Monday, May 29, 2006

Remembering Dad

Today is Memorial Day, the day Americans pause to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country. Today I would like to remember my Dad, William Stewart Leslie (1923-2005). He did not fall in combat, but he served honorably in World War II and the Korean Conflict. He loved his country and taught me to do the same. He fought the real battle to provide for his wife and six kids, all of whom grew up to become decent, honorable, compassionate men and women because of lessons he taught us. He passed from this life in February 2005 after a long battle with lung cancer.

In World War II he served with the U. S. Ninth Air Force based in England. For the most part, he flew P-51 fighter planes. One of his assignments was to shoot down German V-1 and V-2 rockets launched from Holland. He said the rockets were so slow and crude that often just the "prop wash" or air turbulence from his plane flying past the rocket was enough to send it crashing harmlessly into the sea. He told us stories of the funny things that happened during his wartime service: the time he got his cap blown off because he unwittingly stood in front of a loaded cannon, or the time he was appointed "mess officer" for his unit despite the fact that he had no idea how to run a mess hall. He never talked about the scary things, of which I'm sure there must have been a few. I believe he was shot down once. He didn't like to talk about it. Towards the end of his life he had nightmares from which he woke up screaming. I couldn't help wondering if those came from long-buried frightening moments from his war years.

I asked him once if there was ever a moment when he was afraid for his life, scared that he might die. No, he replied, because when you're 19 years old, you're too dumb to be scared. You are convinced that you're 20 feet tall and bulletproof. The other guy will get shot, not you. When I saw TV news stories about the dedication of the World War II Veterans Memorial, I was overcome with a wave of pride and affection for him and called to tell him so. His response, like so many others of "The Greatest Generation" was typical.

"Shoot," he said, "I didn't really do anything."

Yes, you did. And we are grateful.

During the Korean Conflict he was recalled to active duty from the reserves. Somewhere along the way he mentioned his desire to learn Russian, and the next thing he knew, he was enrolled in a special program in Washington, D. C. to study Russian language, history, culture, and geopolitics. It wasn't top secret, but it was confidential. He was instructed to wear civilian clothes and, if asked, just say that he worked for the Defense Department and leave it at that. I believe the photo you see might come from this period. You'll notice that he's standing or sitting against a neutral background, he's well dressed, and looking directly at the camera with a serious expression. It looks like an ID or passport photo to me, but I can't be sure.

Many of his professors in this special program were White Russians or anti-communists who fled after the revolution of 1917. He was amazed at what they knew and how they knew it. Once, after class, one of his professors approached him furtively, looking both ways before speaking.

"Gaspadin (Mister) Leslie," the man said in Russian, "You are . . . pilot, da?"

"Da," Dad replied. He hadn't told anyone he was a pilot.

"I teach you Russian. You teach me to fly, da?"


Dad went to a local airport, rented a small plane, and took his professor up for a flying lesson, but quickly realized he didn't have the specialized vocabulary needed to explain the more technical aspects of flying: artificial horizons, ailerons, rudders, pitch, and yaw, and so forth. His efforts to teach his teacher how to fly ended right there, but I've always thought it was a great story. There was also the time a friend of his passed himself off as a native Russian to impress a bimbo and Dad played along; or the time a drunk driver rammed into the picture window of the trailer Dad had rented while he, Mom, and my sister Susan (an infant at the time) were driving cross country. Dad was full of stories, and he told some of them so many times, we were sick of them. Now that he's gone, I'd give anything to hear him tell them again.

He was not a perfect man (no one is), but he was a good man. I think, like many men who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, he found it difficult to express his deepest emotions in public. Bragging, being conceited, or having an overly exalted opinion of oneself was the worst sin a man could commit. You were supposed to work hard, do your duty, and not call attention to yourself. People made fun of Bob Dole, also a World War II veteran, for sometimes speaking of himself in the third person ("Bob Dole knows . . .") but I believe the habit came out of that fundamental modesty of his generation. Nowadays, when celebs and ordinary people get on TV talk shows, air their dirty laundry in public, and then get all weepy while the rest of us watch, such circumspection and humility are refreshing.

Sometimes, however, I think Dad went too far in trying to prevent us from becoming conceited. His favorite tactic was to conceal his real feelings behind a joke or a left-handed compliment. It made me think sometimes that nothing I did mattered to him. In college I was nearly a straight A student, but in college I also acquired my first serious girlfriend, and I loved her with a passion that only those in love for the first time can manage. I was worried that my grades were slipping because we were spending so much time together. I needn't have worried. Dad's response? "He had a 4.0, but then he met this girl. Ha, ha, ha." It made my blood boil.

I once asked him angrily why he seemed so allergic to paying me a compliment in public. "Because I don't want you to get the big head," he snapped back. We had some friction over the years, to say the least. If there was any good thing about his long final illness, it was that we each had time to look past the bluster and bravado and hurt feelings and say to each other, "I love you and I am proud of you."

I know that he loved me despite the fact that he sometimes had trouble expressing it. He had many jobs throughout his life, and some were more successful than others: airline pilot, filmmaker, salesman, retail business owner. For most of the time I was growing up, he was the regional sales representative for a company that sold heavy construction equipment. His territory extended from Maryland to Mississippi, and often he would leave on business trips on Monday morning and not return until Friday night. That had to be hard, lonely work, but he did it because he loved us. He never once failed to provide us with anything we needed (and often just things we wanted) even if it meant considerable personal and financial sacrifice for him. My three-week trip to England when I was in college that he paid for is a prime example. Now that I'm living on my own and struggling to pay bills just for myself, I have a glimpse of what he must have struggled with to support and provide for a wife and six children.

He stayed with me faithfully whenever I had to be hospitalized for surgery related to my disability. Once in particular, I went through a kind of withdrawal as I came down off the painkillers and anesthesia. I was terrified, convinced that something awful was about to happen, and didn't want to be left alone. He stayed with me, after visiting hours were over, until I fell asleep. I awoke hours later in complete peace and darkness as all the chemicals had left my body. I called out to him but realized he must have slipped out after I fell asleep. I was so grateful to him! Last year, after his passing, when I was in ICU with that terrible bladder infection, I thought that if I squinted hard enough I could almost see him sitting in the chair at the foot of the bed as he had so faithfully so many times before.

There's a sequence from the movie It's a Wonderful Life that expresses perfectly how I feel about my Dad. Young George Bailey is working for Mr. Gower, the local druggist, as a delivery boy. One day, George notices that Mr. Gower has received a telegram informing him that his son has died of influenza. Mr. Gower, distraught with grief, has accidentally put rat poison into some capsules, and sent George out to deliver them, thinking they are medicine for a sick little boy. George, knowing the truth, looks around desperately for help. Suddenly, he sees a billboard reading, "Ask Dad. He knows." George runs off, tells his father what's happened, and waits for Mr. Gower to come to his senses. When George tells Mr. Gower what's happened, the man is incredibly grateful. George's quick thinking has saved a boy's life and Mr. Gower's business.

Dad was always that anchor of stability and wisdom for me in the same way that George Bailey's dad was for him. Even when we were bickering, I knew that if I really got in a jam, I could ask Dad. He knew. He would fix it. He would make it OK. Because he was Dad. I miss him. But I remember what he taught me about hard work and doing your best and keeping your promises. And I know. And it will be OK.

Eternal Rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.

Whales on Stilts!

Whales on Stilts! by M. T. Anderson. Read by Marc Cashman. (Listening Library).

Our Memorial Day Weekend blogstravaganza continues with the fourth (and probably final) installment of a series of reviews of audiobooks for children and teens that I've listened to recently.

Can three twelve-year-olds save the world from a sinister rampage by stilt-walking, red-eyed, laser-wielding whales? Can perfectly ordinary Lily prove she's just as smart and just as exciting as her friends who invent amazing gadgets and fight werewolves? Can M. T. Anderson, the author of Feed, deliver a hilarious parody of the juvenile adventure novel, taking swipes at the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and Goosebumps in the process? Tune in to Whales on Stilts! and find out. You'll hear Katie say . . .

It all begins in the quiet little town of Pelt, where, "you could get arrested for going five miles over the speed limit. It was that kind of town." Twelve-year-old Lily Gefelty is quiet and observant--so observant in fact that she sees things others miss. For instance, she's the only one who thinks it odd that Larry, her Dad's boss, wears a bag over his head, has rubbery blue skin, periodically douses himself in brine, and gloats openly about taking over the world. When Lily brings up this last particularly troublesome point to her Dad, he reassures her. "People use irony all the time," he says. "They don't always mean what they say."

Lily isn't entirely sure this is just an instance of adult wordplay, so she turns to her two best friends for help. The relentlessly perky Katie Mulligan lives in nearby Horror Hollow and, appropriately enough, finds herself constantly battling vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the like. She's the star of her own "Horror Hollow" series of juvenile novels, and any time she has a brush with some creature of the night, ghostwriters (no pun intended) show up immediately, hoping to get details and fodder for the next adventure.

Lily's other true blue pal is "Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut," who delivers dialogue and invents gadgets that seem to come from another century ("Dash it all, chums, this sounds a mighty pickle!") His "secret" attachment to a photocopier involves steam pipes, a mule, and a wax cylinder that weighs "only" 200 pounds. His other technological achievements include a flying restaurant where the robot waiters wear bow ties and a rocket car with a top speed of 35 mph. Jasper is also the spokesboy for Gargletine Brand Breakfast Drink, which tastes wretched to everyone but Jasper, so sales of Gargletine and of Jasper's own series of adventure novels have fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, the two famous young people agree to help their less flamboyant friend.

Lily's suspicions about Larry soon prove correct. He's a whale-human hybrid ("His mother was a whale, and his father, a very lonely sailor"), who's planning to unleash an army of supercharged cetaceans on an unsuspecting world, beginning with the nearby town of Decentville, where Lily's grandmother lives. When Katie and Jasper's plans to foil the felonious fishes fail, Lily, inspired by that same grandmother, comes up with her own plan to whip the warlike whales.

(By the way, I know full well that whales aren't fish, but the string of alliterations was just too good to pass up). The whole book is written like that, with over-the-top jokes, one-liners, puns, knowing asides to the reader, and even a spoof of those sanctimonious, unremittingly earnest reader's guides one finds especially in paperback editions today. This one was written by the hopelessly lovelorn and neurotic "Dr. Anne Mowbray-Dixon-Clark." A reader on compared this book to the rapid-fire absurdist satire of Douglas Adams. I'd add a pinch of Monty Python, a dash of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and a smidgen of Roald Dahl. If parents and kids are looking for a fast and funny way to spend about three hours, they should try this book. After all--who wants to argue with a whale on stilts?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Sea of Trolls

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer. Read by Gerard Doyle. (Recorded Books)

Well, howdy, blog fans! This is the third in a series of reviews of children's and young adult audiobooks I've listened to recently that I wanted to share with you.

The Sea of Trolls has much to recommend it. It draws heavily on Norse mythology, an Anglo-Saxon epic, and even a famous nursery rhyme to create an exciting fantasy full of action and adventure, memorable characters, fantastic creatures, and exotic landscapes. This otherwise excellent novel for young people, however, is marred by what seems to be the author's philosophical or theological agenda and some rather heavy-handed editorializing. Christianity and the old pre-Christian religions of Europe are constantly compared, and Christianity nearly always seems to come up short.

In a small coastal village in early medieval England there lives a young boy named Jack. The most exciting events in his everyday life are tending sheep, mucking out the barn, and feeling vaguely jealous of his, pampered younger sister Lucy. All that changes one day when the local poet, wise man, and shaman, known simply as "The Bard," recruits Jack to be his apprentice. The Bard begins teaching Jack the ancient lore of bird and beast, flower and field, tree and leaf, river and ocean. In a clever twist, author Farmer imagines that The Bard is the author of the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, and thereby hangs the plot. The poem tells the story of how the great warrior Beowulf defeated first the monster Grendel and then Grendel's mother, only to be defeated himself many years later by a terrible dragon.

In Farmer's imaginative departure from this tale, it seems Grendel's mother had a sister, the half-human, half-troll princess Frith, and she's still plenty ticked at The Bard for participating in her sister's downfall. Every night she sends out her spirit, a ghastly malevolent phantom, on a night-mare (literally a monstrous eight-legged horse) to destroy The Bard. When that fails, she sends out a fierce band of Vikings under the command of Olaf One-Brow (so named because his bushy blond eyebrows seem to flow continuously over both eyes) to raid Jack's village. Jack and Lucy are captured by Olaf's men, and The Bard, for some strange reason, is reduced to a babbling idiot, seemingly incapable of coming to Jack's aid. An unusually intelligent crow that Jack names Bold Heart appears out of the fog at a crucial moment, however, to accompany Jack and Lucy on their journey.

Jack and Lucy seem destined for a life of cruel slavery, taunted by Thorgil, the "shield-maiden" or female ward of Olaf, who is just a little older than Jack. When Olaf and his men learn Jack has some skill as a wizard and poet, or skald, however, they treat him with more respect and even a trace of fear. Over time, Jack comes to develop a grudging respect for the Northmen and even the tentative beginnings of a friendship with Olaf. After a long sea voyage, Jack and Lucy arrive in the land of Queen Frith and her husband Ivar the Boneless (so named because of his morbid obesity and his utter inability to stand up to his shrewish wife).

When a bit of Jack's poetry in praise of Frith's hair magically and accidentally makes her hair fall out, the queen is outraged. She commands Jack, Thorgil, and Olaf to go on a quest to Jotunheim, or the land of the trolls, in search of water from Mimir's Well. Water from the well will give Jack the knowledge he needs to restore Frith's hair. If Jack and his companions do not return from the quest before the specified deadline, Lucy will be sacrificed to the goddess Freya. If they return in time, Frith will allow Jack and Lucy to go free.

Jack, Thorgil, and Olaf find Jotunheim, but the trolls and other magical creatures in it are not what they expect. Olaf sacrifices his life on the quest, and Jack and Thorgil must each sacrifice something of great importance to gain water from the well. Along the way, Jack learns Thorgil too, was once a slave, and that her real name is Jill. This discovery, and the quest for water from the well, lead to the creation of a famous nursery rhyme (Can you guess which one?) Jack and Thorgil return from Jotunheim with the cure for Frith, but her own greed and arrogance prove her undoing. Olaf's son agrees to return Jack and Lucy to England, and upon his return, Jack even learns the reason for The Bard's strange illness and the true identity of Bold Heart the crow.

At the beginning of this review I mentioned how this otherwise excellent novel is marred by the author's apparent need to compare Christianity to the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe (and, I suspect, their modern "New Age" or neo-pagan counterparts). Jack's dour father, the local monks, and other overtly Christian characters, are constantly making grim pronouncements about suffering and the will of God. Jack notices that The Bard does not piously cross himself and intone "Amen," when Jack's father makes one of these sententious statements in the way that Jack's family does. In private, The Bard will even exclaim such things as, "May Odin preserve me from such idiocy!" or, "Thank Freya, you're all right." The Bard is a follower of the old ways.

I might be able to take this with a large grain of salt (Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief and all that), if it weren't for The Bard's inane prattle about "serving the Life Force" that sounds as if it came from a bad early draft of the script of Star Wars. (The Bard does indeed sound like some kind of medieval Obi-wan Kenobi, and as he ranted on and on during these monologues, I half expected him to whip out a lightsaber and announce dramatically, "Jack! I am your father!") When Jack and Thorgil find Mimir's Well, they also find Yggdrasil, the tree of life from Norse mythology. This is a kind of gigantic, earthbound Noah's Ark that shelters every creature on earth and every possible spiritual destination for those creatures--Asgard and Valhalla for Vikings, heaven for Christians, "and other places I don't even know about," Jack explains. It's cool. It's all life, right? Whatever.

For a Christian, there are so many problems with this line of reasoning I hardly know where to begin. In the first place, Christians are not expected to actively seek out suffering (Even Jesus before his crucifixion prayed, "Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me"), When (not if) suffering comes, however, Christians are expected to embrace it as the will of God as Christ did. (He also prayed, "Father, not my will, but yours be done"). Christ, however, did not embrace suffering merely for the sake of suffering, but because it was redemptive. Christ's sufferings accomplished his Father's plan of redemption from sin for the whole world. When followers of Christ suffer in imitation of their master, they are called to join their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1: 24) and participate in the work of their own redemption and the redemption of those around them. What Farmer implies, therefore, about the Christian position on suffering is almost a parody or caricature of the truth.

In the second place, for the Christian, life is not an abstract, impersonal "Force" that somehow exists apart from God to be served or worshipped. It is the result of concrete action by a loving and personal God who created all that is (Col. 1: 13-23). Jesus Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full (Jn. 10: 10) for the God of Christians is "not a God of the dead, but of the living" (Lk. 20: 38), and Christ's resurrection from the dead is conclusive proof of God's power over life and death (1 Cor. 15).

Despite all these Scripture references, I don't consider myself some kind of Bible-thumping Fundamentalist. I am, however, a Christian and a Catholic, and over the last year especially, I have struggled with these questions of suffering, life, death, and resurrection. It pains me to see the Christian position distorted in this way, and some kind of neo-pagan alternative peddled to kids under the guise of fiction. I suppose I can be grateful that Farmer didn't insert additional twaddle about "the sacred feminine" á la Dan Brown.

I am also not a Fundamentalist in the sense that I don't become apoplectic any time I see any reference to magic in fantasy fiction, out of some hysterical fear that it will promote the occult. I've read the Harry Potter books, Jeff Smith's comic book epic Bone, the Shannara books of Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, all of which use magic with little or no reference to Christianity. I've also read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, which are, of course, solidly Christian in their outlook and present Christian truth indirectly, symbolically, and allegorically through the conventions of fantasy. I've even read Katherine Langrish's juvenile novel Troll Fell, which like Farmer's, draws extensively on Norse mythology, but unlike Farmer, without reference to Christianity. Why Farmer felt motivated to engage in this "comparison shopping," or simple-minded relativism is beyond me, unless she has an axe to grind.

Bottom line: If you can overlook the pseudo-religious, pseudo-mystical piffle in this book, read it (or listen to it) and enjoy. If not, there are lots of better fantasy and adventure titles out there that don't have all the questionable baggage.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

You know you've arrived in the Catholic blogging world when

you're listed in the Catholic Blog Directory.

The Da Vinci Dud

It's happened. The Da Vinci Code movie is out, and it looks like a big, expensive turkey. Deo gratias.

For weeks now, the Catholic blogosphere has been all atwitter over the impending release of The Da Vinci Code. Sony Pictures waited until the last possible second to let critics see the film, and apparently for good reason. The early reviews are in, and for the most part, they are scathing. The consensus seems to be that it's too long, too talky, and too dull, with too little action and too little chemistry between the male and female leads, Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou. It could still make a gazillion dollars despite lousy reviews because all the shills and morons who loved the book will just have to see the movie. No accounting for taste, eh? I should perhaps add that I myself have neither read the book nor seen the movie and have no plans to do so. The details of both the book and the movie are all over the internet and TV, so I don't have to waste my time actually reading or seeing this drivel.

I don't suppose we should be too surprised that the movie is a dog, given the source material that director Ron Howard had to work with. In an article published two years ago on the Salon website, Laura Miller called the novel:

a cheesy thriller, with all the familiar qualities of the genre at its worst: characters so thin they're practically transparent, ludicrous dialogue, and prose that's 100 percent cliché. Even by conventional thriller standards, the book isn't particularly good; the plot is simply one long chase sequence, and the "good guy who turns out to be evil" is obviously a ringer from the moment he's introduced.

The film is, of course, an adaptation of Dan Brown's execrable novel of the same name that's been at or near the top of the bestseller lists for about three years now. The novel alleges that Jesus was a man, not a god, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, that Jesus wanted Mary Magdalene, not Peter, to be the head of of the "Jesus movement," that the Roman emperor Constantine cooked up the idea of Jesus's divinity at the Council of Nicaea to shore up imperial power, and that the Big Bad Band of Meanies, the Catholic Church, and its goon squad, the organization called Opus Dei, were created essentially to stomp on anybody who disagreed.

A secret society of intrepid souls, however, known as The Priory of Sion, founded in 1099, and headed at one point by Leonardo Da Vinci, preserved The Real Truth about Christianity and tried to communicate The Real Truth by means of ingenious clues hidden in art and architecture. Brown further asserts that all of the charges made in this book are based on fact and can be discovered by any careful scholar--such as himself. However, as Laura Miller points out in that same Salon article, most of Brown's "painstaking research" appears to be cribbed from a nonfiction book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail that made many of the same claims. The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail actually sued Dan Brown for plaigarism in England. The judge ruled in Brown's favor, but made it clear he had contempt for both sides.

Brown's little pile of poppycock has sold about 40 million copies worldwide despite the fact that both secular and religious sources (Catholic and Protestant alike) have conclusively demonstrated that all the claims Brown makes about Jesus, the gospels, and the early church are patently false. The Da Vinci Code is hooey, pure and simple--not just hooey, but badly written hooey to boot. Now the badly written hooey has been translated into a badly written movie. One can only hope that once people can see all this idiocy on the screen in glorious living color, they'll stop and wonder how they were stupid enough to fall for it in the first place.

P. S. Hat Tips to Dawn Eden for the link to Rotten, Amy Welborn's blog for the link to the Salon article, her regular Open Book blog for the link to the article by Gary M. Burge, and Clayton Emmer for the link to this fine article by Father Joseph Carola, S. J.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bucking the Sarge

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis. Read by Michael Boatman. (Listening Library)

This is the second in a series of audiobook reviews I want to share with you. This book is a witty and ironic look at life in contemporary black America that readers of all races can enjoy. For all the laughs, however, there's a serious message to this book. The message seems to be that a corrupt social and economic system--in many cases created and maintained by black people themselves--allows blacks to oppress and exploit other blacks and deny opportunity to all but the most creative and talented African Americans.

Fifteen-year-old Luther T. Farrell lives amid the urban, post-industrial decline of a predominantly black neighborhood in present day Flint, Michigan. Yet Luther is not the typical African-American teen. He is going for his third consecutive win in his middle school science fair, and his life's ambition is to be "America's Best-Known and Best-Loved Philosopher." Embarrassed by a grade school incident in which he mispronounced the name of Socrates, Luther always precedes his borrowed pearls of wisdom with, "A well-known philosopher--whose name escapes me at the moment--once said . . ."

The only obstacle to victory in the science fair is Shayla "I See Dead People" Patrick, the daughter of Flint's most prosperous African-American undertaker, also a straight A student, and the woman Luther has both loved and hated since they were both four years old. In true Tracy-Hepburn fashion, Luther and Shayla are crazy about each other, but dare not admit it, and can't be in the same room together without sparks flying. Luther carries an unused condom in his wallet in case romance should break out, but it looks as though the condom (named Chauncey because it's come to seem like an old friend) will languish in obscurity.

The only obstacle to Luther going on to college and truly starting his philosophical career is his mother--aka "The Sarge." She's a cold, calculating, avaricious woman, who through iron will and ruthless determination has risen from factory worker to school teacher to slum lord, running loan shark rackets, substandard housing projects, and group homes all over the city. She's bilking the system for all it's worth, charging the government for the cost of steak and shrimp, being reimbursed, buying the cheapest food possible for the group homes, and pocketing the difference. Luther has been the "manager" of one of these group homes since he was thirteen, and the Sarge has no intention of releasing him from servitude.

When Luther realizes that his science project--a report on the illegal use of lead-based paint in low-income housing in Flint--has the potential to bring about his mother's downfall, he feels both regret and fear. Regret because The Sarge is, after all, his mother. Fear because The Sarge is, after all, The Sarge. She's not going to be happy that her own son has blown the whistle on her and destroyed her profitable little empire. When Luther discovers that The Sarge has been siphoning off money intended for his college fund, however, he decides to take action and creates his own unique plan for revenge.

Does the Sarge get what's coming to her? Does Luther admit his true feelings to Shayla and vice versa? Does Chauncey see some action? You'll have to read the book. The author's rather blasé attitude about teen sex, and Luther's desire for revenge against his own mother may seem morally problematic to some listeners, but let's face it--they're realistic. What teenager doesn't think about sex, and with today's oversexed, "just use protection" culture, it's easier than ever to turn teen fantasy into reality. And the Sarge is a witch, after all. She's a corrupt authority figure, and the human sense of justice naturally wants to see corrupt authority brought down.

This story is told with so much humor and with tongue so thoroughly in cheek that it's hard to be truly offended by some morally questionable attitudes. There are memorable minor characters such as Luther's best friend Sparky, Marcel the fence and his pit bull Poofy, the shyster lawyer Dante Orlando Gatty (call 1-800-SUE-EM-ALL), and Darnell Dixon, "one of Flint's leading psychopaths." This book makes you laugh and think, and parents and teens may even want to talk about it after listening. Recommended.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Feed by M. T. Anderson. Read by David Aaron Baker. (Listening Library)

This is the first in a series of audiobook reviews I wanted to share. In this young adult novel, Anderson presents a devastating satire and cautionary tale about what could happen when the worst tendencies of today's empty-headed, entertainment-obsessed consumerist popular culture are merged with the worst passive, mind numbing, dumbed-down tendencies of emerging information technologies. Titus and his friends, teens of the not-too-distant future, have lived their entire lives with the hardware and software needed to access the next generation of the internet--known simply as "The Feed"--wired directly into their brains. "Everything that happens, happens on the Feed," Titus says.

Feed subscribers are bombarded with a constant stream of images, sounds, and slogans, all promising them one entertainment experience after another, each more fabulous than the last, and all carefully crafted to persuade them to be avid and mindless consumers. The Feed is the first thing they wake up to in the morning and the last thing they hear before going to sleep at night. Entertainment is even more vacuous than it is today (The most popular "feedcast" is a reality show called "Oh. Wow. Thing."), and information, such as it is, is delivered without depth or context. The Feed can be customized for each individual subscriber, isolating individuals from each other in their own computer-generated worlds. Schools, which exist principally for the purpose of creating not-so-smart shoppers, are run by corporations that can replace live teachers with holograms as a cost-cutting measure.

Using the Feed's computer networks, Titus and his friends can have access to practically any piece of information, but this very ease of access and the flood of information at their virtual fingertips has made them hopelessly intellectually lazy. Slang, slogans, and swear words have taken the place of intelligent discourse, and very nearly, of rational thought. Titus and his friends can barely finish a sentence without resorting to a four-letter word of some kind. Some listeners will find this constant profanity offensive, but I believe this is part of the book's overall message and not merely inserted for shock value. Titus and his friends are so intellectually and spiritually blighted by The Feed that they lack the mental and verbal vocabulary to express themselves without resorting to vulgarity."Everyone's super smart now," Titus says, without a trace of irony.

The Feed's omnipresence has blinded Titus and his friends to the collapse of the world around them. His elders can remember when the last forests died and wild animals took refuge in the cities. The landscape is covered with high rises and shopping malls, each with its own artificial environment. Even furniture is disposable. The air is so polluted that green rain falls from black clouds. Children are created artificially in "conceptionariums," and filet mignon is grown on farms where Titus and his girlfriend can wander surrounded by grotesque mazes of meat. Feed subscribers have begun to develop strange hideous lesions and skin diseases, but with a little careful manipulation from the Feed, the lesions can be presented as the latest fashion accessory. Titus and his friends are dimly aware of the emptiness of their lives, but they have been left so intellectually and spiritually stunted by the Feed that they can scarcely conceive of an alternative.

While on vacation with his friends on the moon, which has become a combination tourist trap and garbage dump, Titus meets Violet, a girl different from anyone he has ever encountered. She has been home schooled, can actually write using pen and paper, wears clothes made of wool rather than plastic, and did not have the Feed installed in her brain until she was seven years old. She resists and confounds The Feed by asking about the most bizarre and unrelated consumer products she can imagine and then not buying any of them, thus preventing The Feed's computers from profiling and categorizing her. A romance between Titus and Violet begins but is not to last. Titus and his friends are attacked by a hacker, forcing them to be temporarily disconnected from the Feed. In most cases this leads only to a few days of anxiety and disorientation, but because Violet had her Feed installed much later in life, the consequences are more severe. Over time, her Feed hardware and software malfunction more and more severely, until finally it becomes clear she will die. Violet's death forces Titus to emerge from his shell of self-absorption and self-indulgence and take up her resistance to The Feed. The last words of the book, the advertising slogan, "Everything must go!" take on a whole new meaning now that Titus has seen the Feed for what it truly is.

The book mirrors perfectly the disgust and revulsion I've come to feel with much of pop culture today, the feelings that led me to give up TV for Lent. I see many of the same feelings expressed by the Catholic bloggers and commentators I read. I don't know M. T. Anderson's religious views, if any, but I suspect he is a secularist, since he doesn't seem to offer any kind of spiritual solution to the soul-killing emptiness of his world. Yet it does seem to me that when both religious and secular critics are pointing out the emptiness and sickness of much of our culture, you know we've got a problem. This outstanding book is a searing indictment of some of the worst aspects of today's society that technology-savvy mall rats and their parents should read before the grim prophecies of this book come true. As Titus might say, "Unit! Feed is like . . . meg brag!"

Heard Any Good Books Lately?

If anybody besides me reads this blog (a doubtful prospect, since I've gotten a grand total of ONE non-spam comment), they know that I love audiobooks. They're one step closer to pure storytelling since all the listener has to convey character, action, setting, and mood are the reader's voice and his own imagination. I also like them for the practical reason that you can listen to them while doing other things: riding in the car, eating dinner, doing the dishes, getting dressed, etc.

During my TV-free Lent I listened to two audiobooks for teens that I thought were really good--one quite extraordinary in fact. I often think that the stuff being published for kids and teens today is far more interesting than the stuff being published for adults. The novelist Martin Amis said as much in an article I read about ten years ago when I was still in library school. He complained that there was far too much self-consciously literary fiction being written in a needlessly artsy style in which dull little characters struggled through their dull little lives, wrestled with their existential angst, and wondered about The Meaning Of It All. He argued that if a writer was interested solely in creating good characters and telling a good story he would almost have to write for children. Children don't care about exquisitely crafted prose, pretentious literary allusions, or characters struggling to find Meaning in their lives, he said. (Perhaps teens do want to find meaning, and in fact I think that's the subject of one of the books I want to review below, but I think the substance of his argument holds true). What children and teens want most are solid, believable, interesting characters and compelling stories. Speaking only for myself I can say that many adults want them too. With that in mind, I want to devote the next several posts to the following audiobooks I've listened to recently.