Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children

Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

Richard Rubenstein

I have for some time been interested in the interplay between classical Greek philosophy, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christian thought. Neo-platonic thought and early Christian doctrine share a lot in common, and Aristotle had a clear influence on the codification of the Talmud. So when I saw the subtitle of this book, I was excited for an overview of that area of history. I guess I should have read the back cover before I purchased this one, because the title is highly misleading. This book has almost no information about the early Christian era; it is a book about the rediscovery of classical thought in the high middle ages and Renaissance. Think Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard, not Rabbi Akiva and Augustine of Hippo.

Though this book turned out to not be at all what I was looking for, it was interesting. As a theology buff, I enjoyed the arguments regarding the nature of the trinity, the infighting between the competing monastic orders, and the turn towards Aristotelian logic in theological debate. You can look down your nose at monks arguing over the question of how many angels fit on the head of a pin, but the rigor that people like Aquinas and Abelard brought to the discussion of theological questions is the foundation for the logistical thinking which brought us the scientific revolution. And the scientific revolution brought you the iphone, so shut up.

Aristotle’s Children may not have been what I was looking for, but as a piece of popular religious history, it’s a good read. Recommended for the curious.

 

– Sean

 

Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand

The Cold Six Thousand is the second volume of Ellroy’s “Underworld Trilogy” tracing the history of 1960s America through the lives of real and imagined gangsters. Written in an intense staccato style, the books are filled with conspiracies, bad men behaving horribly, and real and imagined dirt on most of the pivotal figures of the 1960s.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, American Tabloid. By turns exhausting and exhilarating, it felt like something new in crime fiction. The dirty machismo of much the genre boiled down to a thick tar of nasty violence. Ellroy’s books relish in violence and hatred. They’re not nice and can at times be difficult to read, but despite my conflicted feelings about Ellroy as a person and a writer, I enjoyed the hell out of American Tabloid.

The Cold Six Thousand is another story. American Tabloid ends with the assassination of JFK. The Cold Six Thousand takes us from the “cover up” of that assassination through to the deaths of MLK and RFK with extended stops in mobbed up Las Vegas and drug-fueled Vietnam. If anything, The Cold Six Thousand is uglier than American Tabloid, racism plays a key role, and it is hard not to think that Ellroy enjoys putting despicable dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It is all a bit much. The ultra short declarative sentence style that seemed new and exciting in American Tabloid is just tiring in the Cold Six Thousand.

But Ellroy can write, and the characters remain compelling. I wanted to put it down, but I didn’t. If you’re a fan of Ellroy’s you’ve probably already read this. If not, start with American Tabloid. If after that you haven’t gotten enough, you could give this a try. I should probably leave well enough alone and not read the final book in the series, Bloods a Rover, but I probably will. I can’t leave a series unfinished.

– Sean

Crime in the City – Mosley’s the Long Fall

The Long Fall

Walter Mosley

Crime novels are very grounded in place. George Pelacanos’s novels sing of DC; Laura Lippman’s of Baltimore of Los Angeles, and until recently, Walter Mosley’s most famous crime novels were set in Watts. For the last decade of so the heavy hitters of crime fiction have mostly been avoiding New York. There is, of course, Lawrence Block, but I have not read him.  In recent years the crime writers I read came to New York were Richard Price’s “Dempsy” novels: Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, which were set in a fictionalized version of Newark with the occasional glimpses of life in New York. Price has said that he set the novels in a fictionalized city because the real thing was too overpowering. I can see that.

Lately, there has been a bit of a return to New York. Price set Lush Life on the Lower East Side, up and comers Reed Farrel Coleman and Colin Harrison have both set their novels in Brooklyn, and now Mosley has started a new crime series in the City staring a new protagonists, Leonid McGill.

The Long Fall’s plot is a classic of the genre – private detective investigates a case that leads him into a conspiracy bigger than he imagined. Innocents are injured; the detective must get his hands dirty; justice must be done. If you read these novels, you know exactly what I am talking about. Mosley knows what he is doing; the plotting is catnip to crime novel fans.

More interesting, perhaps, is the creation of the character of McGill. He is a private investigator, and in crime novels, PIs generally come in two types – those on their way down, and those on their way up. McGill is a little of both, morally he is on his way up. He isn’t taking enforcer gigs anymore; he isn’t setting people up for crimes they didn’t commit. But he is behind in the rent, drinking too much and cheating on his wife (who is cheating on him). It’s a nice juxtaposition. By being good he is doing bad. I am curious to see how it plays out in the other novels. Will McGill’s better angels lead him into financial ruin, or will he turn his back on the moral life and return to a life of crime. Mosley seems to be setting us up to watch McGill rise up again, but I could be wrong. Either way, it is a treat to see such a great crime writer set his stories in my city.

Worth reading for fans of the genre, especially those who wish more crime novels were set in New York.

– Sean

Remaindered: Rhinoceros Success (1980)

One of the best courses I took in grad school was a survey of self-help literature, and I’ve looked over many books in the success/self-help genre. Self-help authors are incredibly aware of how the genre works and what books have preceded them, and as a result most of them are formulaic and blur together in an acronym-filled, seven steps towards (blank) becoming (blank) in (blank) days, mess. Occasionally, a self-help work will stand out from the pack as Scott Alexander’s book did for me at a used bookstore in SoCal. What’s Alexander’s take on success in all areas of your life? Become a rhinoceros. Really.

When you start making your way through the book you expect Scott Alexander to leave the “You are a Rhino!” gimmick at any moment, but he never does. From cover to cover (with numerous illustrations), from health to money to love, everything is explained to you in terms of being a Rhino, and the reader is constantly addressed as one. (Fear not, Christian readers, Alexander also encourages his Rhinos to tithe and read the Bible.)

It doesn’t even stop with this one title. In the back of the book Alexander offers his “Rhinoceros Newsletter” and two other books, “Advanced Rhinocerology” and “Rhinocerotic Relativity.”

Amazingly, Scott Alexander has kept up with the rhino shtick for over THIRTY years (allegedly selling an absurd  3 million copies of his three books), and has bravely, um, charged onto the internet with a Twitter account and a blog. Since I picked up this book several years ago I’ve noticed here and there a few “enthusiastic” (i.e. pick-up truck with back windshield covered with  a giant decal) small business owners who have the word “Rhino” in their business’ name. Since I never see comparable animals included in random business names, like “Giraffe Bakery” or “Hippo Accounting and Tax Prep,” I’m assuming that these are successful adherents to the Rhino philosophy. I may scoff, but with “Rhino Realty” or “Rhino Window Washing” out there in the world,  Scott Alexander apparently has a posse herd.

-The Filled Slip

Review: Black Sun by Goodrich-Clarke

Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke

This is the first time two people associated with Fox Hill are writing a review of the same book, and, of course, its got to be a book about esoteric Hitler cults. We really aren’t this weird people – honest.

Charm laid out the nature of this book well in his review. It is an overview of Nazi inspired right wing lunatics of the post World War II era, covering the heavy hitters and some lesser known individuals. It is a very well researched account of world for which it is difficult to get information, but it is also dry, and skims too lightly over the biographies of these people for my taste. While I think it is important to seriously engage with lunatic ideas about Nazis in Antarctica, I don’t necessarily want to read fifty pages about it. I’d recommend it for the person deeply interested in the lunatic fringe of the right, but perhaps not for the average reader.

A thought on the substance of the book: Much of post WWIII Nazism is enraptured with a mystical religious understanding of Hitler and Nazism. There is much talk in this book about Hitler as a Hindu avatar, Hitler as an alien intelligence, Hitler as a blah blah blah.. What all of this does it put distance between the reality of Hitler as the mastermind of one of the greatest genocides in history and the “theoretical” Hitler of Julius Evola’s books. Goodrick-Clarke hints at this, but is too much of an even keel academic to say what needs to be said – by placing a mystical veneer on the man’s action, you can attempt to cloud the history and make the man more than a murder. This mysticalization of Hitler and Nazism is a dangerous trend in modern ultra right politics, and one that needs to be combated with the cold hard truth that Hitler was just a sociopath, nothing more.

– Sean

Amazon: Tops in Racist Fiction (?)

Do you remember a few months back when Amazon pulled a Kindle book called The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct? If not, refresh your memory here.

That was not the only time Amazon played content cop with the titles it sells: it’s also yanked incest and rape fiction, although the diligent fan of both can still find plenty of titles for sale.

This isn’t really a problem. Amazon is a private company, and can decide to sell what it wants, whether via traditional hard copies, the Kindle store, or its CreateSpace print-on-demand service. But when you start deciding that some books aren’t fit for public consumption, you open yourself to questions about why some books get the axe and others don’t.

In an interesting post on its Hatewatch blog, the Southern Poverty Law Center  asks why (inarguably objectionable) titles like the pedophilia guide get yanked, but novels like White Apocalypse, self-published through CreateSpace, are still sold on Amazon. Haven’t heard of White Apocalypse? Here’s the SPLC’s description:

White Apocalypse is centered on the “Solutrean Hypothesis,” a theory that has almost zero support among anthropologists but bravely insists that whites from Europe managed to cross the North Atlantic to North America 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, thus becoming the real “Native Americans.” … The book’s hero is a white man on a mission to give the hypothesis a fair hearing – but in order to do so, he must vanquish his “evil, anti-western” opponents at the Atlanta-based “Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism” —  an organization that bears a striking resemblance to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. It even includes characters clearly based on Mark Potok, the director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, and Heidi Beirich, its director of research. The book contains a graphic description of the Potok character’s assassination at the hands of the hero.

Sounds like quite the page-turner! There are, of course, dozens and dozens of noxious racist titles for sale on Amazon, from old standbys like The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf to lesser known books like the demented race war fantasy novels of prolific author Harold Covington. So why are pedophiles barred from peddling their screeds, but not the night garden of anti-Semites, esoteric Hitlerists, and would-be ethnic cleansers highlighted by the SPLC post?

This is no call for Amazon to pull those books from sale. I don’t really care what the literary-minded neofascist is using to stock his bunker this spring, and I don’t think books do more damage than other forms of media. But the SPLC raises an interesting point that should give pause to other companies that aim to draw a line in the dirt: if you’re willing to start down that road, be prepared to explain why you decide to halt.

(V. Charm)

Where’s Chris Onstad? (UPDATED with answer)

On March 16, the administrator of a Facebook fan community called “Achewood: A Momentary Distraction on the Road to the Grave,” posted a terse update, the first time in over a month anything had been written on the page: “The hiatus is hella lame!” A few dozen people chimed in to agree, with comments like “In limbo, thinking about the back of a van” and “oh uh yeah.” To an outsider, the whole thing would have been incomprehensible, which only added to the tragedy: the best humorist in the country has been essentially AWOL for months, and no one has noticed except Internet people.

When Chris Onstad began the online comic strip “Achewood” in the fall of 2001, it was little more than a hastily illustrated collection of private jokes and surreal punch lines, more a project to share with friends and family than something with the potential to become one of the best works of American fiction since the end of the Cold War. Yet that’s exactly what it became over 10 years, as Onstad’s cast of anthropomorphic, frequently drunk animals evolved into characters so rich and dynamic they’d be the envy of any of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” crowd.

Webcomics have a signal-to-noise ratio roughly equivalent to their in-print cousins: a handful of greats, a significant percentage of perfectly good stuff that you forget about immediately after reading it, and a huge amount of work so bad it routinely makes you regret that the hippies smuggled the First Amendment into the Constitution. This was even truer when “Achewood” began, a time when roughly 80 percent of all webcomics were about elves having sex with each other.

Continue reading

No One Will Think About the Beauty of a Kindle in 100 Years

From a 1910 issue of the Mystic Light Library Bulletin of NY. Leave it to occultists to treat books and their book collections with this much respect.

-The Filled Slip

Comic Strip Tropes: The Silent Penultimate Panel

There are few chunks of media real estate more imperiled than space in the print edition of your local newspaper. For over two decades now, the actual physical paper has been shrinking both in page size and number of pages as advertisements and circulation figures drop. As a result, that space has become more precious than ever: fewer stories, fewer photos, fewer graphics mean everyone has to redouble their efforts to justify what they propose to put in between the tire ads. Knowing that, what would you do with a slot in hundreds of newspapers every week? Would you try to cram as much as you can into the shrinking space you occupy, hoping to maximize your limited resource? Or would you regularly devote between a third and a quarter of your alloted space to wordless filler? If you’re like a startling number of American newspaper cartoonists, you already know the answer to this. Behold, the Silent Penultimate Panel:

This phenomenon was first drawn to my attention years ago by a blog, now sadly defunct, dedicated to chronicling its startlingly regular appearance in the comics section of America.

Essentially, the silent penultimate panel functions as a comedic pause for effect in the dialogue of the strip, to further set up a punch line. In a four-panel strip, it works like this: premise, setup, silent panel, punch line. This is done by hack cartoonists and by great ones.

In theory, this is a perfectly valid comedic device, but its sheer regularity suggests a less happy conclusion: the silent penultimate panel is nothing but padding by artists who can’t figure out how to fill even the limited space they’re allotted.

That’s because the silent penultimate panel is often identical, in art, to the panels that surround it, except devoid of any dialogue or narration. It’s the printed version of dead air. In an age of newspaper austerity, it is the ultimate extravagant gesture: “I could put in more words or different art here,” it says, “but instead, I just cut and pasted the image from panel two and took out the dialogue box.”

The silent penultimate panel is an indicator of badly paced jokes. I say “jokes” because the silent penultimate panel never appears in the soap opera strips; because those strips have to advance a narrative (at what is often a glacial-seeming pace, especially in the tedious world of Rex Morgan, M.D.), they can’t afford to waste space on a blank panel that contains no new information.

Gag-a-day strips, though, lean on the silent penultimate panel all the time. The essential structure of a gag-a-day strip is simple: setup followed by punchline. This is so simple that, incredibly, sometimes artists can’t even figure out a way to stretch it to three panels.

There are structural ways to overcome this problem without regular recourse to the silent penultimate panel: “Shoe” has become a two-panel strip, with the setup appearing in the first panel and the punch line following in the second panel. “Mallard Fillmore,” a strip I loathe, has nevertheless accommodated its paucity of narrative direction by becoming a one-panel strip that contains a word balloon or two along with a credibly-executed drawing of a duck watching television. Take a look at the three examples above: all would work just as well with two panels, but for some reason (pride? habit?) they were stretched out to three.

I’m not suggesting some kind of “rule” against the silent penultimate panel. Used sparingly, it’s fine as a placeholder in a larger storyline, and there are times when it can even advance the story or provide information without dialogue in an effective way. A good recent example of this comes to us, not surprisingly, from the bleak mind of Tom Batiuk, who used a silent penultimate panel in “Crankshaft” (the “funny” strip in the “Funky Winkerbean” universe) to establish the “humorous” premise of a week’s worth of strips: an old woman falls on some ice and waits vainly for anyone to rescue her. That Batiuk always cracks me up!

Once you’ve thought about the silent penultimate panel, you start noticing it everywhere. The comics in this entry were taken from a two-week period, and I could have included more. There are, although it may be hard to believe, artists all over the country bursting at the seams with ideas for comic strips, who would vomit in a bag and mail it to their grandparents for a chance at the exposure most of these comics have. It must be profoundly irritating for them to open the paper in the morning and see the haves of the newspaper comic world phone it in so frequently.

(V. Charm)

Remaindered: If You Were Enlightened, You Wouldn’t Find My Books Weird

I look to GoogleBooks and the advanced search feature of Amazon.com for running keyword searches and finding the research equivalent to a needle in a haystack. Did anyone in the 60s or 70s mention this one specific author or word? In a few seconds, you can find out. Unfortunately, between the two sites there are some big gaps: cheap paperbacks being one, and books that are too old to have been written in a digital format but too young to be in the public domain are another. In an attempt to cheaply bridge that gap for some research I was doing on yoga in the late 60s and early 70s, I started buying up cheap lots of books on yoga off of eBay and scanning through their indexes. I got some great hits for the research, but also scored some amazing, weird books.

I don’t know if Archie Bahm could have imagined that four decades later the world would be flooded by similar images.

As funky as the cover of the next book is, I still find it gorgeous.

You’re not getting dizzy, you’re getting enlightened.

And by “beauty” we mean “your ass.”

Namaste, nerds.

-The Filled Slip