Thursday, February 28, 2013

Arilla Sun Down, by Virginia Hamilton

Pretty good young adult fiction. Arilla is the younger sibling of an interracial couple. Her father is Native American, or Amerind, while her mother is African American. Set in the 70s, the family attracts unwelcome stares in public, but Arilla’s primary plight is lacking a sense of identity. She doesn’t relate to her peers, and what few friends she has is due to her mother’s profession – she teaches dance to the girls in the community. Her older brother Jack Sun Run’s popularity grates on her; he embraces his Native American roots and celebrates its more romantic elements by riding his horse nearly everywhere, wearing a bandana, and expertly using a lasso. The young men envy him and the girls fawn. In contrast, Arilla feels inconsequential. Her brother calls her Moon, and while fitting, the name annoys her. 

What appealed to me most throughout the story was, ironically, the very thing that initially turned me off. Arilla recounts her youth with a writing style that reflects her age, meaning the opening scene and the entire first chapter is from the POV of a six year old.    

Late in the big night and snow has no end. Taking me a long kind of time going on the hill. Would be afraid if not for the moon and knowing Sun-Stone Father is sledding. Way off, hear him go, “Whoop-eeeee!” Real thin sound, go, “Whoop-eeeee!”

This style evolves so that by the time Arilla is 12, not only is the obnoxious staggering syntax of her six-year-old self gone, but the patois of her prose has become endearing and more engaging. Jealous of her brother’s charms and determined to demonstrate her own skills with the mare she received as a birthday present, she smarts off to her older brother:

          I’m about to burst into crying … But instead I laugh, short and sweet. “Call me whatever you like, ugly brother, but guess what? I’ve got her running to me when I clap my hands!”
          “My, my,” he says. “Just like that, you got her turned into a puppy dog.”

Hamilton, who’s won several writing awards, evidently enjoys a challenge. Her approach is unorthodox, like the family described. And the narrative fluctuates as she reminisces. Later, by Chapter 11, Arilla expresses her anxiety on her first bus ride.

We had started out on this old two-lane, which probably wouldn’t have been such terrible bad news on any average dry day. But this morning it was black and sleet with wet. It was snowing again and I had visions of us hitting this streak a ice and going into one of those long, horrible skids that end in an explosion. 

Three-quarters into the story, during a terrible storm, she and her brother Jack Sun Run are horseback riding when he has an accident. Arilla seeks help, ultimately saving his life. This event changes the dynamic of their relationship. She’s no longer eclipsed by him. He stops calling her Moon. As he recuperates in half a body cast, he admits as much.

          “We really aren’t enemies,” he says. Then, real quick: “But you did something more or less remarkable. So what’ll we call you – Girl Who Saves the Sun? Or Rides the Horse Fast? What name do you want?”
          I’m sitting there with my mouth open. And knowing the name but I don’t want to say it.
          …“So. You already have one,” he says. “So what is it? Come on, you can tell me.”
                    “If I did, you’d just have to laugh,” I say.
          “I won’t laugh, promise,” he says. “Because this is very important stuff.” And not a hint of teasing. “You know it,” he says. “This is no joke.”
                    Arilla Sun Down. But I won’t say it.

Arilla returns to the place where, as a child, she and her father, sledding, had almost plummeted to their deaths. In the interim, a fence has been built along the chasm. Now, more comfortable in her skin, she finds some reconciliation with her family and her adolescence. Recommended.   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Philosophy Digestibles

Plato: The Trial and Death of Socrates, Four Dialogues, edited by Shane Weller. Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC), like any noted philosopher, had his protégés. Chief among them was Plato. In fact, without Plato’s writings chronicling his mentor’s ideas and approach, Socrates’ contributions would not have survived. To this day, his famous Socratic method is an invaluable technique for understanding the essentials of any intellectual or moral dilemma. Socrates is famous for the line ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ He stressed the value of reasoning through the important things in life to determine truth.

As the title implies, the book focuses on Socrates’ ideas (four dialogues), which went against the authority of the state of Athens. This led to his imprisonment and his death. His devotion to logic shouldn’t deflect from his humanity. His love for reason, beauty, and justice was astonishing. I wept when he drank the deadly hemlock and paced his cell before his legs gave out.

Critiques Of God; making the case against belief in God, edited by Peter Angeles. This is a book of essays from some of the more renowned skeptics of the 20th century. Bertrand Russel, Erich Fromm, John Dewey, Michael Scriven, and many other noted men of letters offer objections to faith in the God of western religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) – objections that range from thought provoking to moronic. For example, one point against the famous design argument is that since the universe is full of color, the theist, in addition to concluding that there is a Grand Designer, must also conclude that there exists a Grand Colorer, and because this title strikes the essayist as silly, the entire design argument should be jettisoned. This type of objection to faith reminds me of an argument I ran across recently by an atheist who rhetorically asked, “If we humans are so important to God, why did it take Him 16 billion years after the Big Bang to finally get around to creating us?” One might be inclined to answer that question with another one. “Would God’s existence be more palatable if He’d created mankind only three billion years after the Big Bang instead?” These kinds of objections strike me as insincere. Regardless whether you’re seriously seeking answers, already truly believe, or have genuine reservations about faith, you deserve better questions than the dismissive rhetoric found in much of the new atheist’s repertoire.

I was an atheist for over a decade. The irony being that during those years of skepticism regarding all things religious, I, like every contemporary atheist I’ve since met and debated, believed all sorts of things I had little or no evidence to support. I embraced innumerable assumptions that failed to withstand the scrutiny of either a cross examination in a court of law or the rigorous demands of a clinical study. Yet when it came to extending that same courtesy to religion, I assumed the stance of the Pyrrhonist, questioning everything but my own name and filing for a dismissal on the grounds of insufficient evidence before the case could even come to trial.

This is the inherent contradiction all atheists suffer, or at least those I’ve known, read from, or debated, namely the belief that only the scientific method can prove anything, as if only those things demonstrable in either a lab or a court of law are meritorious. This begs the question: what standard does one use to determine that the scientific method is the only viable method for determining truth? Is there an independent scientific method to determine that? And why does the skeptic assume that science’s silence regarding the supernatural somehow negates the supernatural? This is like saying the production of cotton and silk disproves the existence of sheep since wool isn’t required for the manufacturing of those materials. Besides, this implies that before the invention of the scientific method, nothing could be known or stated with any certitude. So much for experience and reason.

How To Think About God, a guide for the 20th century pagan, by Mortimer J. Adler. Written in terms as simple as the field of philosophy allows, Adler foregoes mysticism, faith, and science, throws out all the cosmological arguments of his predecessors such as Aristotle, Anselm, and Aquinas and uses nothing but strict rationalism to prove the existence of God beyond a reasonable doubt. More intriguing still is that Adler, throughout most of his career (including the years he wrote and published this book), was a non-believer.