did not finish: Tantric Coconuts by Gregory D. Kincaid

tantricOh dear. I had such high hopes for this one. And with such a great title!

Ted Day is a workaholic small-town Kansas lawyer who gets carsick. Wild Bill Raines, Ted’s grandfather, demanded that Ted finally take a vacation – and then died suddenly, leaving Ted his old beat-up RV. Against his better judgment, Ted resigns himself to a road trip with his elderly terrier, Argo.

Angel Two Sparrow is a spiritual consultant whose father fears she has inherited the “loco gene” of the women in their Lakota family. She has just inherited No Barks, a half-wolf dog, and a converted Bookmobile (converted into what, it is unclear) from her father’s Aunt Lilly – not upon that lady’s death but upon her imprisonment, having shot and killed her ex-husband because a bear told her to in her dreams. Angel’s ambition is to be a traveling spiritual consultant, so No Barks will accompany her in the Bookmobile.

The two bump into each other, hard, and literally, at a campground in New Mexico. They exchange a few witty and vaguely flirtatious lines and then get into the meat of it: Ted agrees to be Angel’s student (her first, though he doesn’t know this), and he and Argo join her and No Barks in the Bookmobile for a two-week course of study. At which point this intriguing and charmingly odd (if slightly over-cute and dialog-challenged) story takes a turn for the worse. I was dismayed to find myself reminded of Sophie’s World all over again: Ted and Angel turn out to be mere vehicles for the expression of simplified spiritual philosophies, and the dialog becomes downright atrocious. (“I’m glad you mentioned this, and I want you to know I’ve taken your observation very seriously,” intones Angel on page 85, as if she had just completed a series of classes in management-speak. I made it five more pages before quitting on page 90.) Author Kincaid also includes the occasional footnote recommending further reading, including one pointing his reader to the Wikipedia page on neuroplasticity.

I was taken by Ted and Angel’s contrasts and the possibility for a rather silly romance, which may indeed be where they are heading, but terrible dialog and a transparent use of these characters to teach Philosophy 101 will not allow me to follow them there. Best of luck to them, and the dogs too.

Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization by Derrick Jensen

endgameHow to write about this book for you here? Derrick Jensen fearlessly assesses the terrifying state of our world, for us as people and as not-the-only inhabitants of a globe that is sick with our presence and practices. It is difficult to write about what he has to say and my reactions to it; it’s very personal, because I and/or people I love may or may not be trying to follow some of Jensen’s teachings even as we speak. What I really want to say in this so-called “book review” is, go read Jensen now, and then do something about it.

The concept of endgame is familiar to me from chess. The idea is that we’re trying to get to a final outcome of this chess match, trying to establish a winner and a loser, and there’s no sense hanging on to all these pieces and stretching things out. Instead, I will happily give up my bishops (knights, rooks, queen, all of ’em) in exchange for yours, in order to hurry up the desirable end of the game. Endgame takes the same concept – a desirable hurrying of this game onto its inevitable finish – and applies it to our world, or rather, to civilization. He tells his reader why and how our civilization or culture is hopelessly, insanely f*cked up. He argues that we ARE headed for an end to civilization – and quite appropriately and desirably so – and that we should be hastening this end, the sooner that we can then begin living more sanely (if there’s any “we” left), and the healthier that the planet and anything left on it will be post-endgame.

This may very well sounds nuts to you, if you haven’t given things like global warming, mass extinctions, water shortage, and worldwide social injustices much thought. But it might make a great deal of sense – especially if you let Derrick Jensen tell it, which I really recommend, as he does a far better job of it than I do. Perhaps my first surprise in reading Endgame is that there were no surprises. Jensen makes these arguments so incredibly articulately, cleverly, even funnily, and backs them up so solidly, that I am wowed; but nothing he had to say was entirely new or surprising to me (sadly). He does a really fabulous job of expressing clearly what I already knew, suspected or feared. He also presented some new angles that I hadn’t much considered; and he expands the scope and scale of our problems in a way that I appreciate and found thought-provoking. Make no mistake: Jensen is a philosopher, a thinker, a cerebral guy who has clearly done copious research and spent time talking with some of the smartest people out there. Would that we all had time to do this kind of research and thinking! (Since we don’t, read Endgame.) My father has noted that even climate change experts like Bill McKibben stop short of the dire predictions Jensen posits. I think considering these scary truths is useful, instructive, and constructive, even while it’s sad and terrifying.

If you believe that we just need to drill for more oil; that those with lots of money have the right (and the duty) to protect what’s theirs; and that poor people in poor countries that still have some trees (oil, etc.) left should just move over for those of us that know better – Jensen is unlikely to convince you otherwise. He doesn’t really bother with you, in fact: you are not his audience. (“I was going to suggest those who think the U.S. invasion [of Iraq] has nothing to do with oil should put the book down, but realized they’ve probably already tired of the big words.”) And maybe that’s as it should be, too. Convincing those people is a big job – possibly an impossible one – and there’s other important work to be done. I don’t know that we should be wasting our Derrick Jensens on convincing the hardline fans of civilization that they’re wrong.

Aside from the clearly central issue that I appreciate what he had to say, see the wisdom of his arguments, and applaud his articulations, I also really enjoy Jensen’s conversational style. He can somewhat ramble, but is abundantly coherent for all that; maybe it was just my deep interest and passion for what he was saying (I’m nodding and saying “yea, yea!” as I read), but it all flowed very well even while jumping around a little. Of course I must say too that I loved his love for parentheticals (he mentions how much this frustrates his editor!) because, can you tell, I share it. I believe it was on his website that I read that he completes each page (or several), completely, before moving on to the next: that is, when he’s writing page 11, pages 1-10 are done. I find this fascinating. (I’m always interested in the mechanics of my favorite writers.) And it allows for a journal-like feel: he’ll break off from an argument he’s making to tell an anecdote, like “tonight I gave a talk, and at the end a woman said…”, and the reader is right there in the present with him. He wrote that paragraph on the night that that woman said that thing.

I would also like to make a contrast to yesterday’s DNF book, and say that a key piece of Jensen’s structure here is in stating at the start 20 premises he believes in. He writes,

I want to lay them out as clearly as I can, for you to accept or reject. Part of the reason I want to do this is that the questions I’m exploring regarding civilization are the most important questions we as a culture and as individuals have ever been forced to face. I don’t want to cheat. I want to convince neither you nor me unfairly (nor, for that matter, do I want to convince either of us at all), but instead to help us both better understand what to do (or not do) and how to do it (or why not). This goal will be best served by as much transparency – and honesty – as I can muster.

He then spends 450 pages proving his premises.

I appreciate this clarity. Frankly, I was already on board with his assumptions, but agree wholeheartedly that this is far too important a problem to make assumptions about; the intellectual exercise of questioning our assumptions is absolutely necessary. I like that he is so reflective, asking questions he can’t answer, reconsidering. This is too important a moment for blustering false positivity. Therefore, even though I was willing to buy into premises like, “The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life,” I still value having them proven to me. Jensen questions himself and his own motives. And that’s something I respect.

A solid ‘A’ for style, then, but the real ‘eureka’ for his thoughts and arguments and philosophies. I can’t wait to read Volume II: what we’re going to do about it.

Rating: take note: 10 salmon.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

ishmaelIshmael comes recommended by my father, and that’s enough for me.

It’s an environmental novel published in 1992. So, dated? Or prophetic? I’m afraid it stands firm today; we can debate whether it’s overly alarmist (ha) or overly optimistic (sigh), but I didn’t run across anything that dated it especially for me. The premise is: our narrator (who, I’m pretty sure, remains nameless) is a disillusioned 30-something who, as a teen, had looked for someone to guide his idealistic, revolutionary, 1970’s-style environmentalism, and come out disappointed and cynical. Now that it’s “too late”, he’s frustrated to find the following advertisement in the newspaper:

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

(Is “newspaper” the term that dates this story?) Narrator responds jadedly, assuming this is a charlatan, a scammer; but still he goes to the address listed, because he has to satisfy his curiosity (and presumably because some part of him hopes that someone out there can really teach him how to save the world). In this anonymous retail space, he finds… a gorilla. A big, scary gorilla behind a glass wall; and on Narrator’s side of the wall, a chair. He eventually sits, and our gorilla – Ishmael – “speaks” telepathically to him. Ishmael relates his life story, and they begin discussing What’s Wrong With The World And What We Can Do About It.

Leaving aside the rather strange element of the telepathic and exceptionally well-read gorilla, the structure of this story is much like Sophie’s World, a novel I read pre-blog (thus no review here, sorry) and really, deeply loathed. It is credit to my faith in my father that I picked up Ishmael, knowing it was at all like that other. The structure I’m referring to is part of what I disliked about Sophie, although it works slightly better here: there is no plot, no action in the story, and no character development, because our characters don’t do anything. They form a didactic construction that allows Quinn, in ill-disguised fashion, to voice his own thoughts. If he were doing this in dialogue form, it would make a little more sense; but unfortunately the dialogue mostly consists of many paragraphs by one character, punctuated by the occasional “yes,” “true,” or “I don’t quite understand that part; can you tell me more?” from the other. Now, I liked what Quinn had to say, and I frankly liked the gorilla Ishmael, and so this framing element bothered me far less than it did with Sophie (shudder). But I still felt that it was unnecessary, distracting, and ill-concealed. I’d rather Quinn had just written a manifesto frankly stated as his own.

Quinn’s thesis in a nutshell is that our world is badly f*ed; humans have done it by behaving badly; and we need to change quickly if we hope to salvage the earth itself, its very deserving fellow occupants like butterflies, tigers, flowers and rocks, and any of ourselves. I find this thesis abundantly easy to follow. For decades we’ve known that we were badly screwing up this planet (unless you’re Big Oil and have found a way to put your head under the sand (to look for more oil) in which case you’re probably not reading Ishmael, or this blog). Actually I found the third part of the thesis – that we need to hurry up and change so that we can save the world – hardest to follow, because I think things are worse off than Quinn paints them to be. Of course, I’m writing this more than 20 years later, so I’ll give him a pass there.

That said, the friendly gorilla and the simply stated philosophical approach that he shares with our Narrator make an accessible argument. I could see this being a good entry-level discussion piece – or a jumping-off point for further discussion in a reading group or classroom setting. Ishmael is likeable, and the philosophy is mostly sound (at least until the part about how we can change; I am less hopeful than Ishmael is), and readable.

I am not sorry I read this. But I like Derrick Jensen’s Endgame better, even though it doesn’t have as happy an ending. More on that book to come.

Rating: 5 sessions.
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