marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)

I'm not sure where to begin with Dear James: Letters to A Young Illustrator. Out of my count'm five stack, it was the first book with real content - a big plus. If asked, I'd tell you it's a book by a seasoned illustrator that's meant to encourage beginning artists - not just illustrators - to keep trying to succeed. But that hardly sums it up. The book raises more questions than it answers, which makes it unsatisfying on some levels.

First of all, it's not about anyone named James. James is an imaginary friend whom the author created to pump full of shocking stories and wise saws about his ultimate artistic success. If you can suspend belief long enough to absorb the advice the author gives to dear imaginary James, the premise works, but if you can't...and this was where I ran into my biggest problem: I think the author wrote the book to himself, to gloat over his success in an indirect way, which lent an artifice I'm not used to seeing on an autobiographical level.

I should preface any further theorizing by saying I don't read reviews before or after reading the books that I eventually review. I want to come into each book unblemished - and unbiased - by anyone else's take on it. So what I say about each book might not just be "wrong" within the context of public opinion, but even factually incorrect, since I don't check before I write these things.

That said, I couldn't get past thinking the author wrote the entire book to himself and only made a pass at authenticity on the cover by claiming James was his imaginary friend. James is his imaginary friend like Marah Marie is mine. I don't write crap to myself - about myself, and address it to Marah Marie. It just seems - to pull a favorite word out of my not-too-distant past - suspicious.

My most tempting suspicion? That the author's ego is off-the-chain, through-the-roof grande. I mean, if you're not writing the book to anyone real, and if you're not writing it to yourself, then who - or what? - is it for? Posterity? That's one answer which fits in rather nicely. Another - the more altruistic one - is he wrote the book to encourage other illustrators, not to reflect upon his own remarkable (given his thin talent, it is that) career.

I think the answer lies somewhere in between. He wanted to immortalize his success in his own words, using his own illustrations - to some extent - so the book functions in part as a first-person ode to himself. But he also wanted to encourage others, so his off-beat choice of letter-writing, either to a younger version of himself (James) or else to aspiring artists in general, gets the job done in a more original way.

I'm an artist, after a fashion, so the seeming goal of this book is aimed at me. And while the author covers many sorts of talent (writing, illustrating, actual "art") in his attempts to push James along, I couldn't help feeling weary with the whole thing. His advice might work for someone "just starting out" with a bright-eyed, "take on the world" attitude, who knows they're "gonna make it". I'm not sure how well this book will work for the rest of us.

Because not one word that I'd seen before ever pushed me one inch closer to...well, anything. I don't know if it's pure, ingrained ambivalence, only that while most of the advice seems good, it can't help you succeed. And if words can't help, then talent is an innate thing that either gels or doesn't within the framework of your life - which means you don't need encouragement to succeed - but you may need it to avoid failing. The author even offers a stunning example of this (one of my favorite parts of the book, since it isn't advice at all):

Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant at the General Hospital in Vienna. During his tenure, childbirth fever claimed the lives of one out of every eight women. Semmelweis observed that surgeons and students often treated women after handling cadavers. In 1847 he declared that improper hygiene was the cause of the high death rate. He started the practice of washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before treating women patients. Within a year the mortality rate in his ward plunged from one out of eight women to one out of a hundred. [...] But he made little headway [in proposing this solution to] his colleagues, denounced them as murderers, became raving mad and was put into a straight jacket. He died in a mental hospital.

It's quotes like that which make this book worthwhile, especially when taken with the author's stance on anonymity (a central theme of this journal). He writes that many artistic successes have written under sometimes hundreds - hundreds - of anon handles, and brags that his son also uses quite a few of them. In light of anon handles being under Facebook-directed attack these days, thought of as scurrilous additions that ruin a person's aim and plunge his or her words into doubt, I found the more "old-fashioned" take on anonymity - that it's not just OK, but great to have (lots of!) anon handles - one of the few poignant, and almost encouraging, topics in this book.

This book also raises the question, without asking or answering it, of what good material success and public reknown is to anyone. Are you a failure if your work never gets recognized - published - talked about - known? Is "success" always about money, accolades, and offers of more work? For every book like this I want to throw out one Emily Dickinson in answer - someone who slaves their entire life to create one perfect poem, line drawing, or canvas, who never seeks fame or fortune, who rises above all in spite of satisfying themselves being the only satisfaction they needed. How does this book address them? I'm afraid it doesn't.

Other highlights (it's the details that make the whole thing): the author's delight in, as Marissa Mayer might say, the polymath's success in "all things", and his entreaty to keep your day job. He offers William Carlos Williams as an example of having more than one passion, and argues not to give either passion up if you think you can juggle both.

What lowered the book's quality: the author's writing style was sometimes like his artistic one - flighty and nervous - sometimes his ego clearly overwhelms him, like when he claims he'll be too busy to write to James again for a spell, and he's never met a run-on paragraph he doesn't like. I kept noticing where I would put paragraph breaks - on almost every page! - which was almost as distracting as "James, the literary device". If you write well, it won't occur to me to edit for you as I go along.

Overall, it was a good read, but it might not be for everyone aspiring to creative success.

marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)

Fails to Meet Expectations failed to meet mine. I was looking for out-of-the-box, creative ideas for getting people to, you know, do what they're told, without grimacing at me like I'm giving out root canals - that I could run by my boss, since she continually ignores my pleadings about our wee little mob (by leaving the book on her desk or else acting like it was my own set of "why-don't-we" ideas) - not a book of write-up forms.

This was a book of write-up forms.

Yiddish Wisdom for Marriage was made of almost as much fail. It has many witty Yiddish-isms (I've got a short list of ones I might use in the future, since the book isn't entirely about marriage, after all. It's more about Jewish wisdom in general), but it only briefly touches on where and how Yiddish evolved, and doesn't even delve into why, which has got to be the biggest omission by far.

Here's a few witty Yiddish-isms:

Nit alts vos du veyst megst du zogn - not all that you know may you say.

Zay nit tsuzis, me zol dikh nit tsu biter, men zol dikh nit oys-shpayen - don't be too sweet, or they will eat you up; don't be too bitter, or they will spit you out.

Der yeyster-ho're hot an ayzenem viln - Passion and desire have an iron will.

Ven men darf hobn moyekh, helft nit kayn koyekh - When one needs brains, brawn won't help.

I donate my books when I'm done with them (except for some coding, theology and style references), so the quotes are up there just so I don't have to keep this underwhelming novelty around.

marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)

I went on a book-buying rampage this week. I usually buy just one or two books at a time - not five. But this time I bought five. Count'm: five. Is this proof that once you start, you just can't stop?

The one I'm on now is pretty dry: Fails To Meet Expectations. I'm reading it because my boss tries to be everyone's friend - except mine, because she seems to think my job is to cover her ass.

And so it is.

She also seems to think I'm not doing my job well enough.

But I can't when she lets everyone around there run wild. My co-assistant does what she wants, not what my boss tells her to do. One of my co-workers has been caught stealing - on camera - and did not even get a write-up for it!

Another works only on days she feels like it, so I get maybe two weeks worth good work out of her each month.

There's only five of us. And I just described each one of us to you, except for me: Hi, I'm MM, and I'm about ready to lose my fucking mind.

The next book in the stack is Yiddish Wisdom For Marriage. I bought it because it has the word "Yiddish" in the title. My father was Jewish so I have this culture behind me thanks to him that I like to look into. I was raised by a non-practicing Roman Catholic and consider myself Christian, so I have no idea what being a Jew is actually like.

After that comes Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator which, yep, had the name "James" in the title, so therefore could not be left at the store.

The chaser to that one is: Kabbalah For Teens. Yes, teens - I have to start somewhere - since I don't get Kabbalah at all.

And finally, (yes, this is saving the best for last, in my opinion) there's The Year That Changed The World - The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Because I'm German (we're from the non-Fascist side, about 70(?) years ago). Because I'm both Christian German and Jewish German, so I feel an obvious war taking place inside of me (quite similar to the English/Irish war my genes are constantly waging - and I'm afraid the Irish side is winning).

And because it looks like a damn good book.

marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)

I just got done reading a strange book: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer, by a self-described former man of God, Bart D. Ehrman. I've suffered most of my life in one fashion or another and wondered non-stop why others must suffer, so I figured this might be, if nothing else, a relevant look at why the Bible can't explain the unfathomable shock and pain of our lives.

Surprisingly, it wasn't.

It's just a tired take on everything you already know if you've previously read and absorbed the Bible. While I wouldn't call it a complete insult to one's intelligence, it comes close enough that I actually laughed through the first six chapters (it only has eight; it was during the last two chapters that I finally stopped laughing and got a little annoyed).

The biggest problem this book has is the author's patronizing attitude. He examines various stories and quotations from the Bible as though to elicit a non-stop reaction of, "OMG, I never thought of it THAT WAY!" and by his conspiratorial tone implies you should be as shocked and saddened by his interpretations of Biblical word as he is. I was hardly either. I've studied the Bible more or less "religiously", ha ha, for the last 10 years, and found no revelations within his interpretation that I haven't seen before or simply thought of myself.

The thing that dumbfounded me was that he could so obviously be after fame/glory/money in writing this book as a grabby follow-up to his first effort, whatever it was - I take it that book was generally well-received.

Amateur theologian that he is (how he got a job teaching his version of the Word at North Carolina's University of Chapel Hill is beyond me - from what I've heard, that's a good school, but the book clearly proves he's a lousy teacher), obviously uninspired by God, Jesus, or any idea of Good News, he tries to appeal to the populist vein in every heart by declaring that while suffering is something we must do for murky, unfathomable reasons, God stands outside of our suffering, does not participate in it, nor does he care about it.

As with Job, God will flat-out refuse to explain why we suffer, even if called upon it. Instead He will try to scare us to death, as he did Job, simply for questioning Him. Comforting thought, is that not?

Strangely enough, I don't disagree with God for refusing to explain. Who gives us the right to question Him (if you think the answer is a trippy little catch-22, yes, it is)?

I think Mr. Ehrman's falling out of belief is the best thing that's ever happened to him - or us - because it's saved us from his hypocrisy. His only motive for getting into the religious life was self-centered and immature - fear of Hell. If the only thing stopping you from declaring the Almighty a joke is fear He'll burn you eternally in a lake of fire for thinking so, then you don't believe in God and should never have bothered living, acting and speaking as though you did in the first place. You believe in protecting yourself. Those are two different things.

The last chapters turned my mood from mildly tickled to annoyed as he started throwing the big punches at God: he explains every book of the Prophets and the entire New Testament by saying they don't explain anything except conditions in each author's own times, that they don't offer predictions but instead are stories based on real events that happened up to centuries before each book was written, that the Afterlife is pure man-made Greco/Roman poppycock and so on. It's a thoroughly demoralizing - even agonizing - look at this man's reverse journey through faith.

His faith, let me remind you, never, not in his entire life, deepened beyond the point of thinking, "If there is a God, he will physically hurt me for the rest of my alleged Afterlife in a lake of fire for not believing in Him. So I better believe". He was a self-protectionist, not a man of God. If you're going to buy his version of what the Bible is - nothing more than men in robes who tell interesting stories - that's fine, because in a lot of instances, I think he's not entirely wrong. Just predictable. He has no imagination and no heart.

This book bothers - indeed, scares - me for the very fact that it may lead people away from faith before they ever get a deeper understanding of it - of how it feels to live in faith, of what purpose it serves not just here but in a possible Afterlife, and for how the former so-called man of God - a self-protecting hypocrite at best - may lead people to hate a more comforting way of life than a life without faith is. My reasons for being unable to forgive this are almost perfectly encapsulated within the next quotes:

when any mortal(even the most odd)
can justify the ways of man to God
i'll think it strange that normal mortals can
not justify the ways of God to man - ee cummings

If ee cummings had lived thousands of years ago, that one poem would surely be in the Bible. It's truer Word than most of the Psalms put together. And this...

For the rest, my brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things have honour, whatever things are upright, whatever things are holy, whatever things are beautiful, whatever things are of value, if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, give thought to these things.

Religion is the opiate of the people for a reason: it works. Even if not one word of the Bible is true, it's better - from a moral and emotional standpoint - to follow its instruction than it is to reject the Bible, God, Jesus, and the possibility of an Afterlife simply because life hurts and no one can explain why. Standing back from the Word won't make life hurt any less. For this logical fallacy alone (and yeah, it's a BIG fallacy!), I cannot support whatever message the author's trying to convey.