Monday, August 13, 2007

Mencken, McCarthy, Lama, Pessl
Does anything go together better than books and vacation? What can top the guilt-free indulgence of reading for 10 hours at a stretch? It's like drinking liquor in the morning, clicking Send after typing the flame-mail and losing your religion: maybe you shouldn't do it, but fuckabunchathat, it sure is fun.

I read a few books on vacation that individually aren't life changing but collectively might just make you take off all your clothes and run naked through the mall, singing mondegreens like "Tempted by the fruit of your mother" or "The girl with colitis goes by."

First, I recharged my sarcasm with "The Vintage Mencken," gathered in 1955 by future Masterpiece-Theater smartypants and Bobby-Kennedy-assassination-witness Alistair Cooke. H. L. Mencken left behind a legacy of nearly a half century of brilliant journalism, most of it written for the Baltimore Sun in an era when people got all of their news from newspapers. Cooke likens Mencken to Jonathan Swift, but he seems too American for that comparison. He seems to me more like journalism's Twain. Alas, Mencken was something of a racist and that breaks my heart. And he sometimes displays other biases of his era, but those mostly seem just historically interesting. Otherwise, he's a pure joy. The man practically breathes quotable quotes: "Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it" and "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

But even when he's not being funny, he's totally kicking ass in a way that makes you pump your fist. Here's Mencken writing about a man of the cloth, whose book he was forced to read as a child:

"I have since learned that some of them are very pleasant and amusing fellows, despite their professional enmity to the human race, but the one who wrote that book was certainly nothing of the sort. If, at his decease, he escaped Hell, then moral theology is as full of false alarms as secular law."

Here he is on sports:

"All that the Y.M.C.A.'s horse and rings really accomplished was to fill me with an ineradicable distaste, not only for Christian endeavor in all its forms, but also for every variety of calisthenics, so that I still begrudge the trifling exertion needed to climb in and out of a bathtub, and hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense."

Sometimes Mencken can tingle your spine because it sounds like he's writing about today:

"What one beholds, sweeping the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers - the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life between."

Here, he writes about George W. Bush (oh, no, wait. He was talking about Woodrow Wilson):

"The important thing is not that a popular orator should have uttered such vaporous and preposterous phrases, but that they should have been received, for weary years, by a whole race of men, some of them intelligent."

To read Mencken is to study history, criticism, journalism, commentary, and sarcasm. He not only informs most pundits today, he seriously picks them up and kicks their scrawny asses across the decades.

I also read "The Road," Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel about a man and his young son. McCarthy fucked-up dude. The story dreadful and worse. His sentences short and clipped. The world poison. And I absolutely loved it, especially once my eyeballs got adjusted to McCarthy's sentence fragments. The novel, of course, is heartbreakingly sad, and [spoiler alert] I cried when [OK, I won't spoil it] something really sad happened. But it's one of those precious novels that take you completely away from your surroundings, like some magic carpet ride to another – in this case – far shittier world. Naked purple mermaids with dayglo nipples could have swum up to me while I was reading The Road and I wouldn't have noticed. And that's all the more impressive because I wasn't even at the beach. And don't we, the People Who Have The Power To Destroy Everything, need books like The Road? Yes, we do. And isn't it amazing when someone creates art that is both incredibly beautiful and horrifying? Yes, it is.

Another man desperately trying to help us avoid apocalypse is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I read his book on science, "The Universe in a Single Atom." I absolutely adore the DL. If we could somehow put him, Oprah, and Al Gore inside a bun and make them the Sandwich In Charge of the World, I'm convinced the whole clusterfucked shebang would be spruced up in about 18 months, tops. If you are willing to read only three DL books, read "An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life" three times. But if you are willing to read more, read them all, starting with this one. He is not only an amazing thinker but also a brilliant writer. And even though I already hang on his every word, I was impressed with his love of and open mind toward science.

In "The Universe in a Single Atom," Mr. Lama discusses relativity, quantum physics, the big bang, the beginningless universe, infinite universes, universes coming from each other, universes dry humping each other, universes collapsing on the couch and mindlessly watching old reruns of The Wonder Years, evolution, karma, reincarnation, consciousness, ethics and genetics in a way that is not only clear and understandable, but will make you say "wow" right out loud, as if Charles Darwin were gently massaging your genitalia while Albert Einstein tenderly nibbled on that spot on the back of the neck you like so much. You will be amazed at the science you can learn from a Buddhist guru.

And perhaps it's the Buddhism that makes the magic. For a recovering western Christian, it's almost impossible to not be floored by open-minded paragraphs like this:

"By taking this personal journey into science, I suppose I have stuck my neck out. My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."

Wha? WTF? did he just say "abandon those claims?!" The very fact that that statement sounds so audacious says a lot about how Christianity and Islam have gripped our world. And check out this shnizit:

"At its root the philosophical problem confronting physics in the wake of quantum mechanics is whether the very notion of reality - defined in terms of essentially real constituents of matter - is tenable. What the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness can offer is a coherent model of understanding reality that is non-essentialist. Whether this could prove useful only time will tell."

Can you imagine any other religious leader saying of his tenets "whether this could prove useful only time will tell?!" But wait. There's more:

"… in Buddhist thought … it is said that to defy the authority of empirical evidence is to disqualify oneself as someone worthy of critical engagement in a dialog."

OK, DL, now you're just talkin' smack. But you know what? That's one thing the man just never, ever does. Here he is at his gooey crunchy yummiest:

"The earth is our only home. As far as current scientific knowledge is concerned, this may be the only planet that can support life. One of the most powerful visions I have experienced was the first photograph of the earth from outer space. The image of a blue planet floating in deep space, glowing like the full moon on a clear night, brought home powerfully to me the recognition that we are indeed all members of a single family sharing one little house. I was flooded with the feeling of how ridiculous are the various disagreements and squabbles within the human family. I saw how futile it is to cling so tenaciously to the differences that divide us. From this perspective one feels the fragility, the vulnerability of our planet and its limited occupation of a small orbit sandwiched between Venus and Mars in the vast infinity of space. If we do not look after this home, what else are we charged to do on this earth?"

Can I get a hell yeah?

My last vacation book was a novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl. I dare you not to like this book. The book's narrator is that really, really smart person you know who's brilliant on all topics and Will. Not. Shut the fuck up. Fortunately, I like that kind of person. Both the character Blue – an impossibly smart and well read high-school senior – and her father are unforgettable characters.

Here's a taste:

"Dad was a devotee of Sturdy Eye Contact, but what Dad never addressed was that staring directly into a person's eyes was nearly impossible at close range. You had to choose an eye, right or left, or veer back and forth between the two, or simply settle for the spot between the eyes. But I'd always thought that was a sad, vulnerable spot, unkempt of eyebrow and strange of tilt, where David had aimed his stone at Goliath and killed him."

And another:

"A. Boone continued to chew the coffee stirrer and stared at me. He was what Dad commonly called a 'power distender,' a person who seized the moment in which he/she possessed a marginal amount of power and brutally rationed it so it lasted an unreasonable amount of time."


"She was standing on the right, at the very end, a woman with a sizable crooked nose, and all other features crowded around it as if trying to keep warm on her arctic white face."

Here's Blue relating one of her father's monologues about Americans:

"'…they loathe anything left to the imagination – we're talking about a country that invented spandex – but also because they are a confident, self-assured nation. They know family. They know Right from Wrong. They know God – many of them attest to daily chats with the man. And the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all – not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves- is a thought they'd rather be shot in the arm with their own semiautomatic rifle than face head-on. Personally, I think there's something terrific about not knowing, relinquishing man's feeble attempt to control. When you throw up your hands, say, 'Who knows?' you can get on with the sheer gift of being alive, rather like the paparazzi, the puttane, the cognoscenti, the tappisti…' (Around here, I always tuned Dad out, because when he went on in Italian he was like a Hell's Angel on a Harley; he loved to go fast and loud and for everyone to stop in the streets and stare at him.)"

Like 90% of books written today, this book is about 1/3 too long. For the first 50 or so pages, I wasn't sure I had it in me. But by the time it was over, I was sorry to see it end. Pressl is a talented writer. I won't go on, because you should read a review by a talented professional, who wisely notes that "Physics" is not "The Secret History" but that it is still damned fun reading.

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