November 28, 2004

Chronicles, Volume One

Author: Bob Dylan | First published 2004 | Amazon

This was also a birthday present, from my brother Andrew. We saw a Dylan concert in Elmira together two years ago, and I think we both saw him at Canandaigua in 1989. I think he's fonder of the current Dylan, and I tend to be one of those horribly nostalgic people who wishes he'd seen him in '67 or '77. (The Elmira show was pretty amazing.)

After reading Tarantula a few years ago, I wasn't sure I'd want to read anything more that Dylan wrote except for lyrics. While Chronicles isn't too particular about telling things in the order they happened, it's structurally a much easier book to read. It's not a straightforward "this happened then this happened" autobiography, and sometimes he shoots forward or backward. Most of it is about his time starting out, but then suddenly the third and fourth chapters are about making the albums the chapters are named after - New Morning and Oh Mercy.

Dylan's style is distinctive, lots of long flowing thoughts often forced into short sentences. I'm not sure why they chose a font that feels all bold all the time, but maybe it's appropriate to the stories. He's pretty blunt about his opinions throughout, and every now and then I had to shake my head. Some of the people, especially the people I've never heard of before, are memorable. Sun Pie, who expects the Chinese to take over America as they've been planning since the Bering land bridge was open; Jon Pankake, who seems to tell him not to be one kind of folksinger without quite giving him a direction; and Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel, who give him a place to stay and all kinds of conversation.

The message I get most strongly from the book is that Dylan wants to be Dylan, and he's intensely frustrated when other people tell him what that should be or not be. He's exasperated by people who wanted him to lead a revolution, by people who think folk should just be one kind of music, and (reasonably) by people who invade his property and walk all over his roof. Reading this, I get the sense that he's still Bob Dylan and he's not done changing yet.

Posted by simonstl at 07:37 PM

November 27, 2004

Lost in the Woods

Author: Julian Palacios | First published 1998 | Amazon

Tracey got me this biography of Syd Barrett for my birthday, and it's amazing, if dense. Syd Barrett was the original lead singer and guitarist for Pink Floyd, the genius behind Piper at the Gates of Dawn, who then vanished as the band took off.

Apart from the general psychedelic atmosphere Syd was instrumental in creating, the nursery-rhyme like lyrics are amazing, though there aren't very many of them. It seems to be an open question whether LSD masked his growing schizophrenia or led to it, but in either case Syd threw off sparks briefly but couldn't sustain the burden.

The book is a difficult read at times because of the way Palacios wrote it, often assembling large chunks of direct quotes from people who were there and leaving the reader to sort it out. While that's occasionally a challenge, as there's some repetition and keeping track of everyone is difficult, the result of reading through it is pretty amazing.

The portrait Palacios creates is sympathetic but simultaneously acknowledges the difficulty of being near Syd, especially as his problems shifted from catatonia to occasional violence, and a general withdrawal from the world. It's also interesting to read with an eye to what became of Pink Floyd, with their later successes and breakups. Roger Water appears early as a difficult character, but one who seems to find his way early, and David Gilmour comes in first as a childhood friend of Syd and Roger's and later as the guitarist who replaces the increasingly incoherent Syd.

Gilmour seems to have had plenty of patience for dealing with Syd (whose solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, he produced) and with Waters, whose notoriously prickly nature produced some powerful music. If only the Gilmour-era Pink Floyd music was any good...

Oh well. Palacios does a great job of exploring the intersection between genius and madness, valuing the sparks this 'crazy diamond' threw off while recognizing the problems he created as well.

I've got a bike
You can ride it if you like
It's got a basket, a bell that rings and
Things to make it look good.
I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.
- "Bike", from Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Posted by simonstl at 05:04 PM

1984

Author: George Orwell | First published 1948 | Amazon

I hadn't read this one since middle school, and figured it was worth a try. It's much more nuanced than I remembered, interweaving a number of themes that don't quite resolve.

Newspeak is most of what I remembered, the effort to create a language in which thoughtcrime (itself a Newspeak word) simply becomes impossible by restricting the number of choices dramatically. Orwell's appendix on Newspeak talks about it in the past tense and uses more ordinary English, so I'm happy to see he didn't think it would stick.

The 'memory hole', an incinerator for information about the past, is another device that comes up all the time, a perfect metaphor for the way too many of us are willing to ignore the past or deny its relevance. Modern 'memory holes' aren't usually as explicitly destructive, but they're certainly out there, and not just among the Holocaust deniers.

The romance between Winston and Julia is interesting, as it starts from simple rebellion against the Party and develops into something deeper, though it doesn't particularly last. I find Winston's other 'romance' (my term, not his), with O'Brien, both more believable and more troubling. Winston puts tremendous faith in O'Brien as a guess, and continues to maintain that faith even as O'Brien pays it back to him mercilessly with the pain dial and Room 101.

While I suspect Orwell is in many ways right about the depths to which people and societies will sink, I have to wonder how stable structures like that described in 1984 really are. We haven't seen any survive more than a human lifetime since the advent of modernity, and the Party's claim over everything feels much more extreme than even the ugliest of pre-modern political systems.

Revolt seems inevitable. Is it?

Posted by simonstl at 04:39 PM

November 21, 2004

The Battle for God

Author: Karen Armstrong | First published 2001 | Amazon

This has been a pretty amazing read. I liked it better than Armstrong's similar A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which also looks at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in a single volume, all intertwined. This book has the advantage of a shorter timeframe: 1492 to the present, though most of it takes place after 1700 when the challenges of modernity begin to affect a lot of people.

Reading about all three faiths at once reminded me that superficially at least I knew more about Islamic fundamentalism than Christian fundamentalism or Jewish fundamentalism. Armstrong does a great job of showing how participants in these three faiths responded to a changing world, while recognizing that the changes varied drastically from place to place. She also does an excellent job of showing how fundamentalist ideologies evolve over time and respond to different circumstances.

Armstrong succeeds in keeping her subjects sympathetic, though it's pretty clear that she doesn't particularly like many of them. It's fascinating to read about why the Iranians were so enthusiastic about Ayatollah Khomeini and how he tapped into centuries-old Shiite beliefs, giving them his own twist. Similarly, this is the first clear explanation of the ideology of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank I've found. American Protestants are a strange case in the book, as they've had less direct pressure on them than either the Muslims (colonialism and westernization from the top down) or the Jews (anti-Semitism, enemies surrounding Israel), but I think Armstrong still makes her case.

I worry that these three groups, which originated from disputes within their own religions, may be coming to a point of larger conflict. Armstrong discusses the early 1980's plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the mosque on top of the old Temple site in Jerusalem. If such a thing ever happened today, it would stir incredible outrage among Muslim fundamentalists, wild joy among those American fundamentalists who'd think the Rapture was coming, and messianic expectations among fundamentalist religious Zionists.

Armstrong's additional post-9/11 preface, with its concerns for fundamentalisms reaching new extremes, is definitely worth contemplating.

Posted by simonstl at 10:06 PM

November 13, 2004

Will Catholics be "Left Behind"?

Author: Carl E. Olson | First published 2003 | Amazon

I first heard about this book on Slacktivist, who's been doing a slow critique of the Left Behind books. When I saw it in a bookstore, I grabbed it, and it was well worth buying.

I was moderately concerned that the book would be so focused on Catholic doctrine, only some of which I share, that I wouldn't finish it. As it turns out, Olson does an excellent job of weaving Catholic ideas with other Christian ideas and critiques pre-millenial dispensationalism from a wide variety of perspectives. Every time I thought he was heading into a theological thicket I found myself pleased a few pages later as he found a new angle of discussion.

While the book focuses on rapture theology and the "end is near" churches that thrive on it, it does an excellent job of explaining how this focus takes fundamentalism far from being the literal reading of the Bible that it claims to be, and examines a number of issues that have always left me wondering how this set of beliefs could be called "Christian." Setting aside the Sermon on the Mount because it isn't meant for Christians today alway struck me as completely strange, but Olson explains how its supposed application only to the Kingdom arose. Olson cites both Cyrus Scofield, whose Scofield Reference Bible is a key dispensationalist text, and critics of dispensationalism, to show the impact of this conclusion.

My favorite part of the book comes near the conclusion, when he notes how the escape of believers is supposed to exempt them from the perils of the tribulation, and how sadly this contrasts to the history of suffering and martyrdom in the early church, a display of bravery that some of its successors would apparently rather avoid. As Olson puts it, "appealing to fear is appealing to base human nature, but it does not encourage Christians who are suffering and facing death today." (336)

Olson's also written a lot more on the subject.

Posted by simonstl at 04:53 PM