Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Roman Empire: A lot of stuff happened there probably I guess

Should I know more shit about the Romans? I should probably know more shit about the Romans. It was just never emphasized in my education. I've picked up most of what I know through osmosis, but I still have no idea about any emperors except "Nero and Caligula were bad, but maybe Nero wasn't that bad, but wait, he probably was." And Hadrian had a wall named after him. Hadrian was an emperor, right? Probably. Sounds like it.

Rome seems like something to know about because AT THE VERY LEAST our culture is shockingly similar to theirs, and maybe we can all learn something, etc etc. Who from the past would have adapted the best to 21st century American life? Romans. Romans would be all over selfie culture and Instagram and foodieism. All. over it. And we could probably understand each other pretty damn quick, as opposed to someone from the 14th century in England, where it'd be all like "Excuse me, I must go dump my chamber pot into yon busy street."


I know there's a ridiculous amount of information available about Roman culture, but it feels like one of those specialized areas of interest, like you're into Rome, or you're into My Little Pony, and you have all this knowledge about it because you've decided to get reeeeeal into it, whether it be the speeches of Cicero or what Princess Celestia wears to the Grand Galloping Gala. And I just have no interest in either. But. While I don't really care about speeches, I do care about dramatic happenings, and Rome seems to be all about those. And there seem to have been some ladies involved, so someone tell me about Roman ladies, especially vestal virgins because they seem to have had a weird amount of power for back then. 

Rome people. What am I supposed to know? Should I read something or just watch I, Claudius? And where do I find out more about Roman ladies, because maybe the overabundance of famous Roman dude names is why I haven't given a shit about it before.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How Jesus Became God: Bart Ehrman, I don't TRUST you

Bart Ehrman is an agnostic author who writes a lot about early Christianity, usually with intended-to-provoke titles like Misquoting Jesus and Forged

Forged is about how some of the New Testament books are not by the person we think they are, only as usual, Ehrman is sensationalizing where there's no need to, as it was common practice at the time to write under the name of your teacher. There wasn't some scurrilous man or woman sitting there going "Ahahahaha I shall write this letter as Paul and ALL SHALL BE FOOLED." Or maybe there was, I dunno. But I don't think Ehrman can know their motives. ANYWAY.

My church book group has been going strong for maybe four years now. We started off reading about the Gnostic Gospels, and since then we've done Karen Armstrong's Case for God (which I suggested and did not read); Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (also did not read); something about Christians in the Middle East (ditto); and How the Irish Saved Civilization (read, loved). And now this! Which I read most of and will totally finish despite giving Bart Ehrman side-eye all through it.

Adopted sons were more revered than natural ones, Ehrman? Mhm. K.

I feel like Ehrman wasn't sure what tone to take in this, so you get a weird mix of KIND of academic, but then lines like "Scholars sometimes use technical terms for no good reason, other than the fact that they are the technical terms scholars use." 


You stop being condescending and you do it right now, Ehrman. (Ehrman: "Shan't!")

So there're a lot of "This is a fancy word for ____" types of sentences, which, y'know, ugh, but once he gets past the opening chapters that discuss how divinity was seen in Ancient Greece, Rome and in Judaism, it gets better. Except for his WILD LEAPS IN LOGIC. One of the most egregious of which is the above-mentioned adopted sons thing.

He's discussing the idea that Jesus was mortal but then made divine by God at his baptism (with the whole "Spirit of God descending like a dove" thing), so the idea that God adopted him into the divine hierarchy. Ehrman tries to argue that "[i]n elite Roman families, it was the adopted son who really mattered, not the sons born of the physical union of a married couple." THIS MAY WELL BE. I don't know. But the example he gives is shitty.

He says that Julius Caesar's son with Cleopatra, Caesarion, is a "very obvious example" because Caesar adopted his nephew Octavian, who ended up inheriting everything, while Caesarion "is a mere footnote in history." CAESARION WAS ILLEGITIMATE, YOU TOOL, THIS WAS NOT A GOOD EXAMPLE. Illegitimate sons don't get shit.

He also says some bullshit about Jesus' burial in a tomb, but my point with this book is: Despite my obvious occasional disagreements with Ehrman and his insistence on proving points he can't prove well, he still brings up a LOT of stuff that's worth thinking about. 

Bart Ehrman kinda

The main point being that Jesus only specifically claims that he is God in the Gospel of John, which was the last of all the gospels to be written (about 80-90 AD). Ehrman says that the earliest gospel (Mark) has a completely different view of Jesus and his relation to God, and even Matthew and Luke go nowhere near as far as John. If you read the first three gospels and then John, John does feel wayyy different. Just FYI. Which some people have said is because Matthew, Mark and Luke could not just outright say Jesus was God because of the repercussions in the community, or it'd be pushing things too far, etc, but. Hrm. Do not know if I buy that.

But again, I'm not saying I agree with Ehrman definitely either. There's too much we don't know, we're missing all sorts of context, and he does tend to make vast generalizations based on scant information. BUT. He also points out just what the text says and what it doesn't say, and that in itself is valuable. One of the most interesting parts of it for me was this section on the virgin birth:
As a Christian living centuries later, Matthew read the book of Isaiah not in the original Hebrew language, but in his own tongue, Greek. When the Greek translators before his day rendered the passage [Isaiah 7:14], they translated the Hebrew for the word young woman (alma) using a Greek word (parthenos) that can indeed mean just that but that eventually took on the connotation of a “young woman who has never had sex.” Matthew took the passage to be a messianic tradition and so indicated that Jesus fulfilled it, just as he fulfilled all the other prophecies of scripture, by being born of a 'virgin.'
Still don't know if I'm buying it, but interesting

Essentially: Lots of things to think about, approach skeptically. The man writes a lot of books and we just don't have all the information.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe: "She was wholly without that fondness for boys that girls usually manifest"

In 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell slashed the throat of her ex-fiancée, Freda Ward. The subsequent trial focused not so much on the horror of what she had done, but on the defense's argument that her engagement to a woman meant she was clearly insane.

Alexis Coe's book Alice + Freda Forever is short and has a bangin' cover.

She's clearly done a lot of research, and lays out the story clearly and chronologically while not getting mired in the historian's pitfall of injecting too much detail. She goes from the murder to the trial to the questioned fate of Alice Mitchell (spoilers: she died in an insane asylum, but whether it was of natural causes or suicide is unknown). I like true crime and I like lesbians and I like the 19th century, so this seemed immensely far up my particular alley.

There is some frustration, as Alice Mitchell's feelings are never really known. She kept no surviving journal from her months in jail, so the only things we have are her letters to Freda. Did she realize that murdering the girl she professed to love so no one else could have her was basically the emperor of shitty reasons for doing something? Who knows. She did stop at Freda's grave before being committed and collapse on top of it, but that could be for any number of reasons. 

There's a fine line to walk in this book, and Coe tends towards the greater-LGBT-rights-at-issue side. Yes, it does indeed suck that people in Tennessee in 1892 thought a woman wanting to marry a woman should be committed. But for me, I can't get past the basic fact that one person murdered another person. And in a cruel, cruel fashion. She cut her throat on the street and then chased her and finished killing her. In front of Freda's sister.

I can't see this as a love story. At all. I think Alice Mitchell was a mentally unsound 19-year-old who should have been either committed or imprisoned, and if she had never attacked Freda Ward, Freda should have gotten as far the hell away from her as she could.

If you're into 19th century true crime in America, maybe read about the Burdell murder. That one's pretty fun. Everyone in that boarding house was boning everyone else. It was like the trashy reality show house of olde.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Armada by Ernest Cline: Gamers! iiin Spaaaaace

Do you guys remember Ready Player One? Do you remember how AMAZING and fun it was and how you wanted to re-read it even though you rarely re-read books because omg there are SO MANY BOOKS and life is finite, so how can you justify the time? Remember all that?

Right, so that guy wrote another book.

Armada is basically Ender's Game + The Last Starfighter, and Cline definitely puts a lampshade on that particular aspect. The main character, Zack is in high school, plays video games all the time, and is very very very much obsessed with his dead dad. Then one day he looks out the window of his classroom and -- hey, it's one of the spaceships from the main video game he plays, which is called -- wait for it -- Armada.

So the book goes from there. There're some pop culture references thrown in, but honestly...while entertaining enough, this one let me down a bit. I couldn't help thinking that part of the reason Cline's insane number of referenced copyrighted items went down so much is that he was thinking about a movie deal the whole time. And the main fun part of Ready Player One was that the protagonist goes to places like the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner, and has to solve puzzles using knowledge from areas of nerdery.

Didn't know THAT, did ya

You spend most of Armada knowing how it's gonna go down. It's still fun along the way, barring the introduction of "cool gamer girl" who is instantly charmed by Zack's "m'lady"-style flirting. I think I was actually really on board with the book until that point. Cline does a pretty good job of including people of color and having diverse characters, but this is still a Dude Dominated book, and it's very focused on kids with dad issues, which.....I personally am not fond of.

BUT. Cline's writing is easy and fun like before, and while I gave this a 3/5 instead of Ready Player One's definite 5/5, it's always pretty awesome reading about the trope of the kid who suddenly has to help save the world. I'd say read, but maybe don't buy and cherish forever. Which you should definitely do for Ready Player One should read Ready Player One

(Note: I definitely got a copy of this from the publisher, and while that obvs didn't prevent me from saying the issues I had with it, still, TRANSPARENCY AND SO FORTH)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari: "We should take solace in the fact no one has a clue what's going on"

According to a study by the University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo[...], between 2005 and 2012 more than one third of couples who got married in the United States met through an online dating site.

Aziz Ansari's book Modern Romance surprised me a lot. Mainly because I do not really like Aziz Ansari. I've watched his standup specials. I've seen almost every season of Parks & Rec. I have been exposed to all sorts of facets of Aziz Ansari as a performer, and I mainly find myself annoyed by him.

SO. When I tell you that I really enjoyed his study on how people form romantic relationships in this day and age, know that if anything I approached it with a negative bias. But I wanted to read it because

1. Books by comedy writers are the shit.

2. I have done so very much dating via the internet and I wanted to see his conclusions.

3. Penguin emailed me and asked if I wanted to review it, and I did not buy a stuffed penguin from the Penguin Books truck because I hate what they publish.

A worthy purchase

Aziz is much, much more likable in this book than when I've watched him perform. I don't know if it's because he's able to talk with sincerity instead of his constant "aren't I adorable" schtick, or if it's the influence of the sociologist he co-wrote the book with, but when he speaks like a real person, he's great.

He wanted to write Modern Romance because how we date has changed. How we date is always changing, but the technology leaps our society has made in recent decades has changed it drastically. OR HAS IT. (kind of, yes)

In the past, a guy would be thinking, Oh, shit, I gotta have kids to work on my farm. I need four-year-old kids performing manual labor ASAP. And I need a woman who can make me clothes. I better get on this. A woman would think, I better find a dude who's capable on the farm and good with a plow so I don't starve and die. 
Making sure the person shared your interest in sushi and Wes Anderson movies and made you get a boner anytime you touched her hair would seem far too picky. 

He talks about dating apps, the power struggles involved in early relationship texting (some people in his focus groups said their rule of thumb was wait double the amount of time the other person took to text you, which -- those people have some stone-cold self control), and dating in the U.S. vs other countries (namely Japan and Argentina). 

I'm not usually too into sociology -- especially contemporary sociology as opposed to something like "A Study on How Much Ladies Were Into Each Other in the 1890s" (someone please write that) -- but he intersperses Srs Data Parts with things like discussions about how much he loves ramen, and that one time his girlfriend didn't text him back for ages and he thought she was furious with him because of the eternal problem of texting does not communicate tone (cannot say how many times I've gotten in trouble because of this).

Too many past girlfriends' faces

If you've dated through OKCupid, Tinder, or Grindr ("they don't call that dating, Alice"), you'll relate to what he says about how people choose whom to date, what profile pic types are the most popular, and what you absolutely should not say when texting people for the first time. When I was dating dudes on OKCupid AND EVEN WHEN I SWITCHED TO LADIES, the sheeeeer number of times I got a message either saying "hey" or "how's your weekend," good Lord. Aziz stresses that this is horrible, and thank God, because dudes and ladies, you need to step it up there.

The section on Japan was both fascinating and EXTREMELY WORRISOME because apparently "the number of men and women between eighteen and thirty-four who are not involved in any romantic relationship with the opposite sex has risen since 1987, from 49 percent to 61 percent for men and from 39 percent to 49 percent for women."

My note for this is "Holy shit Japanese people are not boning." And indeed, Japan's birthrate is 222nd out of 224 countries. If you want to know why this is (or probably why it is), read this book.

One of the parts I was the most into was the discussion on how what's appropriate changes. Older people think texting someone to ask them to prom is completely inappropriate. I think it's ok, but a little too casual. But people younger than I am think breaking up in a text is okay, and that is SO NOT if you've been going out longer than, say, a month. My generation is already relegated to being horrified by the seemingly rude actions of the next one.

Modern Romance is really interesting, it's pretty short, and he gives dating tips that it took me about five years to learn, so. Worth it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Daisy Miller by Henry James: Americans are gross, but also maybe not?

Henry James is one of the most maddeningly frustrating authors I've ever encountered. I also keep coming back to his writing, so I'm inclined to think there's something there that I'm just missing. I have read and not really enjoyed or understood the following:

Daisy Miller
Washington Square
The Ambassadors
The Golden Bowl (half of it -- found my freshman year copy with "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" scrawled on the title page)
The Turn of the Screw

I feel like that's a pretty good representation of his works, although I'm willing to try The Golden Bowl again, because I was 14 when I tried it and it's entirely possible my brain was pretty garbagey then.

this is another possibility

My main issue with James is that he decides what he's going to say in his book, and then he shrouds it in a fog of vagueness and ambiguity. His BFF was Edith Wharton, who did not do this. Her books were also far more successful than his. COINCIDENCE?

But then you get into a reasonable debate: Are Wharton's books better because they're more easily accessible? Intellectual prigs would automatically say no, and that question's even phrased in a leading way, so let's put it differently: Should a good author be able to clearly communicate their point, or should they make the reader work for it? Are both an option, or is there one that people should err on the side of? 

As I'm getting older, I'm appreciating James more -- partially because he doesn't just give you the answer. He's still maddeningly frustrating, and his sentences can give you almost nothing to work with, but it's not "HERE IS MY POINT, JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU GET IT." 

Cue Daisy Miller. Daisy Miller is a 90 page novella published in 1878, which is pretty early for him, and it's almost astonishingly accessible at first glance. Washington Square, another early James that's good if you want to ease into him, was published two years later. The intro to the 1929 edition of Daisy Miller basically says "Daisy Miller? Yeah, it's popular. You can like it. I mean, I guess. You're probably just not a Real James Fan, that's all. No no, totally fine. Totally. You go ahead and like it and its easy easiness. Noo one's gonna judge you. Except for all the aforementioned Real James Fans, a group of which you are not a part."

Henry James fans when you say
you think Daisy Miller's great

James was an American expatriate and spent a ridic amount of time in Europe, so most of his books are set there. In Daisy Miller, a young man named Winterbourne is visiting his aunt in Switzerland and comes across a young American girl named Daisy Miller (like the title!). The main thrust of this book is that Daisy doesn't pay enough attention to what American Society Abroad wants her to do. She goes out alone with men all the time, her mother doesn't seem to mind it, she won't listen to warnings from others, BUT she also projects a complete air of innocence regarding her behavior, so maybe it's ok, except probably not. 

The whole book is spent with Winterbourne wondering if she's really innocent or not, and also kind of whether he can hit that. 

Hopefully with something as smooth as this, although good luck, sir

Apparently the novella caused something of a kerfuffle when published, as people debated whether American girls were really like Daisy Miller or not. Since the United States lives with a centuries-old inferiority complex regarding Europe, I'm fairly sure they wanted to say most American girls were not, which echoes the sentiments of the American expatriates in the novel, who rushed to tell their European friends that she was not an accurate representation of their country.

Resonance of this sentiment lingers on! Imagine being in some European metropolis, trying to look like you fit in, and all of a sudden you see some Americans being, as comedian Maria Bamford tactfully puts it, "loud and charming."

You'd totally want to disassociate yourself from those loud gross people who are not even trying to fit in. "ACCEPT ME, DO NOT ACCEPT THEM" you would cry while sitting at a cafe in Paris, your beret tipped at a jaunty angle, smoking a cigarette and holding a baguette under your arm.


Is Daisy Miller representative of ladies in America! Should you go with what feels right to you in accordance with your own values, or should you bow to society! Who do you identify with in the book? Is it censorious but well-intentioned Mrs. Walker? 

"My dear young friend," said Mrs. Walker, taking her hand, pleadingly, "don't walk off to the Pincio at this unhealthy hour to meet a beautiful Italian"

Randolph Miller, who just wants some good candy and is eternally thwarted because all of Europe has none

"Can you get candy there?" Randolph loudly inquired."I hope not," said his sister. "I guess you have had enough candy, and mother thinks so too.""I haven't had any for ever so long—for a hundred weeks!" cried the boy, still jumping about.

Winterbourne, even though he views Daisy through a kind of manic pixie dream girl lens? 

Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.

And why does Winterbourne think sitting in the Colosseum will give you "Roman fever"? (I have googled this and can answer that question) 

Daisy Miller and Daisy Miller, you are both mysteries to me. But I'm inclined to feel that there was more going on with you than could be seen through the lens of this 20something young man.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Small town? DARK SECRET? Let's round up these books please.

I was listening to a true crime podcast this morning on my walk to work, and one of the hosts was talking about a "small town community with a daaaark secret" and my immediate reaction was "I LOVE small town communities with dark secrets!"

And probably of dark secrets.

And who. does. not. love them. So, in the interests of gathering up potentials, DO YOU KNOW OF ANY OF THESE BOOKS.

I read The Fever by Megan Abbott last year, which was in that vein. There's also Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, which I read in my early teens and thought was the cat's pajamas.

The internet suggests Salem's Lot, but any mention of Stephen King horror novels terrifies me, so I'm just not sure that's gonna fly, internet.

I can handle Willow and that's about it

There's also Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, which I've only heard of because there was a movie in the 1950s starring Lana Turner, but if it's small town/dark secrets, I will read it.

I guess Shirley Jackson's The Lottery? Which I've never read, but doesn't everyone know the Dark Secret at this point? If you don't, you should read it. I'll bet that'd be fun and shocking.

ANY OTHERS? Gotta be a small town. None of this contemporary YA bullshit of a corporation or a giant city secretly doing things for reasons. I demand idyllic on the surface but super not that way in reality