25.6.20

The X-Men battle one of their own in the Dark Phoenix Saga



The Uncanny X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga – Chris Claremont & John Byrne (1980)

I cannot remember a time I did not read comic books.  Around 1985 or so, at 12 years of age, I got my hands on this first trade paperback printing of The Uncanny X-Men issues 129-138.  At that time, nearly 4 decades ago, it was rare to find bound re-prints of classic story lines.  I was very fortunate.  I have read this book countless times in the intervening years, always finding it to be deep and very entertaining.  

        My wife, Elizabeth, loves reading but it took until our relationship for her to read many of the great comics I love, such as From Hell, The Watchmen, and especially the full Sandman series.  We enjoy reading them together, although my baritone voice will end up lulling her to sleep mid-page!  As she had never read any X-Men comics, and because I have subjected her to too many superhero movies that rip-off these classic tales, we decided to read this together.

        One of the reasons the classic X-Men comic books are so prized is that the stories told within those pages, while every bit the exciting smash-‘em-ups expected in superhero comics, explored the internal lives and personal relationships of the X-Men superhero team.  Their interpersonal conflicts, emotions, and persecutions were all part of the tale and served to ground these heroes.  Reading a book like the Avengers was much different.  Although they too consist of a team of super-powered beings, the Avengers remained cold archetypes.  Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the rest, may have had some personal quirks, but the stories never let us into their inner minds.  It took the X-Men to bring personal stories into the superhero genre.

        The story by comics legend Chris Claremont, and the kinetic artwork of John Byrne, was so ahead-of-it’s-time that it has been endlessly copied.  (I could go an at length about the amazing Bill Sienkewicz cover art.  I stared at that for HOURS)  The tale begins with the X-Men exploration of a secret cabal seeking to take over the world while remaining hidden by an outside show of opulence and beneficent work.  These enemies are dealt with in turn, but not before they manage to bring about the return of Dark Phoenix, a being of power and greed who seeks to consume all of existence.  The X-Men’s dilemma is that the Dark Phoenix has manifested herself in the body of Jean Grey, a powerful telepath and one of the original X-Men.  What they do to try and save both her and us from Dark Phoenix is the climax of this story.

        As with any works of fiction, I do not like to give away plot points or anything that may detract from your enjoyment of the story.  If you have seen some of the X-Men films of the past 15 years you will see where the writers of those films cribbed many details from this Dark Phoenix Saga, even while completely ignoring the actual human tale within.  This book has been re-printed many time since.  If you are able to find a copy, you will experience one of the greatest stories ever told in the world of mainstream superhero comic books.  I cannot wait to read it again in a few years.

16.6.20

Why Not Say It Clearly, indeed.




Why Not Say It Clearly: A Guide to Scientific Writing – Lester S. King, M.D. (1978)

            As I move through life my eyes are constantly on the hunt for new reading material.    I work at a medical school, and often find stacks of medical books and publications being offered as free giveaways.   I will grab something if it appeals to me.  This book, one of the most informative texts I have read concerning good writing and how to best achieve it, caught my eye. 

            Dr. Lester S. King wrote this after a long medical and educational career.  He was just as frustrated by poorly written student dissertations as he was by obtusely worded journal articles.  Dr. King understood that what is learned in school is often codified in practice.  It then is never questioned, leading to an ossification of the written language used by scientists and science writers.  This book is his attempt at pinpointing what makes a sentence or paragraph “good” or “bad” and how to best achieve good writing in one’s own work.

            The title of this books sums up everything inside.  The question “Why not say it clearly?” is one that helps summarize much of what Dr. King teaches in the book.  He divides everything into chapters that build upon each other.  He initially describes the present situation in scientific writing.  How and why modern scientific writing is so stilted and unspecific is discussed.  A lot of blame is given to the widely-accepted use of the passive voice, and how it defeats the scientific goals of specificity while maintaining an illusory sense of professional detachment.  In much science writing the author will state something like “The results were entered by the researcher,” when they are speaking about themselves.  It is much more accurate and specific to say “I entered the results.”  It is active, and gets the point across without adding extra words or clumsy phrases.

            Dr. Lester S. King goes on.  One chapter discusses five “treacherous servants.”  These are aspects of language that, while necessary, can become crutches or problems.  An example is the overuse of the word “very.”  While a researcher may write, “The experiment was very intense and very difficult,” nothing of value is actually lost if instead they wrote, “The experiment was intense and difficult.”  Another example is the use of the word “it” where a specific noun would convey more information. 

            One of my favorite chapters discussed the differences between editing and revision.  As Dr. King describes, Editing is the correction of the writing in someone else’s work.  An Editor must try as hard as possible to keep the language in the style of the original writer.  Certain corrections can be made but an Editor should never change the content or intent of the writer.  Revision is the process of correcting the writing in one’s own work.  Revision allows the writer to rethink his original ideas, to rewrite passages, or to edit out sections that may seem unnecessary.  I have been both an editor and a writer revising his work.  It is very informative.

            In a chapter that had relevance to this blog, the author discusses the qualities of book reviews, and how best to write and utilize them.  Dr. King spent many years as Head Editor of scientific journals.  Some years they would receive over 2,000 books and manuscripts for review.  His process involved winnowing out the 40-50% of works that had merit, then dividing that list up even further.  The journal had a section with a listing of “New titles out this month,” a section with 20-25 unsigned notices of 60-80 words, basically a small description of the work in question. After that came the full, 500-900 word reviews, signed by the reviewer.  This allowed him to disperse the knowledge that these new books existed, and to speak in-depth about the ones he felt were of real value to most of his audience.

            I have heard it said that the right book will find you when you are ready for it.  I have had this experience multiple times.  This book will help me so much as I continue to write reviews of the books I read.  I highly recommend it, even to writers of fiction, for the knowledge within is applicable to any and all writing.  

3.6.20

Garak, from Deep Space Nine, Tells it His Way




Star Trek – Deep Space Nine: A Stitch in Time – Andrew J. Robinson (2000)


            When I was a young child in Puerto Rico, I would watch the Star Trek cartoon, dubbed in Spanish.  I thought it was so cool.  Soon after moving to Houston, Texas, I found the original Star Trek on cable TV and loved it too.  Spock was my MAN!  I think a lot of people who find emotions and feelings complicated see an ideal to strive for in Spock and his intellectual rigor.  I devoured Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) when it came out.  It was an entire program devoted to showing us an ideal of human interaction.  When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) came out, I watched it from the start.  It soon became my very favorite Star Trek show ever, and it has remained so decades later.

            One of the greatest aspects of DS9 is the effort taken by the writers to flesh out a truly massive list of recurring and guest characters.  The show takes place on a very remote space station, located next to the mouth of a wormhole which allows travel from our sector of the Galaxy to an unexplored sector, over 90,000 light years away.  Because of this, the focus is not aimed solely at Starfleet personnel, like all previous Trek shows.  It deals more with everyone’s interactions as they all try to live together, and the conflicts that inevitably arise.  These conflicts and morally “grey” characters were anathema on TNG.  On DS9, they drove the plots.  One of the favorite recurring characters on DS9, and maybe the single most loved character on the show, is Elim Garak, a Cardassian tailor exiled from his home world, who may or may not have, at one time, been an assassin, a spy, an undercover operative, a saboteur, etc.  He never tells the truth, yet he never tells the same lie twice.  Sometimes it feels like all his lies are actually truths!

            The part of Garak was played by Andrew Robinson, famous for playing the killer Scorpio in the Dirty Harry movie.   In order to prepare his character, once he realized it would be a recurring one, he began to create a back-story for Garak, and a personal character “bible.”  During the 7 seasons of the show, it became much more than this, and Mr. Robinson ended up with a full length novel on his hands.  This was published as a paperback in 2000, and quickly went out of print.  Once I found out this book existed, I had to read it!  The only problem was that copies were going for quite a high price on the internet, due to the rabid nature of Niners like myself.  Last Christmas, my wife surprised me by tracking down a surprisingly affordable copy and gifting it to me.  Double awesomeness! 

            This book is not a straightforward novel, but instead consist of three separate texts, all written by Garak at various points in his life.  One text is a personal diary Garak maintained since his youth and describes the schooling and training he received which started him on the path to the charismatic enigma we meet on DS9.  A second part consists of a personal log kept while Garak was exiled on DS9 which expands on many of the events and scenes that occur during the run of the show.  The third document is a series of letters written to Dr. Julian Bashir, in the years after the Dominion War.  During this time Garak is back on Cardassia, helping rebuild after the loss of ten Billion lives.  These three threads are interwoven throughout the book and  make for engrossing reading. 

            Possibly the greatest aspect of this is that I have watched DS9 so much, and am such a geek about it, that the entire novel in my head is read with Garak’s voice and inflection!  I love it.  It is like getting to have a daily lunch with him, much like Dr. Bashir did on the station.  Andrew Robinson did a superb job of crafting this novel into something that deepens the character he helped create, answering many questions fans have had about Garak’s background and experiences. I would hope that it is re-printed soon, so that the old fans can be re-acquainted with Garak.  As DS9 has had a huge increase in viewings, due to the various streaming methods and the ability to binge the episodes in the order intended, this book would also be appreciated by new fans.  I suggest someone pays Mr. Robinson some good cheddar to do an audiobook version in character as Garak.  Imagine that!  Niners throughout the Galaxy would be thrilled.  I highly recommend this book for all Trek fans, and especially all Deep Space Nine fans.

27.3.20

We may all need a New Model for the Universe...




A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art – P.D. Ouspensky (1929)

SUN RA Reading List

            This is the second book off of Sun Ra’s Reading List that I have read so far. Both are profound, and complex works attempting to attack and explain vastly different subjects.  Whereas the first book, The Two Babylons, was one man’s exploration of the sources and roots of Roman Catholic ideology and imagery back through time to perhaps the most ancient human civilization we know of, this book is an attempt to explain what countless mystics, theologians, and schools of thought have been unable to.  In this text, P.D. Ouspensky sets out to provide us fellow humans a way into the ideas and knowledge that have been kept “Hidden” or as “Mysteries” throughout human existence.  It is a deep dive indeed.
            This is a long and complex work.  It contains various sections written by Ouspensky at various times in his life.  There are parts where the author discusses his own life, and the experiences and events that led him to explore what many ignore, or consider unknowable.  This led him to learn about religions, cults, esoteric groups, secret teachings, and the Mystery Schools, even going so far as traveling worldwide to learn from those they call Masters in remote lands.  Ouspensky is not your typical seeker, as he is very well-versed in science, human psychology, and the human mind’s neurological activity, at least as well-versed as a layman could be in the late 19th/early 20th century.  He is constantly questioning his experiences, and relates how many “seekers” latch onto the first realization/epiphany they experience, never pushing forward to deeper truths.
            Ouspensky begins the book by discussing what modern society (his world in the 1890-1920 period) believed or sought to understand about esotericism.  He details the various sidetracks that people slid into in their search for hidden knowledge, including the lies and chicanery practiced by the Spiritualists of that era.  He explains that the true esoteric knowledge is knowledge about the world we all share that is only suitable or understandable by a select few, who need to have prior training or study to even comprehend these things.  He details how modern society has no place for these mysteries, leaving many to believe ridiculous lies and dogma because they have no access to the actual truths. 
            He then proceeds to explore the concept of the 4th dimension, time, and how it applies to our existence.  Much like Einstein did, Ouspensky seeks to understand the metaphysical implications of a four-dimensional world.  Similar to the tale Flatland, Ouspensky starts with a point in space (0 Dimension) and shows how that point moving in time creates a line (1 Dimension).  A line, being 1D can move in two ways in time.  Along its length, the line gets longer.  However, if the line moves in time perpendicularly equal to its length, then that line becomes a square (2 Dimensions).  If that square moves in time perpendicular to itself you end up with a cube (3 Dimensions).  We live in this seemingly 3 Dimensional world.  The trick part is, how do we conceive of a square, seemingly solid, moving perpendicular to itself to create a 4 Dimensional figure?  How does that figure then move perpendicular to itself to create a 6 Dimensional figure?  It is a very heady topic.
            Subsequent chapters explore the idea of a “super” man as it has been handed down through time.  This is not an extra-powerful man, but a man that has transcended this 3rd Dimension in his mind, and become a 4 Dimensional being, without the usual intellectual issues and emotional failures that humans naturally possess.  Per Ouspensky, history provides us with examples of these ascended humans, such as Gautama Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth.  Due to this, Ouspensky spends a good amount of time on what the Christ story actually means, and why the New Testament is a radically different sort of text than the Old Testament.  His claim is that the Gospel stories are disguised metaphors for the journey a human must make to transcend this 3D existence or materiality, and gain a new existence (a rebirth/reincarnation) as an enlightened 4 Dimensional being.
            Ouspensky goes on to explore at depth that various systems that humans have used to understand, teach, and sometimes to disguise, sacred wisdom.  He analyzes the Tarot and its imagery, the four systems of Yoga, Dreams and the claims of Hypnotism.  The author then spends some time detailing his own personal journey into what he calls Experimental Mysticism, the active exploration of the mind, and his results are surprisingly lacking in gullibility.  This leads to what he titled the book, which is a New Model of the Universe.  This new model is intended as an exploration of what the new quantum and relativity sciences imply for our existence, hidden dimensions, and how we will evolve in the future.
For someone writing nearly 100 years ago, I found Mr. Ouspensky to have a very modern mind, cynical when it is needed, open when it is important, and willing to explore side streets and backwaters in search of truth.  This is a good example for others to follow.  I am confident that much of what P.D. Ouspensky has written is closer to the “truth”, if there is any truth to actually be found, than most any other work of esoteric wisdom I have come across.  It makes sense why this book resonated with Sun Ra enough for him to include it in his lesson plans.
(You can download and read this book in PDF form here: http://www.baytallaah.com/bookspdf/78.pdf )

19.2.20

Upcoming 2020 International Book Fairs!

In order to support the practice of reading and the beauty of books, RXTT's Intellectual Journey has partnered with KOTOBE (https://www.kotobee.com ) in order to share this amazing compendium of world-wide Book Fairs taking place in the next 12 months.

 https://www.kotobee.com/blog/international-book-fairs-2020/ 

 The URL above will take you to a comprehensive and exhaustively researched list of International Book Fairs, sorted by date. Wonderful stuff! The good people at KOTOBEE specialize in helping writers, businesses, and organizations create ebooks. It is a worthy effort.

12.2.20

I Ran Across a Biting Satire for Our Modern Times






Mischief – Chris Wilson (1993)

            I often spend much of my lunch hour at work reading (lucky me!).  One day, as I was leaving the Baylor College of Medicine cafeteria, I noticed a bookshelf tucked away in the corner.  Taped to the top shelf was a sign reading “Your Free Library.”  I am always drawn to Libraries of any type, even tiny ones.  I perused the contents of the shelves, finding many magazines, medical periodicals, and quite a few books, both fiction and non-fiction, that were interesting to me.  Among these was a well-worn paperback titled Mischief, by English author Chris Wilson.  Reading the blurbs and the synopsis on the back page I was intrigued, and took the book with me.

            From the moment I began to read this novel I found myself both engaged and amused by turn, and began to really relate to the protagonist, one Charlie Duckworth.  He narrates his own tale, describing himself then his humble beginnings, where he was found beside a Brazilian river by a British botanist who brings Charlie back to the UK as his adopted son.  This book resonantly speaks to the outsider’s experience upon being thrust into British society and culture, mirroring somewhat my experience as an outsider Puerto Rican who was brought to Houston, Texas, leaving behind every bit of societal culture I understood, and having to adapt and join the alien American culture I had seen so much on TV and movies.

            Like the very best works of satire, this is one funny book.  Also, like the very best works of satire, the jokes are there to shed light upon the horror inherent in the culture being savaged.  Charlie is, in nearly all respects, the opposite of a British gentleman.  His skin is yellow, his body is hairless, and his frame is tall and gangly.  He is a devout vegetarian.  He is so overcome with empathy and sympathy for anyone who appears in pain or suffering that he unconsciously mimics their afflictions, thereby causing the very people he is sympathizing with to reject him, fearing that he is only ridiculing their woe.  He does not understand sarcasm, nor lies, nor the very British trait of extreme politeness to the point of delusion.  He sees himself as an animal, not a Homo Sapiens Sapiens human being, and the responses and reactions he receives from the British people as he maneuvers school and life only reinforce that idea.

            Charlie Duckworth is also an astute observer of humanity, sharing with the reader the many conclusions he has come to regarding the human creature and the actions of such.  Here is an example of the type of interactions Charlie had with his University professors,

            “Holzinger gave a rhesus Monkey an electric shock every time it ate a banana,” Dr. Jobson told our seminar group. “Why do you suppose he did this?
            “Was he a sadist, a psychopath?” I asked.  It seemed a rhetorical question, but I wanted to make a contribution.
            “Duckworth,” Dr. Jobson declared…”don’t be a smart-arse.  Not in my seminars.”
            “But look at it from the monkey’s point of view…” I protested.
            “The monkey doesn’t have a point of view,” he snapped.  There was this prevalent view in psychology that animals didn’t have pleasures or feelings.  There were only things that happened to them, and things they did in reflex reply – stimuli and responses.  I knew better.  Though, I didn’t say so.

            Charlie experiences much of what constitutes a “typical” British upbringing, always experiencing things in a way that exasperates the Brits around him.  They do not know how to cope with someone who has not yet assimilated all their self-delusion mechanisms.  This is very much how life is like in our modern world for anyone not interested in acquiring wealth and/or power, or for someone whose personal values are deemed worthless by the society he finds himself in.  The kind, giving, friendly person is the first victim of the mean, selfish, and antagonistic person. 

Charlie’s insights into us humans may cut deep, but they are true insights, and exceedingly valuable.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has felt marginalized by the world at large, or out of place within a world that you did not create.  I know it resonated deeply with me, and my experiences.  Author Chris Wilson has created a profound book, dripping with the sharply observed satire expected out of someone like Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift.  It is a satire for our modern age, asking what being human really means, and whether it is worth it to try.