started to wane from the expectations this scenery was creating.  I wasn’t expecting the book to start so slowly, given we don’t actually learn about Anna Blume, the central protagonist in the story, and the reasons for her predicament until around page 41, when she reflects back on a meeting with the editor from the newspaper her brother works for; given this book is only 188 pages long, I consider this to be a late start.  While the introduction was a bit long-winded, telling, rather than showing us, how this imaginary society is, this wasn’t what bothered me about the book. I found the scope of the world Auster created to be extremely limiting.

I can’t help but call out a few of the inaccuracies in this novel.  Moments that are explained to us early on turn out to be something else later in the story.  For example, her brother worked for a newspaper which sent him off on assignment overseas to cover an exclusive story, but he ends up missing in the end.  Having followed him to the city where our story takes place, in hopes of finding him there, Anna tells us a bit about where she is:

“this country is enormous, you understand, and there’s no telling where he might have gone.  Beyond the agricultural zone to the west, there are supposedly several hundred miles of desert.  Beyond that, however, one hears talk of more cities, of mountain ranges, of mines and factories, of vast territories stretching all the way to a second ocean.  Perhaps there is some truth to this talk” (Auster 40).

She then goes on to tell us how she ended up in the city in the first place, having taken a lead from her brother’s employer, an editor named Bogat who “exud[es] an air of abstracted benevolence that seemed tinged with cunning, a pleasantness that masked some secret edge of cruelty” (Auster 40), a description consistent to the rest of Auster’s style.  His comments, she recalls, offer some sense of foreshadow, when he states, “Don’t do it little girl… You’d be crazy to go there…. No one gets out of there.  It’s the end of the goddamned world” (41).  And, he was right.  We never learn if she ever leaves, but this is not what bothers me so much.  It’s her failed sense of geography.

I know, you’re probably thinking — what does that have to do with anything, especially in a fictional world?  Yet, for all of this talk about her brother going off to a foreign land to report, and herself traveling there in hopes of finding him, you would think her knowledge of the world would be better than how she leads on.  She doesn’t even know if there is a second ocean on the other side of the country she’s in — “Perhaps there is some truth to this talk,” she says.  I find this to be a bit hard to believe, since it doesn’t come off as a story set in the 15th century, where cartography and exploration of the planet were still in their infancy, but rather a futuristic tale where libraries, newspapers, and even airports exist.  The way I see it, she doesn’t have an excuse for not knowing.

This is but one of a couple of inconsistencies I found to be in this story of survival.  Where the story lacks in plausibility, it makes up for it in Auster’s strength in characterization and imagery, though.  One example of this can be found when Ferdinand dies.  Anna, struggling in the streets, alone and impoverished, is offered shelter by an old, married woman, Isabel and her husband, Ferdinand, both of whom take her in for a considerable part of the story.  Ferdinand proves to be an old, embittered tyrant of a husband, however, so this creates quite a bit of tension in the story.  Once Ferdinand dies, we learn a lot about Isabel’s relationship to him, more so at this point than at any other when he was still alive.  Auster reveals deeply embedded feelings about their life together in the simplest manner of expression:

“Isabel spent the rest of the morning fussing over Ferdinand’s body.  She refused to let me help, and for several hours I just sat in my corner and watched her.  It was pointless to put any clothes on Ferdinand, of course, but Isabel wouldn’t have it any other way.  She wanted him to look like the man he had been years ago, before anger and self-pity had destroyed him…. Isabel worked with incredible slowness, laboring over each detail with maddening precision, never once pausing, never once speeding up, and after a while it began to get on my nerves.  I wanted everything to be done with as quickly as possible,  but Isabel paid no attention to me. She was so wrapped up in what she was doing, I doubt that she even knew I was there” (71).

The meticulous manner in which the matronly Isabel sets to preparing her husband for death, not a funeral per say, as dead bodies are policed up off the street like garbage and sent to the outskirts of town, but for something more than ‘processing’.  Auster captures the ritual involved with preparing the dead so well in this scene that it creates a deep feeling of nostalgia and inner-peace for Isabel as one could only hope for the now widowed woman.

There are some intense moments in the story, some which left me cringing from the suspense Auster’s dramatization creates.  There are also some dull points in the story, as well.  While I enjoyed reading about the characters in this story, it is safe to say that I found it a bit lacking to believe in the dystopian world he creates, a world with no-name and no sense of itself.  A bit disappointing really, but I won’t let this novel keep me from reading any of this other books.  He has a great writer’s voice; it’s just that in the end, this fallen society leaves me wanting more.

Judging a Book by its Cover: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of “the Communist Manifesto”

20130714_115813While I was perusing the bookstore the other day, I came across this book cover, curious to say the least.  No doubt it did its job; the cover caught my attention.  Wincing and tilting my head to make sense of it, I was drawn to its surreal and uncanny artwork only to find upon further inspection that it was a Penguin Classic — deluxe edition, no less.  As if that was not enough, it is the 2011 edition of the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848; I presume no introduction to these iconic figures is necessary.  The cover art for this edition of the book was done by an artist named Patrice Killoffer, who prefers to go simply by his family name.  Here then is a comic book artist who has illustrated for Penguin Classics a rendition of a man, a proletariat in red, if you will, being crushed under the heel of a black boot, no doubt worn by the bourgeois.  Don’t forget the pigs in top hats found in the lower right-hand corner, or the train choo-chooing across the top of the page.  The type set used for the title of the book couldn’t be any more flippant, either.  I feel I understand why the book was illustrated the way it was, given it has always been viewed with intense scrutiny since its initial publication in 1848, but that doesn’t mean I like the cover art for this particular copy, what with its squiggly lines and child-like depictions.

In fact, what astonishes, and even irks me a bit about this book cover is that it diminishes the importance this book has held in the philosophical development of the human race.  Here is a book, a manifesto, a living document that at the time sought to motivate people politically to change the way they lived.  It became the basis for a major political movement that swept over the planet and was the cause for many major wars during the 20th century.  In my opinion its intentions as a pamphlet were meant for the greater good, as it sought to change the current (from an 1848 perspective) social conditions — in theory it sought to change the world for the better; however, in practical application, it did not take into account abuse of power and the corrupting nature of greed.  As Stephen Holmes from the London Review of Books reminds us, it may be difficult to read this book with a fresh set of eyes, considering the damage wrought by its implications during the Cold War, but that doesn’t mean we should debase the influence and importance it has had in shaping our identities.  In fact, many scholars would argue to the contrary.  Eric Hobsbawm is one such scholar who “urges us to experience the work as a stirring piece of ‘literature’. Admitting that it is ‘a historical document, out of date in many respects’, he invites us to appreciate its rhetorical élan and even to feel its ‘Biblical force’” (qtd. in Holmes).  Sympathizing with Holmes and Hobsbawm, I cannot help but feel that this book cover is bias toward an anti-communist mentality, immediately imposing on any reader of this important document these sentiments.

This is one case where I would urge someone NOT to judge a book by its cover.  If you really want to learn what the Communist Manifesto is about, read it for yourself.  Don’t let some book publisher and a flippant comic book artist warp your judgement of an idea before an your own opinion of it can even be made.