Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom, narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner

This isn't my first dance with Howard Bloom's The Lucifer Principle, and as always when revisiting a book, often the biggest change will be in the reader, and how they parse the content years down the road. This time, I picked up the audiobook masterfully narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner, and found myself sufficiently entertained.

Despite the book's provocative title, there's really nothing at all 'evil' per se, but rather an exploration of what we might consider the negative aspects of our mammalian existence as being hardwired into our genes. Despite fancy clothes and a liking for technology, we're not at all that different from our great ape cousins. 

Bloom wears his influences on his sleeve, and it's pretty clear from the get go that he's a big fan of Richard Dawkins, and although he's no Nobel-prize-winning scientist, his music publicist background has most certainly given him the gift of the gab – he writes persuasively on a broad range of topics, and he is a keen observer of human nature.

So, while you're not going to be sitting with a strict, non-fiction book, The Lucifer Principle is very much a thought-provoking read. One needn't agree with everything that the man says, but he does raise points about our behaviour that are topical and controversial.

While the idea that we form part of a giant 'superorganism' isn't a new one, Bloom does dig into how individuals function within society – touching on how important it is that we need to feel needed, and be part of the machine, so to speak. And we look at how we've shifted away from replication of genes to replication of memes, in terms of building communities.

If I'm entirely honest, the book is a bit of a hot mess, with a mish-mash of cherry-picked data mixed in with the author's hot takes – but it still makes for compelling reading, whether you think the man is a genius or that he's clearly smoking his socks.

If anything, this is is the sort of book you can use to pick topics for conversation starters at parties if you want to end up with a brawl and broken beer bottles. But that being said, if you take Bloom's writing with a huge dollop of salt, there is a grain of truth underlying much of what he says – but it's advisable for readers to use this as a springboard for further research and formation of their own opinions instead of relying on Bloom's broad, sweeping statements, as entertaining as they are.

I'd bet that Bloom is a great guy to invite over for a social gathering – it's abundantly evident that the man is in possession of a lively mind, even if the conclusions he draws can be a tad bit contentious. 

My takeaway is that while this book is filled with interesting anecdotes, it also drives home the truth for me that we, as a species, can do better. We do not have to shackle ourselves to our genetic predispositions and outmoded, outdated societal mores.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai, illustrated by Junji Ito

Most of the times that I've tried to get into manga, it's never stuck. Maybe I'm just showing my age or lack of sophistication. Who knows. But my husband has been a long-time fan of manga artist Junji Ito, who is apparently also a great lover of cats, which makes anyone a much better person, if you ask me. Ito is known chiefly for his horror manga, and I've glanced at some of the content and found it to be about as unsettling and oddly compelling as good art can be. 

So, when the husband splurged out on a hardcover copy of Ito's adaption of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, I allowed that now would be the time I'd get over myself and actually read manga. This is quality stuff, apparently. I was not disappointed.

Look, I'm a complete pleb. My first difficulty was getting used to reading a book from the back to front, and to read from right to left. I won't lie, it was jarring at first, but I got used to it. No Longer Human is the story about Yozo Oba. As a boy, he suffers terrible anxiety about people's opinions about him – so he is always clowning around to gain their approval, until the day his friend Takeichi sees right through Yozo's tactics to win others' approval.

What follows is a dark plunge into dissolution and existential horror, as Yozo makes one poor decision after another – it's like watching a train wreck. I eventually could not put down this hefty tome until I'd reached the last, terrible sequence. As an aside, Dazai himself suffered a tragic ending, which is eerily prescient in the narrative of his writing.

I'll be honest, I know next to nothing about manga. Also, please don't recommend other books to me in the hopes that I will read them. I'm incredibly picky. Why I liked No Longer Human was the terrible authenticity of the telling and the unrelenting, crushing existential dread. My own life feels like cherry blossoms in comparison. Ito's art is clean and doesn't have that sameness that I've picked up in other manga that I've glanced at. In fact, the level of detail in those black and white strokes is absolutely staggering and rather hypnotic. We have a huge pile of his books here at home, and I expect at some point I'll dip into them when the mood fits.

Isle by Claire Robertson

Isle by Claire Robertson is one of those books that, even after much consideration, I find difficult to pigeonhole. And it's been preying on my mind awhile now, weeks after I have finished it. First off, it was the cover that got me – I admit I'm a sucker for striking covers. But also, in my mission to read more African writers, this was certainly intriguing when I cast an eye over the blurb.

It's not a novel, but rather two novellas that have been glomped together, with the only real connection being that both take place on an island and feature the lives of women – though they are centuries apart.

I – Forth from this Place takes up the bulk of the offering, and is the tale of a community of women living on the Isle of St Katharine. They are not nuns, nor have they sworn an oath of celibacy, but they do live as a community of nuns would – cloistered and independent of the world of men. Yet their Magistra Lutgard is well aware of the fragility of the equilibrium their liminal space inhabits. She is anxious not to agitate the church or nearby community too much – for in her time witch hunts are not uncommon. It doesn't help that one of her women, Mechthild, is restless, striving to be more, do more. Find her own way in the world in a manner that is unconventional for its time.

None of this is helped when a Moorish peddler is rescued from a near-drowning, and serves as a muse for Mechthild in her artistic aspirations. She makes a book of hours, but instead of following conventions, her lifelike representations of the people around her surprise and astound those who are not accustomed to seeing representations of their faces laid down on paper. This act of hers has far-reaching consequences, not only for Mechthild, but for the lives her work touches.

II – Uxo brings us to a post-WWII setting where Lily Kinsella, who is higher-ranking than her fellow officer, John Burge, are tasked to recover or destroy old ordnance. Yet from the start, it is clear that all is not well with Lily, nor her relationship with Burge. Their work takes them to remote places, and it's clear  this unbalanced relationship between the two, carries equal parts resentment and reverence on Burge's part in the face of Lily's seeming indifference to him. 

Their travels bring them to an unnamed island that serves as a penitentiary, where Lily's interactions with teenage Iris and her prison warden father stir trouble, and eventually bring the issues between Lily and Burge to a head. Part coming-of-age story, part remembering of a shrouded past, this novella offers readers a careful dance between withholding and revealing in a way that exposes the fragility of human lives in all their ugliness and beauty.

Neither of these novellas comes to a head in a way that is satisfying – but then again, it's not for an ending or great denouement that one would read, but rather the savouring of each line of prose that is so exquisitely crafted that it is liquid poetry. And that's all I'll say on the matter. See for yourself.