Monthly Archives: May 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 2013)

Over the years, I’ve read many horror stories, some fictional and some not. In truth, the most terrifying of these have been those that were not fictional. For example, several years ago I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, one of the most horrifying stories I’ve ever encountered. Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright, is another frightening tale that is made all the worse because it is a continuing story, one of cultism, manipulation, coercion, deception, and the willingness of people to believe uncritically in, and to commit their lives to, a religion so preposterous that it would be laughable if the reality of its penetration into society were not so shocking. Going Clear is the story of Scientology, as reported by a reputable and scrupulous journalist.

At the outset, I should state my bias. Those who read my blog on a regular basis know that I’m an atheist and humanist. While I love reading science fiction and fantasy stories and have even written a published collection of such stories, I know that such tales do not represent reality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the poor souls who accept the bizarre fundamentals of Scientology, large among them being the existence of the galactic overlord Xenu and of individuals’ bodies being inhabited by multiple “thetans” that must be expelled in order to “go clear”.

Society tends to view all new religions as cults, and where the label of cult ends and that of true religion begins is a somewhat arbitrary matter. Arguably, all religion, no matter how mature, is really cultism and characterized generally by belief in some element of the supernatural, acceptance of a defined body of orthodox thought, group identity, and intolerance of apostasy. What, really, is the difference between believing in the Christian resurrection of Jesus and Joseph Smith founding the Church of Latter Day Saints based upon his use of “seer stones” to read golden plates to which he was directed by the angel Moroni? Between the virgin birth and Heaven’s Gate believers’ faith in extraterrestrials in a spaceship trailing behind comet Hale-Bopp? I could go on, but you get the idea: religion requires some element of belief in the supernatural or objectively unfounded and generally is not subject to arguments of science or reason.

Wright’s book explores the origins of Scientology, beginning with the extraordinary life of L. Ron Hubbard, the man who started it all with his book, Dianetics. The tale goes into his early life, admittedly remarkable and characterized by a number of worldly adventures, each of which ended largely in failure, his becoming a science fiction writer, and then elaborating the germinal ideas that led to dianetics, which eventually became the religion of Scientology.

Hubbard became progressively unhinged over a period of years, paranoid, irrational, and fanatical. In the end, he was quite out of control and isolated by the church he founded, which was taken over by a second, less bright but arguably more organized, autocratic, and allegedly brutal individual, David Miscavige.

Wright details a number of church endeavors, prime among them being its battle with the IRS tor tax exempt status in which it beat the agency into submission with endless legal challenges, forcing a settlement that taxpayers now have to live with. On the PR front, he details how the church has aggressively courted the entertainment industry, notably latching onto and cynically manipulating John Travolta and Tom Cruise into being the church’s most prominent exponents. He sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the death of Travolta’s son, and describes in detail how the church actively sought out and groomed a female consort for Cruise. The litany of stories involving harassment, confinement and physical abuse of church members for various and often trivial transgressions, and the aggressive activities of the church in trying to retain certain of its defectors, paints a picture of an organization with little respect for human rights or dignity even more troubling than its crazy core beliefs.

One may well ask after reading Wright’s account whether it can all be true. The church denies much of it, but Wright’s documentation appears sound, with extensive citing of existing materials and interviews with many witnesses and church defectors. In the end, it is left to the reader to decide whether to believe it all, but if even some of what is recounted is true, questions must be asked, including how people can be so pathetically ignorant and vulnerable as to be sucked into such an organization, and how the church hierarchy can get away with what it apparently does.

Again, it should be stressed that much of what Wright has documented is denied by the church, but the weight of the evidence is not in its favor. As an atheist and humanist, I recoil at religious cultism, and so whether Wright’s account is valid in all of its respects is less an issue for me than that it is a cautionary tale about religion and what it can do to people in general. Even if none of the abuses and cynical manipulations alleged (and well supported) in the book actually took place, the central beliefs of the church are preposterous enough to warrant our total amazement that anyone could take them seriously.

This is a truly terrifying story, but one that should be widely read and seen as a cautionary tale about the irrationality and, in the case of Scientology, the dangers of uncritical religious faith and commitment.

Highly Recommended

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Book Review: Spelled, by Kate St. Clair

Back in prehistoric times, when I was a kid, my parents wanted me to become an enthusiastic reader. Toward that end, they took the position that it didn’t really matter what I read, as long as I was reading. This led to my accumulating a large collection of comic books and checking out every science fiction novel I could find from the L.A. public library’s “bookmobile” that regularly visited my elementary school. (I can still remember the first sci-fi book I ever read: The Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein.) My parents’ approach worked, and I became an avid reader.

With this in mind, and after meeting writer Kate St. Clair at a local authors’ “meet and greet” at a nearby bookstore on California Bookstore Day (where I was also one of the participating authors), I decided to check out her young adult targeted novella, Spelled, published by Black Hill Press this past February.

In the course of her short book, St. Clair tells the story of the Sayers family through the voice of Georgia Sayers, the eldest of five siblings. We quickly learn that the children live with their stepfather, their mother being deceased and their biological father being someone whose critical role will become evident later in the story. As the tale progresses, we learn that Georgia and her sibs have an unusual and supernatural heritage that sets them apart from all but one other fellow student, a boy older than Georgia but one whom she begins to tutor in English. As Georgia, her three sisters, and her brother come to grips with their previously unknown family legacy, they face unexpected stresses and risks, and ultimately learn much about themselves that will finally bring them closer together than they have ever been in the past.

The book seems aimed at an audience of adolescent girls in roughly the 12 to 16 age range, and one can easily imagine it as the start of a series of stories about the family. It also contains precisely the kind of youth-oriented setup that could provide the seed for a series on “The CW”. By the time I had finished reading the book, it had occurred to me that it would be an excellent “stocking stuffer” for parents wanting to encourage their kids as readers.

In Spelled, Ms. St. Clair has nicely captured adolescent behavior, including especially some of Georgia’s uncertainties and angst over how to deal with life’s challenges and relate interpersonally with those around her. She tells a story that involves the supernatural while grounding it in real world decision making and the stresses that come with it.

My only criticism of the book is that I came across a few proofing glitches, but these were relatively minor and did not detract from the overall reading experience. In an age when books are no longer traditionally typeset but, rather, are uploaded from word processed files, proofreading can suffer. In this regard, Spelled isn’t unique, but the potential for inadvertent retention of typographic errors mandates special care before approving final galleys.

Recommended for the younger end of the YA audience

Boko Haram and Us: We Have Met the Enemy

(Note: Due to a personal schedule commitment, this week’s blog entry is being made earlier than usual.)

By training I am a physician, although now retired. A board certified obstetrician and gynecologist, to be specific. Partly because of this but mostly because, simply, I am a human being, I cannot but express revulsion and horror over the ignorant, immoral, politically and religiously motivated kidnapping of those 300+ girls in Nigeria by the radical Islamic insurgency, Boko Haram. This group, which seeks to replace the sitting Nigerian government and institute strict sharia law, is opposed to anything it deems “western”, such as secular education, including the education of females, and any other elements it determines may be a part of “western culture”. The group is a living anachronism, a throwback to ignorant barbarism so far removed in time as to be almost incomprehensible in the 21st century. Or is it?

In recent years, Islamic fundamentalism has been the cause of much worldly mayhem, but it would be wrong to view it in historic isolation. Religion has been associated with, and frequently has been the primary motivating factor, in much human cruelty throughout the ages and, to strike what may be a sensitive nerve for some, Christianity has certainly been responsible for its share of historical havoc. It just happens that today it’s Islamism.

Before we sit back smugly and pat ourselves on the back for having come so far and become so civilized, however, we should look around at what’s happening right here and now in the U.S. As I wrote in my last blog entry, the Supreme Court has just given the go-ahead to sectarian public prayer at governmental meetings, which will result in violation of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution by providing de facto endorsement of Christianity, it being Christian prayer that is being pushed by religious bigots in local jurisdictions. The Tea Party and other fundamentalist Republicans largely behave as a Christian Taliban, attempting to impose their irrational, inconsistent, neo-puritanical morality upon us all through restrictive and often punitive legislation. To wit: the mandating of transvaginal ultrasound prior to elective abortion, a measure designed both to deter and humiliate in its violation of both corporeal and mental autonomy. What’s next? Stoning?

The terrorism of Boko Haram, then, should horrify but not leave us feeling particularly superior. Bad things could happen – are already beginning to happen – here at home, and all it will take for the triumph of evil is, as has been noted so many, many times in the past, for good people to do nothing. Speak up. Vote. Stand for our common humanity. Let’s be sure that the legacy we leave for our children and grandchildren is not a theocratic police state.

Today’s Annoyance: Those idiots who agitate to “keep the government out of Medicare”.

The Supremes Screw Up…Again

Apparently, the Supreme Court, or at least five of its members, have misplaced their copies of the U.S. Constitution. This must have been some time ago, considering some of the screwy decisions we’ve been seeing in the past few years, but the most recent outrage, the court’s decision on prayer at government meetings, is a real doozy, arguably worse than Citizens United.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

So reads in part the first amendment. It is the embodiment of a concern held by the country’s founders born of bitter past experience with religious intolerance and persecution and, until now, it has been a bedrock assumption of the American ideal.

Despite the protestations of many conservatives and, especially, the Tea Party Taliban, the United States of America was not founded as a fundamentally Christian country. The founders were largely deists with varying degrees of religious belief, and the first amendment was created to prevent the adoption of any formal state religion or endorsement thereof. The recent decision by the Supreme Court, however, has thoroughly undermined this essential principle by explicitly enabling any governmental body to begin its meetings with a prayer that allows reference to a particular faith. In practice, this will most often lead to a specifically Christian prayer, leaving atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, Voodoo practitioners, Scientologists, Rastafarians, and Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster believers, among others, out in the cold.

Why, you might ask, will Christianity be favored? There are two reasons. First, Christians, in aggregate, constitute the religious majority in the country, and American Christians are the most persistent of U.S. religious groups in pushing their views upon everyone else in the public and political arenas. Second, there seems to be some sense, especially in the city governments of conservative communities across the country, that board and committee meetings should begin with a prayer, and this is generally a Christian one. As has been widely reported, other religions have had great difficulty in trying to gain equal time in the “begin-with-a-prayer” ritual.

The last thing in the world we need is an American theocracy imposing its own twisted world view upon everyone. If what’s going on in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere isn’t enough to frighten you over the threat of an American fundamentalist Christian hegemony, just remember the Inquisition. It could happen here, but don’t let it. Regardless of your party preference, take a stand for America’s traditional “wall of separation” between church and state. Speak up and vote accordingly, or you could find yourself the next one being stoned to death in the public square for __________ (fill in the blank).

Today’s Annoyance: The local weatherman who keeps telling us in redundant language about weather fronts that are “exiting out” of the area. How about just “exiting” or, maybe, “leaving”? Sheesh. It’s like back in the 60’s, when folks were trying to get into “where you’re at”. Come to think of it, “where you’re at” is still with us. It makes my ears hurt.

Kirkus Review of Zendoscopy

Here is the just published Kirkus Review of Zendoscopy:

In this memoirlike novel, a self-described nerd fond of ham radio and the accordion comes of age in the 1950s and ’60s.

This second book by Wolf (Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, 2004) is not exactly a memoir. These loosely connected anecdotes follow Wolf’s narrator, Sherman Alt, through childhood and adolescence in Southern California before he attends medical school in New York City. Readers will easily identify with the trials and tribulations recounted here, from bullies and hideous acne to ballroom dance lessons, a momentous game of Spin the Bottle and fraternity hijinks. Most notably, readers witness Sherman’s protracted quest to lose his virginity; when he finally achieves his goal, he gets more than he bargained for. While the themes presented here may seem ordinary, the details are vivid and memorable, with amusing descriptions of his romantic, social and medical misadventures. After a long night of white wine and cheese fondue during his travels abroad in Europe, Sherman notes that he proceeded to “barf until my testicles were left dangling from my nostrils.” However, this book isn’t all fun and games, as a more pensive undercurrent runs through the collection. Sherman experiences the early loss of a childhood companion, a strained relationship with his father and the feeling of alienation caused by his avowed atheism, components that are nicely tied together in the final chapter. The prologue and the epilogue, full of tongue-in-cheek wordplay and parenthetical asides and written explicitly in Wolf’s voice, represent perhaps the least effective portions of the text. Wolf maybe felt the need to contextualize his tales by invoking the big picture and pondering theories of the universe’s origin; readers might appreciate the effort and the content but not necessarily the result or style.

A respectable batch of entertaining anecdotes, mostly bawdy and occasionally moving, mixed with moments of human connection and philosophical musing.

Success at California Bookstore Day

This past Saturday, 3 May, was California Bookstore Day, an event celebrating what is an at risk institution: the independent bookstore. A bookstore in my area, Mysterious Galaxy, held a local authors’ “Meet and Greet” in recognition of the day, and about 20 authors, of whom I was one, were given space to show, sell, and sign their books for several hours. It was a great event and lots of fun both for the authors and the many readers who showed up to browse, chat, and (yes!) buy.

Especially interesting for the authors was the ability to network a bit among themselves, something we don’t often get to do in such an informal environment. There was lots of discussion of issues surrounding getting published, marketing, and the craft of writing. All in all, it was a great experience. And I did sell a few of each of my books.

I’ve previously written in this blog about the frustrations of finding a publisher, and there was much interest among the authors in our varied experiences with our publishers. Some folks seemed less than delighted, much as was I, with the publisher of my first book. Some appeared to be quite satisfied with the support they had received, but all of us, as independent, self-published writers, shared the frustration of not being able to break through into the big time, getting published by one of the major houses.

Of the several goals of this blog, one of the most important has been to chronicle my own, ongoing saga as a self-published author. As I move on from my positive experience at Mysterious Galaxy (my thanks to the staff there and, especially, to LeAnna!), I’ll keep reporting. I’m encouraged by the early reaction of readers to Zendoscopy but, as I’ve said before, the big problem for self-published authors is getting the word out. Word of mouth can be effective if the reader base spreading the word is large enough, but it generally isn’t for self-published writers. And marketing is expensive. We do what we can and hope for the best. In the meantime, we keep on writing, because the only thing worse would be not writing. So, if you’re an aspiring or fellow self-published author, keep watching the blog. And if you’re in tune with the other topics that also surface here, please hang in, as there’s more to come.

Today’s annoyance: The two browsers at the bookstore on Saturday who talked and talked and talked my ears off…and didn’t buy either of my books. (Fortunately, this was counterbalanced by one fellow who chatted with me for two minutes at most and then bought both books. Thanks, man. You made my day!)