Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Alan Moore's novel Jerusalem contains the whole of existence within its pages

Jerusalem – Alan Moore (2016)

(1296 pages.  That is what arrived in my mailbox after sending a hand-written letter to Alan Moore’s publisher.  In the letter I explained that I love books and have written this here book review blog for over 2 years.  I proclaimed my love for Alan Moore’s previous work and my desire to read and review his upcoming opus, Jerusalem.  Receiving that galley copy in the mail a few weeks later was one of the coolest moments in my book-reading life!  My deepest thanks go to the good folks at Liveright Publishing Corporation for their support of my love of books.)
Alan Moore has been one of the most inventive and complex authors of the last 30 years.  The fact that most of his work was done for the supposedly lowly medium of comic books changed nothing for me.  I love comics and Alan Moore’s have been some of the greatest I have ever had the pleasure to read.  V for Vendetta, From Hell, Promethea and especially Watchmen are to me some of the highlights of modern literature and I hope they will be seen that way in the future.  Moore’s work is always dense, instantly engrossing, and deeply thought-provoking.  When I read in the trades that he had been working on a full-on novel I was intrigued.  After receiving my review copy, I immersed myself in the world of Moore’s Jerusalem for these past two months. This is why I have not added any new reviews.  It was totally worth it!
How to describe the scope of Jerusalem?  First, let me explain the significance of the title.  Jerusalem is a holy city.  It is also a symbol for the “promised land” and for “heaven.”  William Blake, the mystic/poet/artist wrote of each one of us creating our own “Jerusalem” within us, allowing each human to experience the truly divine and to achieve peace for one’s soul.  Alan Moore, through his intensive esoteric studies, understands that the “lower classes” live lives so rife with brutality and despair that they are unable to share in the philosophies and world views held by those whose lives are softer, safer, and more stable.  Alan Moore’s aim with this book is to provide a mythology/philosophy for the world’s downtrodden, and all the while he tells an amazing story.
The skeleton that Moore’ hangs his story on is that of the Burroughs, a long-standing neighborhood of poor and working class Brits whose lives, like the lives of all those that live in historically impoverished and neglected areas, are extremely insular and desperate.  The novel jumps back and forth in time following the Vernall family, a family whose roots in the Burroughs go way back in history.  The Vernalls suffer a long history of mental illness in the family.  Many of their members, male and female, lose their marbles so to speak.  Because of this madness, they are also able to step out and above time and space, converse with angels and demons, see the future and the past, and otherwise experience things that those around them cannot.  I do not want to give anything away.  It is hard to discuss this book without doing so. 
At the same time as we hear the story of the Vernall family we are also introduced to dozens and dozens of peripheral characters, each a piece of the overall fabric that makes up the odd space-time continuum that the Burroughs exists in.  There are stories like that of a monk from the actual Jerusalem, who is sent to travel to the center of Britain over 400 years ago with a specific task to accomplish.   There is a tale of a son of slaves, who moved to the Burroughs in the late 1800’s to start a new life.  There is the story of a young boy, who dies and awakens to find himself in Mansoul, which is neither heaven nor hell, but instead is the dimension above our Earthly plane of existence where all of time exists simultaneously, and the friends he makes there.  There is the story of an eccentric artist, the sister of the young boy above, whose artworks describe the visions of Mansoul.  These are just the stories about the living people in the Burroughs.  Interspersed throughout are also stories of events that take place in Mansoul, of the angels who build existence and are in charge of the lives of every resident of the Burroughs, and who control their fate through what appears to be a giant game of billiards.   
The real main character of this novel is the Burroughs itself, a downtrodden neighborhood that Mr. Alan Moore himself grew up in, and which he describes in such intricate detail that it becomes a truly living thing.  Every single building, every tree, every paving stone has a million stories to tell, a million memories attached, from countless residents and their life experiences.  This is very much like any ghetto or slum or poor neighborhood.  There is no escape for the residents so they keep on building meaning and experience in the same places that their parents and their parents’ parents did.  Some places, like the Burroughs, have been involved in this process of isolationist stagnation for centuries, and it shows in the people that have to or choose to call these places home.
The only books I can compare to this one are the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Jerusalem is like Illuminatus in that its purpose seems to be to rewire the thought patterns and reality tunnel of the reader, allowing the reader’s mind to expand and see the interconnectedness of all things as well as the absurdity of certainty of any kind.  Jerusalem is like Ulysses in that events of a single day are explored in near-infinite detail, letting the reader understand that at any given moment in time, there are an infinity of events occurring around them, an infinity of thoughts and feelings and decisions and crimes and good and evil.  Ulysses takes place in the city of Dublin.  Jerusalem takes place in the neighborhood of the Burroughs. Not only are different stories told but the method of delivering the stories changes too, never letting the reader become too comfortable.  Jerusalem switches point of view often, changes from prose to poetry, contains a chapter that is written out like a stage play, describes the internal mental state of an “insane” woman in a chapter that is near-Joycean in its phonetic creativity (It is best read aloud), and hops back and forth in time regularly.  Jerusalem is a complex masterwork, and I understand why Alan Moore took ten years to write it.
One of the greatest ideas in the book is that of the repeated nature of existence.  Some cultures believe in reincarnation, whereby one soul hops from organism to organism, on its way to the complete absolution of self which they call nirvana.  Jerusalem posits that we do reincarnate if we want to, but that each of us lives the same life over and over and over and over.  We make the same mistakes.  We experience the same joys.  We sometimes feel déjà vu because we get a feeling we have experienced this moment before.  While this idea seems to place a limit on free will, it is perfectly fitting to a world where the same problems, hardships, and fears plague generation after generation with no end in sight.  Upon death, our soul goes to the dimension above ours, Mansoul as it is called.  Some people are too attached to living and are unable to make it to Mansoul, instead spending eternity reliving their time on Earth as grey, lifeless shades, forever looping around, revisiting moments in their life, and being ignored by the living around them.  The way that Alan Moore describes all of this is so cool, and builds so carefully, that I do it a disservice with my description here.  It really needs to be read to be appreciated.
The hard part of reading this novel is that Alan Moore also describes the horrors and traumas experienced by the residents of the Burroughs.  They are the horrors of anyone living an impoverished and hopeless life.  Drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, violence, infidelity, joblessness, treachery, and plain old EVIL are constant residents of the Burroughs too, as they are in all poor areas.  The suffering of the disadvantaged human never changes.  It is the same pains that they have felt for generations.  It will be felt by those to come.  It is important to know this, to know that people are shaped by their circumstances far more than we wish to believe.  Modern humans have a delusion of free will, believing that anyone anywhere can improve their lot by proper decisions and hard work.  Only someone who grew up comfortable, able to indulge their individuality without fearing daily for their well-being, and able to take meals and education and opportunity for granted can be so carefree.  The poor of the world do not share this.  They suffer from birth to death, and even small victories such as graduating from High School, or getting a decent job become tragedies far more regularly than not.  Alan Moore understands this and is able to show the innate dignity of life in spite of the horrors that surround it.
          I read mostly non-fiction books.  If you see the list of reviews you will notice this.  There are a few novels and other such works of fiction included but the majority is not fiction.  Fiction takes longer for me to read by its very nature.  Non-fiction works have to be written in as clear a language as possible, because their aim is to pass on information.  It does not do to obscure the information by the use of literary language.  Fiction is the opposite.  It truly wants to transport the reader to a fully imagined world, and the actual syntax and writing style can change to suit the author’s desires and goals.  Alan Moore has achieved this.  I really hope more people take the time to read this book.  Even if it takes a year, it is worth it.  I know I will be thinking about the people and ideas found within Jerusalem for the rest of my life. 

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Jerusalem-Alan-Moore/dp/1631491342 )

Thursday, September 22, 2016

This Practical Guide to Texas Mushrooms is a Keeper!

Texas Mushrooms: A Field Guide – Susan Metzler, Van Metzler (1992)

            I have always been fascinated by fungi.  They grow faster than most plants.  They move and grow like animals.  They feed off of decomposing plant matter.  They have an extremely interesting life cycle.  They create fruiting bodies which are by turn delicious, toxic, beautiful, repulsive, smelly, and mind-altering.  Every culture has some sort of tribal history that refers to mushrooms and the fungi in general, for they are found nearly everywhere that humans exist.  They are some of the most important yet ignored parts of the cycle of life on Planet Earth.  Since I am lucky to live in the humid and temperate climate of Houston, Texas, United States, Sol System, Milky Way, Universe, I have access to a huge variety of mushrooms year-round.  While most people go off on excursions in the early morning hours after a good rain, I find mushrooms all around me in the apartment complex my wife and I reside in.  Being around them and spotting them on my daily dog-walks has become a hobby of mine.  Because of this I needed to find a reliable and photographically illustrated guide to the mushrooms of Texas.  After some research, I found out that there are not many such guides for mushrooms in general and definitely not for the specific area of Texas in which I live. 

            The Metzlers are a couple who have become amateur master foragers of mushrooms in Texas, and understanding that others like themselves needed a good primer for collecting mushrooms in our state, they set out to create just such a book.  It is a perfect book for someone like me, with a basic knowledge of fungi, but with a desire to learn the differences between the different families of mushrooms, and the way to identify which ones are delicious to eat without poisoning myself.  Luckily the amazing M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston where I work had this book on the shelves.  I Love Libraries!

            Having looked through several different field guides for mushrooms I instantly found this one to be great, both for its ease of use, and for its clear colorful photographs of the mushrooms which allow for far easier documentation and identification.  Their descriptions are stated in a non-technical manner, while at the same time providing the highly-technical language of the mycologists used to designate the different species and sub-species.  To a nerd like me this is as good as it gets.  I will have to make a point to purchase my very own copy of this book for my personal library.  It has inspired me to meet up with the mushroom foragers who hold semi-annual trips to the massive and lush forests of East Texas to search for edible or useful mushrooms and to educate those who attend about the forests, the fungi, and the relationships they hold to the living plants.  The following are two which hold forays around the Houston and Gulf Coast area.

            Fungi are nature’s decomposers.  Recently, scientists have been decoding the genomes of various fungi species and have found that they are even more closely related to animals than was originally believed.  They are like some sort of organism straddling the line between plant life and animal life.  Amazing stuff!  The mushrooms and puffballs that we all see above ground are just the fruiting bodies of the mycelium, a web of fungi sometimes acres wide that lives just below the surface of the soil, or the forest floor, or on dead and rotting fallen trees.  Many tree and plant species have relationships with specific fungi, like the morel mushroom, which creates a symbiotic relationship with forest trees like Pine, Poplar, and Oak.  The fungus extracts certain minerals and nutrients and binds them to the soil so that they can then be used by the tree, while the tree helps shield and nurture the mycelium growing underground. 
            I could go on and on about mushrooms.  I can’t help it.  They are some of the most mysterious life on this planet of ours and most people simply ignore them as they live their lives.  If they think about them at all it is as a food item to add to sauces or steaks or pizza.  I cannot wait to put the knowledge I have gained from this awesome book to practical use.  The state of Texas is in just the perfect location and has such a wide variety of climate within its borders that it is home to more mushroom species than nearly anywhere else in the country.  Both North American and South American species grow here, with an estimated 4,000+ species.  Of those, maybe just over 1,000 have been categorized or are known to the scientific literature.  What a science nerd’s dream it is to discover a new species, and describe it and name it.  I want to live that dream!

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Texas-Mushrooms-Field-Corrie-Herring/dp/0292751265 )

Monday, September 19, 2016

What Exactly Did the Ancient Mystics Experience, and Why?

The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East: A Contribution to Current Research on Hallucinations Drawn from Coptic and Other Texts – Violet MacDermot (1971)

            Sometimes I find myself drawn to read a reference work.  I really love reference materials, as they gather and explore a large amount of data into one cohesive book.  I have always enjoyed pouring information into my grey matter and seeing the connections made therein.  Having read quite a few books in the past two years dealing with the rise of worship, the human need for ritual, the neurophysiology of the human brain and how it affects what is called the mystical, and the development of mythology and the mythological basis for all of our religious belief systems, I figured that this book was indeed for me.  In this masterwork, Violet MacDermot has gathered together writings from the Egyptians, the Coptic Christians, the Gnostic Christians and the Hebrews, and seeks to understand the means by which these people enabled, experienced, and interpreted mystic visions/hallucinations.  It is an exhaustive book, and well worth going back to as a reference source.
            A book of this scope has many themes to explore.  One of the main ones is the change in mystical visions from the time of the Egyptian ascetics to the Hellenic/Greek times, to that of the early Hebrew mystics and then the Christian saints and martyr seers.  It explores the details of the ritual, religious life of an Egyptian believer, and then details how this differed from the life of the hermit mystic.  During and before the time of the Egyptian kingdoms, the role of ritual and religion was to help the individual understand their place in the larger scheme of things.  This included the general understanding that the divine was to be found in all things, both living and inanimate, and that to serve the greater community was the utmost goal.  The individual themselves is not of primal importance.  They are just a cog in the greater machine.  The gods depended upon the people’s rituals to ensure their endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.  Without strict regulations on rituals and religious services, the whole fabric of human society would have crumbled (in their eyes), and the legitimacy of their divine rulers (kings or pharaohs) would be devalued.  MacDermot provides countless examples translated from original source materials to show that the Egyptian devout felt their participation integral to the orderliness of the world around them.  The mystics at this time would do everything the opposite of what was expected from society.  They would remove themselves from the towns and cities, living alone in the deserts.  They would avoid the ritual prayers and ceremonies of the regular folk, and instead focus their whole energies into meditation, fasting, and the attempt to have the soul be rid completely of the trappings of the normal Egyptian world.  Because of this they found divinity in themselves, the full realization of it coming only very near death, as one lets go of this world and the soul moves onto the next.  Instead of ensuring proper mummification so that their body would be reunited with their soul in the afterlife, they sought a total wasting away, allowing their soul to unify with the divine and avoid the endless repetition of birth/death/rebirth.  This would prove to be very influential to the Hellenic, Hebrew, and Christian mystics who came after them.
            It seems that every new culture strives to erase the ideas of the past, or at least refute them.  The Greek philosophers did not agree with the Egyptian mystics.  They saw the world as a quite different place, and their mystical visions changed accordingly.  Many of them came to believe that the material world was one of pure degradation, always rotting, always in a state of decline, and that the spiritual world, the world of ideal forms and of the spirit, was one of perfection.  The Hellenic mystics would use many of the same techniques as the Egyptian mystics to bring about ecstatic visions.  Everything from fasting, to physical deprivation, to ritual dance, to chanting, to a secluded desert hermit life was utilized.  Their end goals were different though.  They did not come from a society that demanded everyone adhere to a specific set of ritual. Instead, they lived in a world where the philosophers told them that the divine/ideal was to be reached through pure thought, through philosophy, as it were.  They would meditate on the ideal, seeking to eliminate all thought of the base natural world from their minds.  Even though their aims were different, the visions described and experiences claimed were very similar to those of their predecessors in Egypt.  This continues on through the Hebrew and the early Christian mystical tradition.
            After the Egyptians and the Greeks, the mystics of the Hebrew and the early Christian faith were a bit different.  They did not see the world as divinity manifested (Egyptian) or as a shadow of the divine (Greeks), but instead they saw a strict duality of good versus evil.  Many tended to believe in the Manichean thought that the natural world is a wholly evil construct, one in which the body is purely a prison for the divine soul.  Because of this, any and all human activity was derided as either evil, or drawn from evil.  Of course, these activities were merely the residue of the earlier ages of religious thought.  Sex was evil, where before it was a personal experience of divinity.  Orgiastic feasts were evil, where before they allowed the community to share in the bounty that divinity had provided on the Earth.  To the mystic seers even the idea of organized religion was an evil, created on Earth to draw humans away from the truly divine, which could only be achieved by the total obliteration of the self, both physical and mental.  It really is insane how humanity creates its gods and means of worship, and then rails against it at a later time, only to then destroy and rail against the latest religious ideas.  

For modern Americans, a nice view from the balcony can be an ecstatic experience.

             If anything, books such as these that aggregate the religious literature over thousands of years and dozens of cultures go to show the deep schizophrenia that exists in the human mind when it is forced to believe something that is essentially a fairy tale explanation for the way the world appears to us.  Mystics to this day continue on with these self-mortification practices, starving themselves, ingesting hallucinogenic substances, enduring endless pain and discomfort, and separating themselves from the society at large, all to attempt to commune with a non-existent divinity.  So many people have died and suffered at the hands of those that believe their rituals are the true ones, and that any others must be stopped at any cost.  Currently there is a war going on in Islam, between different cults, each claiming they are the one true way to salvation and the divine.  The same thing goes on in Christianity, as the orthodox and the charismatic Pentecostals fight it out in the court of public opinion, as well as in our legislatures.  No one talks about this.  It is a hard subject to broach.  The more one learns about humanity’s religious history, the more one sees how it is all a very carefully constructed house of cards, ready to fall down at any moment, but taking up vast amounts of resources and time from millions of blindly faithful people that could be better served in the betterment of humanity at large.
            The best part of this book consists of the translations of source materials that Ms. MacDermot has gathered up.  It is quite amazing to see the literal plagiarism used to prop up the stories about saints and martyrs and mystics.  The people who wrote about the Christian martyrs used the writings about Hellenic mystics as source material, copying nearly every detail.  The Hellenic mystery cult writers did the same thing with the writings of the Egyptians.  So many things are accepted at face value because some learned wise man wrote it down thousands of years ago.  It is ridiculous.  Every new religion has to usurp the rituals and holidays of the ones that came before it, and by doing so, usually turn out to employ the exact same means that were deemed blasphemous or heretic.  The very early Christians followed the rules Jesus gave very strictly.  Jesus said to leave your family, to avoid sex, to not worship idols, to avoid working, to basically stop taking part in society and society’s rituals.  The Christian church however, created “sacraments” to ensure that the masses would still take care of their familial obligations, would still marry and have many children, would still pray to images of saints and martyrs, would still find employment to pay the 10% tithe required by the church, and would continue in their yearly rituals, disguised as Christian holidays (Easter = Ishtar, Christian Saint Feast days replacing those of previous religions, etc.).  In other words, the Church forced its followers to adhere to the very same things that their namesake, Jesus Christ, instructed them to avoid.  If that does not let you know it is all a crock of shit, then perhaps you should read this book and start the exploration for yourself.

(This book is out of print but can be purchased used here: https://www.amazon.com/Cult-Seer-Ancient-Middle-East/dp/0520020308 )

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Best Book About American Football I Have Yet to Read

A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football – Paul Zimmerman (1970)

Man, I love NFL football.  I once read an article on the New England Patriot’s coach Bill Belichik which described his vast library of books about football, many of which he inherited from his father who was a head coach at the US Naval Academy for 34 years.  His library contains books on football history, tactics, coaching methods, and training techniques.  I bet he has this book in his library. 
The previous book I reviewed was a first-person diary of the life of an NFL offensive lineman during a full season.  This book is told from the vantage point of a sports journalist who has made his career covering the pro football ranks.  Paul Zimmerman is a bit of a legend in sports writing circles (known as Dr. Z for the past couple of decades), since he has first-hand knowledge of the last 50-60 years of pro football.  His writing is always incisive, humorous. and informative.  He rarely veers into sentimentality or nostalgia.  The best part of this boom is the detail that Mr. Zimmerman provides regarding the specifics of playing each position on the field.
There are glory players in football.  The receivers, running backs and especially the quarterback are all glamorous, flashy positions, with thousands of words written about every single detail of their practices, and game-day performances.  However, the meat and potatoes of American Football takes place in the trenches, in the pit, in the shit, as players describe it.  This is the collision zone between the offensive and defensive lines.  This is where the fates of the quarterbacks, receivers, and runners hang in the balance.  If the offensive line does not hold, the passes will not be successful.  Either the QB will be rushed in his throw, or he will be crushed by 300lb behemoths coming full speed.  If the offensive linemen do not block properly, the runners can gain neither yardage nor glory. 
Because of their anonymity, these linemen seldom get recognition for their work.  They are scorned when they fail an assignment, but rarely are they praised if they did their jobs well.  Mr. Zimmerman goes into great detail about how the different line positions must function, what coaches look for in a player for these positions, and who has been a great player at each position.  His discussions get very specific partly because he was an old offensive lineman in his youth, and partly because these positons are so much more complicated than the average fan understands.  This allowed me to better understand the roles these giant men play as the team seeks victory.
Another area that Mr. Zimmerman sheds light upon is the worlds of the coaches, scouts, and general managers.  The coaches are responsible for game-plans, and tactics.  The scouts have the task of seeking out new talent.  The general managers are the men who make personnel decisions at draft time, trade time, and when the teams have to make the dreaded “cuts.”  Their world is at once simple, and exceedingly complex.  They spend untold hours scrutinizing every last detail of an opponent, watching reel after reel of game film, and then trying to put everything they have learned into a game-plan which they then have to teach to their players.  This happens week in, week out.  It is an exhausting life.
As a lover of pro American Football, the parts of this book that most resonate with me are when I can feel Mr. Zimmerman’s enthusiasm as a fan of these athletes.  The sections where he discusses the greats of the game, or the legendary coaches, or the early stars of the sport all fill me with a deep admiration for the men who helped create this game which I so love now.  The final chapter of this book is dedicated to the player whom Mr. Zimmerman, as well as many others, considers the greatest football player they ever saw.  That would be Mr. Marion Motley, a monster fullback who also played offensive line and defensive linebacker.  The only person who could compare is the great Jim Brown, who played almost a decade later.  Mr. Brown did not play both ways though, and was not feared as a maniacally powerful hitter.  The old days when the players played both ways will never come again, but they still inspire.
A few years ago Mr. Zimmerman suffered a series of bad strokes which caused him to lose his ability to speak, and much control of his body.  He had to stop writing.  He lives with his wife (who he would affectionately refer to as “the Flaming Redhead” when he mentioned her in his columns) and has had to go through rounds of physical therapy.  He may never again regain his ability to speak or write, but he has given the world decades worth of high-quality writing and analysis.  He has written several books.  He has shared his deep passion for the sport with all of us lucky fanatics.  Thank you Dr. Z.

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/thinking-mans-guide-pro-football/dp/0525217355 )