I find making book recommendations quite challenging because so much is up to such idiosyncratic taste. As a result, I am keeping this short and sweet, and confined to books that I thought strongly en0ugh about to review in print.
I, Lucifer: Finally, the Other Side of the Story
By Glen Duncan (2004)
The Winner, and talk about a guilty pleasure: I loved this book like no other.
I would kill to see a “sophisticated wit” showdown between Glen Duncan and Oscar Wilde – and I am not at all sure who would win. I will tell you I have never read 262 pages so carefully for fear of missing something. And, there were passages and situations that caught me so off-guard that I laughed out loud, and frankly, no other book has ever done that for me. Sorry to be hyperbolic about this, because this book is not everyone’s cup of hemlock (feel free to send your hate-mail).
Here’s the Deal: God is about to pull the plug (on everything), and He’s giving His most Fallen Angel one last chance to make good. Lucifer has one month inside the body of suicidal author Declan Gunn (author of the work who authors the work who, oh, forget it) in order to redeem himself.
The narrative bounces back and forth between The True History of Creation (as told by Lucifer through this text “written by Gunn,” now optioned for a movie – big-name stars, only, please) as well as the wickedly biting commentary on humanity (as told by Lucifer’s experiences as Gunn). The story arc is not the thing here, it’s just the McGuffin; it’s the author’s extraordinary talent with words that you need to savor. If you know the basic source material, as well as enjoy London, I think you will find this to be a twisted – raunchy, irreverent, and heretical – treat. The book, after all, is itself Gunn’s, I mean, Lucifer’s redemption.
Here’s a couple of PG-rated passages that still crack me up.
“There’s a common misconception about me. It’s a slander spread by the Church, namely that if you make a deal with me, I’ll cheat you. Poppycock, of course. I never cheat. Never have to. Ask Robert Johnson. Ask Jimmy Page. Humans are so deaf and blind to the ambiguities of their own languages, they concoct their wishes in terms so permeable that I can always grant them in a way they never imagined. I want to be as wealthy as my father. Fair enough. Nelchael crashes the markets, Dad’s bankrupt, and thanks for the soul, brother. A boneheaded example, obviously, but you’d be surprised how wide open your leave yourselves. (The punters who come off best with me are smart, dirty rotten scoundrels to start with, willing to sign over their afterlife care in exchange for the chance to become even dirtier, rottener scoundrels while still rightside of the grave.)”
“… Thing was: nobody was going to Heaven. I remember St. Peter getting his new uniform and ticket-punch. Time passed. He’d wished he’d brought a magazine. The turnstile booth grew… oppressively familiar. Whereas we were taking on extra staff downstairs. Every day a gala day. I was down to a three-and-a-half-hour week. Spent the rest of my time lying in a hot hammock and dabbing away tears of mirth. I sent Him a telegram. Far be it from me to tell You Your Own business and all that, but… Stony Silence. Still no sense of humour. On the other hand, it wasn’t long after that regrettably indulgent quip that I noticed the goalposts were on the move. Without so much as a nod or a wink. It was the coveters first, peeling off to Purgatory when they should have been hurtling straight down to us. Then every other one-theft-only thief. The odd regretful adulterer. …”
Get it. Read it. Enjoy it.
The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
By Geoffrey F. Miller (2000)
In theory. When a moth detects the sonar emitted from a bat, it launches into a chaotic flight path. When a jackrabbit is eluding one of its predators, it does the same. Makes sense: prey whose flight path can be predicted end up as dinner. Called protean behavior by our evolutionary biology colleagues, it suggests a compelling idea: sometimes selection pressure is for diversity, variation and unpredictability. According to Geoffrey Miller, sexually selected social proteanism contributed to the development of our clever brains. Evolutionary psychology has its popular champions (Pinker, Dennett, and Dawkins, to name three favorites), and there is readability to Miller that brings you into it comfortably. There is much in Miller’s ideas (and, if you check the web, an appropriate level of controversy), but I especially recommend the book to those of us outside of this field for the clarity of Miller’s style and the accessibility of his discussion.
Miller’s central thesis has two points. First, that sexual selection has been neglected in favor of natural selection, in general, as a mechanism in evolutionary psychological theory. Second, that sexual selection can be used as a basis for the hard-to-explain yet significantly unique aspects of human nature (music, art, humor, and general intelligence) that have been systematically dismissed by those who rely only on natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism. In social proteanism, the brain ends up as a socio-sexual ornament (our peacock’s tail). The evolutionary advantage here is in using the capacity of an evolving brain as an indicator of mental fitness (as opposed to theories using only physical fitness) in order to attract a mate (clever speaking, good listening, process thinking, remembering, story-telling, and joke-making). A brain needs to send as well as to receive: it is a central processing unit for gathering, filtering, balancing, and assessing sensory input (especially sound and sight) that a non-pheromonal species uses for mating.
To Miller, the brain is a sexual ornament with a high metabolic price, like the peacock’s tail. Sexual ornaments can end up with runaway evolutionary development because they are differentially selected for in mating. Sexual advantage is enhanced by exaggerating individual differences, so extreme variability rules the day (like the path of the moth or the rabbit) instead of conserved uniformity in the species. The cleverer an exchange, whether telling jokes or telling lies, the more likely a mental persuasion is to be attractive to a potential mate.
Historically, physical features that impact our sexual selections have not fossilized (body and facial sculpting, conversations, intimacies of courtship). In his theory, Miller suggests that, like the peacock’s tail, we carry the heritable brain structures that characterize what advantages sexual selection. And because cognitive scientists seem to be on the verge of interrogating the brain in order to reveal basic bio-physico-chemical function, his theory is testable, or will be soon.
In Miller’s last two chapters, he reviews the limitations and future directions of his theory. He is the first to admit its incompleteness (as are all theories), and in doing so he charms the reader. He does not stake claim to answers as much as raises good questions. Although I mentioned it above, he misses the question about how both sexes needed to develop cleverness because it is not so useful to tell a joke if no one can understand it! He dismisses homosexual attraction in a single paragraph because it does not lead to direct mating advantages, and I agree with the critics who say this needs to be addressed.
When I first encountered this book (on a friend’s bookshelf, while having breakfast in his apartment outside Amsterdam), I was particularly impressed by its composition. If, as a casual reader, you want to get the gist of the argument and turn the details over to the psychologists, then you can read the first two chapters, the last two chapters, and cherry-pick the things about which you might be curious from the center. While the details are as accessible as the framework, I do admit to having read it this way the first time around. After all, I had to get back to my coffee.
by Stephen King (2011)
I had never read one of Stephen King’s novels before, although I am still long overdue in reading the Dark Tower series. That said, I am a sucker for any sort of time travel story, good or bad, and this is a good one. In recent years, in television shows such as LOST and Fringe, or in movies such as Star Trek (2009) and Looper, the usual time travel shticks – paradoxes, fate, destiny, free will – have been accompanied by time, and history, being personified as forces of nature. History is obdurate, King tells us, prone to course correction when bumped, and fated to spin wildly out of control when you mess with it too much. Things happen for a reason, so it’s best not to muck around; the Law of Unintended Consequences lurks behind every good deed.
Within the first few pages of 11/22/63, King establishes the ground rules. It is 2011, and there is a time portal that connects the current day with a particular date and time in 1958. Walk through, and you are there and then. You can do anything while you are in the past (well, not without consequence), and you can return to 2011. Only two minutes have passed while you were away. You can see (or not) the consequences of the changes you have made, and you can re-enter the portal. But when you do, everything is reset. It is once again that same date and time in 1958, and you have another go at it. Think: Groundhog Day.
King’s novel operates on multiple levels, and he pulls the strings masterfully. The prima facie motivation, clearly signaled by the title, is to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. By the time King’s protagonist, Jake Epping, a teacher, deals with events in the Dallas book depository, we are treated to a thriller that protracts this day of days out over many pages, as Epping quite literally fights history. In between and along the way, the bulk of the book is a stunningly captivating meditation on the nature of the past. Through Epping, we face people, things, events, and lost love, and all the details that we forget until we are faced with them in photographs or movies… or, in this case, a visit.
For those of us whose lives bridge these eras, King creates an irresistible temptation: we want to walk through that portal. Not to save Kennedy, but just to get some more perspective on how stunning the changes during the latter half of the twentieth century have been, and how we are finally all old enough to appreciate them.
Only Begotten Daughter
By James Morrow (1990)
Julie Katz is Jesus’s half-sister, she is the daughter of God (her mother, who is also perhaps a sentient sea sponge) and she is the Messiah for our new age.
Murray Katz, a fifty-something Jewish man tending a lighthouse on the shore of New Jersey, ends up with an surprise when a fertilized ovum turns up in his latest sperm donation. An Immaculate Conception for the early 90s.
Morrow uses Julie to explore some basic ‘science and religion’ ideas. She wonders about her nature: “A deity of love, or of wrath? Love was wonderful, but with wrath you could do special effects” (breath underwater, restore the dead, and so on).
The faithful need their miracles. It is part of the playbook. Julie’s followers build their religion around her as we observe and ponder the course of such activities throughout human history.
Church Of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler
By Mark Riebling (2015)
If Church of Spies were not a true story, it would still be a page-turner. The fact that author Mark Riebling had access to previously unknown research materials from the Vatican makes this new view of the reign of Pope Pius XII worthy of reflection. For 75 years, Pius XII has been generally criticized for his public silence on the Nazi atrocities; these are the stories we grew up with.
This book rewrites the story in compelling terms. Hitler was outright in targeting the Catholic Church as his enemy, and it was noticed. Pius XII, who had served for the church in Berlin for over 10 years, was well-connected, and particularly through a Munich lawyer known (I kid you not) as “Joey Ox.” Riebling builds a convincing and well-documented case for Pius XII, shielded by plausible deniability and the appearance of indifference, giving his blessing for assassination attempts on Hitler, and taking a much more strategic and active role than history has ever given him credit for. And, according to Riebling, Hitler was only barely dissuaded by his inner circle from his desire to kidnap the Pope. This is spy versus spy at its best, and then made that much better for the chance to relearn a little history.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986)
By Art Spiegelman
Is it possible that you are unaware of Maus? I keep up with graphic novels and comics (how I hate that word), and when people find out, the curious and uninitiated sometimes ask me for a recommendation. My answer is always the same: Is it possible that you are unaware of Maus?
Maus is a graphic novel, a fact so confounding to the Pulitzer Board in 1992 that they ended up giving Maus its own Special Award in order to honor it. The story of Maus is a biography of Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor, as told to, recorded, and ultimately presented to us by his son (author and artist, Art Spiegelman). The story speaks for itself, and I urge you to it. But if you are not prepared, or experienced, to take in serious work through sequential cartoon drawings and word balloons, you need to recalibrate.
A great deal has been written about Maus and its lowbrow medium of “a comic book.” Some critics worry about taking on the grave and somber issues surrounding Nazi genocide in a narrative form that is mainly associated, ever since Frederick Wertham, with “funny books” and male adolescent hero fantasy. Yet, the talented graphic novelist knows how to synthesize two things: “writing stories with pictures” and “drawing pictures with words,” and in ways where neither, alone, can affect the reader/observer as strongly.
In Spiegelman’s world, the characters are all animals, representing Jews (mice), Nazis (cats), Poles (pigs), and the rest. Orwell populated the world of Animal Farm with Marxist pigs, and it’s probably a good thing he didn’t decide to draw them, too. There is something to be said about those who find dissonance in the choices Spiegelman made, given that the most juvenile forms of comics are called “funny animal books” (Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny), with cute anthropomorphized characters providing light commentary on the human condition (Orwell notwithstanding). Yet, that dissonance provides enough of an allegorical distance for the reader to ultimately be completely drawn in (so to speak), and caught unaware, by the story of Maus.