LA Jamison's Book Reviews for the Average Joe
Scores: Scored from Low 1 being the worst possible to High 5 being the best the possible score.
As more reviews come, older versions will be available via the downloadable file and eventually accessible in archives.
Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model
SCORE: 4 STARS
The author of this book, Richard C. Schwartz, PH.D., LMFT earned his doctorate at Purdue University in Marriage and Family counseling, and he is associated with the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Chicago College of Medicine. He is also an associate professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. He has published seven books and over 60 professional articles. Richard is not just the author but also developed Internal Family Systems. Although it sounds similar to such practices like Family Systems Theory or Systems Theory, it is not the same--despite any commonalities. Richard Schwartz incorporated this practice out of his center in IIllinois called The Center for Self Leadership and trains people in the United States and in Europe.
I like how the first chapter hints at what the process is about and asks you to ponder some questions without hitting the reader over the head. Then, the next chapter dives into the notion of a place within, which we refer to as "self". Some others might consider his definition of self more fitting to a definition of higher self. Schwartz's definition of self speaks of a core place within us that exudes qualities of calmness, clarity, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness (What he calls the C's of Self Leadership). Although I found his descriptions of these qualities a bit watered down and perhaps there are too many C's, I do know from presently engaging in the IFS process myself, how important our understanding of this view of self is. At the very least, this place within us where we are able to step back, be calm and observe what is happening in an objective, compassionate manner is crucial to tap into. Of course, like anything crucial we have enough wounds and countering distractions to keep us from exploring the pain. While we might feel secure in our overprotective, controlling measures and sufficiently distracted by habits, we miss out on transforming. IFS brings us into intimate conversation with our own players blocking the touchdown of transformative victories. At this point, however, the author remains a little in the abstract to gently bring us into the model. He also starts to reveals his own journey. We hear about his own stumbling, humble beginnings of a new enlightenment while doing the usual thing therapists do. I really like how the doctor/author weaves this authentic element of his own struggle and trials throughout the book. It shows his honesty and disarms the reader from feeling talked down to. I am also aware that he has worked with other authors who have incorporated the process in a more faith/religious context so those that want this in the context of faith sauce can take the meat of this book and dip into their faith models as well.
What was eye-opening for me in this first part was seeing how hard society and religion is on the self. I saw something deep here when he said;
"If you know how you have a magnificent essence that's encrusted in calcified emotions and beliefs, you can set to work on releasing that essence. If you don't know it exists, you resign yourself to experiencing life through a protective covering."
Richard then sets out, al biet briefly and yet poignantly, to critize the dogma we are taught via notions of such teaching like Original Sin, Darwinism, Freudism, Development Psychology and this idea of our humanity infected with a "selfish gene". The author suggests that those who believe this then "spend our lives controlling passionate emotions and impulses, and reminding ourselves of our basic sinfulness." Or those with a more psychological perspective can set about "to look outside ourselves to get our needs met"... as "therapists try to give their clients what they believe their clients lack rather than help them find those qualities within themselves." We end up in a constant search for the experts to solve our problems. I know that in revealing to you, the reader, that this author addresses beliefs around Original Sin, Darwinism and the like might put people off, but understand that the author isn't suggesting everything about those philosophies is somehow bad. Rather, he exposes an element in all them we really need consider in light of what they produce if we aren't careful.
What this belief about self being bad produces is explored as well as what trauma has produced in us at one time or another. He takes us underneath the hood of the protective shell over the Self. This shell consists of something the author terms as Parts. From my own experience with IFS so far, one needs to be careful getting so caught up in the notion of parts and lose connection with the core of self. Regardless, the author's breakdown of the Parts is done in a very readable, concise way with a good number of examples that most people can relate to. I should say at this point that the author includes very gentle exercises to introduce you to the process at the end of a few chapters. I'm not sure how effective the exercise are, however. I began IFS well before I read this book so I'm well beyond their effectiveness for me. They might be a little of nothing burger for you. On the surface, they appear relatively light--unless you never have had an ounce of therapy before. To me, the book didn't need the exercises but perhaps they will help someone.
I like how the author describes how our mind and body has a "multiciplty" of parts and refers to other well-known gurus of the past that have explored this notion of "sub personalities" we possess--such as, Carl Jung and Roberto Assagiolio. Yet, he also acknowledges how "uncomfortable" this idea is for us, which we have reserved to those with "multiple personality disorders". The movie Sibyl comes to mind. He then cleverly dives into our ancient past and cultures that embraced this idea of multiple parts not only to the spirit world but also in our inner realm. Still, he doesn't hesitate to reveal his own five-year struggle as a therapist to let go of his firm grasp around this idea of having only a single mind. I also liked how he talks about "good parts" of ourselves being stuck in "bad roles". It is quite eye-opening to think about ways we talk to ourselves and act because a part of us is stuck in the past. We can suddenly become overwhelmed by one part and suddenly find ourselves feeling like a teenager at age 40. All we know is what we know and sometimes that it is a dysfunctional way to survive..., but we survived. Our "system", as the author terms it, may now know no other way... until we show it another way. A part of self was, as the old song goes, "Stay'n Alive!"the only way it knew how. Nevertheless, we can be be stuck talking, yelling, kicking ourselves, judging others, isolating, etc. and yet it no longer serves us. We just don't know any better and hate ourselves for not being able to change. We can't let go and become vulnerable, so we in effect hate ourselves for hating selves.
I am grateful that Richard doesn't leave us there though. Here is where the book changes format a little and becomes a bit more useful and practical. We move more out of the abstract. As much as I like my own therapist and grateful for coming into this new model of IFS through him, the author here breaks down the parts, their functions, and their potentials much more perfectly than even he can. By this point in the book, we have learned that there are two general parts to us: one that has been traumatized or hurt and another that protects us from never feeling that way again (no matter what it takes). Here he breaks them down into what he calls 'Exiles, Managers, and FireFighters".
Exiles are our wounded, often child like part of us that we attempt to put in exile, hide away if you will. We enter a high degree of self-protection. "Certain events or interactions act like a match, igniting...burdens of terror, loneliness, humiliation, abandonment, despair, or worthlessness that our exiles have been carrying for us". He goes on to say that, "This is why our protective parts build fortresses around us." We attempt to patch up the cracks and find new distractions from the pain or fear. What I appreciate most is how the author doesn't just leave us with each part and the problem they can cause, but he talks about the good potential of these parts. He explains the good intentions of the parts and the greater good they will provide when they are set free.
Next are Managers (and Firefighters which is a special form of Manager). I really like the author's description of the Manager and the special unit called "Fire Fighters" in particular. "They want to protect our exiles, but they also disdain them for being weak and needy. Managers blame those vulnerable parts for getting us hurt...like sentries, they're always on guard for events that might trigger exiles and are always strategizing ways to avoid such events." Who hasn't felt weak or victimized and yet turned around and hated ourselves for even feeling that way? And here too, the author switches things up by again highlighting the better nature of Managers with statements like "Managers create negative narratives for protective reasons." The author breaks down the different type of management styles which is interesting. Here, whether the author realizes it or not, he sort of aligns with Darwin in suggesting that we often hate our pessimist side but that "it's easy to miss their protective nature". Darwinism suggests that our tendency to have negative, critical views is our innate need to see problems in advance so that we can fix them and survive. These are angles to parts of us that those who insist we see the world through rose colored glasses and proclaim your blessings rather than give voice to problems won't submit to and may never reach authentic transformation. Positive thinking and Prosperity-R-Us gurus like Tony Robbins to Joel Osteen aren't all bad in what they pedal (and making big bucks for it by the way). However, this can create what others have called "a cotton candy" message and what I call cotton candy people who remain a shell of themselves. These kinds of people are no less limited than someone who is burdened by the past as they apply positivity mantras over their lives and find it their mission to do so to others when they start to voice their own pain. They have no reference to the need for exploring personal pain or emotions but see that as giving room to the "negative". Positivity should be the result of transformation and not a cover up to how we truly feel or we never will grow beyond the negativity in the first place.
Fire Fighters as you can imagine act differently than managers in that they respond to amped up emergencies. I got a lot out of Richard's description where he says managers act "pre-emptively" by attempting to foresee and help us avoid anything that will trigger our exiles (think of keeping your baby happy and not crying). To the contrary, Richard describes fire fighters as more "reactive" and ready to jump into action if the fire starts. I like his description of them as "secret service agents" for the president, taking the brunt of a lot of abuse and acting in ways this part doesn't like itself but does so to survive. Anything to shield the president.
There is so much meat in this book to chew on, and the author does a pretty good job giving us a taste while not overwhelming us. The last part of the book is unique in that the author gives a prospective client advice insight into what his or her first visit will be like. He also highlights what to expect to happen within themself and their therapist as they start out on this journey together. This is something pretty forward to do, maybe presumptive, but having already been a client it is pretty accurate. I wish I would have gotten to read this before I went to my first appointment.
I think this is a great book for anyone interested in IFS. It is sensitive to readers who are your average joe reader and not doctors. There are plenty of good examples too. While some parts seem too watered down and I'm not sure how the exercises are impact wise, this is a great book. I am not sure where IFS will take myself progress wise, but I can tell you that it has already made impact on my life and my perspective. I honestly don't know where I would be right now without IFS and the trauma I endured just this year. It is a great relief and has put some missing pieces together for me about our own psyche, self and spirit.
IF INTERESTED: STAY TUNED TO MY BLOG AS I TIE THIS INTO MY OWN SPIRITUAL PATH AS WELL AS REVEALING A POPULAR CHRISTIAN AUTHOR WHO COMES TO THE SAME IFS THEORY WITHOUT REALIZING PERHAPS? WE'LL EXPLORE IT TOGETHER!
Pray The Gay Away
SCORE: 3 1/2 Stars
Review by LA Jamison
I met the authors Michael and Zach Zakar at the Ferndale Pride here in Michigan and yes they are as good looking and charming in person as they are in this book! The title immediately peeked my interest because I too was very involved in religion and saw myself as damned to hell for being gay. However, really, the term "pray the gay away" doesn't even really begin to describe my experience. It is rather a coined term so those outside the experience can get the jist of what we are all talking about. I wrote my own book on the very subject called Discoveries in the Closet that you can purchase at the Book Space store on this website. I had never heard of these two or their story before meeting them in person and purchasing book at the Pride event. They stood in what appeared to be long-john like pajamas without the buttons and sexy as all get out. They signed the book, gave me a rainbow colored rosary, and a provocative bookmark I still enjoy looking at.
The book itself is an economical price. Let's face it, all authors are grossly underpaid. Especially folks like myself and the Zakar brothers in that we have essentially bared our souls like a stripper bares their body on stripper poles--in excruciating detail. Books take years to write and people just don't realize the personal cost writing them..., but I digress. "Pray the Gay Away"is laid out in a format where we read from each brother's perspective at different ages which is pretty cool. I really wasn't expecting getting both their perspectives in such a intimate way so this was a pleasant surprise. It is a very easy book to read, and they keep you turning the pages with just the right amount of tension and entertainment. I read it in two sittings. It is different than mine in this way: This is a more entertaining read where I would say a good deal of my own book is more informative and quite a bit more personally revealing with splashes of entertainment and humor. The Zakar brother's book comes with some tension and emotionally appealing moments but it also keeps to a light, fairy air of youthful antics, and humor. It reads almost like a book version of a gay Dawson's Creek or a gay "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". Just like a film script, the brothers balance out the intense or down moments very well. The real intense moments often involve their mother who is bent on exorcising the two of them from demons and some high school angst as rumors and outtings occur. The writing is crisp and clear and fun to read and they certainly avoided the trap I missed in writing my own book--staying off a soap box. If I could change anything about my memoir, it might be that.
However, there is a drawback to the romp style this is written in, as well. While they both undergo their own internal struggles, largely because of their religious mother, there is also a lack depth here. This is probably because the authors age but also neither of them are really ever caught up in the idea of changing themselves. They consider it at points and struggle with it at points so you do get a taste of that struggle for sure but they really never buy into their mother's "pray the gay away" mantra. They don't attend the "ex-gay" retreats or see "reparative therapists" (thank goodness!) so the book can't really go to that level. Rather, their story is more a coming of gay-age story that leads to many fights against their mother, and at times each other and bigger questions about self image as a young gay man. The fight is intense in its own right and the two are very brave, pretty level headed young boys in a Middle Eastern Community that is close minded about such things. How the two brothers support and betray each other (in their own eyes) has emotional appeal that weaves in and out of their story in a good way. However, the driving force of their internal struggles is, in large part, from outside of themselves verses a lot of the interal, self-doubting I was expecting from. They do struggle with it some since their mother believes they are wrong so intensely. This isn't something to make light of. It effects them both intensely gives them no easy walk. However, the internal struggle is not at a depth where I felt I went on a journey with them on some real character transformation. There is some of this, don't get me wrong. A tyrannical parent bent on religious persecution is nothing to wink at. Yet, and dare I say it, it could easily be the same of a parent not wanting their child to marry the love of their life because they aren't of the same culture or religion. It is brutal and causes damage, but it is not at the level for those of us who believed not only that society wanted that but that God really did too. This brings things to much more darker level, if that were even possible. Yet, it is possible.
That aside, this is the kind of book you could see being made into a movie that would be greatly successful as an independant film or on Netflix. A film I would enjoy and probably watch more than once. A film that could change or encourage a gay young person's life. I also like that the brothers avoid detailing a lot of sexual depravity. It is actually kind of refreshing. I mean not that they don't engage in some illicit behaviors that we get juicy details about. They do give us some pretty hot scenes in the book but it more or less is coming of age "gay" affairs. They do, however, refer to themselves in sexually negative ways as "sluts" and one does have an illegal habit that is portrayed almost in an enduring way until it gets him into serious trouble. This hints that although we don't get all the details of their own depravity due to years of suppression, they still are experiencing it at some level even as young as they are.
The book gives you some interesting twists too that give the book a little burst here and there. You walk away from this book pretty much really liking the Zakar brothers, if not loving them. How they resolve the issues that come up for them is nothing but a joy in the end to read. You are grateful that they have each other. It might not have gone as well if they had not. They are each to each other their own saving grace. In actuality, the character in the book who has the most to change is the mother, of course. I won't give away whether or not that change happens. Is it a read you are going to be glad you read? Absolutely! You will want to see the movie (if one was made, which I feel should be made) or meet them. Is it a read where you will learn the full measure of what "pray the gay away" means? At a more surface level but more so in the stereotypical way of a religiously obessed parent. You don't get into the industry side of it and the broader scope which requires much more elements of survival. I'm not sure I would read the book more than once only because I didn't walk away learning anything or feel that there are sections of depth that need re-exploring. Maybe if I had a parent like they did and that had been my sole struggle, it would be different story for me. This story is more insular in nature, a family story of two brothers, and that has its own appeal and drawbacks.
score: 4 Stars
Review by LA Jamison
The San Francisco Book Review calls Josiah Bancroft's Senlin Ascends "phenomenal" and "breath taking" and Mark Lawerence says "One of my favorite books of all time." While I cannot ascribe such lofty praise to Bancroft's first book in this series at 100%, it does have several moments of greatness and is quite the page turner. I have several pages earmarked for its eloquently written prose. The book is intriquing at the start from it's artwork on the cover to its illustration on the very first page of the Tower of Bable which outlines the details of its every level (called "ringdoms"). This story is supposed to cover the "lower ringdoms" so you get the sense that other stories will cover higher ringdoms. The story and descriptions throughout the book is at times wonderful to read. This and the overall story line compelled me to push through some of its later more muddy waters. I was also very intriqued with this creative use of a mythical symbol regularly ignored of the Tower of Bable. So let's begin where this book is good and where it is not as good...
This is the story of a man called Senlin in a fictional world where the mythical Tower of Babel stands at the center of civilization. It is everyone's Mecca, the destinations of destinations. Part Fantasy Island and part Twilight Zone, this story is largely about the overall effect that the Tower of Babel has on the life of Senlin and many others he encounters on his journey up and down its many levels called ringdoms. To get this out of the way, the story really has nothing much to do with it's rather Biblical allusion. The Tower of Babel is one of the earliest stories told in the Torah and The Old Testament in the Bible (in the same breath as the story of Adam and Eve). The mythos is said that this was a pinnacle tower man built to reach God in some attempt to possibly to out perform God. God is said to thus struck these people down by making them all speak with different tongues so that they cannot communicate with one another and thus civilization scattered forming different nations with different languages. There is a similarity between the Bible story and this one in that there is much confusion within the Bancroft's Tower itself, much mystery, people with crooked agendas, and the Tower is an icon just like the Biblical one. However, this is where the silimilarities end so if you are looking for a religious treatise of Biblical proportions, you won't find that here.
Senlin and his wife Marya are two newlyweds who chose their honeymoon to take place within one of the many levels of the Tower of Babel. They are two mild mannered, if not prudish, people who are clearly not fit for such a journey. Senlin is but a timid headmaster and teacher at a school in the small fishing village of Isaugh. The two travel by train to the Tower and we really get a great sense of the Tower's outter vastness as Bancroft describes their arrival with great vistages and visions. The two are love blind by virginal affirmations of love and you get the sense early on that they are diving head first to a destination filled with not only wonder, but danger and uncertainty under the guise of marital bliss. For Senlin and his wife Marya the Tower is always something to be not only experienced but conqueored. Conqueored in the sense that it is like that thing you want to do because of the thrill of it but are too scared to do; like rollarcoasters, bungee chord jumping, or sky diving. You get in line and leave and return multiple times, hedging your bets. But this day, this is their moment. They are going all in. While they are fueled to take on the challenge by their new vows to one another, I got the sense that this was but a vehicle to get them to this place that stands tall against the horizon. Daring them, compelling them to see if they can sojourn her many levels stacked upon each other like a giant lopsided cake. Could they traverse her levels to get the pleasure they seek on their honeymoon, see her worlds within and survive? You get the sense that everyone within and without, from petty theives, pirates, market sellars, business men, and governing officials down deep look upon the Tower and wrestle with a mybrid of desires that titillate and torment.
The crux of the story that keeps us turning pages happens early on when at the very first bottom level of the markets, Senlin loses his wife, Marya, in the throngs of a huge crowd. The impossibility of Senlin finding her is really well done. One such example is that of a virtual graveyard of love letters that have been sent down off the tower walls from those lost within it. As well, the description of the Market level and the Skirts really make you feel like you right there. Senlin searches through the lost love letters with no positive end. And so, rather than traversing the Towers many ringdoms as two honeymooners cleverly attempting to eek out pleasurable, transcendent memories of a lifetime, Senlin is forced to traverse them alone as a desperate ,vulnerable man who is now subject to the Tower's whims as well as those who lurk within its shadows. People who we soon learn are looking to take advantage of unsuspecting first time travelers. However, he isn't alone for long and ends up making friends with someone who ends up trying to rob him, Finn Goll. This is after a brief encounter with a young man named Adam who appears later in the novel. Both Finn Goll and Adam as well as others return later. From here on, we are handed characters like an Olympic torch on a relay race as Senlin traverses levels of the tower. A race against time to find his wife as every hour seems to drag them further apart as well as Senlin from any vestiage of hope.
Starting off in the Market, the author does a great job giving us a feel of the vastness and instability of the place where it appears most people congregate and attempt to live. There are a lot of reasons people aren't even allowed in the Tower so the place is filled with theives and peddlars trying to sell things as well as people like Senlin who have people lost in the Tower. The next level is the "Basement" which is a place Senlin quickly learns every traveler wants to avoid. It is dark and seedy and many newbie travelers are said to never make it out. Of course, you know what this means: Senlin will try to avoid the Basement but will land himself right in the thick of it. Another intriquing place is the Parlor which is just a level up from the basement. The parlor is like a mall of intriquing virtual realities (not in the technical sense but in the deceptive sense) to get lost in. This is where the story compares to a Fantasy Island TV show like experience. You know the promise of a fantasy is going to end up being a terror from the start and this is no different. Many people get so lost in the distraction of the Parlor, they too never leave. Senlin ends up caught in a "parlor trick" of his own (pun intended). Here he meets his first woman sidekick character, Edith, who will be yet another returning character near the end of the story and in the upcoming second book. Senlin ultimately betrays her after she saves him and you know Karma is going to bite him for that one sometime in the story.
Next, comes the level of "The Baths" which are just what you would think--lots of water and hot sauna like experiences. It is here at "The Baths" and the next level of "New Babel" begins to ramp up. It is also here, between the baths and New Babel, where our story get's a big bogged down. Senlin encounters people who have double motives as to why they have remained within the Tower for years and as to why they may be helping him. For example, a character named Tarrou presents himself as a wise sage of the Tower. I got the impression of Senlin coming upon Tarrou as one might a rich person with a drink forever in their hand, leather tanned skin and flip flops. Tarrou reminded me of Bugs Bunny on a sun deck with big sunglasses on and a martini. He held both charm and a mysterious (if not sinister) restraint. Senlin soon catches on that Tarrou, despite all the wisdom he is departing, has himself been unable to leave his addiction to the Tower behind. He stands a representative of what could become of Senlin if he stays in the Tower too long. It is through Tarrou we learn that a number of people are stuck here because they get into large debt from their exploits and are forced into a kind of imprisonment. The ticking time clock then not only becomes time itself but how long Senlin can last financially before he too is arrested and enslaved by debt. The author does a great job of creating suspense as to whether those who join Senlin's side are truly helpful or not to his cause, Tarrou is one of them but more so on the lighter . He is one of my favorite characters.
Our next set of interesting characters are the returning Finn Goll and Adam, and The Commissioner and Ogier, a painter. Our story turns on its heels here. While we are still driven by the story (at all times) by Senlin's desire to find his newlywed wife, the story focuses on a painting that Ogier has done of Senlin's wife. This is the first character in the story that has had contact with her, at least we hope so. He ends up commissioning Senlin to retrieve one of his prized portraits that he claims the Commissioner stole from him. In return, he would tell him all he knew about the painting he made of her and the time he spent with her. There is a sense of relief for the reader that Ogier is a character that finally ties this story down to something tangiable. It gives us hope that Senlin will find her. And yet, despite some intrique of this painter and the nail biting attempts of Senlin trying to gett ahold of this painting, this is also where our story moves into becoming a bit muddy. Muddy not so much in plot but in the sense of that we already had a lot of back and forth between a number of characters before Tarrou. A dance if you will. Now we returning of minor characters we weren't really that invested in along with a whole new set of characters. This particular dance is long and drawn out at points. Throughout the story, we also see these floating pirate ships and the story moves into Senlin becoming a captain of one which we encounter more characters as well and this brings on the additional return of Edith. It somehow loses something here. A little harder to believe or see Senlin as a captain of a pirate ship perhaps. The action surely ramps up which is good and an extraordinary villian in the character of the Red Hand who is mechanical and manical. The story does drag a little here though with the wrestle over the painting. It get's bogged down by this particular plot point but more so by character changes leading us up to the end. I found it a little difficult to invest myself in some of them. I did like Iren a lot--though she isn't a major character in this book. She is a big "amazon like" looking woman who flings people around with the ease of paper clips. Her character reminded a lot like the Game of Thrones character Brienne of Tarth. Adam only at the beginning as the first youthful character and at his point of betrayal held any interest to me. Edith comes back riding on the fumes of the betrayal Senlin committed against her. I liked her more earlier on in the story than so much at the end where she is definitely a big help to Senlin but more static to me here. I know I tend to do this as an author too but we are tempted to make our characters boring in attempt to make them "likeable" and like ourselves. But readers want interesting characters with quirks and warts. They don't want "us". They want characters that take them out of their world. Some of the side kicks, like Adam, are just not interesting enough.
You sense Senlin really transforms at the end of the story which is the lure, I suppose, to get us into the second story "Arm of the Sphinx". Boy, does this author have interesting titles! And I like that it is an arm with the Tower in the background because you really don't get enough of digging around in this Tower so I'm glad the Tower is still a part of the second book. Senlin definitely changes in the story as to keeping his wits about him, learning how to be more clever, and taking more risks as well as learning the cost of "using" others. He has to do things he never wanted to learn how to do. How like life! But still, these by and large aren't huge transformations. You can forsee the transformation coming though when takes on this leadership role of a pirate ship--the story line taking place largely for the second book. I'm envious that a first book for a writer can be so well written. I think this was a good story that definitely had me turning pages but more so in the first half and at the end half than the middle half. With the flashbacks and the love letters, the author does a great job in getting us invested in wanting to see what has happened to his wife he loves so much. Senlin near the end sees visions of her which are both cool and creepy. I wonder if him finding her will even matter by the end with all he is experiencing via the Tower. The Tower itself is intriquing but there is also the problem of there not being much depth as there is variety to it as is the case with some its characters. Even so, this book is largely a page turner. It is a great escapade into a mythical icon no one has explored before. In addition you also get a first chapter read to the next book The Arm of The Sphinx and an interview of the author.
SCORE: 4 1/2
Reviewed by LA Jamison
When you spent over 20 years in a particular faith, there are times where it seems you run out of things to explore. One of the intriguing things for me about my faith and other faiths is how little I really know about key characters except what others have written about them. Still, as one minister Josh McDowell used to point out, 'we have more documentation about Jesus Christ than we do Julius Caesar' (paraphrase), so some of that is unfounded in that critics often disqualify volumes of documentation because it was written by people who would be considered followers or edited by followers. It is perhaps a misgiving to only read from "pro" followers, but it is also to only consider skeptical sources. Other times skeptics dismiss such evidence because it is mixed with wild stories and myths too rich for historians and skeptics to accept so documents as a whole can be dismissed. Irregardless, some looming questions still remain for me. I used to not question that. I treated the Bible itself like it fell out of the sky. There was no reason to question Holy Spirit infilled Apostles. If God could create the moon, God could create a infallible book that I could trust. But, as one get's older and lives life, things start to not add up and questions loom. One examines the Bible and life with more critical eye and you meet people of other faiths who are not the "heretics" and "heathens" you were told to try to save and feel pity for. For me, at this point in my journey, I wanted to know more about Jesus's growing up years, and why his family and those closest to him are so mysteriously absent post-resurrection. And one area I thought I could explore was the Apostles. Interestingly enough, the word "apostle" only appears once in the Bible. The preferred use was "disciple". We see this cast of characters that at times are seemingly as rich in character as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There's passionate Peter, the thundering Sons of Zebedee, the betrayer Judas, the designated sinner Matthew, and Doc Luke. Jesus stands over them all like a Snow White of sorts or like a mother hen with all this passion as one misunderstood. A leader who can at times barely get those closest to him to fully understand the simplest of lessons and on board with his true mission. A leader who longs for his homeland to turn from their ways, embrace him and the rich kingdom that they have hid away in a box... but they will not do it and we can feel that foreplay of deep desire and longing that Jesus ignites us for his own people. Yet, his own people set about to crucify him, destroy him and his disciples for their disobedience to tradition and laws. Yet, accept for the books of Acts, after the Apostles are set ablaze with the Holy Spirit, there really isn't much heard from them again. Paul's writings take over for a large part.
So my quest was finding out more about the Apostles and even Jesus's family. Heck with Maria, how do you solve a problem like the Apostles? All this build up to becoming missionaries and we really don't get much of an inkling to the final product and the rest of their lives except the vague sense in Acts and whatever Paul gives us (excluding two letters from Peter that are short). Jesus apparently had brothers, even if some want to argue step-brothers. So where were they? How did they live out the rest of their lives and what did they have to say about their brother? With all the hunts on for various Biblical sites, surely there had to be more on the twelve men and several women closest to the Master of the faith!?! Do we really even know where they were buried? Tom Bissell's book "The Apostle" came at an interesting time when my own pastor had just started a Bible Study on the Apostles and I was wanting something on this topic. I sadly only made it for the book of James for the Bible study but my pastor was right on with it as much as Bissell was with his analysis on James even exploring the controversial question as to whether James was Jesus biological brother or cousin.
Upon reading the book, you quickly pick up a pattern. Each chapter that focuses on one, sometimes two, of the twelve including Jesus himself, holds a two-step dance. The author goes back and forth between eloquently telling about his journey across the globe to visit any particular tomb to the background speculations and history of an the apostles and back again to his Indiana Jones type journey. Some chapters this shift happens multiple times a chapter. I was eager for the backstories on the Apostles so as eloquently as Bissell writes I found myself struggling to not rush ahead. My one sin but I fought well and read throughly. His journey to find the remains of the Apostles at times is challenging for him because one site might possess a finger of John there, and an arm bone may held in a basilica over there, far away somewhere else. This is interspersed with his research and knowledge about the history, Biblical stories, myths and legends around that particular apostle. Even if he often presented this information with the breadth and intensity of a fire hydrant, I was glad to let it pour through my fingers. My mouth was wide open. A New York times review found his use of language and style a bit of a drawback;
"“Apostle” seems fundamentally confused about its aim and audience. Readers familiar with the material will be frustrated by the unfocused scholarship, not to mention the jagged contrasts in tone."
However, honestly, I found what the Times article found to be a drawback rather refreshing. Tom was clearly on an authentic journey and I like that his writing, which is particularly beautiful when he is writing about travels. His writing at times can move like a red laser taunting a kitty, but it reflects someone who doesn't know what he is going to find. It exposes that he isn't sure where to land with what he is writing. So, instead of pretension, he gives us an authentic search. His writing is a part of that search. This can feel like trying to take a drink out of a fire hydrant as I said earlier, especially in the exposition on the Apostle's histories, stories and inconsistencies. It's a little of a lot of things, but it also provides the opportunity to explore more later should you be interested in a particular angle or path. Now, there are motivations in Tom's four year tale that are clearly faulty and clearly human but that too is also mildly enduring in that yet again, you know the author is being authentic and not just sticking to academia or theology straight out of seminary. I'll get to that more in a bit.
So let me get to some particulars. First, some of his beautiful writing.
I want to give some examples of what touched me in particular. In his journey to find the remains of the famed Apostle John, he encounters a tour guide that he hopes is going to be his first eye witness account of a Turkian Christian until he sees his name tag that reads "Godofredo" and realizes he isn't Turkish. "Bald" and "bow-legged" sporting a gold crucifix, the short statured Godofredo sounds more like someone from the Mafia than Turkey. I particularly liked this phrase of the man and the tourists in the hot tomb: "All around him, several dozen miserably heat-weak human beings were sweatily headed toward dehydration comas, but perspiration breads streaked across his bald scalp like escape pods of excess vitality." (pg. 244). Escape pods of excess vitality. Brilliant.
*There is also, in the same chapter a description of "apostolic heroes of the Apocrypha" that I particularly enjoyed (as compared to those who appear in gospels alone. The Apocrypha is a set of works that hold some contraversary and are largely only accepted by few and were not included in the Biblical Canon--they are as Bissel describes "curiously distant from the experiences of faith" and to read them is to vacate expectation, primarily spiritual). He describes the Apostles as they are seen in these works as "stentorian moral teachers, wondrous miracle workers, tender-footed wanders, and world champion denunciators of Jews, pagan Gods, marriage, sexuality and most other forms of human pleasure." (p.248). The Apocrypha are interesting for their abstention from the Canon but as a read a bit of a yawner which Bissell alludes to about the Acts of John. From the sound of it, every apostle has a book called The Acts of _____.
*One of my other favorite chapters was his venture into the Apostle Thomas. Here, Bissel is journeying through India but is sick half the time (something he says will happen if you are traveling to other countries). It makes for some exciting reading and funny situations as he attempts to find the remains of Thomas. At one point, he is totally abandoned and left to squatting on a road in pain while little Indian children taunt him. In a bit of irony, he talks about not being able to tolerate Indian food one particular night so he get's one slice of Domino's pizza and says the servers of the establishment were the only overweight Indians he saw on the entire trip. A testiment to the detriment of America's Fast Food evangelism.
*In his exploration of Matthew, I find a particular paragraph really such a great depiction of the issues not only around this particular book but the Christian faith as a whole: "The argument between traditionalism and modernism lives on today within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is and always will be an argument about the past and the future, about the pressures of inheritance and the desire for constancy...the argument itself will never resolve. It will never fade away. It will emerge over and over again,..wearing different masks, for every spiritually engaged community is forced to confront the inevitability of newly arisen beliefs and the drifting tectonic plates of assumed morality."
*Here is a phrase I also particularly liked about his traveling as well "My friend Gideon and I walked five hundred miles across Spain along the oldest Christian pilgrimage route in Europe...to become a pilgrim is to live at the speed of thought, to transform movement into ritual, to sacralize the very space through which one walks." (p. 434) I cannot tell you the number of times I walk as though I'm walking in my thoughts at the speed of thought, and also sacralize space I walk through via prayer, meditation and blissful appreciation of the God source behind all things of which I'm connected to as well.
*There is also a particular paragraph on the following page where he describes our world as foolishly following the wisdoms of ancestors who didn't know "whether the moon was a dragon's eye or a piece of frozen water". Before he subscribes it fully as madness (he does), he follows this with that he finds Shakespeare as a wise man and someone "I would gladly put a different faith in" and so in some sense, he tries to understand the faithful. It's a beautifully written paragraph where he expounds on the power of story and the fascination of the human mind: "We want. We long. We imagine. We fight. We gather. We love. We hate. We lie. We believe." Interesting, seeing that Bissell clearly sees a good deal of the Bible a lie or at the very least more fairy tale than truth ( I will get to this later) that he puts the word "lie" before "believe" making it not only last but putting the two right next to each other. I'm sure this was intentional if not conscious than unconscious.
This just touches some highlights. Tom Bissell's journey across the globe often gave me goose pimples as to his descriptive, eloquent writing in which he describes it all. Sometimes quite literally my jaw dropped at his descriptions.
Second, some addition points I want to make
As I said earlier there is a dance back and forth between the journeys across the globe and historical exploration of areas where the Apostle's remains are said to be and what is said to be known of the life of the times of each Apostle he explores. Tom Bissell, it is known, left his Catholic faith behind and took on this four year journey, according to the New York Times review of the book, as a test of his unbelief. This was my one trepidation reading this book. Bart De Erhman, who Bissell refers to often in the one chapter called Christos, is an example of a writer and scholar who is knowledgeable about opposing texts to the faith but also clearly bitter and very repetitive in the nature in his writing--as if he is writing his own form atheist liturgy or trying brainwash us on his ideology, I'm never sure. It is pretty clear that I did not find this bitterness in Tom Bissell's writing save the frantic nature in which dumps a whole host of Christ contraversary. Even so, I also get that there is a sort of a frantic nature between both writers to present every possible conflict in the Bible not just for information but also they expose their own misguided effort to prove the conflict which no doubt tackled down their own faith to the ground. In the process, however, we learn a lot about these controversies and that sets us on our own authentic search. The chapter called Christos to me was the closest Bissell get's to Erhman's evangelistic attempts to dissuade the legitimacy of the Christ. I sort of expected that when I saw the chapter and one earlier reference Erhman's writings. It is was Erhman has set out to in a number of books and it is clear that Bissell sees himself as a student of him in a way.
For example, Bissell get's into a question over Christ's lineage presented in the books of Matthew and Luke as coming through Joseph and via King David. He proposes that the lineage in the two books are not only different but undermines the claim of a virgin birth because Joseph has no involvement in the birth of Jesus. He goes onto to allude to that book of John ignores the lineage question because the divinity of Christ was more established. However, he ignores including other competing explanations for this difference. Such as the argument that Luke's listing of Jesus' lineage may actually be different because it is Mary's, not Joseph's as one woman pointed out to me. This is very plausible since women weren't allowed to be noted in that way during this period and is seen elsewhere in the Old Testament. I also want to include a response after I posed the question on Facebook (I was stumped by it at first). His response is beautiful:
"People should take into account: the chronological lists in the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, are liturgical, not historical. They were created to help preserve the Jewish culture through the medium of religious lessons. The Gospel writers may have been doing the same thing, composing not so much historical documentation as they were following in the footsteps of the great Jewish writers, i.e., composing works meant to be proclaimed as Liturgy. Jewish genealogy in Scripture has gaps and holes purposefully placed to fit the narrative into which the genealogy has been placed. At times entire generations are missed, and even kings are dropped from lists if they were evil. Something similar appears to be going on in the genealogy lists of Matthew and Luke. Not only don't they match each other, they don't match the Jewish Scriptures or fit into actual history. They aren't meant to if they are Liturgical. A Liturgical piece is a Jewish narrative meant to transport the listener to the time of the event and make them a player, not merely a reader. Often great liberties are taken with the details of history to allow the "transportation" to take place. The Haggadah used by Jews each Passover is a great example. It matches neither the Biblical or historical account of the Exodus. It usually never even mentions Moses. But it is read during each Seder every Passover, every year. It is the tool that transports us to a true event, even if the details used aren't facts. The same might be said for some of the narrative devices used in the Gospels, such as the genealogical lists, which come from Jewish Scripture tradition. We are not looking for facts here. We are looking for truth. The two are very different sometimes. So the genealogical listings may not be facts but devices, the same type used by the Jewish writers of the Old Testament that included such lists not to preserve history or prove facts, but to show God's providence." (Carlos Hernadez)
Interesting enough though, The New York Times Review highlights this as actually part of Tom Bissell's own line of thinking:
"He goes on to privilege fiction over religion, which is “vulnerable to mere fact.” This will be a familiar argument to anyone who reads literature. It will be equally familiar to anyone who has read modern theology. (“Religion may produce deep emotions,” Paul Tillich wrote, “but it should not claim to have truth.”) In fact, there is a raft of modern scholarship — see Northrop Frye or Jack Miles, for instance — devoted to using literary analysis for theological insight. Which is to say: Bissell’s revelation here is a place from which to set out, not a place at which to end. But then, as he himself says of the disciples, all too often “the footprints they left behind lead us to places we long to be led.”
Yet, it seems to me pretty clear that Tom, though he refers to Jewish culture and speaks often about Jewish Christians, sidelines the beauty of this culture and belief system and instead focuses on the contraversary, the differences between Jewish culture and the excommunicated Jewish Christians, faith or story vs. the facts and lack there of. The thoughts of a Carlos Hernadez are the kind of thoughts that Erhman and Bissell never get to fully because they both are too often over taken by a determination to set out and prove out all the possible inconsistencies more than all the possibilities as why those inconsistencies exist. Maybe those arguments may prove more logical than they desire to admit so they stay away from them. For two guys such as Erhman and Bissell determined to soak us in every possible angle and then disprove it, it is quite curious that they don't include these other sides. I think this was one thing I noticed missing from this book that I couldn't put my finger till I read the above post from Carlos. Still, though he left the his faith, Tom Bissell is still fascinated with it (which he admits to according to the New York Times review). His fascination is the saving grace here and what gives us all a fair shot at least in some regard to some unbiased exploration.
That aside, I learned a lot. For example, I didn't know there was a group of Thomas Christians who resided and still do in India and it is considered "one of the oldest, most deeply rooted Christian communities in the world". Apparently, there is bustling community of Christians in India who are growing and originally they dominated India for period of time. The story of how these Christians ended up in India and how Hindu culture borrowed from them was mind boggling and exciting to read. It's all really kind of like an Indiana Jones tale in a few ways. Definitely an adventure that will keep you interested. I also didn't realize how much Paul was an outsider of the outsiders of all Christdom. This was a heartwarming detail for me in that I often feel an outsider to outsiders. It has always been interesting to me that after Acts, Paul's works take over and yet the rest of the twelve were part of the Jerusalem Church evangelizing Asia etc. yet we hear and know so little about their lives! It makes little sense. Tom Bissell really gives us a great look into what is known, speculated and what might have been in a way no author really could except that he chooses to dismiss and other times avoid that which might show his own unbelief on shaky ground. One woman he nearly shuns until she ends up proving to him that she knows Paul wasn't considered one of the twelve. Then, he is glad to have meet her as the "first Christian who knew something about the faith".
Also, who knew that apostle of John was seen temperamental or that label of "the twin" for Thomas came from a debate of how he resembled Jesus and might have been a brother of Jesus. It was eye opening to compare the book of Matthew which is far more "traditional" and "law" abiding Jesus book than the other gospels. Matthew's book, as shown through Bissell, shows evidence of a writer outreaching to a struggling community that was dealing with the issue of traditionalism vs. modernization more so than all the other gospels. It appears each gospel was written at different times (shocking to know Paul's letters were written before a gospel) and it is definitely believable that these books were written to communities dealing with particular beliefs of the time and not by the Apostle it was named after. Yet, even so, the author himself often falls back into speaking about portions of the books as if those disciples wrote it which is was interesting (or could be that he just chose to use that name given to the book). If you can put aside the contraversary it might be for some that the writers of these gospels might have not been the Apostle's themselves, you get some real interesting information and possibilities.
Tom Bissell explores some real noteworthy mysteries and conflicts, outlining the historical and mythical implications. It is interesting to note the volumes of documentation including that of Jesus's family and earlier times that were destroyed because they didn't line up with certain Christian rulers own beliefs. Can you imagine a fundamentalist burning through documents that they found as "heresy" and for the sake of unity in the faith? I sure can. Look at what groups like Isis are doing to historical works across the territories they invade. Who knows, and Bissell's speculates, what we would believe about Jesus now if we knew about his family and what they had to say. And it's clear from a 600 year struggle to determine the Church's stance of the divinity of Christ, why they might have chosen to dispose of that information. This 600 year struggle Tom Bissell explains in great detail and is fascinating to read.
As eloquent writers often do, Tom isn't immune to over-doing the language which flaunts his knowledge of words more so than scholarship and at times is missing reference and substance. This was something I just chose to ignore and at times enjoyed but only because I knew the reference. I just know that for the "average Joe" reader it might cause them to close the book or get frustrated. I recommend not doing that though. If you don't know what he is talking about, keep going on ahead or Google it. The information in this book is worth the sacrifice when he appears to get carried away.
Finally, you can't help but like Tom Bissell. He really gave this journey his all both physically, emotionally and mentally. I don't know that I could had done it. Many a time he is near collapsing, sick or lost and we get to journey with him. But, he not only did all that to get us this information but he wrote a beautifully written book that is chalk full of information that no seminary, producing fired-enveloped pastors, is going to want to produce. This is the information most pastors or Bible wielding grannies aren't going to tell you or might be ignorant of the information as you may be coming to this book. This is a book I will refer to for years when I want to look back at a particular Apostle or a particular Gospel or church history--not as a definitive source, but definitely a resource. I feel I'm walking away satisfied that I've gotten to know these Apostles and church history much more than before, though certainly with some elements missing due to the vastness of all that he tried to cover. There is a certain sadness that pervades in the story as well. A kind of melancholy of a man who explores the vast, vast, vast riches of faith, story, the passion and mystery of God, but in the end, is seemingly unaffected by it all. It comes down to simple of statements of that we are led "where we want to be led", "What Christianity promises, I do not understand," and "What's it's god could possibly want, I've never been able to imagine". He says lastly about God whom he breaks down to "realness" as "something we can't see" and so "we turn to stories left behind by evangelistic writers, working behind complicated veils of anonymity." (pg. 437). There are many powerful moments described in this book but the author finds himself left to shrug it all off as all just another story. Yet, one of the heart enriching things for me reading his own book is how touched he was at points, how motivated he was to write so eloquently and lastly but not least, how telling it is that there is so much written and so much we do have (verses what we don't) on this one faith in particular that he himself admits has stood the test of cultural differences over time more than any other religion. Though one could conclude that a tribe of followers of Jesus had a contested make up or this Apostle existed and this one did not, that this part was liturgy or this part was borrowed from another culture, the genesis of this Judeo-Christian catalysm centered around a being, a person, a "King of the Jews" called Jesus Christ. Maybe he was among many self-proclaimed Messiahs but he also produced a number of followers, skeptics, haters, nay-sayers, various branches, different sects, varied stories, varied beliefs more so than any of them...and this event--the birth, life, death and proposed resurrection (no matter what you believe) was enough of something to create a vast history and systems that still exist and evolve today. Something happened here and it was important for these people to document that they existed and the stories existed around them. It has all stood the test of time and any cultural differences unlike any other faith. This is quite significant and if it did nothing for me I wouldn't be a person of faith, let alone reading or writing about it.
Mrs. Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
Reviewed by LA Jamison
This book has intrigued me because of its format. The author uses real old photographs that help tell the story. Usually they are creepy or mysterious. The sense of creepiness and mystery prevails in the beginning of this first book in the series. Jacob is the main character and there is a conflict between him and his grandfather, whom the family see as insane. Jacob struggles with his grandfather's claims but the more he looks into his grandfather's, the more he finds. One of the finds is all these photos of various children that are peculiar to say the least.
When Jacob eventually encounters a creature surrounding his grandfather's home, the tale kicks into high gear. The further the story goes on, the more we realize this is a young adult novel. The mystery of the children is revealed a little too quickly to my liking and the children are a little too kind. At best, they are grumpy or a little unkind upon first meeting. If you had a nasty mouth on the back of your head or you were invisible, I would hope you might be into all sorts of mischief and maybe not so nice. Nevertheless, the children and the world of Miss Peregrine is creepy and exciting enough to make this book the page turner that it is. The lead up to and the reveal of the peculiar children and this altered universe is pretty well done with some real good suspense and Gothic like scenes. I especially like the descriptions and creepiness of the dilapidated home of where the children used to live. I love, love the manipulations of time and the pictures selected to enhance the visuals of the story are real freaky and fit right in.
I really did enjoy the story even though it was not what I was expecting. I had been expecting a mystery into who these children were, perhaps violently murdered or ghosts. The cover, the mystery and creepy photos allude to the supernatural. Maybe that is element yet to come in the other books or there is a chance that creatures after these children have a supernatural element. We don't know too much about the enemy called "withs" except who they like eat. The villains are by and large in the background. I am not one who is big on threats that are never really realized. It sort of remains me a little M. Night Shyamalan's pattern of stressing the approaching storm and not really showing the storm landing on shore. Nevertheless, what the author did with the peculiar children and Peregrine's world is cool in it's own right. There are alternate worlds, freaky powers, and time travel. An added element to this book that parents and history teachers may appreciate is that the story takes place during the World War and the time of Hitler. This could get children asking questions and potentially researching this time period which is a plus for having an added educational element.
The descriptions right down to Jacob's journeys back and forth between worlds and all his exploring are vivid, creepy and cool. The pictures and the peculiar abilities of these children are well done also. They are a combination of anti-heroes and circus freaks. The manipulations of time and space are effective and are a creative use of how an element called the"loop" has provided a great escape and hiding place for these rejects of society. I imagine in the other books the villains are experienced more and I think that will really add to this story. This is a story worth reading for the interplay with the photos alone which make it unique for a young adult novel but it is also a well crafted story that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Maze Runner Trilogy--SCORE High 4
written by James Dashner
Reviewed by LA Jamison
Synopsis: The main character is a young teen named Thomas who finds himself delivered into a part nature/part man-made maze and valley called "The Glade". He comes bearing no memories but his first name. He and the other boys who have come before him (one girl joins them later) have no other options but to live a futile existence with the threat of getting attacked by "Grievers" (think mutant scorpions but worse) or try to solve the maze and get out. Before Thomas' arrival, the success has been minimal and questions to why they are there have gone unanswered. Thomas and a girl named Teresa have an interesting dynamic as appearing as both hero and heroine and yet potentially an evil duo who have been made to forget their past. A past that could involve conspiring in a plot that have brought all of them to this fate. We don't learn much about the outside world until the second and third books. It is a typical dystopian world with a zombie like twist to it. The earth has been ravaged by sun flares killing large populations and setting off a deadly virus called "The Flare". This virus has nearly wiped out the human race. Many who are immune are being hunted to study their brains as a key a possible cure. "The Gladers" are mostly all immune themselves and discover soon that they are all test subjects by a band of scientists called "WICKED". Thomas and the Gladers have to learn to work together to survive, and grow up fast. They learn that there others out there like them as well as friends sympathetic to their cause and others who only want to use them. However, if the main character himself, Thomas, and Teresa can't trust themselves (our hero and heroine) how do any of them have a chance of trusting each other? If you were to compare this series to television or movies, the first book stands much like a TV show like "Lost" or a Twilight Zone movie. The second book might be compared to some zombie flick like "World Z" as the Gladers are now out of the maze encountering a barren land littered with gangs of people infected by "The Flare". The third book might be compared to a Terminator film and the battle against the facility of Skynet. There is a lot that goes on in this book with the organization and their base called "Wicked". This series is a fast past set of intriguing novels in that they don't give you all the answers right away and some questions are ever answered as rather hinted to. There are also pre-quals and epilogue like books in the works like the newest "The Kill Order". Author James Dashner does a great job in getting us to root for a character like Thomas who has a shady past. There are equal twists and turns in character choices and development as there is in plot which is rare in books these days. Very rare. As a writer myself, that isn't easy to pull off because there is a subconscious need to make heroes completely trustworthy. Thomas has a truly shawdowy cloud following him in lieu of his memory as does Teresa which eventually culminates between the two of them acting out toward each other in some pretty intense scenes. It also creates a general mistrust within the teams that eventually must be overcome but not without a lot turbulence. Added to all this is their ability to communicate telepathically which is just quirky and cool enough to take the story to another level.
The only negatives to this series is that there are so many others like them: The Hunger Games and the Divergent Series. The same dystopian society plagued by an organization or power with apocalyptic dreams about how the world needs to be organized and cured. Same teens separated by particular traits into groups. Same teeny-bop on again, off again romance. However, I think the Maze Runner series is a bit better than the others. For exampke, I found the plot and the characters in The Hunger Games a little less believable and less character development than this series. The breaking up of people into groups and why is also more believable in the Maze Runner as well. This isn't to say I didn't enjoy particular books or movie versions than others. For example, Book Three of the Hunger Games is much better than Book 2 of the Maze Runner action and excitement wise. However, young girls will probably like The Hunger Games and Divergent Series more because the main hero is a young girl (even though there are leading girl roles in the Maze Runner too). Speaking of movies. There are two movies based off the first two books now which are pretty cool but don't miss out on the books (for example, there is no telepathic communication in the movies, and really no way to show you the dynamic impact character development make on the story).
Book #1: The Maze Runner
This book takes place exclusively within the Maze. Thomas comes in as a new babe among a strong band of brothers with a lot of experience running the mazes, community roles and norms. However, Thomas seems uniquely gifted at first and rises fast in the ranks in his almost desperate attempt to become a "runner" for the maze. Quickly, it becomes apparent to himself and others who transcend into coma states after encounters with "Grievers" that something is amiss with the boy wonder. The coma victims and even Thomas himself seem to remember seeing him at some WICKED facility. It starts to become clearer where his skills in the maze come from--he may have first hand knowledge in its creation. A big snag is thrown into plot with the arrival a girl to the all boy community of "the Gladers". This is the character Teresa and when Thomas discovers that they can communicate telepathically, he knows they are tied in some way. "Wicked is good" is the main message the underground that seemingly controls the supplies and reality checks they got want them all to understand. But, what is WICKED and is it good? If only Thomas and Teresa could remember. Leave that for another book, for as tensions rise and as the Maze itself seems to become increasingly more and more unpredictable, to the point of shutting down, the main thrust of this book is getting everyone out alive.
Book #2: The Scorch Trials
At the end of book one, the Gladers have succeeded and gotten out of the Maze. However, they have thrown themselves unknowingly right into the eye of WICKED and must successfully escape them. You decide how successful it was but they do escape and not into paradise. They must now navigate "The Scorch". It is a completely destroyed section of earth with miles up miles of barren desert and gang after gang of zombie like infected Flare-bees called "Cranks". This is where the gang learn that they are not the only one's "out there" in a maze or as immunes. As tensions and memories arise, Thomas and Teresa separate into two groups fighting their own battles along with fighting against each other. As money doesn't grow on trees, neither does a cure for the Flare and Thomas and the gang soon find themselves as valuable pawns for people with apocalyptic visions. Cool new battle like ships are some of the means of travel called Bergs but ultimately the Scorch ends up like a maze of its own and by the end.
Book #3: The Death Cure
Some people don't like what transpires in this book as far as "answers" to long standing questions in the series. One specific question is around Thomas and Teresa's memory. Personally, it is an interesting frustration. For one thing, the "clues" as to what those answers may be keep us reading. It also keeps the tension between Thomas, WICKED and Teresa going. Plus, you have to remember that there are other books now around this series like "The Kill Order" and what not (I have not read any of these but I am assuming these may give clearer answers). The point is, it really doesn't entirely matter what Thomas and Teresa did in the past because the characters we traveled with are who they are now. Not knowing keeps a sort of mystery alive. It matters but it doesn't matter entirely because it is doubtful that if two committed some kind of transgression that they would return to that role after what they have experienced. There is a big twist in this book, more plot wise than character wise regarding one of the Gladers being infected by the Flare and a lot of tension as plans are tried and failed. This is an all out assault on the Gladers and the Gladers against WICKED. Expect more action then huge character development as in the first two books but it is a lot of fun and necessary epic conclusion to such a good series.
SCORE: HIGH 5
PHALLOS: ENHANCED AND REVISED EDITION--BY SAMUEL R. DELANY
Review by LA Jamison
Edited by Shari Staten
Phallos is a book within a book. In film terms, it is like the movie Momento or Identity. I hated Momento for all its flash forwards and flashbacks but Identity I really enjoyed for its element of shock and surprise—even if I resented being fooled. In some ways, Phallos can leave a similar taste in your mouth and you have to decide if you are cut out for such things. Before you shout at the screen, “no thanks,” don’t take what I just said as the end all wrap-up of the book. Phallos as “a book within a book” really only scratches the surface of its varying dimensions. You do have to look deeper than your frustrations, but if you can see that your frustrations are all part of the story, or even a tool to bring you deeper than your pornographic longings, then you have something. This tool can be used to uncover a story that is much more profound than its title.
On the surface of Delany’s novel we have two narrators: Randy Pedarson of Moscow, Idaho and Neoptolomus. Randy tells the overarching story from the point of the future as part observer and part literary critic. He is the stoic, static character. Randy is like the stern librarian from some religiously affiliated institution who goes in and out of indulging in his own lust about what is supposed to be one of the earliest pornographic texts in history. Since we, the reader, are left at his mercy as to how detailed and deeply Randy allows us to read the pornographic text, there is a sense when he pulls away for puritan and historical reflections that hints at his own sexual frustrations and limitations. We, the reader, are victims of his own limitations and indulgences. His censorship frustrates our own hunger and lusts. It reminds me of film trailers that include sexy scenes which cut off the view right at the climax or “the money” part because they want you to buy a ticket to see the rest but there is no ticket to purchase here. There is no ‘rest of the movie’ to come. What we get here is what we get. Period. This brings up frustration. Even the title, “Phallos,” stirs within each of us our own sense of intrigue, longing, mystery and fears that creates a certain frustration, if not anxiousness, to uncover what this Phallos looks like once and for all.
I do believe that Randy’s mercy in quoting the text from the second narrator, Neoptolomus, the most volatile of characters, is enough to satisfy us, though we certainly don’t get everything we want. In hindsight, we get plenty of hot, sexy scenes but in the midst of reading, lust and the hunger for the unseen always demands more than what we are offered. This is where frustration becomes a tool and I’ll speak to this in a momento ☺
Neoptolomus is the richer and the most interesting of characters between these two narrators. He is the every man but from ages past. His mother was an Egyptian slave and his father an African who chose to give his son a Greek name. Both his parents die from something that sounds like a flu epidemic leaving Neo on his own and more than willing to take up residence with a Roman man who had been fornicating with him in the past. When Neo hears of this mysterious Phallos text, it sets him off on a journey of wanderlust. Like a pornographic Indiana Jones, Neoptolomus takes the reader on his many historical and orgasmic adventures with men who dole out their penises like their cocks were innocent puppies in need of stroking, cuddling, licking and simply in need of suckling. The men in this story seem to communicate with a sexual currency. Young men such as the wandering Neoptolomus seem meant to take hold of penises and give their bodies without regard as a form of communication--a language all its own. The men in this book, however, also do share themselves with varying senses of beauty, innocence, power, and control—depending on the status of the men involved. Neo goes from man to orgy and back again, ever increasing in decadence and surprise as he travels in countries like Greece, Rome, the mountains of Syria and more. It all eventually descends into horrors as most unbridled lusts do but not without an ultimate climax to a much brighter place. A place of peace and contentment not only Neo unexpectedly finds in the end. I would conjecture that neither would most readers but this is just one example of the many small surprises spread throughout Phallos that make it worth reading.
What starts as a chase for this mysterious pornographic text moves into a quest for an actual replica of a phallus that has been stolen off a mythical statue of a god. Apparently, the sacred parchment with life’s secret wisdom is rolled up inside this concrete dong worshiped by a temple cult. The last half of the story is Neo’s frustrations, detours, sabotages, and enlightenment's pertaining to this temple and the cult to get the answers he seeks about the mysterious missing phallus.
I found the narration of Neoptolomus and Randy to be luscious, imitating a dance between time and stirring our psycho-sexual desires while remaining wonderfully ancient, and frustrating all at the same time. These four elements (lusciousness, a dance between time, the stirring our psycho-sexual desires and how frustration is used as a tool in the book) stand out to me the most in the novel. There is much more that is revealed through very detailed essays that this revised edition gets to on its own at the end of the book. These essay writers are more experienced writers and scholars of Delany than I. It would take too much to cover all that they get into and examine in this review. However, these four elements stand out to me even more then essayist claims about this novel being purely about a frustration around language and its uses.
Lusciousness. From the very beginning we have very vivid, descriptions that are full of fruity juices we get to extract as we bite into each sentence. “The Glittering Sea: the stony shore; the friable, yellow cliffs; behind them scrub forests with green-gray leaves…the sunlight through the thatch, dappling the poles of my father’s porch…” (pg.12).
Neo goes onto list all the words he learned from his father who taught him Greek out of the physics and philosophy of Heraclitus’ great treatise and Aesop’s fables. He beautifully says, ”the ocean of ideas and sounds from…the language itself lifted, like a wave over sand and shells and sea grass, flooding confusion with comprehension and upon which my name was the merest foam.”
There is also the stirring of our psycho-sexual desires with descriptions of the naked bodies of all the men Neo meets and some of their sexual encounters. Clivus who was born in Gaul and in the service of a Roman is one of the few consistent sexual liaisons and compatriots in Neo’s pursuit of the mysterious phallus.
“much of what I did was buggar or receive the oral services of an auburn hair private…with buttocks as neat, high and cleanly cleft as his genitals were full, firm and low hanging.” (pg 21).
At one point, Neoptolomus explores a construction site by moonlight coming upon a construction crew that immediately ignites into an orgy where he even goes in and out of sleep of “after-climax drowses”. If you are a gay man, there is nothing more hotter than an orgy with men who do construction work, let alone men in tunics. Neoptololmus then goes through a long sexual game where a Roman dignitary and his young boy toy play sexual games involving voyeurism of which even Neo unwittingly ends a part of before the boy-toy is killed.
As to a dance between time, this of course takes place as the book shifts between the two narrators. Randy speaks from a present day/future place as he reads over the novel. However, the inside narrator Neoptolomus he is quoting from is speaks from history’s past. Neo travels to Crete, Greece, Egypt and Rome to name a few. He tells us stories of Nero, Petronius, Pericles and others. What strikes me is the richness and innocence of Neoptolomus who is so excited in Roman that he runs out onto the streets joyfully naked and doesn’t know any better until he is corrected. On the flipside, Randy is always out to correct himself--and us the reader-- by limiting our view of the text for its raunchy nature and his own sensibilities. This brings to light, in the midst of a lusty, luscious text, how our own sexual desires affect our psychology of reading and understanding the text. We dance between joy and frustration, innocence and consciousness, and objectified sex to a search for meaning. We are compelled to examine our reason for reading this text. Whether you are too sensitive for its gaudy nature or the opposite, sexually hungry, you may want to drop the text entirely at points when you start to realize why you really came to this book…but don’t.
This brings me to my last point about Delany using frustration as a tool. There is a quote at the beginning of the book that reads, “Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: One is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something utterly profound.” (Umberto Eco, The Search for Perfect Language). One of the essayist speaks of Delany’s use of an “empty space” within us that moves as soon as we seek to fill it with something in the outer world. It is a place of discontent that even religions use to say is our innate spiritual hunger for a spiritual home. Neoptolomus in the beginning of the story speaks of his mother’s longing for Egypt that in her death transfers to him as well as his father’s desire that his son experience wanderlust before settling down with farming. The young man is stricken by a sense of homesickness for a home he no longer has and the only thing that satisfies him are the distractions of his travels and sexual pleasure—never bringing total contentment. He is always on the chase until, at the end of the novel, when he no longer sees the need for the chase because he finds a mate, Nivek, who makes him happy.
The question I was left with from this book is what is my ever traveling, searching “empty space?” What do I fill it with and how is that working for me? What is the language I use to speak from this empty space through my wants via my body and with my words?
I cannot even say that I’ve come up with all the answers to these questions in a way I can verbalize. I do know contrary to most people that my spirituality, the love between family, making an impact on others and occasionally sexual pleasure, brings me contentment that most don’t seem to experience. Yet, even so, as soon as I seek to grasp a hold of that space, it moves. As soon as I think I have it figured it out, the pyramid walls in my life shift and I’m entirely different space all together, dark once again with a honing beacon of that discontent echoing in new empty chambers. The penis itself moves within a mans undergarments in unusual places, sometimes in deeply sensual, beautiful ways but as soon as you pay attention to it too long, it moves to a place that can be uncomfortable or withdraws. This empty space, which the symbolic phallus occupies and tease, doesn’t want to be known and there is some good in it not being known because without desire for more, we have no adventures in seeking out the calls for more. Yet, at some point still, we want our whole selves at home within which is also a good thing. So the paradox continues and the phallus moves once again. In and out, up and down. Where it rests, only the phallus itself knows.
This is a revamped review which received well over 9,000 views on my old web site at webs.com!
If you are interested in purchasing this book, see the bottom of the review
SCORE: HIGH 5 (and beyond)
A Voyage To Arcturus
Review by Larry Jamison
A Voyage To Arcturus
This old book is hailed by such publications as the London Times as “One of the most brilliant flights of pure fancy recorded.” However, such recommendations do not even do this book justice. Arcturus is a flight of fancy on the surface but beneath has a meaning of such depth and expansiveness few sci-fi/fantasy books reach.
I had heard whisperings of this book and a book discussion with an unlikely trio of characters surrounding, of all things, a hookah. I was reminded of the book and movie Alice in Wonderland with The Caterpillar whom smokes a hookah. How fitting since this book is strange in a Wonderland way--albeit far richer. A brief way to describe this book is that Lindsay creates his version of “The Odyssey” set in an “Alice in Wonderland” type of existence. It is strange, humorous, and brilliant but also rich with meaning. The Odyssey itself is considered a journey of soul in some circles like Joseph Campbell. Harold Bloom suggests the same of Arcturus.
The story of Arcturus begins with the main character Maskull and his two cohorts, Nightspore and Krag, around an observatory that supposedly contains the vehicle, which will take all three of them to Arcturus. The observatory is strange and haunting. The reader witnesses dynamic themes of the journey of the soul as Maskull must make his way upward through the various levels. This requires a religious-themed sacrifice of blood in the end. It is not until Maskull is wounded that he is permitted to climb with ease which is pretty much the "Way" of most faiths. Judaism: the blood sacrifice of the lamb, Christianity: the blood sacrifice of Christ.
Upon arrival to the unusual, desirous, sensual planet of Arcturus, Maskull finds himself separated from his co-horts. Each of these characters end up representing not only different parts of humanity but also perhaps different levels of spiritual awakening within Maskull. As you might have noticed, there is a play on character names also. Mask-skull can easily, for example represent the mask we all wear on our skulls. A very human trait and this fits since Maskull represents the every-man. And there are more plays on words that I don’t want to give away but you will find them!
Themes of the good, bad and ugly around masculinity and femininity abound. It is really left in the reader’s hands as to what they gleam from it. However, one thing is for sure: Lindsay shows all sides of those traits in whimsical characters and even ships such as the one that is steered by two “man stones”. As unusual as the characters are and whimsical as the journeys are, the symbolism and messages are profound. It could change your life and perspective. At the least, for those on the self awareness journey, it will confirm what you always dreamed to be true.
Themes such as spirituality are hinted at such as the number three which is represented not only in the natural but the spiritual realms of Arcturus; 3 celestial bodies; 3 primary colors; 3 divine beings. This of course fits with the concept of the trinity or multi-layered heavenly places and beings in various religions across the world. The three divine beings called Crystalman, Surtur, and Shapling take different forms and different shapes. This notion of God being in all things and everywhere is another mythical and spiritual quality. Spiritual Mystics and Native American cultures have been known to follow such thinking.
Sexuality is another theme. Lindsay introduces another gender. Talk about bold! These creatures can change gender and soon Maskull can do the same. A common human idea is the notion that if man and woman were one that their existence would be better shown by characters that can exchange the masculine and the feminine like one might change hats. Lindsay explores this theme with creatures of different ranges and very different genders all together. There is also the notion in human sexuality of cannibalism. That is, we can be sexually attracted to those traits that we want to have or lack--much like the cannibals are known for eating other humans whose traits they wanted to possess. Here, in Arcturus, intercourse takes on that meaning in that two literally become one. It is called Absorption rather then Intercourse. Interestingly enough, Lindsay puts a different twist on this process having a character describe it as the male and female traits being as two siblings. The strongest sibling, the character of Pawnee goes on to say, yields to the weakest and that it is only the person who is remains. To, no doubt, learn the journey through self and become stronger.
As old as this book is, it is fascinating that Lindsay also explores and exalts the virtue of a vegan lifestyle brought to the extreme. As Jesus often said when he had not eaten, 'It is written, man should not live off of bread alone but off of every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. (Matthew 4:4 of New Testament scripture). Many of these characters live this vegan-esc lifestyle. A special water, pure and life giving is all they use to sustain themselves. Everyone who drinks becomes better including Maskull. But it even goes further for Maskull—the everyman earthling—in that he exchanges his “heavy” blood for the “lighter” blood of the inhabitants and sees life in a completely new way. Water is a virtue, transformative, as is blood. Two very spiritual elements but also natural elements are tied together on Arcturus in subtle ways. This is forms on naturalism and spiritualism. When Maskull tries to understand why even eating a vegetable is seen as a crime on Artcurus, Joiwind, a major character states, “but every tearing off a leaf would be a wound in my heart.”
There is a defining of different legs of Maskull’s journey. However, they are all made cohesive by a chase after the divine characters and the literal drum beat of his own heart that he mistakes as the divine teasing him onward. You explore not only different characters, and richer themes but also different unique lands like IfDawn. In the land of IfDawn, the land rises and falls like moving parts to a machine (of course, a masculine themed world). Lindsay pulls off enough action, sex, violence, and metaphysical special effects for those who would get bored with too much dialogue. So there really is much for everyone though one would be remiss to ignore the philosophical implications.
The beauty of what happens on Arcturus and these characters would be a sin for me to spoil for you by trying to describe too thoroughly with my human words. In all of my reviews, I try to keep this in mind by not giving away too much analysis that many reviewers do—and thus shade or spoil your reading. I will say this, to wet your appetite; Lindsay creates a new gender, new colors, creatures that birth literal new gems, and a natural world that lives in brilliant splendor. That in itself is lofty and worth reading for the avid sci-fi/fantasy reader! These elements that make up Arcturus are not just “there”, or simply stated. They are beautifully made to come alive before your very eyes and I’m deadly serious about this. He does this beautifully and I can only dream to write so well.
The end of the book ties the three original characters of Maskull, Nightspore and Krag together as Maskull completes his journey. It is a journey similar to a new version of rushing to meet the great Oz. Or perhaps a better description is a decent into Hades led on a canoe driven by cloaked skeletal creature on a river of blood--Maskulls blood--to meet the fierce Lucifer himself. Everything is falling apart, transforming and you just don’t know what is going to happen. He does meet who he is seeking--both inside himself and outside himself on Arcturus. However, what happens is not what you would might expect. Though I like more defined endings, Lindsay leaves room for speculation. This is not a “..and everyone lived happily ever after” kind of ending. It is more twisted, unstructured than that. But this room for speculation and an untidy ending is necessary. Lindsay serves you best not by giving you what you want but what you need after such a journey. The characters finally reach their destined places, and Lindsay knows you must take a breath and reflect…because you’ve just been on the wildest journey of your life.