Reviews

claptrap

Review by James Swingle

 

I laughed when I read the Publisher's Preface to this book, as it mentioned how un-enticing most of the poetry that shows up in the slush pile is.  I thought: "Yes, true, and just because it shows up in a review copy doesn't mean it's necessarily much better."  The fact that the author of this collection—Stephen Gyllenhaal—has achieved fame in another area, as a director of film and TV, didn't raise my hopes.  I feared the poetry equivalent of giving a recoding deal to Paris Hilton.

 

I started the first poem, "Careful There, Pardner."  The narrator, driving his car, sees a young black man, and then notices a driver ahead of him looking over at the young black man.  The narrator immediately explodes into a tirade of the

  

 

   claptrap

   Stephen Gyllenhaal

   Cantarabooks

imagined thoughts of this driver he sees in front of him, living in his Bush Cheney Eisenhower John Wayne NRA world, making his racist judgments of the young man by the side of the road.

 

At this point, I decided I would read three poems, just to be fair, before sending a polite email about how we wouldn't be able to schedule a review of this book for Noneuclidean Cafe.

 

I read on—more projected tirade—until the narrator pulls up beside the car in front of him, looks over, and sees a contented black

man sitting there.  I laughed.  It  was a send-up of the narrator's projections, and it had gotten me hook, line and sinker. 

 

I looked back over the poem.  Care in choosing the line breaks.  Going back to poems that show up in the slush pile, a few levels above some of the truly bad poetry that comes in, one sees a lot of poetry where the writer can write decent prose, but where the line breaks just re-emphasize the existing rhythm of the prose, not adding anything.  Someone who can write sentences, but doesn't seem to have much of a toolbox when it comes to poetic technique.  But not with this poem—there was real craftsmanship in the way the line breaks played against the rhythm of the sentence.

 

And at that point, I just sat back and read on with increasing pleasure:  enjoyed the surprising adjectives and the compression of language of "Democracy"; the rollicking syntax of "Leg"; the longing strangeness of "Crescent Moon"; the forceful lines of "Watching You Strip/My Daughter"; the ongoing theme of the way race and class distinctions play below the surface of interactions; the fact that there are some damn funny poems in this collection.

 

So yes, the collection thoroughly won me over from my initial skepticism.  I'm not quite ready to give the Paris Hilton CD a listen, but I'm certainly glad I got to read Mr. Gyllenhaal's excellent book of poetry.

 

 

The God Delusion

Review by James Swingle

 

I admit up front this cannot be an unbiased reviewI owe a great personal debt to Richard Dawkins.  He is one of those few authors who provided a significant part of the framework through which I view the world.  I first read his books The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker in the 1980's, and ever since the evolutionary perspective has been a fundamental part of the way I look at the world.  Reading those books, the world became even more beautiful and fascinating than I had realized, and that beauty and fascination has only grown over the years as my understanding of the power and elegance of evolution has deepened.

 

In The God Delusion, Mr. Dawkins turns specifically to an issue that has been a theme throughout his writingthat science cannot ultimately co-exist with religion, as many like to claim, but that science is in opposition to all

  

unsupported, irrational beliefs.  And this applies as much to the belief that God exists as to the belief there are fairies in the garden.  It is a tendentious stand, even among scientists who themselves don't believe in God.  They worry it plays into the fear promulgated by, for example, those who would like to see Intelligent Design taught in public school science classes.

 

The approach Mr. Dawkins uses, which he credits to feminism, is one of consciousness raising.  One whose consciousness has been raised to science in general, and evolution in particular, will be able to see through the dubious arguments of religion, the same way one whose consciousness has been

raised to the use of masculine pronouns as the default can never again just say "he" to mean men and women, without being conscious that there are ramifications to that choice.

 

The book goes through the different arguments in favor of God, showing the fallacies behind each.  The completeness of the book does mean, for those who know the standard arguments for the existence of God, and the failings of those arguments, there will be much that is familiar.  However, it also meant that, as I was reading, he consistently addressed items that came to mind as possible responses to his position.  I regularly found that as soon as I thought, "Yes, though of course someone who does believe in God would say 'X'," he went on to address "X."

 

Mr. Dawkins does an excellent job addressing the arguments that God is necessary as a source of morality.  As he points out, the fact something fills a need, whether moral or emotional, doesn't reflect on whether it is true or not.  Beyond that, he makes a compelling case that not only is God not necessary to lead a moral life, for most of us God isn't the source of morality anyway.  To summarize one of his key arguments, all but the staunchest Christian fundamentalists accept some parts of the Bible as moral imperatives (say the ten commandments), and reject (or at least ignore) other moral strictures in the Bible (for example, that people who do work on the Sabbath should be put to death).  However, if we already use an extra-Biblical source for making those moral judgments about which sections of the Bible we will follow and which we will ignore, we could turn directly to that extra-Biblical source for our morality.

 

For me, what was most refreshing in the book is his position that we give too much deference to religious beliefs.  If someone states a position for or against gun control, for example, we feel fine challenging them to defend that position:  "Why do you think that?  What are your arguments?"  However, if someone says they believe morality is determined by God, we don't ask the same question.  We think, "Well, those are that person's religious beliefs, and so we should respect them."  But why should religious beliefs get a free ride?  Why should an argument from faith, not evidence or rational argument, suddenly become decisive simply because someone says it is a religious belief?

 

Of course, I'm not sure how many the book will convince.  I suspect many who read it will already agree with all or much of Mr. Dawkins' position.  However, given the terrors and untruths spread in the name of religion, spreading the knowledge to argue against religion might just be the most important fight of our times.  One can certainly imagine a young man or woman, doubting his or her childhood religious upbringing, but lacking exposure to the counter-arguments, finding in this book the knowledge needed to give up God with intellectual confidence. 

 

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Reviews Copyright © 2006 James Swingle. All rights reserved.