Kazuo Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"

What a great cover!

The ending of this book reminded me of the time I finished The Scarlet Letter. I was in high school English class at the time, and I angrily chucked the book across the room. My teacher, and even some of the students, seeing what I had just finished, was not at all puzzled. They understood the crushing disappointment, the hopelessness, central to Hawthorne’s masterpiece, and I have to say, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go strikes a similar vein. You cannot help but feel a mixture of angst and disappointment for his characters. You can’t help thinking, given their situation, how you might have acted differently. Maybe you would have been more rebellious, or even heroic. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a criticism, as this is precisely what Ishiguro sets you up to feel. Late last night, after finishing Never Let Me Go, I climbed into bed and hugged my wife a little more tightly, thankful for the years we’ve shared together.

I’ve never bought a book for its title before, but I wanted something to stir the heart, because that is what the very best novels do, and in this regard the title does not lie. Never Let Me Go moves at a brisk pace, sometimes reading like a diary, with lots of girly, he said/she said type gossip, and I find it remarkable how a middle aged British man could so perfectly capture this voice. But there is also great subtext here, and subtle pathos, and I was reminded at times of The Catcher in the Rye. This passage really struck me,

The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.

p. 36

Never Let Me Go is divided into three parts, but it’s the first I found most intriguing, a mystery of increasing tension, surrounding a group of “orphaned” children, and a special school called Hailsham. Early on, you get the unnerving sense of something being not quite right. In every other way, things appear to be normal, and you might easily mistake the story for modern drama. All is told through the limited perspective of the main character, Kathy, as she reminisces about her childhood in Hailsham, and in later parts, growing into a young woman. In this way, though never overtly stated, Ishiguro leads the reader toward the awful reality, much in the way children come to learn the ugly or “forbidden” side of life, like sex, and the inevitability of death. But it’s impossible to talk at length about this story without revealing the mystery at its core, so if you want to come into it with a clear head, I suggest skipping to the last paragraph.

By the end of the first part, you realize that the book takes place in an alternative history Earth, a kind of dystopia, but in the vaguest sense of the term. There are no real villains here, other than society itself. In what we would regard as unthinkable and unethical, even horrifying, in this world there is utter complacency, and it brings to mind other institutionalized evils, like slavery, and perhaps, even, the way in which we treat slaughterhouse animals. I must admit, however, that thirty to forty pages in, I had my suspicions regarding the nature of this school and its “students,” and these suspicions turned out to be accurate, which somehow surprised me. I don’t know how much the author intended me to know, but even when my worst fears were confirmed, the emotional impact was in no way diminished. Afterward, the conflict drops out of the story, and with nothing of consequences happening, I started to ride the donkey carriage. It’s only until the third part that the story finds its way, as three best friends from school, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, go off to find hope, and meaning, for their lives.

Ultimately, Never Let Me Go is a richly textured look into a life, albeit a fictionalized one, realizing its protagonist in ways few novelists manage to achieve. On a larger scale, it is an exploration into our worst fears and hopes. Without giving too much away, Ishiguro challenges the reader with the bigger questions, like what it means to be human, and how much our genes play a role in our identities, and what it means to have a soul, if anything, and what purpose can be found in a life without a future. If I have any qualms about the author, it’s that he never makes any attempt to answer, or even to suggest an answer, to any of these queries. At the very least, I would have settled for hope, for a better world, but he leaves us with none. Even still, I cannot fault him, because Never Let Me Go is not meant to be allegorical or philosophical. Rather, it is an intimate and emotional journey, and in this regard, the book succeeds on all marks. Like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, I will remember Kathy, and Never Let Me Go, forever.

Like this review? SHARE IT ON FACEBOOK! 

Panther and the Bull

A lot of you may not know this, but I pretty much created The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, except that I called them The Panthers. It was a team of martial-arts superheroes that sometimes drove around in giant mech/robots. The leader was all in red, while his allies wore other primary colors, like blue and green. And just like Rangers, they even wore helmets! If only the receptionist at DC Comics headquarters had bothered to take me seriously, when I was nine, DC would now own the rights to Power Rangers!

I kid, of course. The remarkable similarities between Power Rangers and Panthers just goes to show how easily people can stumble upon the exact same idea, which sometimes scares me, because I never want to be accused of plagiarism. If, in the near future, someone releases a fantasy novel about a pair of naked heroes, I’d hate for people to think I stole the idea. I think this explains the flood of vampire romance novels following Twilight, since, as that book was becoming popular, older, unpublished works with the same concept came to light.

Now if you’ve read my biography, you know I grew up in my father’s restaurant, and that all of my first stories were written/drawn on the back of pink order tickets. But my dad never cared for my literary/artistic ambitions. All that mattered to him was selling pizza. Flash forward thirty years, and the restaurant he so cherished is becoming haunted. It’s dilapidated, cobwebbed and full of creepy paintings; it smells like old people; and you can sometimes hear the ghosts of dead customers (OK, maybe not). At times, I give my father money to keep it running. To make matters worse, he and my mom are being evicted from their home. For twenty years, they lived in a stately, two-story mini-mansion, the pride of the Greek community, their hard earned reward for neglecting their duty as parents. Now, after a number of poor financial decisions, Bank of America is kicking them into my brother’s tiny duplex, which wouldn’t be such a bummer if my father wasn’t in his mid-80’s. It’s unlikely he’ll be moving into a better place in his lifetime . . . unless, of course, I hit it big with one of my books. So, for the past couple of months, I have been digging through the past like Dr. Jones, separating the junk from the treasure, and what do I find? The lost works of yours truly, of my first ever heroes, the Red Panther.

On the surface, Panther and the Bull is a simple story, two superheroes teaming up against a Hulk/Minotaur type villain. But I was dealing with a lot of shit at the time. Since my parents were far too busy to realize I existed, and my brother just wanted to go out drinking and looking for one-night stands, I was utterly alone, but for a pizza cook named Dean. For reasons I cannot fathom, this stranger from Illinois, someone who lived in his van and who, I later learned, was also a cocaine addict, was everything my father wasn’t. He listened to my stories and problems; he read to me and encouraged me and helped out with homework; he even took me to the movies and the arcade. I am a better father because of him. But he could not play the role forever. I begged him to stay, telling him that he was “my lifeline,” the only person in my life that cared, but he had to move back to Peking, regardless. I was devastated. It was like losing my best friend and father all at once.

The only way I’ve ever known to deal with grief is through story, and that story was Panther and the Bull. 

[If you enjoy the story below, don’t forget to SHARE ON FACEBOOK!]

Look closely and you can see the Country Pizza Inn text on the back!

Dean was Blue Panther. He had a mustache and glasses.

Grappling hook belt aka Batman!

SMOKE BOMB! As a kid, spelling was never a priority. 

“Wake up! Are you okay, Red Panther?”

Undiable = Unkillable?

JE SUIS CHARLIE and the Threat of Absolutism

The Prophet Mohammed?

“I am Charlie,” people are saying around the world, since the massacre of the twelve staffers who worked at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical Parisian periodical.

I am not terribly political by any means, aside from my ritual viewing of The Daily Show and the late great The Colbert Report, but I have had first hand experience in matters of fundamentalism and censorship. As an author who promotes an unorthodox and, for some, offensive lifestyle, I am mindful of those who would silence me. I fret over censors at Facebook and Google, over people who cannot differentiate between tasteful, artistic nudity and pornography. And, having been raised in a stringent Baptist school and having married into a Moroccan household, I am all too familiar with radical religious viewpoints. But what happened last week in Paris is symptomatic of a much larger problem. Philosopher Sam Harris and biologist Richard Dawkins, among others, will no doubt blame religion. Those apologetic toward people of faith, like CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria, will lay the blame solely on fundamentalists and a false interpretation of Koranic verse. A third group will only see the suffering and violence and say: this is evil, pure and simple. None of these people are wrong. And yet, the issue runs far deeper, for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reflects a fundamental difference in culture, between East and West, and it dates back thousands of years.

Western civilization is largely informed by Greek thought. It was in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, when, some 2500 years ago, humanity recognized the need to honor and respect dissenting opinion. It can be seen in the way the Greeks practiced their religion, in the veneration of different gods, most of whom did not agree and often warred with one another. Thanks, in part, to Socrates, who was condemned to death for “atheism” and for “disrupting the youth,” but who is today one of the world’s greatest historical figures, we learned the value of doubt and questioning beliefs. From these ancient foundations, European and American society was built, and later, the scientific method, a key part of which is skepticism.

Coming out of the East, at around the same time, we have a burgeoning adherence to the absolute. The Hebrews worshiped ONE God, who was all powerful, all knowing, and infallible. God makes no mistakes in the Torah. There was no Middle Eastern Socrates, to suggest that the gods may be unjust, or if there was, his/her influence vanished long ago. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, there is a central historical figure, Abraham, from whom we can understand all of “western” religion and Eastern thought. Abraham argued to save his nephew, Lot, from God’s wrath at Sodom, but God is never at fault. When Abraham is commanded to kill his son, Isaac, he illustrates obedience to God. The moral? God is absolute and is never to be doubted. Absolutist thinking continues to permeate Islam, and to some extent, radical “Westboro Church” Christianity. Even among the Egyptians and Persians, the notion of the absolute can be found in how the pharaohs and kings were portrayed, not as men, but as gods themselves. When King Xerxes invaded Greece, Eastern ideology clashed with that of Western philosophy. To be fair, the Persians were never as violent or barbaric as the film 300 portrays, but the idea of a god king was abhorrent to the Greeks. It wasn’t so much democracy the Spartans were defending, who were themselves an oligarchy ruling through terror and intimidation, but the freedom to hold a dissenting voice, even if that voice was found to be obscene or offensive. This is what the staffers at Charlie Hebdo represented, and in defense of this very Western idea, they lost their lives, because the radicals storming into their offices did not value dissent, or doubt, or understand the necessity of offense. Like most people born into a culture of absolutism (and this includes countries outside geographic East, including, sadly, the U.S.), their way of thinking did not allow for it. We struggle to rationalize the violence, to find common ground, but fundamentalists do not rationalize when it comes to matters of faith. Like Abraham, you obey God and do not question, even if it means murdering innocents.    

We get a glimpse into Eastern culture with the Arabian Nights, a book of fiction compiled between 700-1200, during the Golden Age of Islam. In one story, a groom does not properly wash his hands after eating garlic. The bride, who is from a much wealthier and more powerful family, is so incensed, she orders that her husband have his hands cut off. Only after her servants plead for mercy is the punishment lessened to removing the thumbs. This is not to suggest that Arab people are unusually cruel. Equally horrific tales can be found throughout medieval Europe, like in the writings of the Grimm’s brothers, where Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off their own toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. But Arab culture stands apart in the way in which its people are expected to behave. In such a culture, proper speech and polite action is crucial to civil society. Normally, my mouth is at liberty to spout whatever pops into my head, but in Morocco I learned to censor myself. In 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, I thought it’d be funny to make up a song about Mohammed’s camel, set to the tune of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. As you can probably imagine, nobody was amused, my wife especially. If something so innocent could cause offense, I cannot imagine making perverted jokes at the expense of the Prophet, as the people at Charlie Hebdo often did.  

The difference between Western and Eastern attitudes are deeply entrenched, dating back centuries, and it is unlikely to change any time soon. But while I do not wish to value one view over another, the matter ultimately comes down to ethics. Does freedom of expression lead to a better and more just society, or does respect and tradition? Mind you, this is not a question of offense. Everyone has the right to feel offended, especially Muslims when their Prophet is slandered. Though I champion free speech, I am often offended by the wanton cruelty I see on TV. But the only ethical response to words is words. The only way to defend against incendiary cartoons is to make incendiary cartoons of your own. This is how Free Speech functions. The right to question, to dissent, to doubt, and sometimes to offend, means much more than allowing people to do and say what they want. Free speech works, because only in a society where free speech is protected can truth come to light. If your society, your government, your religion, is cruel or unjust, without freedom of dissent, it can only remain that way forever. And if your philosophy, your politics, your faith, is right and just and true, then there is no need for guns and violence. If your ideology cannot endure by the strength of its own ideas, it is not worth defending.


Is Nudism on the Decline?

In a word, NO.

WNBR London

There is a popular misconception that nudism is going the way of disco. These are the same people who imagine the 60’s were one big Woodstock/orgy fest. I was perusing a book about that infamous decade, the name of which eludes me, where a historian was trying to prove, with charts and all, that people were a lot more conservative in that time than we imagine. Duh! What is the point in having a counter culture when what you’re doing is generally accepted? What followed after the sixties, however, was the much more permissible seventies, where premarital sex dropped off the list of taboos and drugs came into frequent use (today, marijuana is fast becoming legal throughout the country). Nudism has been around since the 1900s, with resorts like Lake Como having been founded in the forties, but public awareness grew dramatically during the sixties. But just like everything else attributed to the decade, there was a lot less casual nudity going on than people think. The difference between now and then? Nudism is no longer news. It has fallen so far under the radar, in fact, that when Caliente, the largest clothing-optional resort in the country opened in Tampa, nobody noticed. In the sixties, there would have been police raids and religious neighbors protesting. And this is precisely what nudists have long fought for, acceptance, with little fanfare. Nobody wants to be counter-culture forever, unless you’re a teenager seeking attention. Nowadays, you can visit any number of travel sites for a “clothing optional” vacation or “nakation.” According to Forbes magazine,

The nude travel business, while skimpy on clothes, is covering itself with profits. The Kissimmee, Fla.-based American Association for Nude Recreation estimates that nude travel is a $400 million global industry–up from $300 million in 2001. Carolyn Hawkins, a spokesperson for the AANR, says the organization has 50,000 members and about 260 affiliated nudist resorts. Most of the resorts are clothing-optional, which means that guests can choose their level of nudity.

I was first introduced to nudism on the Greek islands in the nineties. Back then, the only option for going nude were beaches. Today, there are three new resorts, like Vritomartis Naturist Resort on Crete. Clothing optional venues have been popping up all over Mexico and the Caribbean, each larger and more luxurious than the last. Castaway Travel even offers nude cruises, something that would not have seemed possible two decades ago.

Despite all this data, it is important to note that nudism does not and should not = resorts. This would be like measuring acceptance of homosexuality by how many gay bars open up. First and foremost, nudism is a social movement, not a marketing venture. Some people feel that resorts are antithetical to the movement (I know I do), that we should not have to hide behind concrete walls, far from others, to live the way we believe. The purpose of nudism is to change attitudes toward the human body, to rid the world of harmful, sexist, outdated taboos. In such a world, “clothing-optional” is redundant. This is one reason why, in recent years, younger people have been moving away from organized nudism.

Another misconception is that nudists are mostly aging hippies, people who pine for the good old swinging sixties. Once these hippies die off, nudism should die right along with them. In reality, nudists come from all walks of life. At the clothing-optional venues I attended, I met doctors, lawyers, and all kinds of businessmen. It only makes sense, considering the exorbitant membership costs. Many resorts are located in remote places, far from those who might enjoy them, so driving distance is also a factor. Lake Como, Paradise Lakes and Caliente also serve as retirement communities, so naturally, they will attract older clientele. Beside costs and travel time, younger nudists have to worry about how friends and family will react to their lifestyle, and a good number risk unemployment. Parents with young children choose not to involve their kids in what might get them teased at school, and as any mom or dad will tell you, it can be tough going on vacation without the kids tagging along. Taking all this into consideration, it’s no wonder younger nudists (myself included) prefer staying at home, enjoying the backyard or pool, or hiking through secluded woods (free of charge!).

But to more accurately gauge the growth of nudism, it’s better to look at popular media. On Facebook, young people too shy or too frightened of being ostracized are free to express their beliefs anonymously. Lately, the number of nudist/naturist groups, Twitter feeds, and blogs popping up are more than I can count. One group I belong to, Young Naturists & Nudists America, boasts over 7000 members. Its founder, Felicity Jones, has been featured in numerous publications, as listed below:

Jones takes part in social activism. With the aim of promoting body acceptance, she has participated in public art projects by artists such as Zefrey Throwell and body painter Andy Golub. While the art projects themselves are varied, they have all had a single common connecting factor, which is the incorporation of public nudity.

On August 3, 2013, Jones was interviewed by journalist Bill Briggs for a featured article on NBC News about the lack of young nudists in America.[2] Jones was then quoted in a Digital Journal follow-up news article.[3]

On August 4, as featured in the local news site The Citizen / AuburnPub.com,[4] Jones attended the annual Northeast Naturist Festival in upstate New York. This festival is where naturists congregate and talk about issues facing the movement.

On January 18, 2013, Jones was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about an off Broadway naked comedy show that she co-produced.[5] In Early 2013, the Fire Island National Seashore authorities decided to close Fire Island’s nude beach. Jones was interviewed with regards to this issue by both the New York Times[6] as well as News Day.[7] She was also cited in the Huffington Post[8] and the Long Island News website.[9]

On January 22, 2013, Jones was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune[10] about the impending San Francisco anti nudity legislation as well as her thoughts about the current lack of younger people who are involved with naturism.

On May 2, 2013 Jones was interviewed by Nancy Redd for Huffington Post Live. The segment was called “Let’s Get Naked”.[11] She was also interviewed on October 19, 2012 by Hollywood Today for a piece about censorship titled “Censorship and Social Networks – violence is in. Nipples are out!”[12]

In August 2011 Jones participated in an nude art project called Ocularpation: Wall Street[13][14] by Zefrey Throwell.[15] During this art performance she was arrested by the NYPD for disrupting the peace and for blocking traffic; the charges were dropped a few months later.

Later in 2011, Jones also participated in an additional performance, this time a week long game of strip poker in the window of an art gallery titled “I’ll Raise You One”[16] by the same artist which was covered by the NY Post and The Village Voice.[17]

Perhaps the greatest measure of nudism’s growing acceptance is the way in which it is perceived by the public. In 1992, “top free” activists in New York made it legal for women to go topless anywhere in the city. Unaware of the law, a few police officers continue to harass women for “indecency.” Felicity Jones, who was arrested, later sued the state and won. Last year in San Francisco, a law permitting people to go fully naked in public failed by only ONE vote. Consider, also, the rise of non-sexual nudity on television. In Discovery Channel’s Naked & Afraid, the “survivors” butts are in full view, with only the genitals and the women’s nipples being pixelated. Showing favorable ratings, Dating Naked premiered on VH1 followed by Buying Naked on TLC. Compare this to I Dream of Jeannie, a show that ran from 1965 to 1970 (the nudist decade according to some), the main character of Jeannie was not even allowed to show her bellybutton!

Belly buttons are obscene!

OK, you may be thinking, tolerance is one thing, but acceptance is a whole other ballgame. The vast majority of people obviously offended by nudity simply change channels, or avoid social media groups with nudity, right? Show a naked person to the general, unsuspecting public, and out come the pitchforks, right? Wrong. I give you The World Naked Bike Ride

The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is an international clothing-optional bike ride in which participants plan, meet and ride together en masse on human-powered transport (the vast majority on bicycles, but some on skateboards and inline skates), to “deliver a vision of a cleaner, safer, body-positive world.”[1]
The dress code motto is “bare as you dare”.[2] Full or partial nudity is encouraged, but not mandatory. There is no mandate to cover intimate parts; this is a distinguishing feature of the WNBR against other cycling events.

This global event takes place in 20 countries and in over 50 different cities, with very little outrage, and the number of participants has been growing. Lady God1va, who I am friends with on Twitter, organizes one of the more successful rides in London, with well over a thousand riders!

Is nudism on the decline? On the contrary, it is growing. We see it in the number of resorts being built, and we see it on TV, where more skin is on display, and it is growing through social media, which allows people to exchange ideas and to organize like never before. The nudism of the sixties was newsworthy, hence misconceptions about that decade, but thanks to changing attitudes and shifting mores, public nudity no longer elicits moral outrage, and therefore, is no longer news. In a few decades time, we may not need designated beaches or resorts. The children of today are born into a world of greater equality, greater freedom, and greater acceptance. If there is any truth to the notion that nudism is dying, it may be that the term itself is becoming unnecessary, a quaint throwback from a more conservative, racist, sexist age.

UPDATE: Before writing this post, I received comments suggesting that Felicity Jones, founder of Young Naturists America, did not exist. It seems incredible, but some people just can’t imagine a young female naturist being a real thing, as if I was talking about some mythic creature, a mermaid or a fairy. However, females who enjoy going “au natural” do, in fact, grace this planet. I’ve met them! It’s no myth! So now I feel compelled to share this awesome new YouTube video by Young Naturists America: