Monday, February 22, 2010

The Woods, by Harlan Coben

I have found that when choosing audio books, lighter fare is sometimes better.  When listening in snippets, and stopping in the middle of chapters, it's easier to pick the story back up next time I get in the car.  The drawback is that if a book is a page-turner, the kind you want to keep reading at night instead of going to sleep, that means when you get where you're going, you want to stay in the car and keep listening.  Harlan Coben writes that kind of book.

Paul Copeland was traumatized when 2 kids at his summer camp were found murdered in the woods nearby, and his sister and another camper were missing.  Their bloody clothes were found, but not their bodies.  He entered a career in law enforcement, in part to deal with the loss of his sister and the guilt he felt.  He was supposed to be on "guard duty" that night, but left his post for a liaison with his girlfriend.  He has become a county prosecutor with a promising political future.

Now the missing boy camper has turned up, 20 years later, murdered, shot in the head and dumped in an alley.  And Paul's camp girlfriend, who has changed her identity and is a college instructor, reads an anonymous student essay that recounts the events at camp 20 years ago, including details that only she and Paul would know.  While trying to figure out what's going on, he's also in the midst of prosecuting some college kids accused of rape, a la the Duke lacrosse case.  The kids' wealthy family start digging in to Paul's past, hoping to blackmail him into settling out of court.

If it all sounds contrived and manipulative, it is.  But that's the fun of suspense fiction, right?  Although the descriptive language, character development and dialogue, and even a bit of social commentary are well done, no one should pick this up expecting great literature.  But for an entertaining read, it's worth a look.  Or listen.  Just be sure you're not late for work because you were sitting in the car listening to find out what happened.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas

I know the title of this book is off-putting.  Prejudice is a dirty word, immediately invoking images of segregated lunch counters and hooded Klansmen.  But Thomas Dalrymple wants to rehabilitate the notion of prejudice.  Dalrymple, a British medical doctor, separates the notion of race and prejudice.  Prejudice, in the broader sense, refers to acceptance of authority, values outside of oneself, judgment, and discernment.  Dalrymple is certainly prejudiced: he has a prejudice for parental authority, for families sharing mealtime, for sexual abstinence outside of marriage, for dressing formally in dark clothes for funerals, and against putting one's feet on the seat of a passenger train. 

Modern, liberal thinkers like to reject prejudice, declaring themselves free-thinking individuaulists, but, Dalrymple points out, "To overturn a prejudice is not to destroy prejudice as such.  It is rather to inculcate another prejudice."  For instance, "The prejudice that it is wrong to bear a child out of wedlock has been replaced by the prejudice that there is nothing wrong with it at all."  As a doctor serving in an English prison and slum areas, he saw first-hand the effects of the lack of prejudice against unwed motherhood.  And certainly the middle class is not exempt from those effects.

More broadly, he argues, the rejection of conventional norms, the glorification of unconventionality for the sake of unconventionality, the rejection of pre-conceived ideas, and the rejection of authority as a valid source of knowledge lead to intellectual, societal, and moral anarchy.  Attempts to eliminate prejudice and promote economic and social equality have historically lead to genocidal atrocities.  Even the enlightened intelligentsia's call to question everything and live in suspicion of any authority (which is itself a paradoxical argument from authority) leads one to the conclusion of the unknowability of anything.  He gives the following example: he knows that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.  But if he were asked to prove it using primary sources, he could spend a lifetime trying to do so without convincing a hardened skeptic.  Such is futility of the prejudice against trust in authority.  Ultimately, such a course leads to an egotistical, sociapathic reliance on the authority of no one but oneself.

He concludes, "We need both the confidence to think logically about our inherited beliefs, and the humility to recognize that the world did not begin with us, and that the accumulated wisdom of mankind is likely to be greater than anything we can achieve by our unaided efforts.  The expectation, desire, and pretense that we can go naked into the world, shorn of all prejudices and preconceptions, so that every situation is wholly new to us, is in equal measure foolish, dangerous, and wicked."

I love Dr. Dalrymple's perspective.  He brilliantly links philosophical movements with their ultimate expression in society.  Many great (by the standards of intelligentsia) thinkers do not realize the devastating implications of their ideas as expressed in cultural norms.  Dalrymple's intellectual prowess and clinical experience come together here for a biting critique of the prejudice against prejudice.  In Praise of Prejudice is a satisfying, challenging read.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Man Who Fell to Earth

I have always loved science fiction, but for some reason I never read this classic by Walter Tevis.  Many sci-fi writers are trained scientists or science geeks who build stories around speculative science.  Some do it well, some not so well.  Others are fantasy writers who abuse science to fit their fantasies.  Some of these are fun to read, some are trash.  Tevis is neither of these.  This is the same writer who wrote The Color of Money and The Hustler, novels about pool, and The Queen's Gambit, a novel about chess.  He writes a beautiful story about the human condition, which happens to be built around a sci-fi theme.

Thomas Newton looks much like an ordinary human.  To the casual observer, he blends right in.  What no one knows is that he came to Earth on a desperate mission to save his own people, who live on another planet in our solar system.  They have devastated their own planet, and want to prevent us from destroying the Earth, so that they can relocate here.  Newton's mission is to build a shuttle that he can send back home to bring his people to Earth.  Newton obtains patents for the advanced technological knowledge of his people and amasses a huge fortune, which he directs toward the building of the spaceship. 

Unfortunately, our world affects Newton more than he imagined.  Through his monitoring of Earth's television broadcasts, he became aware of the nuclear arms buildup.  During his time on Earth, he wonders about the inevitability of our self-destruction through nuclear war.  He wonders aloud to a scientist who works for him when and whether it might happen.  The scientist asks, "And what's going to stop it then?  Human virtue?  The Second Coming?"  Newton replies, "Maybe it will be the Second Coming indeed.  Maybe it will be Jesus Christ himself."  The scientist jokes, "If he come, he'd better watch his step."  Newton presciently replies, "I imagine he'll remember what happened to him the last time."

Any messianic hopes that may have been raised by Newton's coming are dashed, however, on his own succumbing to human nature.  It's almost as if Jesus were to come to Earth, but got sucked in by the mediocrity and pettiness of human life, instead of leading us above it.  Newton knew his mission would be difficult, but
he, the Anthean, a superior being from a superior race, was losing control, becoming a degenerate, a drunkard, a lost and foolish creature, a renegade and, possibly, a traitor to his own. . . . He felt like a man who had been surrounded by reasonably amiable, silly, and fairly intelligent animals, and has gradually discovered that their concepts and relationships are more complex than his training could have led him to suspect.  Such a man might discover that, in one or more of the many aspects of weighing and judging that are available to a high intelligence, the animals who surround him and who foul their own lairs and eat their own filth might be happier and wiser than he.
Ultimately, the authorities do capture him, but rather than decide he's a threat to us or our way of life, they release him to a quiet, lonely life.

Unlike much sci-fi, The Man Who Fell to Earth is more meditative and reflective than hard sci-fi or space opera.  It's worth a read, and raises some interesting questions about ultimate meaning.  For those who know Jesus, the real messiah, however, questions raised by a failed messiah ring hollow.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Once a Runner, by John Parker

While driving to and from Hunstville for Rocky Racoon, I listend to John Parker's Once a Runner, which Runner's World calls the "best novel ever written about running."  Well, I don't know how many novels have been written about running, but this is definitely a good one.  Perhaps the best thing about Once a Runner is the legendary cult following around it.  Parker self published the novel in the late 1970s and famously sold it out the trunk of his car at running events.  It eventually gained a following and good reviews in the running world.  After catching some high prices on the used book market, it was finally reprinted last year.

Once a Runner is best enjoyed by competitive runners.  It follows Quenton Cassidy's quest for a four minute mile and Olympic glory.  As a captain of a college track team and an aspiring lawyer, the other guys solicit his help with a petition protesting new haircut and dress code policies imposed by the athletic director, who's also head football coach.  In the interest of quieting the upstarts, Cassidy is banned from the team and the campus.  He retreats to his mentor's country house, where he trains for his big comeback.

The appeal of Once a Runner reaches well beyond runners.  With the details about training and racing, the non-runner might skip over some passages, but mostly this is a novel about college life in the 1970s, and one young man's determination to follow his dreams.  But even a non-runner will get caught up in Cassidy's climactic race, feeling his heart beating right along with the runner's.

Of course, I have to mention a brief endorsement of barefoot running.  When Denton, trying to convince Cassidy to move out to the country house to train, describes the setting, says, "Move out here, Quenton, and train. . . . There are great trails out here and a little grassy field for intervals.  You can run barefoot on it the way you like to.  It'd be ideal, a runner's paradise."  Great trails, grassy fields; runner's paradise indeed!