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Royce E. Buehler "figvine" RSS Feed (Cambridge, MA USA)

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Dylan's Visions of Sin
Dylan's Visions of Sin
by Christopher B. Ricks
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.57
74 used & new from $0.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential for fans of Dylan as poet, July 29, 2006
This review is from: Dylan's Visions of Sin (Paperback)

This book forms a kind of other bookend for Greil Marcus's matchless "Invisible Republic". That deeply perceptive study placed Dylan's work in the myth and paradox laden context of American folk and country and blues, especially its most obscure corners. This one looks at its literary context, noting echoes of Blake and Keats and the rest. And most of those echoes are really there.

Better yet, it examines Dylan's entire body of work as poetry. And it does that out of the most worthwhile tradition of poetic criticism, the "close reading" of Helen Vendler and others. What close readings do is to take each poem entirely on its own internal terms, without getting bogged down in biography and gossip and the psychosocial picking-apart of presumed ideologies which constitutes the Higher Gossip of much of academe. It looks at the poem line by line, word by word, asks how the words and images connect to other words and images within the same work, why the poet made the choices (s)he made, and by what technical means the poem acheives its effects on the reader.

That may sound dry, but it's the liveliest way of approaching a poem, because it assumes the poem is alive in its own right, and doesn't need extraneous issues dragged into it to bring it to life. In this spirit, Ricks examines songs from every stage of Dylan's career, always assuming the songwriter, consciously or by instinct, knew what he was doing.

Ricks has a habit of free-associating on particular snippets from the songs, in pyrotechnic wordplay aimed at divining what Dylan's own associations may have or must have been. It's annoying, but it also seems to be inseparable from his method of taking a loose step back from the lyrics in order to find tight connections that really do lie in their heart.

The results are worth that cost. The method foreordains that he will find genius in every piece he looks at, so that he seems to give the same weight to minor works like "If Not For You" and the whole Slow Train Coming period as he gives to the masterpieces. That's okay; much of the minor work deserved some of that rehabilitation. When it comes to the big stuff, his insights are deep and dead on. You'll never listen to "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" again without being aware of how Bob used feminine half-rhymes to create its sense of sober understatement, nor fail to hear in "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" its yearning for humility as a refuge.

After the songs themselves, Marcus, Chronicles Volume I, and Scorsese's "No Direction Home" are the core necessities for the Zimmerman collection. Ricks is a good bet for the next acquisition after those.

Mr. Paradise
Mr. Paradise
by Elmore Leonard
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
102 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Four cheers for the master., July 29, 2006
Leonard is as light on his feet as ever, as he breezes through dangerous capers back in a city that deserves a chronicler who knows how to put on the funk.

At the swank Detroit estate of Mr. Paradise, hellzapoppin. He's an unsavory, autocratic old crab, likely to live next to forever just to spite the family and retainers who stand about with their tongues extended, hoping to catch big drops of inheritance. He also has innocently kinky sexual tastes, involving young ladies in half a cheerleader costume, and a vast library of U Michigan football tapes.

And when some impatient souls take it upon themselves to hasten the onset of probate, Kelly Barr finds herself inheriting a windfall - provide she can convince the world, and the cops, and the cop she starts to fall for, that she is the other, colder, stiffer cheerleader.

The heroine is unsentimantally disarming, the baddies bear us armloads of unwitting entertainment, the plot is tight and the dialogue tighter. In short, it's Elmore Leonard doing what he does best. Enjoy.

Sunstorm (A Time Odyssey, Book 2)
Sunstorm (A Time Odyssey, Book 2)
by Arthur C. Clarke
Edition: Hardcover
70 used & new from $0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars When is a sequel not a sequel?, May 6, 2006

Time's Eye, the previous book in what's turned out to be a two-volume series, was a wild ride through multiple empires, its patchwork earth was a fresh idea, and the mysterious warped-geometry eyes of the ever present Firstborn produced a frisson of wonder. And left a lot of questions hanging.

Sunstorm is a very different sort of book, and not much at all like a sequel. It isn't too much of a spoiler to say what does *not* happen in a book, so here's what doesn't happen in this one. We do not see any of the characters from the first book except for Bisesa, the one who hopped a ride back to normal Earth time. We get to learn a good bit more about the Firstborn, but we do not get an explanation for their motives in creating patchwork Earth, nor any further glimpses of that bizarre world. We do not get much of a sense that the passive, almost cowering Bisesa in this volume bears any relation to the rambunctious heroine of the last one.

It is because of all these disappointed expectations that I round my rating down to three stars. Taken on its own, as a standalone piece, it is more focused and tightly plotted than the prequel, and Clarke fans might well find it worth four stars.

This book exhibits Clarke's gift for scale, his quiet respect for the alien-ness of the aliens, his love of hard science (and of Sri Lanka). It takes one of his earliest and best short stories, "The Wind From the Sun", and expands it to epic size.

As other reviews have noted, the character development is paper thin; but that was never a strength of Baxter's, and never what you went to Arthur C. Clarke for. You went for the cool, cosmic sweep of events; for the puzzles tackled, for his appreciation of the state of engineering grace out of which solutions arrive. There is also something deliciously old-fashioned and Gernsbackian about the tale's conception of engineers as heroes.

Old-fashioned too, though I can't think of any good reason why it should ever have gone out of style, is the authors' optimism. Sunstorm posits a day when humankind confronts a problem similar in kind, but many orders of magnitude greater in degree, to our own problem of global warming. "See," they seem to tell us, "the human race, working together with a serious sense of purpose, can beat even a scenario that would fry the earth down to bare rock. Why suppose we can't lick the challenge facing our own generation?"

The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.99
824 used & new from $0.01

6 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is that all there is?, April 25, 2006
This review is from: The Da Vinci Code (Paperback)

Yep, that's all there is. A whizbang of a page turner, with not one but two, count 'em two, shadowy secret societies (Opus Dei and the Priory of Zion) duking it out, while our infinitely intelligent and superior hero, and his female companion Sophie, as infinitely intelligent and superior and sexy as the same hero's other female companion in the last book, dodge a terminally masochistic albino assassin to unravel a long series of cultch-lit puzzles, each wrapped in the one before like so many Russian dolls. As if their lives depended on it, which they do, but not quite so much as the author depends on it to arrive breathlessly at the cliffhanger at the end of the next short chapter.

You have to respect the genuine craft it takes to manage to pack a moment of breathless suspense into each of 104 between chapter intervals. But after the 67th or so, it might start to feel a tad formulaic.

Won't keep you from grabbing for the next one, though, til the whole bag of empty calories is gone.

The real fun here is in the lore about those two secret societies, especially the Priory. My recommendation would be to take your conspiracy theory fun straight (and, for my money, more potent), by going straight to the source. Just because the authors of *Holy Blood, Holy Grail* made themselves look avaricious and silly by suing Dan Brown (who had given them perfectly fair acknowledgement), doesn't mean that their own book of deep trivia and trashy revelation isn't smarter, more convoluted, and a more satisfying guilty pleasure in the end.

On the whole, I felt the Brown formula worked better, and the plotting felt less ad hoc, in the prequel *Angels and Demons*. You won't miss anything by missing either one; but if all you're missing by plowing through them is a few nights of prime time TV, you'll come out on top from the trade.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 26, 2009 12:04 PM PDT

Saturday: A novel
Saturday: A novel
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
325 used & new from $0.01

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I read the news today, oh boy..., January 28, 2006
This review is from: Saturday: A novel (Hardcover)
*** 1/2*

This is a fine novel. As it traces a day in the life of neorosurgeon Henry Perowne, and before it descends into cheap melodrama in the last chapter, it touches on profound themes of war and peace, mind and body, work and art, parents and children and the cycle of life, with subtlety and wit; and limns some fetchingly worded, sharply observed, finely balanced reportage on what the world feels like at the turn of the century, from a perch on the posher side of London.

But it had the audacity to model itself on and invite comparison with _Mrs. Dalloway_. And any comparison can only lead to one piece of advice. Run, don't walk, to read or re-read that finer novel before you pick this one up. Woolf's account of Clarissa's one day will be read at the turn of the next century; McEwan's account of Henry's, well wrought as it is, probably will not.

The two central characters have a lot in common. Both are upper middle class Londoners, professionals at the top of their respective games, contentedly married, blessed with golden children, temperamentally inclined to happiness and saved (just barely) from smugness by an awareness of the squalors of history from which they have been spared, and of the common human destination from which they will not be. Both arrange their days around evening parties, into which the desparation of a mentally unbalanced man will intrude. The pleasures of both days are darkened by the shadow of war, Clarissa's Great War just ending; Henry's Iraq War, to which he gives his gingerly assent, just beginning.

But there is something claustrophobic about _Saturday_, at least in comparison. Woolf shows us London both from the secure nest Clarissa has built in her social aerie, and from the mean streets where penniless veterans struggle with nightmare. Henry's day is seen entirely from within Henry's own thoughts. Clarissa's common sense is a jewel set in a ring of almost mystical awareness of the universality of life - and time, always time! - flowing around her, and Big Ben's striking in the foreground echoes against the ever-present irretrievability of her distant youth.

Henry's common sense on the other hand, though admirable enough in its own way, and worth spending a few hours getting to know, inhabits the appointments and activities of his day, with resonances that are intriguing enough, but almost entirely topical and intellectual. We are barely given any clue that he had a youth; he seems to have sprung full clad from the brow of Hippocrates. His embrace of his charmed little family is warm and believable, but his embrace of the larger world seems a little dutiful and bloodless.

McEwan is a writer worth sitting up and attending to, this book included. But I felt this time his reach somewhat exceeded his grasp.

No Title Available

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A modest venture into unsplit brain research, January 22, 2006
Colin Wilson is never boring, and never has quite the same take as anyone else writing about psychic spaces. So when I ran across a used paperback copy of this book a couple of weeks ago, I didn't think twice about snapping it up.

In some ways it feels a trifle dated, because it speaks with such solemnity about "left brain" and "right brain"; but of course that once fashionable distinction always did have something to it. It's a short volume of typically Wilsonian speculation, brought on this time by a fascinating individual he met at a conference in Finland, one Brad Absetz.

Brad is a case study in split-brain behavior worthy of several chapters in one of those Oliver Sacks books - except for the fact that his brain is physically intact. Over a long, demanding, traumatic period when watching over his wife's epilepsy required him to be an a perpetual state of passive alertness, Brad began learning how to let his unconscious self act for him without his conscious control. It made surprising, consistent, usually very wise decisions. And he learned a sort of discipline which let it expand into larger and larger arenas of action, including eventually writing its own poetry.

Wilson relates this second self of Brad's to the right brain, but also to Gurdjieff's "emotional body". As always, Wilson is interested in practices that lead to quieting the rational mind, and leading to presence in the moment. But what makes his ponderings interesting is the goals that he doesn't share with most mystical / meditation literature: maximizing vitality, opening the inner eye to visionary worlds like those of Blake and the Romantic poets.

He also raises the intriguing possibility that what makes experiences of such connection to the other self so rare in the modern world, is our failure to trust the other self enough to yield it control, being full of such notions as "the sinful lower nature", Dr. Jekyll's Mr. Hyde, and the Freudian id.

The musings aren't all that conclusive in the end, and it's not surprising, since Wilson has been so prolific and much of his work is bound to go out of print, that this text is not available in hard copy. But the musings make pleasant reading and they run off the beaten track. Three and a half stars.

The Plot Against America: A Novel
The Plot Against America: A Novel
by Philip Roth
Edition: Hardcover
548 used & new from $0.01

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Alternative history? More memoir and prophecy, January 21, 2006
Whatever you expect it to be, Roth's latest novel probably isn't it. It's not a veiled attack on the GW Bush administration. It doesn't read like alternative history, a genre in which the focus of interest is an intellectual fascination with all the familiar events that would have turned out differently if some critical event had happened otherwise -- in this case, if the 1940 election had been won by Charles Lindbergh and the America Firsters, rather than FDR. Nor does it read like a historical novel, where the fascination lies in the interactions of the protagonists with vividly drawn historical characters. Here, the world historical figures - Lindbergh, Ribbentrop, FDR, Walter Winchell - carry on their business offstage, glimpsed through radio shows, newsreels, and anecdotes.

What we do get is a somber and subtle examination of history as it is lived, from the worm's-eye point of view where it impacts ordinary lives. And that imaginary history is made to feel as real as it is sobering because the genre from which its tone is drawn is family memoir. This is a wholly believable recreated childhood, with all the complex Zeitgeist of the 1940s Jewish community in Newark. Siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, streets and interiors, are recreated in the sort of detailed immediacy that usually only certain smells can induce.

In the wider world, a long nightmare unfolds, as Lindbergh quietly acquiesces in Hitler's plans to isolate and disperse American Jews. In the world of the memoir, the twelve year old Philip Roth's concerns center on his immediate milieu. From his surly stepbrother, leg lost to the Germans in the European theater, to his drab, quietly heroic parents, to his collaborationist brother and aunt, each character is drawn with relentless clarity and an understated tenderness that reminds us of the sepia tint of recollection in which these events have been steeped.

The book is more striking for what it has in common with the real time and setting of Roth's childhood than for the political details in which it differs. But of course it is also a political text, and it is very consciously an update of Sinclair's "It Can't Happen Here".

I would venture that in addition to being a memoir, the other genre of which _The Plot_ partakes is prophecy. Prophetic literature is not prediction of what will happen. It is at one and the same time observation of what is already happening, a warning and a call to change, and a description of a perpetually recurring state of affairs, so that the prophets cannot be nailed down to one historical moment, but continue to speak to future moments, as the wheel of history turns around again.

So just as Sinclair is read today, and seen by many as relevant to the present advocates of torture and mass surveillance, Roth will be read decades hence, if the Republic survives, and seen as relevant to the next American crest of folksy authoritarian demagoguery.

Much silly criticism has been leveled at "the ending", in which everything suddenly and miraculously turns out all right. I would suggest two points. First, Roth means us to take this outcome just as seriously as Brecht intends us to take Macheath's pardon from the king at the close of Threepenny Opera. Second, the "ending" of the political plot takes place in the next to the last chapter, and is not in fact the end of the novel.

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
by Eckhart Tolle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.32
477 used & new from $0.50

31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Transcendence without tears?, January 18, 2006
Something in your head goes click. Or else it doesn't.

Down through time, there have probably been thousands of natural mystics, who more or less fell into a state of enlightenment in one dazzling moment, and never lost it.

There have been millions who have glimpsed such a state, accidentally, or through chemical enhancement, or through spiritual practice. And they may or may not find their way back to it now and then, and they appreciate whatever help is on offer to "cleanse the doors of perception". Many millions more are seekers, who have heard the rumor of enlightenment and hope for a connection to it.

Tolle clearly and authentically belongs to the first group. He makes it all sound very easy, which of course from the enlightened side of things it is. He doesn't seem to have a very solid grasp of what a slow plod it can be for most of us in the other two groups. Still, the advice and the method are the same for everyone.

There are plenty of texts that will give one version or another of the same advice, from Brother Lawrence to the Upanishads to the Gurdjieff work to Zen. A distinct advantage Tolle's account will have over most of the rest, for many readers, is the fact that his own dazzling burst came to him independently of any particular spiritual tradition. And that frees him to explain the way to arrive at the same peace and self-control, without imposing any dogma, and (for the most part) in simple, everyday modern language. It's not surprising that, for so many readers, this freedom and freshness have made the message click for them.

In its radical refusal to mix in any esoteric religious paraphernalia, its quiet and patient return to the same monotonous core prescriptions of silence and non-judgmental attention to the present, _Power of Now_ is most reminiscent of the style of Krishnamurti. And that's a high recommendation.

By the same token, it isn't surprising that for many other readers the book just sounds like more of the same self-help hype. The central insight is extremely simple, and it's all-or-none. You get it, or you don't. This is one more chance to get it, more straightforwardly expressed than most. And if you've already had your glimpses, it's a useful, friendly reminder to return to your spiritual practices, and the value they've had for you.

True, there's nothing new here. There's nothing new about sunrise, or falling in love, either. That's hardly a serious fault in any of the three.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 8, 2009 6:40 AM PDT

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover
56 used & new from $1.50

55 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good start on a long suppressed conversation, January 15, 2006
"For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" I Cor. 14:8.

As if coached by the apostle Paul, Sam Harris sounds his call to battle with a ringing panache. If over the coming century religious fanatics take out a few major cities, or destroy civilization altogether, we can't say he didn't warn us. His bold thesis here is that the threat does not come only from fanatics. Just as terrorists thrive only when they are sustained by a critical mass of sympahtizers who are not themselves actively violent, so fanatics thrive only because they are nourished by the swamp of religious moderates. It is there that every pestilent superstition and every archaic barbarism is coddled in its larval form, and Harris is here to tell us that the time has come to drain the swamp.

The publishing world has given us a plethora of books cheerfully marketed as "guaranteed to offend everyone". In reality, they are being touted to demographics that pride themselves on not being PC, or not being easily offended, and such books are full of cynical wiseacring and formulaic humor. But here's a book that really does have something in it to offend nearly everyone -- (Are you a biblical literalist? You're equated to Al Qaeda. A moderate mainline believer? You're the real problem. A liberal? You have made an idol of toleration that will be the death of us all. A secularist? You ignore peoples' vital spiritual aspirations. A conservative? You make excuses for the barbarisms of war.) -- and it's refreshingly earnest. I found its sincerity endearing.

The central idea is that, although religion has always given rise to horrors, the magnified powers of destruction that modern technology puts into the hands of individuals and small groups means that we can no longer treat "My God is better than your God" as a silly game that we can allow the children to go on playing. The hour has come to eliminate "faith" altogether, for the good of everyone. It is not enough to eliminate extreme versions of religion. Moderate versions must also go, because by their very presence, and adherence to the same fanciful notions, they lend an air of legitimacy to the extremists.

The case is presented with pith and rhetorical flourish. It is to Harris's credit that he is willing to tackle themes we are accustomed to tiptoeing around, and strictly as a manifesto, the book succeeds. Those aspects of religion which encourage barbarism, and there is no denying that they exist, and are in part encoded in the various creeds' core texts, do pose a real and growing danger. Unfortunately, the quality and clarity of Harris's argumentation is not up to the same standard as the quality of his preaching.

There are three main problems. First, Harris paints such a lopsidedly hostile portrait of Islam that it serves to undercut his valid point: that however impolite it may be to say so, there are real differences in the ease with which the various religions can be subverted to violent ends, and that of the major faiths, Islam offers its moderates the flimsiest ammunition in the battle against such subversion.

Second, he is fatally fuzzy about the identity of the enemy. When he is sharpest, what he has in his sights is the foolish and dangerous notion that there is a special virtue in "faith", in the sense of believing certain propositions without evidence, which somehow becomes even more virtuous when you believe it in the teeth of the evidence. "Faith" in that sense must be named as an inexcusable vice. But he equivocates, and dissipates his aim, by making all religious belief, that is, belief in gods and miracles, his target. The most deadly 20th century instances of "faith" - fascism and Leninism - were not religous at all; and numerous religious moderates make no virtue out of ignoring evidence.

This second flaw is critical when you consider what exactly he is asking the moderate believers in his readership to do.

That moderates are mysteriously passive in confronting the evils of extremism within their ranks is an important observation. But if it is the presence of any religious beliefs whatsoever that constitute the enemy, rather than the refusal to adjust those beliefs to align with facts, then all Harris can be asking of the moderates is that they abandon their religion entirely. Perhaps that's what he expects them to do, but it's a utopian expectation. A more careful analysis might provide a feasible program for action, but what we get is a first class marching band without a street to march it down.

And therein lies the third flaw. The only solution Harris has to offer is itself utopian: replace religion as we know it with a rational, empirically based spiritual practice of meditation. Since meditation practices have been around for millenia, without generating sufficient appeal to satisfy the spiritual yearnings of the vast majority of people, he has to pin his hopes here on breakthroughs in neurology that will make mystical experience more reliably and readily accessible to all. Much as those advances may be possible, the daunting complexity of the brain suggests that we will probably have to wait more than a century for any such secular-spiritual dawn. It gives us no blueprint for dealing with the excesses of blind faith in the meantime. Harris himself realizes that this hope is a bit of a Hail Mary pass: he closes his first chapter with the admission, "what follows is written very much in the spirit of prayer."

These disappointments with Harris's answers do not negate the value and importance of the questions he raises. No matter who you are, you will disagree strongly with some of what he has to say. But you will be stimulated to think outside your usual box.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 9, 2013 12:07 PM PST

Skinny Dip
Skinny Dip
by Carl Hiaasen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.72
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dive right in; the water's fun, January 10, 2006
This review is from: Skinny Dip (Paperback)
**** 1/2

Hiassen's latest cornucopia of craziness sports the usual gallery of rascals, dimwits, loons and goons, and the usual passionate and affectionate defense of the beleaguered Everglades. And there's the obligatory cameo appearance of the former governor of Florida, anonymous and over so quick that those who haven't read his other books will blink and wonder what *that* was in favor of.

But his zanies don't have to ping pong across Florida *quite* as frenetically as usual, because this outing features a plot hook that serves to rivet the attention deliciously in its own right. Happily, the work is so structured that the plot hook can be explained without giving away any of the plot.

This is an inverted murder mystery, in which we watch the dastardly deed being done in the first chapter; we know exactly who dunnit and exactly how: under cover of night, Chaz Perrone, insufferably shallow and self-absorbed, marine biologist manque and wheeler dealer rampant, tosses his lovely young bride Joey into the broad Caribbean to drown, on their anniversary cruise. What we don't know is why.

As it happens, there is a detective on the case who knows the murderer better than anyone else in the world: his victim, who has spoiled the perfect murder by surviving it. Aided by her rescuer, Mick Stranahan (and it appears that Hiassen is going to alert us which of his novels feature Mick, by including "Skin" in the title each time), but supplying most of the brains and all of the drive herself, Joey sets out on a double mission. Using a watery grave as her incognito, she will find out what Chaz's motive was, while leading him inch by inexorable inch into a hell sufficient to appease the fury of a woman scorned.

The revenge fantasy is delicious and perfectly administered; and there's a parallel redemption fantasy, just as chockful of chuckles, in which the bad guys' prime muscle man discovers it's never too late to learn to obey your mother

This is prime Hiassen, even if the romantic portion of the romantic comedy is kind of phoned in. Stick in a toe, and you'll be immersed all night.

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