Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Category: Books (page 2 of 15)

Posts about books. I used to write about every book I read, but I realized I read too many.

So Long, 2011

The same old picture since 2005

What to say about 2011? There are two 2011’s really, neatly divided by a Sunday in late June. Prior to that my year was filled with reading and writing poetry, birding, blogging, the occasional video. The other 2011 was the beginning of parenthood.

It’s hard to imagine any of my previous 41 years have been as life-altering as 2011. Becoming a parent for the first time in June changed every routine in my life. For the better, always for the better, though now that we’re 6 months in we’re finally starting to get some sleep and even a few moments here and there to do things for ourselves. For me, that’s blogging, writing and reading.

Anyway, as usual, here’s my end-of-year reading list. Many of these were chapbooks and most of my reading was done prior to June; in fact, all but the last four were read before June, and I’m not quite through with the last one. Still, here ’tis:

  1. Everything’s Eventual – Stephen King
  2. American Primitive – Mary Oliver
  3. The Planets – Dava Sobel
  4. The Gunslinger – Stephen King (reread)
  5. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume 1 – John Hollander, ed.
  6. Blameless Mouth – Jessica Fox-Wilson
  7. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
  8. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (reread)
  9. Scene of the Accident – Howie Good
  10. Disaster Mode – Howie Good
  11. Pay Attention: A River of Stones Anthology – Fiona Robyn & Kaspalita, eds.
  12. Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card
  13. Xenocide – Orson Scott Card
  14. Shannon – Campbell McGrath
  15. Woods, Shore, Desert – Thomas Merton
  16. Love is a UFO – Howie Good
  17. The Happiest Baby on the Block – Harvey Karp, MD
  18. The Baby Owner’s Manual – Louis Borgenicht, MD & Joe Borgenicht
  19. Your Baby’s First Year – The American Academy of Pediatrics
  20. What to Expect the First Year – Murkoff, Mazel, Eisenberg & Hathaway
  21. Watermark – Clayton T. Michaels (reread)
  22. The Book of Ystwyth: Six Poets on the Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins – Bonta, James, Selch, Urquhart, Davies & Youmans
  23. Tender Mercies – mark Stratton
  24. Dark & Like a Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine – NS
  25. Children of the Mind – Orson Scott Card
  26. Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer – Robert Swartwood, ed.
  27. Greeks Bearing Gifts – Joseph Harker
  28. Postmarks – mark Stratton
  29. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (reread)

…and a bunch of kids books…

There were no great obsessions this year like last year’s Dark Tower series, though I did go back and reread The Gunslinger. Speaking of rereading, the best book on the list was a reread: Cloud Atlas. Regarding new books, my favorites were probably The Book of Ystwyth, a book so beautiful, I didn’t want to stop looking at it much less reading it. Other favorites were Shannon, Dark and Like a Web and Speaker for the Dead. Of course the run of baby care books were probably the most important and certainly the most useful ones. At 6 months in, though, I find we’re referring to them less and trusting ourselves more.

And though I haven’t been blogging or writing much lately, I have been preparing a short poetry collection. Birds Nobody Loves will be available sometime in mid-January. I’ll post more about it in the coming weeks. Perhaps after I finish that, I’ll start blogging more.

Finally, to those of you who come round here, read and leave comments, thank you. And have a happy 2012.

Tender Mercies by mark Stratton

I’ve been carrying mark Stratton’s Tender Mercies (The Pancake Truck Press, 2011) around in my bag for a few months. Mainly it was so I wouldn’t forget to write something about it, but it’s taken me this long. The old blog has fallen down the priority list somewhat these days, but periodically I get the book out, read a few random poems and then stick it back in my bag. Now it’s started to feel like a friend tagging along from place to place offering snapshots and images from dreams and nightmares. It’s a friend who doesn’t explain himself but the conversation is good and usually interesting.

The Cowboy rides
through lead guitar dynamics
a single stream of time
signature changes

–from “Tender Mercy #28D”

That’s the sense I get from Tender Mercies, a collection that began as a series mark posted to his blog about a year ago or so. Sense is a funny thing too, because it doesn’t always make sense to me. I don’t always get what mark’s getting at, but the ride, the language, is a pleasure, and sometimes a line or two finds a place in my mind, takes root and won’t leave me alone. So the book goes back in the bag and I carry it around some more, sometimes forgetting it’s there only to be happily surprised again.

I misplaced my words

I kept them in the lee
Of a tow sail

They went well with
Collard greens
Or a glass of milk.

–from “Tender Mercy #17b”

Earlier this year, mark asked me for feedback on the manuscript and a blurb. I offered those, but I kind of wish I’d had the year to do it. Maybe the blurb would have been better, at any rate. I say that simply because after nearly a year of hanging out with these poems at hospitals, the dentist’s offices, school, who knows where else one finds a few moments to read, I just like them more and more the better I get to know them. I still see a lot of poems about connection and disconnection, love and loss, though, but they get funnier or sharper or wiser with time and rereading. Sometimes more mysterious too. I think good poetry should be like that.

Toxic rains fall not
from only the heavens.
Domestic gods and
Dusting share the blame.

–from “Tender Mercy #14”

In addition to Tender Mercies, mark has just released a limited edition chapbook called Postmarks. There’s also an interesting interview with mark at Jessie Carty’s blog. mark blogs at AGGASPLETCH.

Elsewhere on the Web

During April, I only blogged poetry in my weekdays-only NaPoWriMo effort and during May, I took an unintentional vow of blogging silence (here anyway) and posted pictures of the local wildflowers. Now it’s June and there are many things I meant to link to and write about so here’s a dump of sorts since I’m a little short of time right now.

I’ve read a lot of good poems lately. Some have really stuck with me. Check out “Wake” by Angie Werren, “Running Water Ghazal” by Joseph Harker, and “Doors” by Dick Jones.

NaPoWriMo ended and, alas, so did Big Tent Poetry just a year after Read Write Poem closed. Is there something about NaPoWriMo that burns out prompt sites? It’s sad to see the Big Tent fold, but thanks (many many thanks) to Deb, Carolee and Jill for running the site and providing so many wonderful prompts that led me to writing a number of poems that I still like. Now, after giving so much to the poetry community Deb, Carolee and Jill are blogging together at A Fine Kettle of Fish where they’re taking well-deserved time to focus on their own poetry. Go check it out.

NS published her collection Forever Will on Thursday. It’s a fine read, deserving of a longer review here at some future time. I’ve read it online and intend to order the book because I’m a paper kind of guy. One thing that’s unique about her publishing process is her philosophy of delivering poetry in multiple formats, several of them free, which means you can read Forever Will End on Thursday as an e-book, pdf, paper book, website or listen to her read it online as a download or on a CD. I really admire this approach and may emulate it when I get around to publishing my short collection.

Speaking of fine reads deserving of their own posts (perhaps later when I have time), Mark Stratton’s collection Tender Mercies is out now. Mark asked me to give some feedback on the manuscript, and then he kindly sent me a copy of the finished book, which I enjoyed even more in final form. Many of the poems first appeared on his blog, Aggaspletch, and they combine nicely into this debut collection. I’m especially fond of “Tender Mercy 12F,” which you can read on Mark’s blog.

Yesterday, I got my copy of The Book of Ystwyth: Six Poets on the Work of Clive Hicks-Jenkins. I haven’t read it yet, but good lord, it’s one of the most beautiful books I own. It’s full of excellent reproductions of Hicks-Jenkins’s paintings alongside the poems they inspired. I’d read Dave Bonta’s “The Temptations of Solitude” series on his blog, and it’s great to see his work alongside the images that inspired it. Also, a joy to discover five other poets whose work is new to me. Actually, I have read one poem in the book, “Pegasus” by Catriona Urquhart. I flipped it open and that’s the one I came to. It floored me and I wanted let it settle before diving in. Hell, I might read the whole book just by flipping through. That’s how I often do my first read of a poetry collection.

The blogosphere is changing as more and more links are shared through Twitter and Facebook, and it seems that the venerated blog carnival I and the Bird has run its course. I contributed off-and-on since 2006 and even had the privilege of hosting it once (in ghazal form). The final installment was over at Twin Cities Naturalist. It’s sad to see it go, but there’s still loads of great bird blogging to be found.

My video of Howie Good’s “Fable” took 3rd place in the Moving Poems video contest. Do check out the various entries. It’s interesting to see how different videomakers interpret the same poem. Thanks, Howie & Dave!

Qarrtsiluni‘s latest issue, “Imprisonment,” is off to a powerful start. Make sure you check out “My Cellies.” I’m honored to say that I’ve got a poem that will be appearing later in this issue. Also, while we’re on qarrtsiluni, the chapbook contest deadline is June 15.

Thinking about Blameless Mouth by Jessica Fox-Wilson

There is want and there is need and the two are so easily confused, especially when we can’t appreciate what we have. In fact, our economic system depends on a seeming willful confusion of want and need. This is what Jessica Fox-Wilson explores in her debut collection, Blameless Mouth.

But wait there’s more. I have dresses

for jobs you don’t work, furniture for rooms you can’t
afford, cars for streets you don’t live on. Try this on
for size. Clothe yourself in the better things of life.”

–from “Magazine Says: You’ve Worked Hard”

Do I need that shiny new Thing or do I want it? The need and the want each create their own hunger, though fulfilling the hunger for our needs keeps us alive while fulfilling that insatiable hunger for our wants… well, that only feeds a growing emptiness that can never be satisfied just as a few fast food cheeseburgers can make us hungry for even more. And more and more and more. Maybe want isn’t a greasy burger; rather, it’s nicotine, and it can kill.

His eyes glowed, from want

of things”

–from “Snapshot of Our Father: Swap Meet”

I’ve been trying for years to want less, to be happy with what I have and want mostly what I need or what I will really use. I have learned not to need the latest greatest biggest best and fastest hunk of plastic that will only end up swirling around in the middle of the ocean one day anyway. This is a hard thing to learn, and it’s something I’m still working on. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for girls who at such a young age begin receiving cultural messages designed to create monstrous and unlikely-to-be-fulfilled wants that feel like such desperate needs.

I am a girl
but not a live nude girl
I study my body, a mass
of white, unformed dough,
hiding my future shape.
I want so much
to be like them, laughing
despite the cold bars.
I whisper to them,
how do I start?
They giggle, Girl,
it’s only a matter of time.

–from “Live Nude Girl”

How many girls are growing up thinking they’ll be Disney princesses? Boys can grow up pretending to be cowboys, and it’s possible for them to do that (though Willie & Waylon advise against it) but aside from Grace Kelly, startlingly few American girls grow up to be princesses. (I know, a shock, right?). We are all taught from an early age to be consumers, to want and need and fulfill those needs for ourselves and others while learning that what we have is insignificant, unworthy, not enough, out of fashion or obsolete.

“I know nothing I can buy
will ever fill me.

I am satisfied

only with the possibility
of all the endless products
just beyond my reach.”

–from “Living Next to an All-Night Grocery Store”

What if no one wanted any Thing? Could our country even survive the implications of that? I don’t know what would happen. Are book stores closing because I can’t convince myself that I need more books, because I have more than enough? Need and want aren’t as entirely separable as I might like. By reducing our wants, do we make it harder for others and ultimately ourselves then to fulfill our needs? I don’t know that I like this train of thought, but good books pose tough questions, which Blameless Mouth does exceedingly well.

“The same small red fox darts across lawns, scavenges for
food. Her starved stomach tightens. Can she survive, unfilled,

staring into dark windows? Can the fox see her full
reflection, mirrored on concave skies, gray and unfilled?”

— from ”Ten Miles West From Here, 4:42 AM”

In an old episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye sits down at the bar and says he needs a drink after a long day in the O.R. Everyone looks at him and he pauses and then gets up to leave. He says that he’ll come back when he wants the drink. The beginning of overcoming his alcoholism is that awareness of the difference between need and want. I suspect it’s the beginning of healing for many people. Blameless Mouth provides a moment to think and a path for examining our needs and wants, perhaps outlining the way toward a healthy reconciliation of the two.

Separating need from want and having is not easy, but this is what Blameless Mouth does remarkably well. All the more impressive because Fox-Wilson self-published (which I really admire) this brave collection that allows reader and poet to “teeter together, on the knife’s edge of having and wanting.” Teetering… I like that. A good book should make the reader teeter a little, I think.

This book was really good, enlightening even, and yet it creates another paradox of sorts because you’ll need to ask yourself if you need this book. Or do you want it?  Whatever your answer to that may be, I can say that I am very glad I have it, and I think you will be too. You can purchase it at LuLu.

You can read the full text of some of the Blameless Mouth poems at Jessica Fox-Wilson’s blog, Everything Feeds Process. Be sure to check out the videopoem for “Echolalia” while you’re there. Others have written more about the book, so please go visit them as well:

Unthinkable Skies by Juliet Wilson

Juliet Wilson’s chapbook Unthinkable Skies (Calder Wood Press, 2010) sat atop the to-read stack for a long time, but I regularly picked it up and flipped to a random poem whenever I passed or when I had a spare moment or two. I don’t know why I read it this way except that after a while, I started to like the slow process of reading one poem and then putting the book down, letting the poem settle into me as I watched the dogs eat their dinner.

When I finally decided to sit down and read Unthinkable Skies all the way through, the poems I’d already read were waiting like recent acquaintances alongside the ones I had missed and the whole thing just got better and better as I progressed back and forth between the new and the familiar. Maybe that’s an odd way to read a book, but I rather enjoyed it and somehow the individual poems resonated more since this helped prevent their getting lost in the whole of a collection.

And what poems these are. Wilson displays a deep love for the natural world tinged with mourning for what has passed (“Passenger Pigeon”) though she manages this without resorting to hopelessness. Throughout, she writes eloquently about her concern not just for the loss of wild places and creatures, but how that impacts us humans, an idea powerfully described in “Lost Dances of the Cranes” in which she imagines future city dwellers watching old video and marveling at “the wonders the world once held.” It was hard not to see the great construction cranes that have dominated Austin’s skyline the past few years.

These poems are full of birds too, but one bird has been with me since I first read “Domesticated” a few weeks ago:  a pet goose, bound to earth by habit and domestication, wondering at the sound of wild geese flying overhead during migration:

Flightless and petted, you enjoy comforts
of home and hearth,


Winter air fills with honking
geese in joyful formation
high in unthinkable sky.


Later you puzzle over dreams
of endless blue and the steady beat of wings.

I feel for that goose. For my dogs that once were wolves. For all of us who every now and again might wish we could go back to swinging through the trees with our most distant ancestors. This isn’t to say that being civilized and having our modern human culture doesn’t have its perks (the internet, electric guitars), but with it we’ve disconnected from the natural world and Unthinkable Skies does a wonderful job exploring that disconnection and suggesting possibilities for reconnection.

Finally, these poems are full of space and silence. Space for a reader to enter into Wilson’s richly described world, to sit with her on a beach listening to shorebirds turn stones or reflect on the emptiness of a field after the birds have migrated. With that space, comes a reverent silence perfectly balanced between notes of mourning and wonder, a wonder that fills me as a reader with hope.  Unthinkable Skies reminds us that this Earth and all its creatures—even us apes—is beautiful and holy and in trampling it, we lose some deep and important part of ourselves.

Juliet Wilson blogs at Crafty Green Poet and Over Forty Shades, and she edits the wonderful online journal Bolts of Silk (where a few of my poems have appeared). You can buy Unthinkable Skies from Calder Wood Press. It’s a lovely little book and to my great surprise and delight it arrived here from Scotland only three days after I ordered it.

Here’s a video by Alastair Cook of Juliet reading her poem “Adrift” (h/t Moving Poems where I found the video).

Adrift from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

LOST – Reflections on “The End”

Seeing Jack dying alone in the jungle in the same spot where he awakened in the pilot was heartbreaking, but in one of the best moments I’ve ever seen on TV or in movies, out of the thicket comes Vincent (does Man have any better friend than Dog?) to lie down near him so Jack wouldn’t die alone. I couldn’t help but think of the Lost writers’ love for anagrams and remember that the mirror spelling of dog is God. The man of science found faith. Or perhaps, faith found him.

I was wrong in the details of my predictions for the end of Lost. I’m glad to be wrong. I was too cynical. I was right that the LAX/flash-sideways reality was an illusion to be transcended, but it played out better than I thought. It wasn’t the real world; rather, it was a mirror world beyond time and space in which characters could meet up, let go and move on. A little bit Limbo, a little bit Purgatory, a little bit death/rebirth/transcendence cycle.

That’s the genius of Lost and what makes it so different from most of what I see on TV: it is open to interpretation. Lost wrestles with the mysteries of life and in the end, does not explain those mysteries. We are left to work those out for ourselves so it is quite fitting that Lost ended in a sort of Universalist church.

I’m reminded of a metaphor for Universalism I read in A Chosen Faith by John Buehrens and Forrest Church that describes a “Cathedral of the World” in which people in a church gather around stained glass windows. There are windows for every religion and windows for those who subscribe to none.  People gather around these windows in an effort to make sense of the mysteries, to find the light of truth. Depending on the window, different truths are revealed, but it is still the same light shining in through all those diverse windows.

Lost‘s mirror reality is a purgatory where characters can seek final redemption, it is a cycle of death and rebirth where characters can attain enlightenment, it is beyond space and time, it is where we go when we die, it is an illusion and when we see the truth, we are free. It is Hindu and Buddhist and Christian and Jewish and Gnostic and Humanist and Muslim and Universal.

It is a world of illusion. A savior comes and reveals the illusion for what it is. Freedom from this illusion, from cycles of death and rebirth, comes when eyes open. In that mirror world, Desmond is (sort of) a Gnostic Christ who shows the way to the light and salvation. He is a Buddha, smiling that odd smile ever since he learned the truth, who will show others the way to Nirvana by helping them let go.

The mirror world is always happening. “There is no Now, here.”  It lies beyond time and space and even though all the characters in the mirror world are dead, they died at different times. Kate and Sawyer after a normal life in the real world. Hurley and Ben after, perhaps, thousands of years. Jack, Charlie, Sayid, Boone and the rest during their time on the island.

They come together. They let go. They are free.

Some will stay behind, lingering in the mirror world. Ben Linus sits outside the church. It is not his time to enter. Perhaps, he must finish cleansing his soul in the sideways Purgatory—a word that doesn’t exactly match what we’ve seen—but I prefer to see him as a bodhisattva, the Buddha who knows the way to Nirvana, but chooses not to enter so that he can show others the way. I suspect he will lead Rousseau, Alex, Dogen, Tom, his father and all of his people to that church one day.

Some characters weren’t there, but they’ll find their way to other churches or meeting places when their time comes, when they’re ready to let go.

I imagine the Ajira plane landing and somehow Kate, Sawyer, Miles, Richard, Frank and Claire will live out ordinary lives. I suspect Hurley and Ben will run the island in gentler manner, one worthy of Rose, Bernard and Vincent. I should have seen Hurley as the future protector considering all the Star Wars references he’s been throwing around the past 2 seasons. As I suspected, the island requires balance between forces, and Hurley was the one to do that, though from a different direction than Anakin Skywalker. I suspect even that Hurley and Ben will come and go from time to time and the island will be a good—possibly even fun—place. Good because of the real sacrifices made throughout the show, but ultimately because of Jack’s self-sacrifice, though I can’t help but wonder if Jack too will live on for a time as a benevolent smoke monster since he appeared exactly where the man in black appeared after he fell into the light cave.

I like that all of this is left open, and having the show end in that church, where many go to know the unknowable, is a perfect ending for a show that created so many questions, many of which are unanswerable. I love that Lost, left so much unanswered, so much unsaid, allowing each of us to gather at one or another of those stained glass windows or perhaps to just sit back and wonder at the beauty of the light shining in through all of them.

At the heart of the matter, though, is finding others to love and share this time, this light, with. Those who complete us. And in the end, after much thinking about (and reading of) all the books that have been on this show, I keep coming back to Of Mice and Men, first referenced in season 3 and again in season 6. Specifically, this:

George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place.”


Lennie was delighted. “That’s is—that’s it. Now tell how it is with us.”

George went on. “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail, they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.”

Lennie broke in. “But not us! An’ why? Because … because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.

More than anything, Lost reminds us that we need each other. That we can “live together or die alone,” but that if we live for others, recognize that light that shines in all of us, perhaps we never really die alone just as Jack didn’t die alone.

That’s just my interpretation, though. We all gather at different windows, don’t we?

Some LOST Theorizin’ Before “The End”

It’s hard to believe Lost will be ending on Sunday. I’ve been blogging the books that have appeared on the show and their connections with Lost for four years so I figured I should post a final theory of what might happen when the show ends.

I predict people will throw their TV’s away. I mean, what will be the point of owning one after Sunday night? Sure Longhorns football will still be on, but you can catch the games at a bar.

As far as my predictions for the show, it all comes down to two books shown this season, Shusaku Endo’s Deep River and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (follow the links for my posts on them), which form the basis of my half-baked, out-of-my-arse prediction, which is by no means a logical well-thought out theory. It’s just me brainstorming.  I’m probably wrong. I hope so. One of the best things about Lost is how consistently I’ve been surprised.

I still think the sideways reality is going to end, but I think it’s going to have to hurt. It’s a manifestation of anti-Jacob/Locke’s power triggered by the detonation of the jughead. It’s a big bang (see my post on Brief History of Time) that suggests echoes between Lost and Gnostic Christianity. I can’t help but think Desmond will emerge as a savior of sorts, the Christ who will show everyone in the sideways reality that it is an illusion (or a “black iron prison” as Philip K Dick put it in VALIS—see my post). This is how jack will know to kill Locke. Of course, for Jin and Sun and others it’s a pretty happy illusion. It probably will be for Sawyer when he meets Juliet (who I think will be making a final appearance) and they make a date for coffee.

This illusion will have to be destroyed to defeat Locke, and it will probably be done by Jack who will in effect be killing nearly everyone he knows to save the world in the crash reality. It’s a burden he’ll likely have to live with for the rest of a very long life. My guess is that Jack will do it when he operates on Locke. He will let him die on the table or kill him in a scene that will echo what he did to blackmail Ben in season 3. When Locke dies in the LAX reality, this will end it. This will also end any chance for happy endings for those characters whose lives are good in the LAX world. This is the sacrifice Jack will make, the sacrifice the island will demand to save the world, and to paraphrase Ben in season 5, dead will be dead.

Once the sideways reality is gone, Locke will be defeated, though I doubt he will be dead. Lost has always suggested a need for balance between opposing forces (see Deep River and VALIS again), thus Locke will not be killed. He and Jack will be stuck on the island, playing backgammon for all eternity while Locke cooks up another 1000 year loophole to kill Jack. Look for a sequel to Lost sometime around the year 3004.

So many of the Lost books suggest endless loops of cause and effect, death and rebirth, that I can’t help but feeling Lost will end circular in some way. It could end at the beginning or perhaps the LAX reality is actually happening after all of this, though I hope those aren’t the answers as either would feel like a cheat of sacrifices made by the characters. I suspect, we’ll see Jack as the island’s new protector largely escaping that cycle only to watch it all come back around.

And, I still say Ben’s a good guy, putting the long con on dark Locke.

Here’s the list all the Lost books I’ve read along with links to my posts about them. Here’s a link to the LA Times article in which I was interviewed. Here are links to EYE M SICK and Lost…and Gone Forever, true Lost blogs, and the best ones around. Not having them to read each week is almost as sad as Lost ending.

The LA Times Asks Me About the LOST Books

Last week someone from the LA Times asked to interview me about the Lost book club project I’ve been doing on this blog for the past few years.  The article is here, and she even included some of my theorizin’ about where the show might be headed in these last 2 episodes.

I’ll be coming up with a final theory after the next episode and have it up in time for the series finale. As much as I like trying to predict Lost, though, I really love it when I’m wrong if only so I’ll be more surprised by how things play out.

If you’re one of the many people suddenly showing up here today, welcome and thanks for coming by. My Lost reading is only a minor part of this site so I hope you’ll have a look around while you’re here.

The Lost Book Club: Notes from Underground

Sometimes details can hang up a whole story; for instance, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, I could never quite get past the fact that the unnamed narrator, the underground man, was a retired civil servant looking back over his life from the vantage point of forty. I’ll turn forty this year and don’t feel the slightest bit old or ready for retirement, though such is one of the big differences between living in St. Petersburg, Russia in the mid-nineteenth century and living in the United States in the early twenty-first.

The underground man’s life goes something like this: I’m superior, more refined, more aware of lofty ideals and beauty than my contemporaries and peers. Because of this they are not worthy of my time and attention, yet I need these people I loath to accept me. I’m humiliated by my need for acceptance and so I attempt to show I am better than them by humiliating them, but I lack the courage to do even this and so I make myself feel better by hating them, yet I crave their acceptance all the more. It goes round and round leaving me trapped in my hole like a mouse underground.

But I kept thinking… you’re only forty, man, you’re still young, get over it. Still, there’s real psychological truth to Dostoyevsky’s portrait of the man, unable to change and therefore stuck in the circular thinking that his moral superiority over everyone in his life is the cause of his debasement which in turn causes that sense of superiority. It’s a kind of hell, really, and the circular nature of hell is a recurring motif on Lost, a concept first introduced to Lost with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (back in Season 2):

Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.

And that is a perfect description of the underground man. Despite any amount of free will he may have, he’s trapped by his ego in a hell of his own making from which he’ll never escape. Of course that not escaping and instead choosing, against reason, a path that leads to destruction is exactly what the underground man is doing in order to prove his theory that human nature is to exercise free will even against the interests of oneself. In essence we can, and often do chose to destroy ourselves against all reason and opportunity to do otherwise.

So we make our own hells and dig our own graves. Isn’t that one of the themes of Lost, which constantly reinforces the notion that the characters’ exercise of free will has created the destinies from which they can’t seem to escape? Isn’t it the stubborn pride of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid and Ben that forces them to continue on paths they know to be unreasonable? Who on Lost can actually break out of his self-created destiny? Will that person be the candidate to replace Jacob?

In Lost, Notes from Underground appears in the Season 6 episode “Everybody Loves Hugo.” Hurley finds it among Ilana’s things after she accidently blows herself up. I didn’t see it pertaining to one individual character or storyline in that episode so much as it reminds me of the whole situation on Lost, in which each of the characters is trapped by his or her own weaknesses. It makes me wonder if anyone on this show is going to find a happy ending and some kind of redemption or if they will all, like the underground man, wither away in their holes, forgotten by an uncaring world.

Or maybe they’ll end up on the bottom of the ocean as hinted in the Season 6 opener wherein the island was shown on the bottom of the Pacific. Perhaps one or more of our characters is doomed to become an underwater man before this is all over.

Notes from Underground is the second Dostoyevsky novel to appear on Lost, the first being The Brothers Karamazov back in Season 2, and it’s a tough book to enjoy, though it is good. Whatever that means.

Be sure to check out the rest of my Lost book club posts.

The Lost Book Club: The Chosen

One of my favorite episodes from Season 6 of Lost was “Dr. Linus,” which was the first one that made me care about what was happening in the mirror reality for its own sake. Any episode that centers on Benjamin Linus is going to be intriguing, and happily it included another novel for the Lost Book Club: The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

Right up front, I found the book an ironic prop in the show since its title seemed a direct affront to Ben, who despite years of service and loyalty to Jacob and the island doesn’t appear (at least as of this writing) to a “candidate” to replace Jacob. Despite his tireless efforts on Jacob’s behalf, Ben Linus is not the chosen, and it was in “Dr. Linus” that he had to finally come to terms with that fact.

The book itself is remarkably compelling. It’s a simple story, really, but it’s gripping in the depths of understanding and compassion Potok has for his characters. Potok’s story examines the friendship between two teenage boys from very different Jewish families in 1940’s Brooklyn. Danny Saunders is a brilliant young man from a Hasidic family. He has a photographic memory, and when he isn’t studying Talmud with his father, he immerses himself in “forbidden” knowledge: Darwin, Freud, Einstein. He forms an unlikely friendship with the novel’s narrator Reuven Malter, a modern Orthodox Jew who would like to become a Rabbi despite his father’s hopes that he will become a mathematics professor.

Driving much of the plot is Danny’s relationship with his father, the leader of their sect. Their relationship is one of silence. The only times they talk are when they debate issues of Jewish law. Danny wants nothing more than to speak with his father, but his father has made a decision to raise his son in silence so he will learn compassion to balance his intellect.

That silence should resonate with anyone who has been watching Lost. Ben’s greatest frustration with Jacob—and ultimately why he killed him—was the silence Ben got from Jacob. He never once communicated with him except through Richard, and when Locke appeared to be talking with Jacob in Season 3, Ben was thunderstruck and angry.

So why did Jacob treat Ben with silence? Was he attempting to teach Ben something… is Ben the chosen one after all? The silence led through Jacob’s death to Ben’s redemption. Perhaps that is what Jacob saw all along.

For more of my Lost theorizing and attempted analysis of the books that have appeared in the show check out the Lost Book Club index page.

Next up: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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