Month: September 2014

Review: Waking Up

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion

Sam Harris

My anticipation for the new Sam Harris book turned to anxiety when I learned it would be about spirituality. Was the firebrandtype philosopher and scientist—co-founder of Project Reason and author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—changing teams?

Nah.

Perhaps a better title for this book, though, would be The Atheist’s Guide to Meditation.

At its core, Waking Up is about mindfulness, and as a fellow atheist who has attended a fair share of Buddhist retreats (including a recent one on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), I can relate to some of the conflicts Harris encounters. No matter how secular the retreat, I get nervous when I find myself in a room full of people following the direction of a group leader offering spiritual betterment.

Harris takes out the touchy-feely and goes straight for the scientific foundation of a mindfulness-based approach to life. The result is a book heavy on Buddhist philosophy and refreshingly light on bullshit.

What makes Waking Up different is that it’s also what Harris calls a “seeker’s memoir.” We follow his journey from a skeptical teen to an adult struggling with the feelings of “unsatisfactoriness”—which is his interpretation of the concept of dukkha, rather than the traditional definition of suffering.

He had my attention early in the book, when describing the disquiet of his solitary thoughts and the relief he felt when experimenting with MDMA, LSD and DMT: “It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life.”

Through his seeking, Harris reveals that, for him, spirituality is not the existence of a higher being in the ethereal realm, but rather the cognizance one has of an immaterial self. “Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”

Speaking of continuity, Harris gets a little far afield the deeper we delve into the book. Beyond memoir, he explores the scientific underpinnings of consciousness and meditation, drops some knowledge about psychedelic drugs and, justifiably, rants on the silliness (and scientific dishonesty) of Proof of Heaven and other accounts of near-death experiences.

While I really enjoyed many of these sections, they didn’t have the cohesion of a linear narrative. It read more like a collection of essays on a single topic—which is fine, just not what I was expecting.

Harris’ informed and enlightened discussion of psychedelics resonates the most with me. Not only do I agree with his observations (and share some of his experiences), but Harris also challenges some of my long-held assumptions.

For instance, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a seminal bit of psychedelic literature, and for years I bought in fully to Huxley’s description of the brain as a “reducing valve.” Harris debunks this by drawing on modern neuroscience, causing me to think about mind-manifesting drugs in a new way.

All told, Waking Up is an interesting and enjoyable read. There’s a bit of science writing, philosophy, memoir and a unique take on spirituality and meditation.

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Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer

The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian Plenderleith

I recall, from my childhood, soccer on television, cheering for Pelé and watching him slow-motion bicycle kick his way through Nazis alongside Sylvester Stallone. And then it was gone.Rock n Roll Soccer

I don’t remember when it went away, but in the early 1980s, my attention turned to music and girls. So long, Pelé. Farewell slow-motion bicycle kick. We hardly new ye. It didn’t even occur to me, until Major League Soccer started play, that there was no longer an elite professional American league.

Fast forward to 2014, and soccer in America is once again on the rise. It’s now expected that the U.S. men’s team will not only qualify, but advance to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The bar is even higher for the medal-winning women’s club. MLS is approaching its 20th season, and the future is looking bright.

Couple that with the self-immolation of the NFL and in a few decades Monday Night Football might be a whole different ballgame. Literally.

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. This is required reading in a World Cup year, and a treat to read anytime.

Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

One of Plenderleith’s great accomplishments in this book is his ability to zoom in and out of the action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task. At times, he’ll be recounting the exaggerated drug- and drink-fueled antics of over-the-hill international stars and young Americans performing in a flamboyant, fly-by-night federation that defied, in equal measure, rules, tradition and, ahem, sound business practice.

Then Plenderleith will step back and establish the international and cultural context within which the NASL was operating. At first, the international audience mocked the upstart Americans, and FIFA pushed back against the young league that was tinkering with tradition.

But as the NASL achieved early success, the world took notice. While it didn’t reinvent the sport, the outlaw league reinvigorated it by making it a fan-friendly experience and drove rule changes that increased substitutions and decreased back passes.

The model, though exciting, was as unsustainable as that alcohol-fueled borderline relationship you had in college. The peaks were unforgettable, but the valleys unbearable. Sure enough, the NASL folded following the 1984 season.

It was an experiment and experience that was thoroughly American, and though the league didn’t last, it left a lasting impression on the game and paved the way for MLS success.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

Review: The Penguin Book of Witches

The Penguin Book of Witches

Katherine Howe, editor

It’s fitting that Penguin is releasing its annotated Book of Witches in time for Halloween—and not just because of the seasonal correlation of Wicca and the feast of Samhain. The history of the witch is long and complicated. The difficulty of distilling thousands of years of witchery into a single volume is perhaps best illustrated by considering the variety of Halloween Penguin Book of Witchescostumes celebrating the witch.

A cursory search of costume shops gives you such options as sexy witch, crone witch, neon witch or glitter/sparkle/glamor witch. Would you like a traditional black dress with a broom, or something made of lace? You could be a witch from Oz or Salem, Sabrina or American Horror Story.

And would you like a cat with that? Or perhaps a toad or flying monkey?

Oh, you can even dress up your dog as a witch, if you feel like it. Whatever. You go do you.

Point is, the witch is not a singular entity: it’s a character that has assumed many forms in film, folklore and the imagination, be it funny or frightening, sexy or silly, from the East Coast (good) or the West (wicked). In her introduction, author and academic Katherine Howe gives as good a definition as I’ve ever read:

“Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group” [xii].

Indeed, the bookshelf of my youth was loaded with books on the topic: fiction anthologies devoted to the witch; sensational Satanic Panic potboilers; historical and sociological treatises; feminist takes; and cumbersome source material such as the Malleus Malificarum and The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.

I wish this book would have been around back then. Howe does a great job of sampling the primary sources to create a palatable, yet thorough history. She begins with references to witchcraft in the Bible and guides us, inevitably, to Massachusetts Bay.

The meat of The Penguin Book of Witches are the trial transcripts and testimonies from that dark period of 1692-93. While the prose doesn’t exactly leap off the page here, the importance of these documents, and the clarity of Howe’s introductions, is worth enduring a bit of the old English.

That the Salem Witch Trials remain a relevant cultural reference more than 300 years later speaks to their importance. It remains one of our country’s greatest shames, and its memory serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and a warning about how low we may sink.

Sadly, no matter how much humanity progresses, the same dark drive that fueled the colonial witch craze still smolders within us. The 20th century alone gave America two Red Scares, internment camps, the West Memphis Three, the Satanic Panic, the War on Drugs and all manner of smaller scale oppression, discrimination and fear-mongering.

The post-9/11 world has given us Guantanamo Bay, George Zimmerman and a Red State/Blue State schism.

Fittingly, Howe offers a word of caution as she segues into the closing section, “After Salem”: “While no witch trial in North America—or Europe, for that matter—would ever again approach the magnitude and fatality of the Salem episode, witch belief did not disappear. It merely changed form” [193].

This line, for me, is the ultimate takeaway from this book. Witches, as portrayed by Halloween costumes, are creatures of the imagination, folklore and literature. But by any name, the women who were burned, stoned and hanged were victims—not of demonic possession or supernatural forces, but of the all-too-human folly of superstition, prejudice and mob mentality.

The same goes for all victims of a witch craze. The importance of studying the witchhunts of the past is that they are difficult to recognize while they are happening. They occur under the insidious guise of patriotism, decency and traditional values. The label “witchhunt” is only applied in the aftermath.

By reading the transcripts of the trials and examinations, and the post-Salem mea culpas, we can hopefully prevent or at least minimize oppression in our time and in the ages to come.

Howe’s collection is a great place to start.

September Shorts: Nonfiction

September. The sunset comes earlier than the day before. That much-agonized-over summer reading list is about to expire, and how far did you get? How many books did you unofficially add?

Book lovers are an ambitious lot. If I never bought another book, I could probably read for a decade with the books I already have but haven’t read yet. Yet, you’ll still find me at the local bookstores, thrift shops and library fairs stocking up for the nuclear fallout that is the ultimate bibliophile fantasy (a la The Twilight Zone, sans the cruel ending, of course).

We’ll never get to all the books we want to read in a lifetime, let alone a summer, so here are some wonderful summer reads that you may have missed.

Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity

Matthew Paul Turner

America has a complicated history with God. The Puritans, though devout religious misfits in England, laid the American Godfoundation for the most successful secular democracy in the world. The paradox continues to play out through international politics. To Europe, we are considered zealots. To the Middle East, we are either godless heathens or Zionists.

Even within America, it’s complicated. Are we one nation or one nation “under God”? Depends on whom you ask and, perhaps more telling, in which state you pose the question.

Turner’s book begins with a similarly difficult question: “Where would God be without America?”

Well, he probably wouldn’t be as much fun, for starters. Beginning in the early 1800s, Turner writes, the modest ways of the Puritans gave way to rowdy revivals, complete with hops, flips, shakes and mysterious catatonic states followed by fits of frenetic celebration:

“Could the God who was causing people to get down on all fours or lie slain in the spirit really be the same God who led the Puritans across the Atlantic from England to Boston?”

Turner traces the legacy of America’s god, from the earliest settlers through Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, exploring the ways in which biblical interpretation got tangled up with political and economic unrest and swelling nationalism.

It’s a fascinating look at the past and future of the deity that America supersized and spread across the globe.

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town

Beth Macy

A Taiwanese businessman once told John D. Basset III that when his country was on top “don’t expect us to be dumb Factory Manenough to do for you what you’ve been dumb enough to do for us.” Americans, he said, would do anything for a bargain.

This fact fueled the offshoring of furniture making to Asia. The result was cheap foreign labor and cheaper products. In exchange, American factory towns were devastated as companies took their plants and their jobs overseas.

Basset, however, showed the eastern businessmen another side of Americans—they would do anything for what’s right, even at the cost of a bargain.

Basset waged a war against offshore vultures and even his own family. He was not necessarily a likable man, but his defense of his factory town is heroic and brilliantly recounted by journalist Beth Macy. One of the best reads of the summer.

All Due Respect Issue 4

Check out the new issue of the crime fiction magazine, All Due Respect, which features a nonfiction piece by yours trADR _4 V3uly. My article is a review of Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July, which was released earlier this year in conjunction with the film release. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I highly recommend both.

The issue also includes a powerhouse lineup of crime fiction, including award-winning author Hilary Davidson. Last year, I reviewed her excellent novel, Evil in All Its Disguises, and fans of that novel (and new readers) will enjoy her short story, “A Hopeless Case.”

Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feministsand Purple Hibiscus is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. It was adapted from Adichie’s famous TEDxEuston talk, and whether you prefer the visual or the text, make sure you get a hold of one of them.

“Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

Reading this essay brought me back to my first day of Human Sexuality class at Penn State. “How many of you consider yourselves feminists?” the teacher asked. None of us men raised our hands (I hadn’t yet learned that, by definition, men could be feminists), and maybe only half the women raised theirs.

The teacher asked the hands-downers why they weren’t feminists, and though the reasons they gave were myriad, every response was prefaced with some variation of “I support equality and fair treatment and don’t believe that women are inferior to men, but…”

Interesting.

The teacher’s point, of course, was to show the class how this word had been bastardized and appropriated by so many groups for so many reasons that half the women disowned the label. Adichie shares similar anecdotes of her own struggles with the term.

This was almost 20 years ago, and the word “feminist” is more loaded than ever. With one or more women expected to compete for the presidency in 2016, attack-ad narrators are surely practicing their intonations for the coming voice-over work.

The Nigerian-born Adichie addresses one of the most common criticisms of feminism: Why the gender-specific language? Why not humanist? Or equalist?

“Because that would be dishonest,” Adichie writes. “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.”

But this isn’t an essay about terminology. It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.