Books of 2015, #17: Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

If you want to know how much the internet has changed things, simply consider that until last week—when I looked this novel up on Wikipedia, while re-reading it for the first time in two decades—I had no idea that Claudia was in part inspired by Rice’s own daughter, Michele, who died of leukemia at age 6.

There were certainly avenues through which that information was available, but they were fewer and much more dispersed. It was an interesting moment of contrast.

As for the book….

The text is a little more florid than I remember, but not so much that I got annoyed at a textual level—there were passages that I certainly skimmed through, but there’s no John Galt radio addresses or anything. Being a first-person narrative, there is a certain tell-don’t-show quality that can get tiresome, but I also don’t know how else it could have been written—it is ultimately a monologue of someone’s experience.

When I last read it, I was in my early 20s. At the time, I remember it mostly as scene setting for the much more dynamic books that followed it. This time…Louis is certainly more interesting. The question of our place in the universe is that consumes him resonates more for me. His initial desire to use his immortality to try and be a more perfect mortal—the way he is entranced with the natural world around him—is, in a way, more surprising, because now I feel I can understand it better.

So I probably found it of more value than the last time I read it, but ultimately, it’s kind of unsatisfying. It’s not that it lacks substance or potential, but it’s like a fine steak awash in too much of some sort of hideous cream sauce that succeeds in hiding, rather than enhancing, its flavor. It has a wonky sense of time’s passage, and while its relative floridity didn’t clang and annoy, it does mean that probably 10% of the words in the book could be left out while simultaneously enhancing the quality of the text.

I guess in the end, the single most damning statement I can probably make is that despite my slightly OCD tendencies when it comes to book series—if I start at one end, I generally find myself making it to the other—I don’t have any intention to pick up The Vampire Lestat or anything else for that matter. I don’t feel any excitement, just a sense that it would eventually turn into a slog.

Of course, now I have to figure out WTF to read…

Books of 2015, #16: Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, Suki Kim

This was a Daily Show pickup. Totalitarian regimes have always fascinated me—too much reading about the Russian Revolution while acquiring my Political Science degree, I guess.

The setup is simple: Korean-American woman talks her way into the faculty of a college set up and run in North Korea by an Evangelical church in order to (covertly) observe and report. After roughly 9 months—a summer term and a fall term—she can’t take it any more.

I have observed that many people I know who lived through abusive childhoods have a sometimes slippery relationship with truth. Not so much about objective facts—though sometimes that’s an issue—but more about their relationship with the world and how they feel. I assume it’s a habit deeply ingrained, from a time when they needed to present a certain impression even as their lives were full of abuse.

Imagine a whole country that is driven relentlessly to that sort of behavior—that is so xenophobic and isolated that it can almost, but not quite, be made to work; so the mask slips only occasionally.

The book is well written, and absolutely bleak as fuck. There is not a smidgen of suggestion that things are going to get better any time soon. I appreciate the honesty and forthrightness that represents, but it doesn’t make for happy reading.

Books of 2015, #15: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I would be just as happy if you didn’t go searching for some of my earliest public emails. I know they’re out there, and while I’m sure many of them are fine, I also have clear, visceral memories of being embroiled in any number of flame wars. I’m not even going to try to suggest that I didn’t know better at the time—I did, and I’m not proud of my behavior, and I try to do better today. And still sometimes I fail.

Ultimately, though, those were arguments on technical mailing lists, with at least a genesis in technical questions: whatever I dished out, I got right back, and it was all, ultimately, retail abuse.

What Jon Ronson chronicles in his book—the fascination with destroying people that social media platorms seem to be enabling, with the spectacular lack of empathy that demonstrated by those involved, and the enormous destructive potential it presents—is strictly wholesale.

As others have said—and I can’t find a specific source on Google—we should not be defined by the worst thing we ever did. Especially if the worst thing we ever did was to, say, make a joke (crude, dumb, perhaps insensitive, but not aimed at anyone) to a friend. But there are people whose lives the denizens of social media have chosen to destroy who are guilty of nothing more than that.

Is this really the civilization we’re creating?

Books of 2015, #14: A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment by Scott Carney

In April, 2012, Ian Thorson died near the site of an ongoing three year Buddhist retreat in Arizona. His wife, until recently the leader of the retreat, watched as he became more and more ill, waiting until too late to call for help.

I caught part of an interview with the author on NPR a week ago, and i had to pick up this book, because…well, I wanted to find out if the author had an explanation for how people who belong to organizations like the one Ian Thorson belonged to, end up giving up their autonomy so completely as to die for their belief.

I should probably back up.

For most of a decade, I studied extensively in a school of yoga called Anusara. I took thousands of hours of classes, went to weekend workshops and weeklong trainings around the country—I had an extensive network of people I was acquainted with as a consequence, all across the US and even in Europe and Asia.

Anusara Yoga was founded by John Friend in 1997, and became well known in the overall yoga community, though, I should say, not always entirely positively—there are rivalries even in the yoga community, and Anusara was making a big name for itself, and some thought it was doing so by inappropriate means. Regardless, Anusara teachers were responsible for things like some of the large yoga in Central Park events, and were early players in the Wanderlust festivals and the like. John Friend was featured in the Planet Yoga feature in Vanity Fair in 2007, profiled in other venues, and so forth.

I never spent a huge amount of time with John—unlike my teachers, who had been there when Anusara was small enough that everyone knew him fairly well—though I did study with him for a couple of hundred hours over several years, and when he did an event in our area in 2009, we had him—and all the other Certified Teachers who were attending—over for dinner at our house.

Just a year later, cracks started to show in the Anusara community; some senior teachers had some hard discussions with John about how he was conducting his personal life at the annual Certified Teachers retreat (which was also held in our area), and though it was tense, it seemed to go well.

And then midway through 2011, the exodus began—a trickle of senior teachers started to distance themselves from Anusara and John. There was some scuttlebutt of inappropriate disciplinary action being taken against some of them. Rumors started to circulate. And then, in February 2012, allegations of personal and business impropriety started to surface, and all hell broke loose.

Ultimately, none of it really surprised me. Although I had maintained an affiliation with Anusara for several years, I’d never pursued a more formal relationship with much fervor—although there were many things I loved about the school, and I dearly loved the community that it represented…well, John Friend had eaten at my table, and I was not terribly impressed. And when the truth started to come out, I quietly resigned my affiliation and kept teaching just as I had been, and kept attending classes with my teachers, and kept up with the people I knew from the community, etc.

What startled me were the number of teachers—some of whom had been teaching longer than John Friend—who, upon dissolving their relationship with Anusara, found themselves admitting that they had long disagreed with one or another part of the Anusara system, but had never wanted to voice their disagreement. I was not a senior teacher by any measure—at that point I’d been teaching for 5 years, and some of these people had been teaching for 20 or more—but I never felt willing to give my free will and my good sense over to someone else’s keeping. I think that was, at an unconscious level, part of why I never went for teacher certification; I was never going to set aside my own sense of what was right to satisfy someone else’s notion of what I should be doing.

Which brings us back to Ian Thorson, and, in some ways more interesting, and more important, to the story, Michael Roach.

Because while Ian Thorson is the one who died, it was Michael Roach and his ex- (and Thorson’s then-) wife Christine McNally who set the stage for his death. With their brand of rah-rah Buddhism—that, I have to say, displays a lot of the same tropes as John Friend’s rah-rah Yoga—they created an environment that encouraged the credulous, the lost, the seeking to give themselves over to whatever they were told to believe. The improprieties and irregularities were all there for those that chose to see…but so many choose not to.

I just don’t understand, and the author doesn’t have any answers, either. But I’m ultimately not surprised—these sorts of behaviors on the part of humans have always been among our most baffling ones.

Anyway, the book presents a lot of interesting background on Buddhism, specifically the Tibetan kind, its long and strange relationship with the West, the odd and often sad ways that spiritual leaders play out their stories, and the tragic and ultimately unnecessary death of Ian Thorson. It’s an worthwhile read; not exactly uplifting, but if you’re anything like me, the myriad of ways that humans approach the question of whether there’s anything other than what we can see and taste an touch, is endlessly interesting.

Books of 2015, #13: Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests by James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales

I originally read this not too long after it first came out in paperback—so probably a decade ago.

In anticipation of SNL’s 40th Anniversary, the authors added a not insubstantial amount of additional material representing the ten years since its initial publication.

I think it should be obvious that an oral history like this can’t really be expected to present some sort of objective truth—at the very least, some of the recollections contradict one another, so someone has to be wrong. Whether they’re wrong because it was a long time ago, or they were over-indulging in recreational drugs or they’re recounting events whose narrative they’ve gradually re-shaped to make themselves look better, it’s impossible to know.

It is interesting to see the different ways that people, whether cast members, hosts or network executives, interact with, and, ultimately, relate to, Lorne Michaels. For obvious reasons, he’s the thread of continuity that ties together the whole narrative and I think it’s fair to say that no two people have the same take on him. Some regard him as some sort of taste-maker for comedy, while others think he’s a fraud. Some see him as independent, some see him as a tool of the power structure. Some see him as daring, others see him as fundamentally conservative.

One suspects that the truth is somewhere in the whirling, uncertain middle.

Anyway, it’s a fun read if you care about the subject matter at all. The new material is hardly earth-shattering, but there was some fun stuff that I hadn’t realized or remembered, like the fact that Bill Hader’s character Stefon originally appeared (and went nowhere) in a sketch, before becoming a hilarious staple of Weekend Update.