Mushrooms in my yard
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Just forget about the dopey scifi origin story, forget Xenu and thetans and whatever. There is a real ugliness, something very nasty and mean at the core of Scientology. It is not just that L. Ron Hubbard was bizarre and grandiose and paranoid; it is also that he preached things like revenge, strategic lying, doing to enemies before they do to you.
"Going Clear" is a masterful piece of reporting about the church’s whole history and it’s a very compelling narrative in part because two major characters, Hubbard and current church leader David Miscavige, seem to be unpredictable psychopaths. For example: Wright speaks with nearly two dozen people who say they have personally been physically beaten by church leader David Miscavige or have witnessed him beating people. Think about that. The guy is the leader of the entire religion.
This book is no polemic; Lawrence Wright is at pains to be fair and even-handed, he gives the church’s lawyers their say and grants the benefit of the doubt to his subjects where I definitely would not. But the very thorough portrait is of an awful, rotten organization, something much more horrifying than the popular image of a goofy Los Angeles aren’t-celebrities-crazy kind of lark. I also feel like I want to boycott Tom Cruise movies, and I am not joking.
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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
YES. Wild slapstick picaresque of a slavery novel, a huge pleasure and a delight that still has some big things to say about America and race and the pre-Civil War era. This is what you want to be reading: A comic story of an accidentally cross-dressing pubescent slave boy who gets caught up in John Brown’s ride through Bleeding Kansas and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Ohhhh yes.
The language is super sharp and crackling and the scenes are so funny and part of it is just the sheer audacity of James McBride for even doing this, writing an insane hilarious irreverent story about John Brown in which Frederick Douglass cameos as a drunken lech and Brown is a half-insane buffoonish figure, right about slavery and completely off his rocker about everything else. I don’t know about its portrayal of Douglass but its Brown is probably actually uncomfortably close.
One of the things this book does very, very well is portray the stolen conversations among slaves and the private assessments of Brown, their masters and white institutions in general. Given the overall tone of the work I’m reluctant to make too much historical claim about these scenes, but these are conversations McBride is clearly interested in and they work very well within the piece. They are the serious purpose behind the comedy, I would say.
This book rules. It also reminds me, as of course it would, of “Cloudsplitter” by Russell Banks, which is a more traditional historical novel about Brown that is one of my favorites. And wasn’t part of Brown’s historical importance in the first place that he got so many people’s attention and inspired so many stories and arguments?
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