Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review 59: Proven Guilty

Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

"Hell's Bells" count - 14

It's one year later....

Many things have changed for Harry Dresden, some of it good and much of it not so much. He has family now, in the form of his half-brother Thomas (who happens to be a vampire of the White Court) and a giant dog named Mouse. His relationship with Karrin Murphy of the Chicago Police Department is as solid as it's ever been, and making very tentative exploratory steps into becoming a different type of relationship altogether.

He has a job - a real one, as a Warden - and all the responsibility that goes with it. The job of Wardens is to be the police and foot soldiers of the White Council of Wizards. When a Wizard breaks one of the seven Laws of Magic, the Wardens can act as investigators, judges and, all too often, executioners. The irony, of course, is that the same Wardens used to watch Harry like a hawk, as he had been accused of using magic to kill, thus breaking the first law. He got off light, under a "One strike and you're out" form of probation with the melodramatic name of The Doom of Damocles. The Council needs Wardens, though, and Harry got tapped. Like it or not, he's part of the Establishment now.

As if all that weren't enough, he also has the shadow of a fallen angel in his head and an ongoing war with the vampiric Red Court to contend with. And in the midst of all this, he's given two small, seemingly unconnected jobs to do: find who's been dabbling in black magic in Chicago and find out why the Red Court vampires have been allowed to use the lands of the Faerie to attack the White Council of Wizardry.

They should be simple, or reasonably so. But they're not. They never are.

Someone is using black magic to create fear. That fear is allowing terrible, terrible Things into the world, creatures that feed on fear and take the forms of some of the most terrible movie monsters we know (all of whom are, of course, based upon real characters, with only the names changed to protect Butcher from Lawyers). These creatures have already killed, attacking at a crowded horror movie convention, and Harry is determined to see that the person who called them forth pays for doing so. With blood and pain, if possible.

The discovery of the Black Magician, however, puts Harry in an impossible situation where he has to test his loyalties to both his friends and the Council. Fortunately, Harry being Harry, he puts his friends first and is determined to do the right thing, whatever it takes.

Oddly enough, "whatever it takes" happens to involve storming Arctis Tor, the stronghold of the Winter Faerie Queen, to chase down the creatures that stole off Molly Carpenter - the daughter of Michael, the Knight of the Cross. With his friends by his side, Harry goes off into what is almost certainly Certain Death, knowing that even if he saves Molly, she may ultimately be doomed.

When all is said and done, we get another glimmer of insight into how Dresden's world works. It's not a very nice place, and although the history of Wizarding is something that Butcher has avoided thus far, we get the impression that it was, until recently, a tumultuous profession. Easy to understand, really - you get someone with Phenomenal Cosmic Power, and odds are that he's going to abuse it. Perhaps bend someone to his will, or try to turn some hapless victim into a frog. Even such things as time travel and contacting the Things that live beyond the Outer Gates would be possible, were it not for the swift and draconian execution of the Laws of Magic.

Harry represents an institutional change here - he's someone who's suffered under the Laws, who has seen how the merciless application of a rigid law can do more harm than good. Now, as a Warden, an authority figure, he has a chance to change all that. But it won't be easy for him - wizards are a conservative bunch, by and large, and many of the more powerful ones are not well inclined to the idea of changing with the times. But they will have to change - their numbers are depleted, the war is going badly, and it seems that there is a Black Council out there, well-equipped to fight and destroy their White counterpart.

And of course there's his relationship to the world beyond the Council. As was noted in the last book, Harry has changed. He's become famous, not so much for saving the day and foiling the plots of evil masterminds, but for bringing death and destruction wherever he goes. As much fun as that sounds, it seems that watching people flinch when you raise your voice is not something that stays fun for very long.

And still in his mind is the shadow of Lasciel, a Fallen Angel, the merest fraction of whose consciousness is enough to tempt Harry into greater and greater levels of power - for a price.

It is, as with the rest of the books, a very good read. The tone has changed somewhat - it's more tired, more cynical than the early books, which reflects the internal struggles that Harry is going through. But it's fast-paced and exciting, with more than a few very interesting surprises along the way.

Also, because of the movie convention setting, there are plenty of good movie references peppered throughout the book. It makes me feel closer to Harry, since quoting movies was a major form of communication with my friends and me back in college. People here in Japan just don't do it, and I feel the loss.

"When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching - they are your family."
- Harry Dresden, Proven Guilty

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
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Proven Guilty on
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review 58: Sum - Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

So. What happens after we die?

I'll wait.

Is it a Heaven of clouds and harps and angels? A Hell full of fire and brimstone and horrible torture? Do you get to come back again and live a new life, perhaps building on the mistakes of your previous one? Yeah, I guess that's all well and good. I mean, the classics never go out of style, right? Perhaps some pearly gates with Morgan Freeman hanging out nearby, or an place of endless torment where David Warner is ready to turn you into a cockroach. Variations on an old and well-worn theme.

But how about an afterlife where you get to live with every possible version of yourself? You know the "many worlds" theory of the universe, right? For every choice you make, a new universe is born, and in that universe there lives a different you. Perhaps one who made better choices, perhaps worse. Well, after you die, you get to hang out with them all! Including, unfortunately, all the yous who made much, much better decisions than you did.

Or perhaps you get the afterlife where you re-live your entire life, but with all moments of the same quality grouped together. So that means you get to spend thirty years sleeping, or two hundred days taking a shower. Doesn't sound too bad, except for the eighteen months you spend waiting in line, or the five months you spend on the toilet, or the 27 hours of intense pain.

Maybe you discover that there is no afterlife for us, just as there is no afterlife for a computer chip. We've all been components in a great computer, wherein every nod of your head, every word, every blink is merely a signal sent to other processing units (AKA people). Of course, the programmers don't know why we've thrived as we have - they didn't make us to be sentient, and still don't realize it's happened. But our world is the greatest of the computer worlds they've built.

There are forty other afterlives in this book, all described in two or three pages. Each one is an attempt to break free of the traditional sense of what the afterlife "should" be, and shows a great deal of creativity.

What's fun is reading this and understanding that any one of them could be true. Just as true as the traditional heavens and hells we've been building for the last few millennia. After all, why couldn't we have an afterlife where we're given the opportunity to come back - but with one change of our own choosing? Or another where we get to choose the form of our next life, but are betrayed by our inability then to remember why we had chosen it? Just because they don't have the weight of a Church's doctrine or thousands of years of philosophy doesn't make them wrong.

Because, after all, we don't know. We can't know. We may think we know, or believe we know, but that really doesn't mean anything. Hell, I came up with my own afterlife scheme that sounded pretty good to me, but does that make it true? Nope. The one big constraint that seems to apply to all afterlives is that no one ever gets to tell the living how it worked out. Why this should be is unknown to me, but that just puts me in league with every philosopher who ever lived. Not bad company.

But since all afterlives could be true, it can be argued that none of them are. And if you can't know what will happen to your soul after death, and how to ensure that your eternity is a pleasant one, then perhaps you should stop worrying about it. The nature and requirements of your afterlife are totally out of your control.

The same cannot be said for your life. That is something that you have knowledge of and control over. So appreciate that little fact and go do something with it.

Go ahead and entertain speculation about life after death. Let your imagination go wild. But don't for a moment think that you know what will come when you breathe your last. Because it probably won't be anything you ever expected.

Or maybe it will. Who am I to say?

In any case, this is a fun little (and I do mean little) book, suitable for reading in one sitting or in forty tiny bites of time. And who knows, maybe it'll spur you on to thoughts of your own afterlife. If you have one, I'd love to hear it.

"Among all the creatures of creation, the gods favor us: we are the only ones who can empathize with their problems."
- David Eagleman, Sum

David Eagleman on Wikipedia
Sum on Wikipedia
Sum on
David Eagleman's homepage

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review 57: When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin

This is pretty much what you expect from Carlin - acerbic, abrasive, disrespectful, challenging language that doesn't give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks. Which means there'll definitely be something in there that you disagree with, and probably something that pisses you off. Not me, of course. When I watched the South Park movie, at the abortion joke from The Mole, the entire theater was dead silent except for me in the back row, cackling. I have a very broad sense of humor.

Anyway, if you've read his previous works, Braindroppings and Napalm and Silly Putty, you pretty much know what's going to be in here - a lot of essays on current events, social customs and traditions, and the general weak character of Americans today. Plus, there are lots of short bits that are really funny:

"I wanted to be a Boy Scout, but I had all the wrong traits. Apparently, they were looking for kids who were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Unfortunately, at that time I was devious, fickle, obstructive, hostile, rude, mean, defiant, glum, extravagant, cowardly, dirty and sacrilegious. So I waited a few years and joined the army."

One of Carlin's hot points is his love of language, as the above points out. He loves language and he loves to watch how people use language to bend the truth of their meaning - in other words, he takes particular notice of euphemism. As an English teacher, and a lover of language myself, I also find this topic fascinating and have cannibalized some of Carlin's material for use in lessons on the topic. Included in this book is his "Shell Shock to PTSD" speech, chronicling the renaming of the same condition from World War I ("Shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. Shell shock!") through to the present day (" last, the pain had been completely buried under psycho-jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.").

This is one area in which I have great respect for Carlin. Overall, I prefer his old material - the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, Congolia Breckenridge and all that - to his newer, rougher stuff. But on the subject of language, I find him to be an insightful and clever scholar of communication. Words exist to describe things. At the same time, however, words conceal the true nature of things, and no one word can completely encompass the thing it describes. Knowing that, we use words to change things according to comfort and custom. We soften the things that make us uncomfortable - going from "cripple" to "physically challenged" might make us feel better about it, but it doesn't change the condition itself. No matter what we call it, Stephen Hawking isn't going to engage in a round of beach volleyball anytime soon.

Even in simpler, less controversial matters, he rails against the use of language as a means of manipulation (no doubt fully aware of the irony of his profession). He remembers when bathroom tissue was toilet paper, when customer service was the complaint department and when direct marketing was junk mail. He tells us to beware of "systems" and "centers" and "programs," and longs for the days when things were simpler, while never really believing they were that simple to begin with.

What Carlin believes, and what he explains in this book and his others, is that, given the choice, we should opt for the word that is clearest, simplest and truest over the one that just makes us feel better....

In between the jokes about sex, death and old people, that is.

For anyone who loves language, Carlin is someone to pay attention to.

I was upset when Carlin died, as were a whole lot of other people. I know he denied it, but I think he grew angry in his old age. His comedy, his points of view shifted less from observational humor and word humor to meditations on death and the baser nature of humanity. He would open his show with a reminder to everyone that they were, basically, meat with an expiration date. He talked about how much fun it would be to see plane crashes and train derailments and chaos reign across the world. It never resonated with me as much as his early stuff did, and that's fine. No artist who works as long as Carlin did can continually please the same people throughout his entire career.

Still, nestled within the anger and chaotic glee was a certain... dare I say it? Love. I think he really expected a lot out of humanity, and knew our potential to do a lot of great things. If he became angry or bitter, perhaps it's just because we weren't living up to his expectations.

"A children's museum sounds like a great idea, but I would imagine it's not easy to breathe inside those little glass cases."
- George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

George Carlin's home page
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When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? on Wikipedia
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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review 56: Tales of a Wounded Healer

Tales of a Wounded Healer by Mariah Fenton Gladis

It's not often I get to review a book written by someone I actually know. The last time was back in aught-six, when I reviewed my uncle Ron's book, Faster, Smarter Digital Photography, which he co-wrote with M. David Stone (and which all you photo buffs should run out and buy right now). This book is by his wife, my aunt Mariah and is, needless to say, a little different.

The book wasn't what I thought it would be. What I thought it would be was an account of Mariah's life, especially her struggles with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. You see, nearly thirty years ago, she was given two years to live. Even now, most of those with ALS only survive three to five years, so to come this far is an extraordinary feat. Indeed, she does go into detail about how she discovered that she had the disease, and what course it put her life on. (As a note, there's one passage where she describes my uncle Ron's reaction to hearing the diagnosis - "Pack your bags, we're leaving. You're not dying and we have a life to live." My overriding thought at that point - "Damn, my family rocks.")

But this book isn't about my aunt, or her own personal struggles. In fact, once she gets through giving us her CV of Trauma, as it were, we don't really hear that much more about it unless it's germane to the topic she's addressing. Which, as you read on, makes a lot of sense.

Mariah is a therapist, specializing in Gestalt Therapy - a kind of active, experiential therapy method that postulates that the mind and the body are inextricably interconnected. Healing cannot take place simply by talking about it - there must be thought and feeling and emotion and movement involved. As near as I can tell, which is why I put the Wiki link down there, in case I screwed it up. This woman, who has been dealt a hand that, let's face it, has the potential to be utterly crushing, has spent her life making sure that other people are able to be healed. In learning to face the Bad Shit in her life, she's been able to help others face the Bad Shit in theirs through what she calls "Exact Moments of Healing."

"Bad Shit," by the way, is my term. It saves space.

Before I go on, let me come clean on this much: I have never been to therapy, counseling, or anything of that nature. So anything I think I know about what goes on there is purely speculation.

One of the biggest views of people going into therapy is that there is something Wrong with them. Something that must be, somehow, fixed. In this book, Mariah takes the opposite position - the people who come to her are not people who have problems that must be eliminated. They are people who are trying to be better, but can't. Because, and this is a kicker, your problems can't be eliminated. Not ever.

We're all, in some way, broken. We've all been hurt, blocked, abused, kicked, pushed and shoved to one degree or another. Some of us more, some of us less, and usually not in ways that we entirely understand. And as much as these life experiences suck ass, they're part of who we are. They've made us who we are, for good or for ill. The problem comes when we cannot fully understand these traumas for what they were. We don't know how to deal with them, so they block us up and mess with our heads.

What I got from reading this book is that the way to become free of these psychological millstones is to confront them, understand them and accept them. Fold them into your life, give them their due, and then - and this is important - don't let them keep you from being who you want to be.

Now, this is really, really, really hard. Gods know it's hard. Most of us never get that chance to look our demons right in the eye and say, "I know you. And I accept you. Now sit down and shut up." The idea of Perfect Moments of Healing is that, through counseling, these opportunities can be created. In her workshops, Mariah has re-created the people and situations that generated the traumas that held her subjects down. She goes into great detail about a variety of different cases, and they're all powerful. With the help of her groups and her students, she's allowed people to confront the horrors of war, abusive adults, indifferent parents and crumbling marriages, and given them a chance to unburden themselves of the shadowy terrors that had been keeping them from enjoying their lives.

An interesting facet of her therapy is the focus on self-love. No, not that kind, you gutter-brains. The other kind. The really, really hard kind, where you look at yourself, bumps, love handles and all, and say, "I love who you are."

Damn, I got finger cramps just typing that.

But it's important to her therapeutic method that her subjects understand that they are indeed worthy of being loved by others, as that is probably one of the most basic needs a human being has. People who've been abused or traumatized or just plain on the pokey end of the Stick of Life have a hard time understanding that, so she reinforces the idea again and again through the book. Maybe, if you're really lucky, it'll sink in. I still have some work to do....

For those of us who aren't so fortunate as to be able to have Mariah figure out how to stitch us back together, she does offer good news - a Perfect Moment of Healing is available to you outside of the therapist's office. By remaining aware of how you're feeling, what you're thinking and what you want to become, you can find moments in life to come face-to-face with your personal traumas and accept them for what they were - something bad that happened to you a long time ago. Something that does not need to define who you are now.

These moments aren't easy to come by, I reckon, and if you have some real hard-core Issues in your past, a professional is still the best way to go. But there are always chances out there. I've taken a few myself, from time to time.
One time, inside Chris' brain....
"Okay, here's the situation. Now what do we want to do?"
"Run like hell."
"And we're not going to do it because...?"
"Right. Now let's get in there."
"But I-"
"Shut up, trust me. Get in there."
So to speak.

Anyway, enough of my babbling. I'm probably mangling what is a very interesting, insightful and thought-provoking book. And I'm not just saying that because the author is Family. I'm saying it because it did make me think, and it'll continue to do so. I saw myself in there a couple of times, and I reckon you will too....

"You get to travel through this lifetime once. Although the way can unfold, and the terrain can change dramatically, by chance or by choice, to me what matters most is that the road you choose be one where your heart and soul feel a belonging, and the freedom to reach and breathe."
- Mariah Fenton-Gladis, Tales of a Wounded Healer

Tales of a Wounded Healer on
The Pennsylvania Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training
ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease
Gestalt therapy