Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sex at Dawn

In Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, the authors set about the nearly impossible task of showing  the “original” state of human sexual nature, and how our current culture cuts across that grain of this state, making us miserable.  There are two main problems with this quest. 

First, although the authors state, quite correctly, how varied human sexual arrangements are, both cross-culturally and at various times, they ultimately decide that our hunter gatherer ancestors led free sexual lives, and that is our real sexual “state”.  The hunter gatherer social structure prevented monogamy in the modern sense; the paternity of a woman’s child was simply not important.  That is why human males appear to evolved to engage in sperm competition.  Sex was not exclusively tied to romantic love, but a more elastic act, used to cement the bonds of small groups of people.

Unfortunately, a true original “state” of any human behavior or social arrangement is very difficult to prove.  The evidence is purely conjectural.  We are pragmatic and fluid creatures; we mold our behavior to social, ecological and political circumstances.  Do we really have such a thing as human nature?

Second, the authors do not stay true to their own model.  Because of research about the different way men and woman perceive sex outside of a monogamous arrangement, they hold that woman must be accommodating to men in their efforts to provide themselves sexual novelty; they must do this in order to keep families together.

This is an odd ending, given what came before.  They destroy the very premise they have built for three fourths of the book.  Why?  It confounds me.

Truth is we will never know what sex at dawn was like; given what we know about ourselves as a species, it was probably widely variable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Girls: A Paean

Nic Kelman’s Girls: A Paean is a wide-ranging novel that really has one premise as it zig-zags around its target: the thirst of older men for younger women (in one case, an underage girl).  Kelman's men have money and power, and are able to satisfy their appetites with those two accouterments. 

Kelman wants everything in this novel, and is less than consistent.  Many of the encounters in this work are not between older men and young women, but relationships based on some foundation of equality (at least in age).  Some sections are straight out pornography, while others digress into the etymology of the rude term for the female reproductive organ. among other items.  Passages from the Iliad are interspersed here and there, seemingly to illustrate how powerful men have always had a yen for younger woman.

The results here are mixed.  Kelman is saying something with this novel, but it is difficult to say exactly what.  This in itself is fine, if the novel is exploring topics without easy or firm resolutions.  But Kelman ends up with a semi-mess because of a lack of control of the narrative, and inconsistency in the arch of his stories.  He could have done more with less.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Water Knife: a novel

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a well-written, if not a fairly conventional post-apocalyptic novel.  It takes much of its premise from Desert Cadillac, Marc Reisner’s 1986 novel on the water crisis in the American west.  The book is mentioned many times in this novel – and performs a vital function to advance the plot (one that does not, I confess, make a great deal of sense).

If this genre of speculative fiction is supposed to really be about our present, and not our future, then The Water Knife is a success.  It is stuffed to the gills with our present fears and anxieties.   

Monday, August 20, 2018

Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Rick Stroud’s Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General, is certainly entertainment history.  Terrible things occur in the recounting of this story, but Stroud does not dwell on them.  He has a factual sense of the violence of war; he tends not to judge his heroes.  Even the enemies of this tale aren’t given a firm drubbing. 

In the end, everyone involved in this story, and the kidnappers themselves, wonder if abducting one German general was worth the cost.  There is no way to know with certainty; the British intelligence people who interviewed General Kreipe certainly did not think so; he provided very little intelligence of value.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Promise and Failure of Long Island: East Meadow

East Meadow, one of the Images of America Series books, chronicles the history of this unincorporated area of the town of Hempstead, in Long Island.  East Meadow is so named because it was the meadow east of Meadow Brook. This stream once flowed from the middle of Nassau County to South Oyster Bay.  Now the stream is nearly gone, buried beneath a highway (some portions still flow to the very south). 

what is left of Meadow Brook

East Meadow was part of a 60,000 acre prairie, called the Hempstead Plains, that was primarily rural until after the Second World War, when the post-war expansion of New York City, returning GIs, and the baby boom, transformed the area.  

the Hempstead Plains in the 1900s
This book lays out the area’s transformation and development with a series of fascinating photos.  What they show, in the end, is that the promise and failure of Long Island: a rural oasis for New York City workers, green open spaces near an urban area, which has become a golem of over development that can no longer be controlled.

the Hempstead Plains Preserve, a few acres of plains remaining

Take the area around Nassau Coliseum, not far from East Meadow; it is a nearly abandoned vista of acres of parking lot.  The residents are unwilling to allow building projects to take some of the windblown, post-apocalyptic vibe from the area, fearing (rightly) the traffic and congestion such a project would bring, in an area that is no stranger to either.

parking lots surrounding the Nassau  Coliseum

In the end Long Island can no longer grow, since residents (except for real estate moguls) nearly all think that there has been too much growth; too much traffic; too many malls, roads, and concrete.  Yet there isn’t an effective strategy to create more green space; to allow areas to “revert” to nature, to give the island the initial promise it held for those who moved there: a green spot of earth.  A bit of breathing room.  An uncrowded American Dream.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Do Nothing & Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism

Qiguang Zhao’s Do Nothing & Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism is a chatty, comfortable exposition of Taoism.  

Zhao uses a great many examples from everyday life; he is showing us, quite clearly, that Tao is about living.  It is a philosophy or religion to take everywhere in existence, because the Tao, the Way, is everywhere in existence (and nowhere too, but that is another story). 

Zhao’s book is a pleasant and often corny read.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife

Philip L. Fradkin’s Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife is the third book I have read about
Woodcut, Monument Valley, Everett Ruess
the legendary Ruess, a young man wandering in the American

Southwest in the early 1930s, writing passionate letters to family and friends, keeping a journal with pantheistic leanings, drawing and painting canyons and washes. In 1934 he entered Davis Gulch in Utah and was never seen again.  This is one of three books written about Ruess.  The others can be found here, and here.

Fradkin’s treatment is brisk, factual, and avoids flights of fancy.  He realizes that after Ruess went missing in 1934, and initial searches were made for him, what actually occurred to him will never be known.  The author does go into some of the theories, but comes out, in the end, with the wisest conclusion of Ruess and his life. 

In death, Ruess achieved a kind of legendary immortally he may well have never received had he lived beyond twenty.  His intensity and drive were so bright that, like James Dean, his disappearance
A stretch of Davis Gulch
and presumed death makes painful sense; he may have been done with his mission.  He died as he should have.  Edward Weston, who knew Ruess, summed this on a postcard he wrote Ruess' parents after his

"I don't forget Everett - it was kind of you to include me as one of his friends. The way of his going, I feel, is the way I would like to depart - close to the soil. But he was so young."

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Death Bed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters: The Book of Departure and Caring for People at the End of Life

Like most Jewish Lights books, The Death Bed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters: The Book of Departure and Caring for People at the End of Life sets out to accomplish two things. It gives readers a distinctly liberal and modern format to read otherwise conservative religious Jewish texts. It also seeks to tie texts from the Jewish past to our time.

The Death Bed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters largely accomplishes these goals. The fit between modern practices at death and the sages of the Chasidic movement are not always a great fit; but these tales are worth reading nevertheless. The very humanity, and moral rigor, of these masters in their final moments of life is inspirational.