Monday, August 5, 2002

Why is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond

Why do I get so frustrated with arguments based on the idea that the way animals act or the way our ancient ancestors acted dictates the way 21st century humans act? Why do I get so frustrated with supposedly scientific documents that keep referring to the common ancestors of humans and apes as apes? Why is it that I get so frustrated with pamphlets that try to use evolution to explain everything? I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to answer these questions, but this book sure made me ask them all again. Biological evolution is not enough to explain everything in society, so now we have to deal with ideas like cultural and social evolution. It’s not just physical traits that are naturally selected, but customs and relationships as well. I suppose it all makes some level of sense, but when is someone going to recognize that the need to pass on our genes isn’t what drives most of modern society?

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Why Is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Monday, July 22, 2002

Dutch by Edmund Morris

The controversial book about Ronald Reagan, controversial because Morris inserts himself into the story as what I presume is a fictional character. It’s so far (118 pages) an interesting technique, but I can see how it would upset “serious” historians. It did give me an idea for a story, however. What if the narrator of a story was the imaginary friend of another character? Everything would be told from the point of view of some unrealized portion of the character’s psyche. Might get kind of hard when the character starts interacting with others (I mean, if the narrator is there observing everything, why aren’t the other characters interacting with him?). It would be tough to keep the reader in the dark until the end, but maybe that’s not necessary. Maybe a story in which the narrator is imaginary would be interesting enough in its own right.

- - - - - - - - - -

One thing I can tell you about this Dutch book—it’s very well written. I’m not sure how much I like this biography told from fictional character idea, but the prose is certainly fun to read. Everything about the fictional narrator seems okay so far, except his son Gavin who, I assume, is also fictional since his dad clearly is. He seems just a little too “out there” to be believable. I mean, I know there were radicals in the sixties, but did most of them really think that way? Interesting how even they try to distance themselves from Communists. I also get the sense that Gavin and his friends are rebelling against something that may have existed back then but seems all too rare today—universities that are beholden to the conservative governments that fund them and their research. If there was a time in our history when the GOP controlled what was being taught on college campuses, it seems clear that is something the counterculture was able to overturn, perhaps tipping the balance too far in the other direction.

But for Reagan himself, who of course is the focus of the book, I’m still trying to decide if the author is on his side or not. He certainly allows the voices of Reagan’s critics to sound through his narrative, but he also frequently comes to Dutch’s defense in the voice and “actions” of the narrator. There’s almost an admiration of the man there, if not for his politics, at least for his ability to speak the universal thoughts that tie so many together and his clear-headed vision of what’s right and what’s wrong. Such clarity has always appealed to me, probably because I so often find myself seeking it.

- - - - - - - - - -

The portrait that Morris is painting of Reagan is a very complex one. I’m beginning to understand why the conservatives demonized him so much. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Reagan’s seeming imbecility. Except Morris doesn’t paint it as imbecility, rather as disinterest and selection of focus. Reagan, according to Morris, consciously decided what he was going to focus on—for his own rather than political reasons—and then pursued those things to the exclusion of all else. He also supposedly had the tendency to believe fictional accounts as facts—if they supported his beliefs—and disregard any amount of true facts if they ran counter to something he had decided he was going to believe in. It’s almost scary to think of him directing foreign policy through eight critical years with a mindset so irrefutably focused as his was. As things turned out, I guess his focus might actually have been the right thing at the right time, but how might things be different if his notions of right and wrong skewed ever so slightly in one direction or another? I find myself wondering just how much of what he accomplished was tactical and how much was just plain Dutch. Was Truman the same way? Put into the job at an extremely critical moment and singularly focused on his own perceptions of right and wrong to guide him through? And how many of those perceptions were shaped by the same small town American values that shaped Reagan’s?

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Dutch by Edmund Morris
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Thursday, July 18, 2002

The Essential Edward Hopper by Justin Spring

Well, that was quite a gap. I told you this journal thing was going to be sketchy at best. Don’t worry, I finished reading Moby-Dick for the third time, and I see it coming up again on the rotation, so maybe I’ll get the chance to finish my own Cliff Notes. I also finished 61 other books since The Gettysburg Nobody Knows (the one described before the essay on Moby-Dick began, including individual biographies on Lee and Jackson. During Jackson, I actually tried to keep track of all the times Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson were together, either by themselves or with other folks. It wasn’t easy. I don’t think the author knew that’s what I wanted to use his book for, since he wasn’t always clear about their specific comings and goings. At some point, I should probably copy those notes into this notebook, but not tonight. Other highlights of those 61 books include two books on Crazy Horse, one by Larry McMurtry, which trashes the other one by Stephen Ambrose (although I loved them both), Catch-22, which I didn’t like while I was reading it but was really glad I had read after it was done, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which led me to conclude just about anyone else did besides William Shakespeare, Real Boys, which made me think a lot about how I want to raise my son without a gender straightjacket, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I started reading to my son in the womb and finished on my own after he was born, On the Origin of Species, which I was surprised to discover did not contain the word “evolution,” and Angela’s Ashes, which made me wonder what on earth I would wake my son up in the middle of the night and make him pledge his life for. Now, it’s The Essential Edward Hopper, which I thought I bought in Chicago but the tag says Boston. I’ll have to start writing about it tomorrow.

- - - - - - - - - -

Light. Would I have predicted that is what I would have found most interesting about Hopper’s paintings? Or at least what they would have made me observe in a way I never had before? Look at Morning Sun (above). That’s not light coming in the window. That’s a green square on a brown square. It only looks like light because that’s what our eye is used to seeing. But that’s not what he painted nor what he had to think about in order to paint it. I don’t think I’m ever going to look at a painting the same way again. I mean, I’ve always liked the way light can be made to look in paintings, but there has always been something in my brain which has prevented me from seeing what it really is. It’s only because it’s so obvious in Morning Sun that I’m now able to appreciate other paintings in a whole new way.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
The Essential Edward Hopper by Justin Spring
on Amazon
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +