Tag Archives: Postmortem

Postmortem: The Fall of Arthur


For a man who died in 1973, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien still gets an awful lot of books published: The Silmarillion, 1977; the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth in the 80s and 90s; The Children of Húrin, 2007; and others.

All this is possible because one of his sons, Christopher Tolkien, has devoted a remarkable amount of time and energy over the decades to combing the elder Tolkien’s voluminous notes, sketches, and drafts, which are often incomplete and hard to decipher. Christopher is 92 today, and still going.

A few years ago he came out with The Fall of Arthur. A few weeks ago I discovered it in a local bookstore. A few days ago I finished it. And it’s excellent.

The Fall of Arthur is an unfinished long poem about the death of King Arthur, the last battle with Mordred, and the downfall of Camelot, covering roughly the same ground as the final chapters of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, though Tolkien draws on other sources as well. It is written in a form relatively unknown today, the so-called alliterative verse of the Old English poets, used most famously in Beowulf. Tolkien’s work has no rhyme, but a definite rhythm and structure, as in this bit from the first canto (chapter):

Dark and dreary     were the deep valleys,
where limbs gigantic    of lowering trees
in endless aisles    were arched o’er rivers
flowing down afar    from fells of ice.

That space in the middle of each line is part of the Beowulf form, too. When discussing it, Tolkien speaks of both lines and “half-lines.” The purpose of the half-lines would require a whole separate blog post (and more research on my part), but the Wiki page I linked above has some explanation.

More remarkable, from my perspective, is that this is really good poetry.

I grew up on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and I thought the poetry and songs in those books was amazing — but the older I got, the less impressed I was. So I wasn’t sure what to expect here. But his use of language is just beautiful.

I think the Old English form (as opposed to the more conventional rhyming verses he uses elsewhere) pushes him to find more interesting word choices. I also love all the old words he uses, which make the poem as a whole feel both ancient and truly connected with Arthur’s world. In the quote above, “fells” are hills or heights — so “fells of ice” are hills of ice. Elsewhere, he uses “tarn,” which is a small steep-banked mountain lake. (Incidentally, “tarn” appears in the first paragraph of The Fall of the House of Usher as well.) Other examples abound.

I’ve gotta say, too, it’s refreshing to read a serious work by Tolkien that isn’t in Middle-earth. I like hobbits as much as the next guy, but sometimes I also like, y’know, not hobbits. So that was cool.

As I mentioned, the poem is unfinished — as with so many projects in his career (and mine), real life got in the way. The story ends well before the apocalyptic Battle of Camlann (the battle that puts the Morte in Morte D’Arthur). At 40 pages, the poem itself takes up less than a quarter of the full volume. The rest is mostly commentary by Christopher in the form of three essays:

The Poem in Arthurian Tradition — Which sources did Tolkien draw on for his story? The Arthur mythology doesn’t have a single canonical source. It’s a jumble of different authors and traditions and languages over a span of centuries, with some altering or expanding on earlier works, and some inventing completely new stories. Christopher offers a solid historical context for the mythology his father decided to use.

The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to The Silmarillion — Although The Fall of Arthur isn’t a Middle-earth story, there are certain parallels. The strongest parallel is between Avalon and Tol Eressëa, the latter being the “Lonely Isle” near Valinor from The Silmarillion. Tolkien also, at some point, wrote some lines of verse — which do not appear in the main poem — featuring the Silmarillion character Eärendel:

Eärendel goeth on eager quest
to magic islands beyond the miles of the sea,
past the hills of Avalon and the halls of the moon,
the dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Faery on the borders of the world.

Even putting aside the Arthurian connection via Avalon, the lines above are gorgeous poetry, in my opinion — the word choice isn’t as sophisticated as what you’ll find in The Fall of Arthur, but it’s a vivid image nonetheless.

The Evolution of the Poem — Christopher had access to earlier drafts of the main poem, and he uses them to show how his father’s ideas grew and changed over the course of multiple revisions. He presents this evolution in considerable detail, taking a full 50 pages — which is longer than the poem itself. I confess this is the only section of the book I was unable to finish. I love writing, and editing, and revision, and poetry, and textual analysis, and Tolkien, and King Arthur, but even so, there’s only so much “See how he added five lines here?” that I can stomach. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource for anyone doing serious research, and its inclusion demonstrates once again Christopher’s dedication to his father’s work.

There’s also an appendix, an essay, where J. R. R. Tolkien explains in his own words what alliterative verse is all about, and explains the Old English verse tradition more generally. I found it fascinating, but I fear I may be in the minority there.

Whew! I always start these postmortems intending them to be just a few words about the book or movie or whatever, and I always end up being reminded yet again that writing “a few words” is beyond my abilities. But that’s how it goes.

Happy weekend!

Postmortem: A Monster Calls


Warning: Spoilers.

Published in 2011, A Monster Calls is a short novel by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay. It’s billed as a “children’s book,” with a target audience somewhere in the 10-16 range. But it’s one of those children’s books that — like The Hobbit and Matilda and Harry Potter — is meant to appeal to young and old alike.

While Betsy and I were in Oxford, England, a little over a year ago, I picked up a copy. I had never heard of it, or its author, but the art looked beautifully grim, the story looked intriguing, and it seemed to have won lots of praise and awards. So I grabbed it and lugged it back to the States, where it sat on a shelf, unread.

Then yesterday, I saw an ad for a movie titled A Monster Calls, and assumed (correctly) it was based on the neglected book I’d bought. I figured it was the perfect excuse to finally read the thing. So I did. Or tried to, anyway.

I got a quarter of the way through and had to put it down. It was bad. Not scary-horror bad, just plain old bad-writing bad. Boring, unconvincing, unoriginal. I read the rest of the plot in a summary on Wikipedia, then skimmed through the rest of the book to confirm.

What’s wrong with it?

For starters, the monster — the one on the cover and in the title — isn’t scary. At all. He looks scary in the art, and he’s meant to be scary in the text, but it never happens. Physical appearance aside, the dude just isn’t very menacing. He never does much harm to anyone. Mostly, he talks to the main character (a 13-year-old boy named Conor). And he talks. And talks. In polite conversations where they take turns and consider each other’s points thoughtfully. Terrifying, right?

Books about non-scary monsters can certainly work. But when the art and the tone try so hard to convince you otherwise, it’s a pretty big letdown.

Conor himself says more than once that he’s not afraid of this oh-so-frightening creature. Why not? Because he’s scared of something even worse: real life. His mother is dying of cancer, and he has this recurring nightmare about her that he won’t tell anyone, that he can’t even stand to think about.

See, the book isn’t really about monsters outside. It’s really about the monsters within. Like, whoa. Who knew monsters could be symbolic of other things?

The actual purpose of the monster — and I am not making this up — is to offer therapy sessions for Conor, to help him work out his emotional baggage. To be fair, the book doesn’t call them “therapy sessions.” The therapy comes in the form of stories. The monster informs Conor that he will tell him three stories, and then Conor will tell him a story, revealing what’s in his dark and secret nightmare.

Look, I like stories. I’ve read thousands and written dozens. That’s why I bought the book in the first place. But I gotta say, reading a story about someone hearing a story is not high on my “exciting” list. It’s possible to make a story-in-story interesting, but the author has to make the reader care, and that just doesn’t happen here. The monster keeps insisting that stories are wild, dangerous things (which they can be), while Conor keeps saying it’s going to be boring.

Maybe Conor should have written the book.

Besides the unimpressed protagonist and the un-scary non-villain, other story bits include:

  • Conor’s mom, who (as we said) is dying of cancer, which is Very Sad.
  • Conor’s douchebag dad, Conor’s condescending grandma (who has a Heart of Gold), and Conor’s friend Lily, who serves no purpose I can see, at least in the first quarter of the novel.
  • A high school, which features such remarkably original characters as a Bully With Two Sidekicks and a Well-Meaning Teacher Who Just Doesn’t Get It, with “it” being Conor’s teen angst.

Most of the tropes above aren’t necessarily bad, and can often be good. Monster as metaphor, story-in-story, death of a parent, tough adolescent relationships — these are solid building blocks for a story. You can’t tell a story without tropes, after all.

But tropes only work if you recognize that they’re old, they’ve been done a million times, and you have to put a fresh spin on them. The problem with A Monster Calls, I think, is that it not only fails to dress up these old devices, it treats them as something brand-new and remarkable. “Look,” the story seems to say. “We’re using fantasy to deal with issues in real life. Did I just blow your mind, or what?”

Also, as I may have mentioned, the monster is about as scary as a bottle of mineral water.

Here’s the thing, though. People love this book. The New York Times called it “a gift from a generous story­teller and a potent piece of art.” The Telegraph hailed it as “a beguiling and heart-rending tale, tender and eviscerating in turn.” It’s won loads of prestigious awards, bestselling authors have praised it, and it has 4½ stars on Goodreads.

Why the disconnect between my experience and theirs?

Well, for starters, they read the whole book. I might like it better if I read the latter three-fourths of it. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

Another thing is expectations. They were (perhaps) expecting just another book, so any outstanding qualities may have shone extra bright. I was expecting something amazing (the cover alone lists five major awards, on my version), so I was bound to be harder to please. To be fair, I think the book is more mediocre than truly awful.

Yet another factor: The real-life story behind the novel itself is genuinely touching. A beloved author named Siobhan Dowd (who I’d never heard of before yesterday) came up with the idea for this book, but died before she could finish it. Like the mother in the story, she had cancer, so the book was very personal for her. The fact that another author took her idea and ran with it, and created something that so many people like, is really beautiful. So that might be part of it.

And of course, art is subjective, and people just have different tastes. I didn’t like it, but they did, and I’m glad they did. To each their own, etc.

Still, all that said, I do see this book as part of a larger pattern that I wrote about years agoAmerican Gods and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, and above all The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, are books that received universal, effusive praise. I forced myself to read them all cover-to-cover, and found that they ranged from mediocre (Gaiman and Sanderson) to awful (Rothfuss) to borderline physically painful (Beagle).

It’s odd, isn’t it? Opinions vary, as I said, but I do wonder why I diverge so sharply from mainstream and critical opinion in those cases, when my tastes are so “normal” in so many other areas. (I love Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling, Robert Jordan, Isaac Asimov, and J. R. R. Tolkien, to name just a few.)

I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last look at the art, which is excellent, as I said — definitely the book’s best feature.


Postmortem: Ruthless


I have a history with – or rather, against – the Church of Scientology.

A number of years ago, I started reading about the Church. I forget exactly what sparked it. But I remember my utter fascination at getting a glimpse into what seemed like an alternate reality.

Scientology has some really weird beliefs, sure. But people are entitled to their weird beliefs – myself included. I don’t begrudge them that.

My problem isn’t with the beliefs, nor with individual Scientologists. My problem is with the organization itself.

See, the group that calls itself the Church of Scientology is actually a cult that practices extortion, intimidation, harassment, abuse, and dishonesty on a massive scale, while offering little or nothing in return to the thousands of honest believers who open their checkbooks again, and again, and again.

The Church has a prison camp. I’m not exaggerating or sensationalizing. I mean they literally have a cluster of buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence, patrolled by guards, monitored by cameras, in which there are Scientologists who desperately want to leave but are physically prevented from doing so, for years. This area, believe it or not, is the Scientology world headquarters – known as Gold Base – in California. You can see it on Google Maps. (The Church, of course, denies this and all other allegations of wrongdoing.)

The Church practices something called “disconnection,” which means that if a Scientologist leaves the Church, any family members who remain are forbidden from having any contact with them. In other words, they break up families, often for many years.

The Church has an internal organization called the Sea Org, whose members are supposed to be 100% dedicated to the Church. Women in the Sea Org who become pregnant are encouraged to have abortions.

I could go on.

And by all means, don’t take my word for it. All the information above is based on numerous reports from many different people who have left the Church over the years. The stories are publicly available and easy to find. Google will tell you whatever you want to know.

So, as I said, the Church of Scientology has been on my radar for a long time. (I even attended some public protests against them back in the day.) So when I saw a book about “Scientology, my son David Miscavige, and me,” naturally I was interested.

David Miscavige, you see, is the hot-tempered, abusive, power-hungry leader of the Church of Scientology. He is the successor to its founder, science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.

I finished reading Ruthless a couple days ago. It was fascinating.

See, no matter how many times I read about the cruelty and insanity of the Church, I’m still amazed all over again each time I read a new account. This one, coming from the father of the Church’s leader, was especially interesting.

He talks about how he got interested in Scientology in the first place, how he got his wife and kids (including David) involved, how the early years were happy and hopeful. Although I don’t think the Church was ever a good organization, it does seem clear that they’ve taken a real nosedive in the past three decades, under David’s leadership.

Ron (the author) talks about joining the aforementioned Sea Org, which is something like a Bizarro version of the Navy. As the years went by, the long hours got ever longer, the days off got less and less common, the pay got lower, the expectations got higher, the rewards evaporated, the punishments got more sadistic, and sleep became an ever more precious commodity.

Eventually, he moved to Gold Base. At first it was just a large, expensive, impressive headquarters for a worldwide organization. But Ron watched as security grew tighter and tighter over time, until it was literally impossible to get permission to leave. Ron said there were stretches lasting years in which he didn’t get a single day off. He says all-nighters were very common, and he once had to stay up more than 80 hours straight finishing a project.

Even the impossible deadlines and insane schedules might have been bearable, had the environment been more positive. But, Ron says, David was an obsessive micromanager and constantly abusive, screaming at people and insulting them and shaming them. Nothing was ever good enough. Lower-level managers picked up his attitude (or else they were removed). And the abuses weren’t just verbal. People were physically hit, or forced to stay in hot rooms for weeks, or shoved into a lake, or even (in one bizarre instance) forced to live in a shack out by a swamp, away from everyone else, for months.

Ron finally got out of this place in 2012. And when he refers to his departure as an “escape,” he is not exaggerating.

I admit that the book’s writing style is not very good, which is odd since Ron evidently had a ghostwriter. The story wanders sometimes, with large chunks that feel sorta irrelevant, and the prose is a little choppy. But those faults are easy to overlook in exchange for the engrossing view it offers into the Bizarro world that is the Church of Scientology.

Postmortem: Exodus

Betsy and I are still making our way through the Bible, one chapter at a time. A couple days ago we finished Exodus. Some brief thoughts…

Whereas the God of Genesis does a lot of killing in vast and dramatic ways (genocidal Flood, raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah), the God of Exodus seems smaller, more spiteful and cruel. Examples:

  • He repeatedly “hardens the heart” of the Pharaoh – who would otherwise have let the Israelites go free – explicitly for the sake of his own glory (e.g. Exodus 10:1).
  • He punishes the Levites by having them get out swords and run around and “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” They do, and three thousand die. (32:27-28)
  • He believes in “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (34:7)
  • He orders that anyone who works on the Sabbath must be executed. (35:2)
  • etc.

Readers have commented for centuries that the God of the Old Testament seems shockingly bloodthirsty compared to the God of the New Testament, and I knew most of these examples already, so it’s not like this was a surprise. Still, it’s striking to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white.

I was surprised, however, to find that the golden calf created by the Israelites is so ambiguous in nature. I always thought of it as simply an idol worshiped instead of God, and in some respects that is how it’s described. But we’re also told: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it [the golden calf]; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord [YHWH].’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (32:5-6)

In other words, the calf-centered festival where they offered sacrifices was still considered a festival to their original God (at least in Aaron’s mind). I had never heard that before.

The revelation of the divine name “I Am” to Moses is poetic and beautiful, and seems fitting.

I’ve heard people claim that slavery in the Old Testament isn’t wrong, because it’s not like the Southern pre-Civil War slavery we think of today. Well, it may not be the same, but read this divine law and judge its morality for yourself: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21:20)

That is, it’s okay to beat your slaves to death, as long as it takes them at least twenty-four hours to die of their wounds.

There’s a single sentence that is ten verses long (35:10-19). I wonder if that’s the record, or if there are any longer sentences later.

A surprising amount of time is spent going over the precise physical details of the Ark, Tabernacle, altar, and so on. I mean, it’s really intense. Six chapters of description (25-30) of the design, followed by five chapters (36-40) of the construction, which is basically a near-verbatim repetition of the design part, except it’s what they built instead of what they’re planning to build.

I noticed, too, that Exodus had much less emphasis on women than Genesis. There was Miriam (sister of Moses and Aaron) and Pharoah’s daughter, and a few others, but all had brief and minor roles. Contrast with the roles of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.

I’ve been very critical of Exodus, but I have to stress that my criticism (and, let’s be honest, anger) is not from any dislike of Christianity. It’s the opposite. Because I respect Christianity and expect good things from it, I get very frustrated to see holy books that glorify death and cruelty. I think Betsy feels something similar.

It is a credit to Christians around the world that they can transform even books like these into a force for peace and love. (I feel similarly about nearly all other religious texts, by the way.)

Anyway – as mentioned before, we’re heading to Matthew next. A little New Testament reading will be a nice palate cleanser before we plunge back into the Old Testament again, and Leviticus in particular.

Postmortem: Vacation Books


One of the best things about vacation is having time to read. I finished six books in the past week.

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. A novel about four kids – ages thirteen, ten, nine, and six – abandoned by their mom in a parking lot, who must travel hundreds of miles with very little money, and without being discovered by authorities (who might split them up to put them in foster homes). This book is amazing, one of those rare stories that starts strong, stays good through the middle, and has a satisfying ending. Good characters, fascinating insight into the dynamics, relationships, and power structures that kids will form with each other when left to their own devices. Ultimately it’s a book about family, but with none of the syrupy sweetness that normally implies. My highest recommendation.

In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki (translated by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker). Nonfiction about how darkness – the literal kind, a lack of photons – is aesthetically superior to bright light in architecture, art, fashion, and other areas. Tanizaki argues that traditional Japanese aesthetics honored darkness, whereas modern and Western trends have lost the old subtlety of shadow. It’s an intriguing idea, but sadly, the book is mostly just Tanizaki rambling illogically about how everything was better in his day and these young’uns and for’gners are ruining the country. He starts by explaining how he spent tons of money trying to remodel a modern house into the old style, to meet his sense of aesthetics, then explains that Japanese culture embraces shadow because they can accept life as it is and don’t need to change everything. A short book, but shorter if you don’t read it, which is what I’d suggest.

The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński (translated by William R. Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand). Nonfiction about the last years and downfall of the final Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. A fascinating look inside an imperial court that was largely disconnected from reality, concerned mostly with maintaining its own power and image, warping the truth 1984-style to do so. Courtiers had absurd jobs; the sole duty of one man was opening doors for the Emperor (a more difficult job than you might think, due to fastidious protocol), while another man was charged with cleaning dignitaries’ shoes when the Emperor’s lapdog, Lulu, peed on them. The pettiness of the power struggles, the way everyone fawned over the Emperor like a god, the terrible danger that hung constantly over all of them – it’s a whole other world, recreated with some masterful detective work by the author.

The Essential Kabbalah by Daniel C. Matt. An introductory essay to give context, followed by selections from various Kabbalah texts, designed to give a newbie like me some idea of what Kabbalah is all about. (I’m researching the subject as one of the many sources for Crane Girl). If you’re wondering, Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, using meditation and other techniques to approach a direct experience of the Divine. Its function is similar to Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and Christian monasticism, though its form is very different, relying heavily on a structure of ten interconnected points called “sefirot” that collectively give insight into the nature of God and humanity. It’s an interesting little book.

The Spire by William Golding. A novel by the author of Lord of the Flies. This story is about the dean of a cathedral who orders a vast tower and spire built at the cathedral’s peak, even though the master builder says it’s unsafe and everyone else in the world says it’s a terrible idea. (Spoiler alert: it is.) While there are some glimmers of quality here, I thought it was pretty bad overall. The Spire retains and exaggerates all the flaws of Lord of the Flies (overly thick allegory, characters who feel more like symbols than people, trying too hard to Say Something Important) but has none of its virtues (clarity, strong plot, likable protagonist, the sense of a profound message). In The Spire, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on, and there’s little reason to try. My vote: skip it.

Lewis Carroll and Alice by Stephanie Lovett Stoffel. A nice little biography of Carroll, packed with photos and reproductions, supplemented with selections of Carroll’s lesser-known writing (like Sylvie and Bruno) at the end. Enlightening and enjoyable. The book did portray Carroll in a very positive light, so much so that I sometimes wondered about bias, but I don’t know enough about the man to judge for myself. Side note: the publishers didn’t bother to put the author’s name anywhere on the front or back cover, which seems like a real slap in the face.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner. A Young Adult sci-fi dystopian novel, in roughly the same vein as The Hunger Games, about a bunch of boys trapped in a giant, mysterious maze from which they must escape, overcoming all sorts of deadly horrors. Except that Hunger Games is fast-paced, tightly written, and engaging, whereas Maze Runner is slow, full of awkward sentences, and spends a long time explaining stuff while nothing much is happening. I read the first few chapters, got bored, and skimmed through the rest to see what the big secret of the maze was. It turns out to be a huge surprise – if you’ve never read any other science fiction, ever. Honestly, I’m not sure how this became a bestseller. It isn’t just that I didn’t like it, it didn’t seem like something that would have wide appeal in general. C’est la vie. (Not pictured in photo above because I didn’t take it home with me from England.)

Read anything good lately?

Postmortem: Genesis

Betsy and I just finished Genesis. It’s … a strange book.

Chapters 1-11 cover primeval, mythic-type events: Creation, expulsion from Eden, the first murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. A lot of the best-known Genesis stories come from these early chapters.

But the vast majority of the book, chapters 12-50, are about four generations of rich patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and Joseph, along with their families.

It’s striking, first of all, how amoral this section of Genesis is. People do all kinds of things – killing, threatening to kill, enslaving, banishing, lying, cheating, sleeping around – with very little judgment from the text on what is and isn’t okay. In some cases, as when Abraham lies to Pharaoh and calls Sarah his sister, we get the impression it’s a bad thing. Other cases, like when Jacob cheats Esau out of his blessing, feel more positive. In still other cases, as when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, there seems to be no textual judgment at all, positive or negative; it’s just something that happens. Such lack of judgment would make sense in a work of fiction, but in the Bible – which people use as a source of moral guidance – it’s more surprising.

Likewise, there isn’t much about what kind of relationship humanity should have with God. God actually doesn’t appear too often in these chapters, and when he does, his exchanges with humans are very transactional: command and obey, request and provide. Unlike Noah, who was chosen for his righteousness, Abraham seems to be chosen without any clear reason. God simply says, without explanation or preamble: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen 12:2). Likewise, Abraham’s descendants seem to inherit his blessing through blood, rather than virtue. Why has God chosen these people in particular? Why would God choose any people in particular? We’re never told, at least not in Genesis. Instead, God seems to be on Abraham’s side because, well, he’s Abraham.

So if Genesis isn’t primarily about laws, morals, or God, what is it about?

Mostly, it’s about inheritance. A lot of time and detail is spent on who marries who, who sleeps with who, sterility and fertility, birth order and birthright, the blessings of the father, and where people are buried. All this establishes the lineage and origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (and other tribes), the ancestors of King David, the blessings of God, and claims to ownership of various lands. It’s practical: I get this land, this blessing, this authority, not you.

From an ancient viewpoint, Genesis makes sense. People want origin stories, and they want to establish claims to what they have. For a modern Christian reader, though, the purpose of Genesis is less clear. A few passages are instructive (albeit troubling), like the Flood and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. And the book does provide important historical and cultural perspective for interpreting the rest of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus.

But as a standalone book, it’s … well, it’s odd. Interesting and significant, of course, but odd.

That’s my, ahem, professional opinion.

On to Exodus!

Postmortem: Inside Out


Anger, Joy, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear, living it up at Riley HQ.

Warning: Spoilers.

Say what you will about Rotten Tomatoes – when a movie scores 98%, it’s usually pretty damn good. Pixar’s latest offering, Inside Out, scored 98%, so Betsy and I saw it, and I can confirm it’s pretty damn good. For my money, it’s tied with The Incredibles for best Pixar film. And that’s saying something.

The premise is simple. Every person’s mind can be visualized as a mini world, overseen by the personifications of five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger (Lewis Black!), Fear, and Disgust. Our hero, an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, has these little guys in her head like everyone else. Of the five, Joy is the leader – or at least first among equals – and the other four all share her goal of making Riley happy.

When Riley and her family move from her hometown (in Minnesota, eh?) to San Francisco, she does her best to cope. It’s a struggle, but she’s a positive kid – Joy has done her work well.

And then one day, Joy and Sadness get yanked out of Headquarters. To get back, they’re forced into a journey across the vast expanse of Riley’s mind. Meanwhile, Riley is left with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust running the show. She has lost the capacity for both happiness and genuine sadness. Her life spirals rapidly. Her relationships break down. She stops caring about anything. Finally, she loses the ability to feel any real emotion at all. She’s dying inside.

They never spell it out, but it’s abundantly clear what’s happening. Riley, an eleven-year-old girl, is sinking into clinical depression.

And if you think that’s heavy, how about the conclusion of the film: that mere happiness is not the goal of life; that sadness and joy are symbiotically linked, like yin and yang, and neither can exist without the other; that Riley can only grow up by accepting that sadness is a fundamental part of who she is.

Pretty adult stuff for a Disney cartoon. I mean, when they bust out the PG rating, you know shit has gotten real.

What's happening to our daughter?

What’s happening to our daughter?

Of course, despite its moments of darkness – and there are many – Inside Out is basically a happy movie, bursting with color, energy, cleverness, humor, and the exceptional polish and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from all of Pixar’s work. And sprinkled in with the humor are genuine insights, as when  a character casually explains that the contents of two boxes – Facts and Opinions – are always getting mixed up, and nobody really bothers to sort them out properly.

Complaints? Well, I have a few minor ones. I think Inside Out‘s vision of the mind places far too much emphasis on feeling, with almost no weight given to reason-based thought. I also got annoyed with the movie sometimes for leaning a little heavily on cliches, as when Riley’s father is shown to be obsessed with sports, emotionally clueless, and concerned with whether he’s angered his wife by leaving the toilet seat up.

But these are small problems, the kind of “problems” that all movies have, merely because you can’t please everyone all the time. The upshot is that Inside Out is utterly brilliant, and if you’ve ever liked anything Pixar has done in the past, I highly recommend this one.

I was planning to end the post here. But yesterday, I came across a negative review of the movie on NPR, by philosopher (and critic?) Alva Noë. Now, obviously reviewers are entitled to their opinions, and I don’t make a habit of writing rebuttals. But in this case I was drawn to respond, because (1) I ordinarily respect what NPR has to say, (2) Noë’s criticisms seem patently absurd, and (3) Inside Out is just so friggin’ sweet.

As befits a philosopher, his main gripe with the movie is philosophical:

Riley is not a person, she is a robot, a complicated vessel whose actions and intentions are controlled by persons — emotions and memory workers — inside of her. Riley is no more an agent in her own right than is, say, a ship an agent in its own right.

He adds that “there is something downright terrifying about this nihilistic conception of ourselves as zombie puppets living in a confabulated universe.”

This criticism seems to misunderstand the basic premise of the story. Of course Riley is controlled by the “persons” inside her – because those persons, collectively, are her mind. The Self is not a single, monolithic whole; it’s composed of various departments and tendencies operating in tandem, which together make up the core of Who You Are.

If having a body controlled by a mind makes you a “zombie puppet,” well, I’ve got some bad news for everybody on the planet. And if Noë thinks Inside Out is nihilistic, I’d hate to see his reaction to Requiem for a Dream.

His other criticisms include:

  • Riley, with her “boy’s name” and love of hockey, is basically a male character, allowing the film’s creators to avoid having to depict a real girl. Yes, because no real girl could like a traditionally masculine sport or have a unisex name. If only she had been named Annabelle and played with Barbies, that would have been a victory for feminism.
  • What should we make of the fact that Anger and Fear are portrayed as male, while the other three emotions are female? Well, mathematically speaking, you have two genders and five emotions, so it’s literally impossible to avoid reducing one of the genders to two or fewer emotions. Would Noë have been happier if Fear were female? If Joy were male? Is there any way to reduce a gender to two or three emotions that won’t cause offense if you take it too seriously?
  • Why is there no racial variation in our internal population? Judging by his reaction to the gender variation, I’m guessing racial variation would be a no-win scenario too. A black man as Anger? No, that would be offensive. What race should be Fear? How about Disgust? What magic combination could please a critic like this?
  • Nothing much happened in the story. Correct. Aside from Riley moving to a new city, having a breakdown at school, cutting off contact with her friend, losing her connection with her parents, running away from home, returning for a cathartic reunion, and learning a profound lesson about what it means to be human, all while the characters inside her head are undertaking an epic journey whose stakes are the soul of our protagonist – aside from all that, nothing much happened.

Maybe it’s telling that, throughout his review, Alva Noë never managed to spell the director’s name right – he called him “Pete Doctor” instead of “Docter.” (To NPR’s credit, the spelling has since been corrected.)

Or maybe he just needs a copyeditor. Hey, Alva. I know a guy.