Apr 012013
 

No non-fictionThat was the 2nd Rule of Liquorature.  I waffled on this one when Curt first brought up the matter of our unwritten constitution, because, being a lover of history, politics and contemporary affairs, it seemed like we were shortening ourselves by instituting arbitrary limits on our reading.  Then there are books like Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World” which is a non-fiction book dressed up as a children’s novel – how do you classify something like that, discuss it, analyze it?  Given the size of the door-stopping paperweights I have in my library at home though (“India at a Glance” in 2000 pages, e.g.), I have conceded the Hippie’s point.  There’s enough richness in the fictionalized universe for us not to get into the inevitable whiff of “homework” that taking apart a factual tome would entail. It’s still something I wish we could get past, however.

Opening this site has allowed me to sidle around the restriction, and post up for consideration many of the great books I have read in the last decades.

The thing is, literature allows us to discover the inner mind of man.  Whether it is the spare prose of Hemmingway or the more descriptive victorian novels of Dickens or the pastoralists, or even First Works like “Beowulf”, “Moll Flanders,” “The Illiad,” “The Ramayana” and “The Tale of Genji”, all fiction to some extent delves into the human condition. Non fiction is the diametrical opposite, for, while Fiction discusses the state of man, Non-fiction analyzes the actual Doings of Man (or a man, in the case of a bio). And that in its own way is a fascinating matter not least because for the most part, non-fiction rests on recorded fact plus some interpretation and bias of the author (non-fiction can therefore be as mercilessly debated for its interpretation as our current literary works are).

Too, I believe that in our modern, fast-moving, always-connected world of mass entertainment, news and information flow, we are losing sight of the past, or not appreciating trends until they are upon or past us, and we see them only in hindsight. Good non-fiction can illustrate and throw into relief matters current and past and future in a way a novel cannot always accomplish. If reading lots of books (as Stephen King advocates in his excellent book “On Writing”) improves your appreciation of books and your own writing, then should not the same apply to one’s appreciation of the world we actually live in and the events that have shaped it?

For example: the ascent of computers, the rise of the social networks, Google, cloud computing, convergence of hardware, have all ben discussed in various non-fiction works in my library and shed light onto modern technological culture and our place within it.Yergin’s “The Prize” remains the book to read about oil and Hydrocarbon Man. Nial Ferguson’s works on empire and money speak to both past and present both on an economic and political front. Robert Fisk’s magisterial magnum opus “The Great War for Civilization” tackles thorny issues of coexistence and hate. And how often does one read books as fascinating and enthralling as Kissinger’s “Diplomacy” or Halberstam’s “The Fifties”?

It is to those of us who have an interest in reading books both large and small, about past and present, based on fact or conjecture, that the reviews of non-fiction titles in this section are aimed.

 Posted by on April 1, 2013 at 8:01 pm
Apr 012013
 

Ray Bradbury is a twisted Isaac Asimov, a literary Dali who painted with his words, a Stephen King before Stephen King was there. If King is the master of the occult, of horror, and of long novels and deep characterizations playing “what if?” with the universe, then one of the wellsprings of his imagination was surely the taut, tightly wound dystopian short stories penned by his prolific predecessor.  And indeed, how much of our subterranean mental landscape has been formed by this one man, a contemporary of the early 20th century dime novels and pulp fictions with which I am so in love?  In Bradbury we see a Golden Age of horror fiction even before it became respectable, a right turn from the prevailing “hard” sci-fi of the day — and yet, even to use such terms shortens and simplifies an enormous body of work encompassing sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mythology, psychology and fictional futurism. Categorizing the man and his output is like trying to nail down Asimov, or King – it’s too much to encompass into a single sentence. To the extent that there is s cultural mythology of the twentieth century, a sort of inner world of our imaginations, surely Bradbury is one of its creators.

Bradbury – and if any of us do not know his name by now we cannot call ourselves book lovers – is one of the masters of the short form. Few of his short stories exceed fifteen pages in length, and are as tightly wound, as clear of expression and as dense in imagery as anything penned by King in his beginnings, by Asimov, Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, Elmore Leonard, Dashiell Hammett or any of the myriad others who dabbled in the field (even Bradbury’s novels – The Martian Chronicles, or Dandelion Wine, for example – are short story collections in disguise, and Fahrenheit 451 began as The Fireman, a short story). And yet, unlike these straightforward writers who are mostly plot – and I don’t mean this in a bad way – there is always something off-kilter and distorted moving beneath Bradbury’s work…something badly reflected, like a mirror with a flaw one can sense but not always see.

While I have read most of his collected works over the years, long and not-so-long, the ones to which I keep returning in order to sip at the well of his genius, are always the short stories of The Illustrated Man, “100 Celebrated Tales” and The Martian Chronicles. In the best of these, there is always a haunting sense of time and place…of America gone sour, perhaps, or of strange places in our memories, or even places that never were. And that feeling of almost – but not quite – recognition, like acquaintances long-forgotten who we feel we’ve met somewhere before.

Consider “A Sound of Thunder” – it combines time travel, a hunting safari, politics and chaos theory….how stepping on a butterfly irrevocably changes the course of history. Or “I Sing the Body Electric” which is only nominally about how a man brings a robot granny into the house to comfort his grieving children after the death of his wife. Or the creeping sense of horror about “The Playground” (which could have been written by King), where a man who changes places with his son to spare the child the cruelties of childhood, only realizes at the close how cruel childhood really is. There is the depth of psychological suspense in “The Veldt” where kids plot to murder their indifferent parents in a Star-Trek-type holodeck meant as a play area; and one of the most clearly realized, utterly atmospheric alien-worlds stories ever written, “The Long Rain”.

Bradbury’s work in sci-fi seems occasionally dated, but he himself argues that he doesn’t really write science fiction (at least not in the engineering style of “Red Mars”), but fantasy, because his worlds cannot exist, unlike those of the realists like Asimov and Heinlein. The reason his work still resonates, even after more than half a century is less because he wrote about futuristic rockets, robots or machines, than because he described people we can recognize – and how the development of the soul-annhilating techno-society he so clearly foresaw alters the way we think, the way we interact…who we are. He is a mordant ethicist who argues for humanity while pointing out how much more human our creations can become…and how little can be left in us if we are not careful.

Think of how “The Murderer” so acurately predicted our mad “always-connected” culture with his brilliant paragraph: Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. … The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the phones ringing again … Substitute an i-phone, laptop and TV and you’d have a picture of how my daughter spends time in her room.

And always, coiling underneath the spare plotline, is the dark side of Americana, in stories like the one where a child wishes for everyone in the world to disappear…and they do; of machines that stand around telling stories of the men who made them, now long extinct; of a man hurtling in space to his death, wondering what he can do “to make up for a terrible and empty life” before dying; how the Rocket Man wanted to be with his family when in space, and in space when with his family.

Bradbury is neither a Luddite nor a pessimist.  Nor for that matter is he an optimist.  He simply invites us to be alert to the consequences of our actions. He is realistic enough to know technology is not the answer simply because it can clean your house and create a robot replacement for you; just twisted enough to see the hope of machines wanting to act like humans will be overhsadowed by humans behaving like machines; and cynical enough to understand – and make us shudder at – the irony of youthful innocence reposing in adults while children are the amoral, devious homicidical crazies we ourselves allowed to be, and which we should fear. In the richness of his storytelling we see all the possible reflections of ourselves, all the permutations and possibilities of our society: we read his terse and evocative prose with appreciation and amazmenet and wonder…his stories take up residence in our minds. We know them, we love them, we dread them.

“There would be no King without Bradbury”, Stephen King once remarked. Maybe so, although he admits elsewhere to being as influenced by Lovecraft and Wheatley and pulp as by that old master. Be that as it may, it is thanks to Bradbury that we have an enriched body of often unappreciated, undeservedly low-rent work without pretensions of grandeur, that will stand the test of time — and which has become, somehow, part of the iconic literature of our age. If I were to think of which short stories out there I’ll be reading in the twilight of my life, when hope, realism and cynicism have taken equal residence in my heart, then I’ll pick Asimov, King, Heinlein, Naipaul, Lahiri, perhaps half a dozen others…and Bradbury for sure.

 Posted by on April 1, 2013 at 7:30 pm
Apr 012013
 

Vintage Books - Conan the Warrior - Robert Ervin Howard

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

So goes the introduction to perhaps the iconic hero of all Sword and Sorcery tales, themselves a subset – or bastard cousin – of the heroic fantasy genre.  Is there a man alive who has not at some point heard of Conan the Cimmerian? Or seen the vivid paintings of Frank Frazetta and been transported into the mystical and legendary kingdoms of Hyboria?  In penning these tales of mythical times long past, Robert E. Howard created one of the great characters of modern American fiction, and one I have returned to time and time again when the weighty tomes of non-fiction or the effort to come to grips with some intellectually subtle point of a Booker Prize contender simply becomes too much for me. Conan hearkens back to the dime novels of the thirties, reeks of cheap print on cheaper paper, and redolent of a black and white time when unsentimental heroes talked tough and cracked wise. Sure Burroughs created Tarzan earlier, L’Amour the Sacketts later, and Dashiell Hammett , Raymond Chandler and John M Cain also wrote tough tales of pulp: but among them all coils Howard.

Robert E. Howard, who committed suicide at the age of thirty, wrote some eighteen stories of varying lengths about Conan during his lifetime (along with a huge volume of general pulp magazine fiction covering all fields and genres), most of which were published in Weird Tales; eight others were pieced together from his complete and incomplete papers after his death, and published posthumously. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter adapted Howard’s notes and outlines to add another four complete stories and a few pastiches, while other authors as varied as Robert Jordan and Poul Anderson have added another fifty or so to the body of work: but the core of it all remains the eighteen Howard himself wrote. These are the backbone of the ten paperback volumes that document most of Conan’s life, from the first “Conan” where he is eighteen or so, to “Conan the Avenger,” the tenth, where he is in his mid forties, King of Aquilonia, and has a wife and son.

Howard remarked in one his letters that he preferred to write about straightforward heroes with muscles, not brains. His reasoning had a sort of charming simplicity to it: in a jam, nobody expected them to think their way out of things – they just hacked, slashed, brawled or shot their way out of trouble (and all his other heroes – Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, King Kull, Turlogh O’Brien – followed this general trend). In the highly mythological world of Hyboria, all men were cast in a sort of stark relief, with simple, strong characteristics, and all women were curvaceous, beautiful and not at all meek. The impact of Howard’s virile, magic-infested creation was like a blast of colour in a black and white world, and let’s face it: Tolkien might have written about noble sylvan elves in gentle northern climes, but it’s a subtle wine compared to the savage red bouquet of Hyboria’s realism. This kind of writing marries the colour and dash of historical romance fiction with the atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult or ghost story. In short, it’s escapism at its best.

“Conan the Warrior” the seventh book in the cycle, takes place when Conan is in his mid- to late-thirties, and the three novellas in it are called “Red Nails”, “Jewels of Gwahlur” and “Beyond the Black River”.  At this stage in his career, Conan had already been a freebooter, a pirate, a mercenary, gained the name “Amra” and seen much of the world. Howard himself wrote these three, and for my money, they are among the best he ever did: “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “Queen of the Black Coast” are also in that exalted company, but in separate books, and so I have selected this trio as an introduction to Howard and his Cimmerian.

“Red Nails” stands as the most evocative of the three, with Conan and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood escaping a monster in a forest to come upon a massive, all-enclosed stone city inhabited by the remnants of two warring peoples, who hammer one red nail into a massive ebony column for each enemy they kill. The arrival of Conan and Valeria tips the balance decisively towards one of the two dying tribes, yet friendship, betrayal, lust, sorcery, action and dark magic all have their turn on this tautly written tale.

After parting company with Valeria (the stories are roughly chronological), Conan heads to the jungle to raid a legendary treasure city of Gwahlur (hidden inside the caldera of an extinct volcano), but finds more than he bargained for when the priests who live there are slaughtered by strange beasts and Conan barely makes it out alive.

Lastly, Conan heads to the pictish frontier along the Black River, just as the tribes unite and boil over the border to massacre all the Aquilonian settlers on the Bossonian marches, under their mad sorcerer Zogar Sag. If “Red Nails” had a sense of time and place in the darkened stone-covered city that was unique and vibrant, “Beyond the Black River” is the best short novel of forest war and magic I’ve ever read, with strong pacing and fast action that never loses or confuses its way.

It’s a credit to the strength of Howard’s writing that after a bit one can tell which is his work and which is done by others. Nothing Sprague de Camp wrote in his reworking of later stories comes even close to Howard. Consider this passage from “Red Nails” – Olmec was as tall as Conan, and heavier; but there was something repellent about the Tlazitlan, something abysmal and monstrous that contrasted unfavourably with the clean-cut compact hardness of the Cimmerian….if Conan was a figure out of the dawn of time, Olmec was a shambling somber shape out of the darkness of time’s pre-dawn. Or this one: In the cold, loveless and altogether hideous life of the Tecuhltli, his admiration and affection for the invaders from the outer world formed a warm, human oasis that constituted a tie which connected him with a more natural humanity totally lacking in his fellows, whose only emotions were hate, lust and the urge to sadistic cruelty. This is pulp fiction at its best: closely worded descriptions of appearance and motivation, stark identity and basic emotions.  And yet I defy anyone to read any of these stories and not admit how vibrant and rich in imagery they are.  How strong and direct when compared against the more subtle offerings to which we are accustomed.

And this is not all.  If they had been merely thrilling reads – which they are – I wouldn’t have bothered putting the work up for consideration.  But Howard’s work presaged much else in modern literature and drew from a well-established wellspring of past tribal lore. Conan is the archetype of the Lone Hero – almost a Nietszhean superman –  scattered throughout mankind’s oldest legends, and can be found in much of present day fiction: in Conan we see shades of Hondo and Jason Bourne, of The Road Warrior, the Hardened Street Cop, or the Solitary Soldier on the field of battle. He’s Audie Murphy with a sword.

In “Jewels” one can sense Michael Crichton’s “Congo;” “Black River” is really a rewritten western of the kind John Ford would make popular in his films and Louis L’Amour in his novels. And the darkness of Howard’s magic and sorcery has echoes of Lovecraftian horror: indeed, the two were correspondents, and some argue that the darkly beautiful fiction of the Cthulu mythos has its origins in Conan (though the reverse has also been posited and that Conan’s Hyboria is a subset of Lovecraft’s more insanely imagined worlds). And from there, a straight line can be drawn into  “Xena”, Dungeons and Dragons, Warcraft, “Wizard’s First Rule,” and Stephen King.

Lastly, attention should be drawn to Frank Frazetta, whose dark and savagely iconic paintings of the sword and sorcery genre practically redefined fantasy art as we know it (The Legend of Zelda computer game explicitly named Frazetta’s Conan work as an inspiration) and took residence in our imaginations of such places: no elves and dwarves and green dales here, but  shambling horrors, beautiful women and ferocious large-thewed men, in bloody battle with sharp glittering weapons under dark stone towers of crumbling and ruined civilizations.

How one crazy young Texan writing for a pulp magazine during the Depression could so completely influence an entire literary genre and have an impact decades hence in fields not imagined in his day is not something about which I can hazard a guess.  All I know is that the cables stretching from his stories to these times are there, and in this one book of three superlative tales one can still find them, tautly vibrating and calling us in with their magic.

 Posted by on April 1, 2013 at 7:21 pm
Apr 012013
 

ratracefinish

Dick Francis became a more known quantity in American letters in the last decade or so – one saw his newest offerings on store shelves presented front and center quite often, and they became plumper over the years – but for my money, I’ve always admired and loved his earlier, shorter and tighter works, and have, over the last twenty years or so, picked up most of them. This is in spite of the fact that his name still raises an interrogative eyebrow in most cases when I bring it up: Dick who?

Francis is perhaps better known in Britain than here, and more among older folks than today’s ADD younger crowd.  A former jockey – he went professional in 1948 and retired in 1957 – he won his share of races (350 of them), rode for the Queen Mother, and  in the 1953/1954 season was Champion Jockey.  He began writing immediately after his retirement, a non-fiction book called “The Sport of Queens” which led to him being given a post as a racing correspondent in the Sunday Express newspaper;  his first thriller in a long line came in 1962, and he never stopped until his death in 2010 at the ripe old age of 90.

Unlike many prolific authors who try to vary their output, characters, and settings, in Francis’s work there is an aura of similarity about all his protagonists and their milieu, no matter where the stories are placed or what the crime is (for he is above all, a crime writer).  Consider: his characters are almost always involved, peripherally or otherwise, with horses, and usually in racing.  Just about every story I’ve read is written in the first person, by a nondescript, in-control individual who may or may not be an ex-jockey, is emotionally repressed but has a rich interior life and dreams, and who is brought out of his shell by a crime, a friend, or a woman as a romantic interest (or all of them).  They are all brave, unassuming, sensible and above all, competent. If they were fatter, one might be forgiven for thinking that his heroes are modern-day hobbits.

If this sounds boring and “same” – come on, you might be saying, how often can anyone write about the ponies without getting lazy or repetitive? —  well, you really need to go through a few of his books, because after a bit they kind of grow on you, like familiar vintages from different years, or new expressions of much-loved whiskies where just enough is tweaked to make it a whole new experience.  Throughout the novels you get a sense of a genuine love for and knowledge about, horses. It’s more felt around the corners than seen head on, something sensed and perhaps smelled but never precisely articulated.  It’s in small asides, like how horses are cared for, how punters behave, what bookmakers do, how owners and jockeys and Stewards interact. It’s a window into a different kind of profession entirely, as seen from the inside.  The beauty about his early novels is how well they present this — not written by someone who has done his research, but by someone who has actually been in the business of equines.  And look at how short and taut they are (much like a jockey, really): “Knock Down” (1974) is a concise 188 pages and so is “Smokescreen”, written three years earlier (neither of these is on my list of four to discuss, but I had them in front of me so it saved me getting up to check the others).

Of all these early novels, four stand out as my favourites: “Odds Against” (1965), “Flying Finish” (1966), “Blood Sport” (1967) and “Rat Race” (1970).  Yes there are others – certainly there are others – but these are the ones I’ve picked.  These are the ones I reread.

odds

“Odds Against” introduced the ex-jockey turned private dick Sid Halley, who was to star in three subsequent novels. Possessing a crippled arm, a dead horse-racing career and no particular desire to do anything or get closer to anyone, Halley takes on a case in quintessential noir-fashion (Phillip Marlowe comes to mind, but not Sam Spade); and in the people he meets during his investigation, he learns to pick up the pieces of a broken life. While solving the case.  (Of course he solves the case, come on).

I really loved “Flying Finish” (1966), which is about a poor nobleman appropriately named Henry Grey, who works in a transportation agency that ships horses around Europe. As the plot thickens and people disappear, Grey begins to understand that more is being shipped besides bloodstock.  Also memorable for two top-notch villains, the low-key and capable mastermind, and a pitch-perfect homicidal assassin named Billy. And I can’t leave out the romantic interest, an Italian stewardess who smuggles contraceptive pills on the sly (don’t ask).

bloodsport

“Blood Sport” (1967) took the genre in a different direction by presenting us with suicidal spy-catcher Gene Hawkins (he sleeps with a Luger under his pillow), who is recruited by his boss to go find a missing racehorse in America. It starts out hardboiled but doesn’t stay that way, and while I liked the story, I was particularly moved by the brief and almost tender description of how Gene (in that quietly undemonstrative fashion so characteristic of Francis’s work) knows he loves his boss’s daughter, but also knows he is wrong for her and tries to gently push her away.

And I took great pleasure in the disgraced, divorced ex-airline pilot now flying small charter planes from horse-racing meet to horse-racing meet in “Rat Race” (1970). In spite of himself, Matt Shore makes friends with a champion jockey, gets involved with his sister and stumbles across a nefarious insurance scheme which nearly kills her and later, him.  Like Halley, Matt learns to live again through opening up to others, which makes the quiet moments he has with Julian’s sister simple, unassuming and a pleasure to read.

That’s a quality I really like in the Dick Francis novels: that deadpan, clipped conversational style that teeters on the edge of, but never quite falls into, the rhythms of pulp fiction.  It’s concise, it’s clear, and there’s no waste anywhere.  Even the dialogue is like that:

“You’re bastard,” she said.

“Mmm.”

See what I mean? When a writer uses the bare minimum of words necessary to carry the plot and sort out the dialogue, you find yourself paying rather more attention than, say, to whole paragraphs of a Stephen King tome.  Some may decry this terse, almost unemotional style and sigh about its similarity from one book to another – for me, however, it works.  Oh admittedly, characterization is not always the best – the tough but damaged heroes and their dry mannerisms and taciturn speech have a way of wearing out their welcome after a while – and in a couple hundred pages you won’t get War & Peace, for sure.

You just have to think of these earlier, crisper novels as train fodder…something nourishing and gripping to read on a short train journey.  Small, bite-sized horse McNuggets about mostly small, bite-sized men who get involved in criminal matters, are battered and thrown about a whole lot, but always manage to get back up and gamely battle on.  There may not be a life lesson in that, but there’s sure a lot of fun.

 Posted by on April 1, 2013 at 2:11 am
Mar 202013
 

Wilfred Thesiger, who died in 2003, was the last of the old land explorers, whose likes included Burton, Speke, Younghusband, Lawrence, Connolly, Hedin, Amundsen, and stretched as far back as Marco Polo. Fluent in Arabic and French Thesiger was the first European to cross and extensively map the dreaded Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, and wrote acclaimed travelogues of now-vanished times in the middle east, and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.  An unashamed Arabist, he loved the great empty silences of the desert, and the nomadic culture of the Bedu; he much preferred to travel and live the way they did, and he despised the modern era of travel where all hardship was erased, and man could not longer test himself against the land he sought to describe and explain.

“Arabian Sands” which Thesiger published in 1959, is one of the great works of travel literature.  It stands alongside “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and the works of Sir Richard Burton (not the actor), Marco Polo or Ibn Battuttah,  and the old victorian travellers of their day who shared the characteristic of describing not only the journey, but everything they saw on and experienced on it: peoples, customs, flora and fauna, geographical details…a sort of holistic experience that today is rarely found outside of fictional accounts (though I should single out Colin Thurbon’s work, or that of Thor Heyerdahl, and those others who go into the the Third World to attempt to achieve something singular and individual). If I were to name a modern equivalent – which has both greater and lesser value – it would be the Lonely Planet series, though this is not strictly comparable since these travelogues serve a different purpose.

“Arabian Sands” is, like “Seven Pillars”, part autobiography, part travelogue, part adventure story and part an account of various explorations Thesiger did in Abyssinia, and his years of being a civil servant in the Sudan Political Service.  Thesiger did not appreciate the civilized norms of the service, and ensured his own postings to more remote areas.  After the war, having been inspired by the exploits of Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby who had both crossed Arabia in the north, he resolved to try exploring and mapping the area of the Rub al  Khali himself, not least because no European had ever done it. The heart of this book describes his adventures in the Empty Quarter, the vast sands which covered the Southern part of Saudia Arabia, the place where even today the maps read, “Border Undefined.” The first crossing was 1946-47. Wilfred Thesiger persuaded Doctor Uvarov of the Locust Research Center in London to allow him to return to Oman and the Empty Quarter in order to map the area.

The book describes in detail Thesiger’s experiences with the Bedu, his opinions of them, their habits and lives and customs, and how he longed to be part of their culture.  And how, as he travelled with them, he was eventually accepted: there’s more than a whiff of “Avatar” or “Dances With Wolves” in this narration. But over and above the autobiographical details, what we really get is the description of a whole way of life that no longer exists.  The existence of the desert Bedu, even then under threat from rapid modernization based on oil, is evoked in prose that is both Kiplingesque and nostalgic.  Certainly Thesiger had a hankering for male camaraderie and, like many Orientalists, a rather odd attitude towards sexuality for the time; he did not find the wells of his soul filled with water from his own civilization, and found it elsewhere.  It is this blend of honesty, clarity of prose and evocation od worlds gone, which give Thesiger’s books their power.

I’ve read Sven Hedin’s accounts of his trips in Central Asia, as well as some of Younghusband’s work, and that of Burton, Livingstone and Aurel Stein: these explorers all shared a blend of craziness and chutzpah that got them past many hurdles in strange places; however for the most part, they went with expeditions and equipment, all the trappings of their culture.  Thesiger, like Lawrence, is more of an individualist, sometimes adhering to a code more closely seen as fascist or hero-worshipping, someone who wanted to sink himself into a different culture that did live and survive in the places he wanted to explore.  Now to some extent, Thesiger’s vision of man the explorer against the unknown is a classicist and romantic one, more redolent of Rousseau than Hobbes: but the kind of life of manly hardship he extols was even then a vanishing one, and is best appreciated by those who have an option to turn their backs temporarily on a more luxurious lifestyle. These days, in an interconnected, always-on microculture where gender roles are blurred and the “old ways” are seen in a misty, traditionalist haze of nostalgia, some readers might look back at a man like Thesiger and sigh enviously.

“Arabian Sands” reminds us that civilization has its price. The world can support over six billion people but the tag on that is a perhaps more elemental way of life being given up for creature comforts and delicate parsings of justice and law; of fantastical, even obscene aspects of culture, style, fashion, media and privacy. Many people will read Thesiger’s work and either long for a simpler time when matters stood more clear, or despise it for its simplicity and extolling of manly virtues from a different era: I am not one of either of these camps, but I have lived in many parts of the world and travelled to many more remote corners of it, and, aside from my appreciation for the beauty of Thesiger’s writing,  I also fully understand the siren power of its call.

 Posted by on March 20, 2013 at 6:34 am
Mar 202013
 

***

 

Chariots of the Gods (1968)

Before you wince, roll your eyes and question my hold on reality, hear me out. I’m aware of the stigma the subject matter has.

There were always books around me, lots of them: my mother was a librarian, and my father’s jampacked shelves were treasure troves to be unearthed at leisure (he promised me his entire collection “one day”, years ago, and I’m still waiting).  It was from these sources that I picked up “Steep Paths” by a now unknown Soviet writer called Vakhtang Ananyan; the Enid Blyton “Adventure” series, all of Willard Price’s short novels of Hal and Roger.  And some very obscure works by the likes of Andrew Tomas, Frederick W. Drake and Erich Von Daniken, which delved into unexplained and mysterious ancient artifacts and discoveries that in some (but not all) cases defy a reasonable explanation.

Stones at Sacsayhuaman – note the size and jointing

 

Erich Von Daniken could be argued to be the author who launched the seventies craze for ancient world weird stuff – he published in 1968, at a time when UFO research was still on people’s minds. In one book, he catalogued a list of frustratingly inexplicable – or fantastically coincidental – enigmas from the ancient world. Mysteries of construction like the ever-popular pyramids on two continents, the Easter Island statues and Stonehenge; the Nazca lines; the crystal skull; the Piri Reis Map; Antarctica, the Bible and Atlantis. I gobbled this stuff up, and have never lost my fascination for such matters, largely because, discredited as Von Daniken now is, however hokey the whole field has become, not all of what he brought to public attention has entirely been rationally or scientifically explained.  As Mulder once said in the X-Files: “The evidence against it is not entirely dissuasive.”  Amen to that.

Von Daniken tried to suggest that the ancient cultures of the world were connected with aliens; that all these strange monuments and artifacts represented contact with advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, and odd statuary and depictions of “Gods” were in fact expressions of how primitive people saw these divine personages.  Okay, fine, I’m the first to say that this is reaching a bit (a bit? I can hear you laugh). But the thing is, the artifacts that Von Daniken described and tried to explain are in themselves, real.  The Piri Reis map exists. The Nazca lines, the pyramids, the crystal skull, the cave painting and statuary – it’s all there.

Where I believe he fell down and brought disrepute into a genre much ignored before and since, is his rather dramatic interpretations.  Even at the young age when I first read the book, I thought he was not just swinging for the fences but the next ballpark altogether.  A round hole in a bison skull dated many thousands of years ago was, to him, not a natural occurrence (the thing ran into a sharp branch, maybe?) but evidence that there were guns in them thar days. The Bible’s accounts of Adam and Eve’s longevity suggested they were extraterrestrials (let’s not even discuss Ezekiel’s vision). And so on and on. You gotta kind of cringe when you read something so far out to left field – people can accept a decent premise, but one that’s that farfetched, with no real grounding?  Man, that’s pseudoscience with a vengeance. And it created problems for all who followed – Berlitz, Tomas, Hancock and others.

Graham Hancock, who wrote the much better researched and much less outlandish, but still critically reviled and controversial “Footprints of the Gods” (which I recommend just because he takes a more moderate approach to much of the same material) tried to revive interest in this subject in the 1990s, but I think he’s treading poisoned ground, no matter how fascinating (and it’s no coincidence that Mulder in the X-Files was never believed either, if you don’t mind me delving into pop culture for an analogy). People simply think it’s all crap.

As time went on, various other authors debunked a lot of Von Daniken’s theses, and he is, these days, sneered at, and mentioned in the same breath as “Little Green Men,” Atlantis, and various cults who believe in astral contact from some Lovecraftian universe.  His theories and the facts he brought to public attention are now fodder for mass entertainment: The “Hab Theory” by Allan W. Eckert tries to be serious but fails and is piss-poor writing to boot, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull took it to Hollywood; Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, found (yup) a Crystal Skull in “Atlantis Found,” then came Stagate and its TV followers, and all those other novels and films which posit Atlantians, Lemurians, dudes from Mars, or Sirius or what have you. Sigh.  Take me to your leader indeed.

The Palenque tomb carving. Observe hands, nose and seated posture…what is it?

 

But the mysteries continue to tantalize and confound, holding us in a peculiar kind of thrall.  Science and historians have still not managed to come up with a convincing explanation of how the pyramids were built to such exacting specifications, let alone how old they really are (I leave it to you to decide whether the mathematics supposedly inherent in the dimensions is relevant or not), and to such gargantuan proportions; the Palenque tomb carving (above) does oddly resemble a man sitting in a device of some kind; what the hell was behind the Nazca lines, those huge drawings scraped into the Peruvian earth which cannot be seen except from the air? How did the meso-American and Egyptian civilizations move blocks of stone that weighed many tons (there’s a single block that is estimated to weigh 200 tons, an object our own largest cranes would have difficulty moving); and then build walls that had cunning joints with no mortar, following no rational pattern?

Von Daniken might have taken us for a grand ride, either through misguided ideas of his own or a desire to cash in on a fad he saw. I don’t really care, myself, long since having twigged to the weaknesses of the interpretations, and the theory.  But the objects themselves remain, their stories unanswered. Perhaps one day we will find the real truth behind such peculiarities in our history and culture.  For the moment they nag and tease and beg more questions than can be answered, fascinating us with a potential history we have thus far not bothered to address.

 Posted by on March 20, 2013 at 6:32 am
Mar 202013
 

The other day I was having a spirited discussion with a friend of mine in Toronto.  He cautiously started a sentence: “The fall of Constantinople in the 16th century…”

“1453.” I said

He gave me a doubtful look.  It’s not one of those facts you expect a half drunk guest to have at his fingertips, and I kinda feel for him there. It was sort of unexpected. “Are you sure?”

“1453, April to May, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the 2nd laid siege to the city, then took it by storm. It marked the end of the Byzantine empire and the flood of émigrés to western Europe was supposed to have helped fuel the Rennaisance.”  And I buffed my nails complacently, had some more of the excellent rum I was filching from his stocks, and smiled like a cherub.

It takes more than guts to tackle some of the tomes in my library:  it requires a genuine love for good writing as well as an interest in the world.  By carefully parsing that sentence and the conversation above, you may gather that I’m not talking about fiction, but histories. I’ve got quite a few that handily exceed a thousand pages, and can be comfortably used to serve as foundation stones of your new house: A History of the World by J. M. Roberts, for one, and Europe: A History, for another. It was Europe that informed the discussion above.

Much of the blame (or credit, depending how you see it) for the accumulation of such massive works that take weeks, if not months, to get through, belongs to mon pere, who early on in my life suggested I never let a history class pass me by. Years – decades! – later, I still follow this dictum.  And of all the works of the human past I have read, Europe: A History by Norman Davies, stands out as one of the most original, complete and readable presentations in the genre. Yes it’s long, yes it is daunting, but as with all well written works, treasures are there for the tireless reader who perseveres.

Three things make Europe stand apart from the herd.  The first is the fact that here, for one of the few times I’ve ever seen, an author takes the time to go beyond the rather timid interpretations of what and where Europe actually is. Not limiting himself to those places where barbarians invaded – Britain, France, Germany plus a few extras —  Davies remarks “For some reason it has been the fashion among some historians to minimize the impact of the Magyars. All this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.” And so he takes for his canvas northern, southern, eastern and western Europe…the continent in totality.  What in effect this means is that previously ignored portions of the continent (or those that are the subject of specialist books on their own that do not integrate them into the larger canvas) are given equal weight with the more commonly written about countries.

Secondly, there is the oddity and charm of the “inserts” as I call them.  These are boxes, bordered small essays, on one particulary tiny detail that is of interest in the period he is discussing, like time capsules. One describes why cheeses are similar across Europe; another discusses the origins of the word “jeans”, and yet another talks about the history of printing.  These inserts help break up the admittedly monolithic text and keeps the narrative flow quirky and interesting.  In fact, if you ignore the text and just read the three hundred plus inserts, that alone (in sheer informational and entertainment value) might justify a read of the book.

Lastly there’s the quality of the writing. Davies has a subtly ironic and quietly humourous style that is actually very readable (as the above remark on the Magyars should illustrate).  He tends to take the overview, discussing mass movements, ideas, trends, and then delve in here and there for something more detailed.  He avoids the bias of “western civilization” in the central portion (giving equal weight to other parts of Europe), covers the prehistory to the fall of the Soviet Union in twelve dense chapters, but for all that volume, it’s an entertaining read, however limited in its own way, and the prose helps the mass go down. I may be a bit strange this way, but I’ve read it twice so far, and it looks like a reread is in the cards this or next year.

No one book, no matter how weighty or long, can possibly cover the entirety of the history of such a large area, over such a long period of time, without getting bogged down in minutae or detail or length.  That Davies has done as much as he has, is astonishing in itself, but he himself remarks that it’s an overview, and not much primary research was required. The book is best used as a sort of central point to gather all threads of other more detailed works into a cohesive whole, maybe as a research tool for students.

Professor Davies is a leading English historian who made his reputation with the book  God’s Playground (1981) where he comprehensively reviewed Polish history (he studied in Poland and his doctoral dissertation was about the Polish-Soviet war).  He has written much about Poland, also wrote The Isles: A History, much in the same vein as Europe, with numerous capsules dotting his pages and consistently writes for the mass media.  His interpretation of the Holocaust has been criticized by some (this led to Stanford controversially refusing him a tenured position in 1986).

At 1400 pages and weighing in at 1.6kg (3.5lbs) Europe: A History is absolutely not for the faint of heart: but those who delve into its depths and brave its scope, will surely not be disappointed…always assuming they ever get to the end. I’ve dived into the deep ocean of Davies’s work twice now, and have always emerged months later, dripping, exhausted and tired, but also enervated, and always educated by some new thing I overlooked the last time. It may not be your thing, but what the hell, I highly recommend it anyway. You may only want to read the capsules, or you may brave the whole book, but whatever you read, you will absolutely come out with more than you went in with.

 Posted by on March 20, 2013 at 6:29 am
Mar 202013
 

The Coming Plague is a book about disease in the modern world.  Not diseases that originated in the 20th century (though certainly this figures in the writing), but about how diseases in our  world – specifically during the 1950s to the 1990s – spread, were identified, fought, and in some cases, ultimately conquered. It may sound like a dry subject, but Laurie Garrett’s prose, eye for the quirky detail and the topicality of the theme in a world made fearful by SARS, swine flu and H1N1, make it a riveting read.

The book is divided up into chapters that focus on a series of individual tiles that gradually make up a more compelling mosaic.  Rather than solely concentrating on dry statistics and stultifying boring histories, it takes the point of view of the famous CDC  disease cowboys of the era: men and women from the US Centers for Disease Control with scientific degrees and a quest for adventure who roamed the world trying to identify and quell outbreaks of diseases that heretofore were small and localized, but which in an increasingly integrated and mobile age threatened to bloom into something much more serious.  Beginning in 1962, it explores the emergence of hemorrhagic fevers in South America and Africa, and gives us fascinating stories (I’m not trying to make light of the suffering of its victims, merely to say how well the narrative is presented) on the Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, Marburg virus, yellow fever, lassa fever, Ebola…and AIDS.

Interspersed with the major themes of increasingly virulent viral diseases are occasional side trips relevant to the whole, such as that of Legionaire’s disease, the resurgence of sexually transmitted diseases after the optimism of seeing penicillin-based drugs nearly eradicate them; feminine hygiene and the dangers of super-absorbent tampons. And then there are chapters on topics as important as recognizing the cities as centre points for the spread of diseases (particularly their poorest sections where drug use and needle sharing is rampant); the increase in drug-resistant super-bugs; and by far the most poignant series of chapters, on AIDS.

Several things occurred to me as I read this book in 1996, and again to write this review: Garrett correctly sounded the horn on how important it was to control disease by open communication between government, the people and the medical establishment (something that horribly failed in the case of AIDS); how superbugs were becoming more, not less common; how the optimism of eradicating smallpox was cruelly smashed by simple evolution and inconsistent global public health policy; and how correctly she noted that modern mass transit (national and international) coupled with crowded megalopolises and poor urban centers, created optimum conditions for efficient disease spread. It’s not the first time this had been posited: it’s the first time I had read it presented so well, though.

If I had a fault to find with the book it is that it presents, on some subjects, too little: malaria, for instance, could have been more comprehensively dealt with (especially how the banning of DDT promoted its resurgence) – and having had it many times myself I think it criminal how few resources are devoted to its suppression even now; the focus is on disease control from an overall American perspective, but there are fewer mentions about other nations’ efforts in the same areas. In other words, I wanted more, which is perhaps a bit shameless considering this thing is 750 pages as it is.

But I freely admit that modern history is catnip for me.  I like knowing how things developed, how the world I live in was formed by the decisions (good or ill) of those who went before.  I think that in our modern world of popular appeal, instant news and always-on hypermedia, we often lose sight of what’s really important, ignore more global themes and lose ourselves in a vacuous haze of noise. The Coming Plague was a dash of cold water on complacency — and to my mind the news of the last fifteen years regarding global pandemic scares could almost form the next chapters of this fascinating, informative and highly readable work of an often-neglected subject, by an author who knows how to make the case.

 Posted by on March 20, 2013 at 6:27 am
Mar 202013
 

I don’t know of anyone from my generation who did not at least hear of Doom.  This one game – first released in 1993 – was the single most eagerly awaited offering of any software company to that time, was a landmark event that crashed the servers of the hosting BBS one minute after the midnight “opening”, and was reputedly the second most common reason quoted for the loss of productivity in offices worldwide (solitaire being the first).

As a working pro who corrupted every team of auditors for three years into playing deathmatch games after hours in our darkened offices, I can testify to that game’s addiction, adrenaline pumping action and (for its time) absolutely stunning graphics in a fully realized, spatially coherent 3d world.  It went beyond the trials of its zany predecessor Wolfenstein, made shareware common, game software respectable and launched a thousand coders into the gameworld. Even its terms have entered the common speech: Deathmatch, BFG, frag, First Person Shooter…Doom started a tidal wave in popular techno-culture that is with us still.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture seeks to go behind the scenes and trace the origins and development of the geniuses behind the game:  John Romero and John Carmack .  They were two guys barely out of their teens, but had already amassed experience coding games, and were the first (together) to create games that scrolled smoothly from side to side.  The success they had with one of these – Commander Keene – led to another game which I obsessively played, Wolfenstein (long range thanks to John, who provided the 1.44mb diskettes which loaded it onto my computers all those years ago), that also enjoyed considerable popularity.

While Romero was the ideas man, it was Carmack who was the programmer who created the realistic 3d modelling engine that gave the games their realism and quasi-3d feel.

And then of course, there came Doom.

The book is a relatively short read at 300 pages, and while it covers the history of the founders, it also is a sort of introduction to the programming subculture made famous years later by the Google corporate ethos. A bunch of guys simply got together with some great ideas, programmed like crazy for weeks on end, living like hermits on pop and pizza and in the process created not only fantastic games but charted a course which all first person shooters subsequently followed. MoD discusses the role of the two egocentric and driven founders of id Software, the way they came up with ideas, the programming of the 3d engine that underlay Doom, and intersperses the lot with witty anecdotes about matters as varied as the reason for naming WAD files as such, what a BFG is, how the shareware concept evolved and the origin of the word Deathmatch.

As with all supernovas, things had to come to an end. Creative differences led to a dissolution of the friendship and business association between the two men and the team they had built up: MoD discusses this frankly and in surprising detail. In fact, the book could be seen as a sort of primer not only of programmers’ secret lives, but on how tech startups start great, develop some kind of killer-app, and then either fly high or flame out. It doesn’t stop with Doom either, but continues into the new century and gives weight to subsequent events like the development of Quake, and where the founders are now (well…then: it was published in 2003).

The reason I post this review is because I not only loved the game and am a bona fide trivia- and history nut, but because it is a remarkably tense, tight and interesting read (especially if the subject matter appeals to you). The chapters on how they posted the first shareware version on the University of Wisconsin – Madison server in December 1993, opened the file up for download at midnight and crashed one minute later due to overload; the section on how amazing the reception was, both by the gaming community and average office Joes the world over;  and the popularity of Deathmatch…they are well written, well paced and a wonderfully fun read.

In comparison with the white-hot writing style portrayed in this short book, I found “The Ultimate History of Video Games” which should have been a great piece of work, simply plodding, pedestrian and  plain boring. No such problems afflict Masters of Doom, and if you have an affinity and sneaking affection for behind-the-scenes work of software (games!) publication, then this book describing the early years of the industry will not disappoint.

 Posted by on March 20, 2013 at 6:07 am
Mar 202013
 

Henry Kissinger is both respected and reviled as one of the most powerful American Secretaries of State ever (he also concurrently held the post of National Security Advisor) but there’s little argument that as an author and analyst the man is in a class by himself.  Nowhere, in my not-so-humble opinion, is this more clearly to be seen than in his doorstopper of a book about statecraft, Diplomacy.

Diplomacy is not for the timid, and should be avoided by those whose taste runs into fiction or who have the adult equivalent of ADD.  Admittedly, we at the club have ploughed our way through Ayn Rand, and the running joke is always that we’ll get to War & Peace in the next century or so as long as we get enough notice, but we’ll have to really brush up our socks and burn the midnight oil to get through this one if we ever relaxed the non-fiction rule. At 900+ densely-crowded pages and 3lbs, here’s a book for men with hair on their chests.

Starting with the end of WW2, Kissinger jumps backwards to the origins of the European system of international relations which developed after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and summarizes some three centuries of diplomacy between the western powers, giving generous time to France’s attempts to keep Germany disunited in the 17th and 18th centuries, the results of the post-Napoleonic-wars period, and the massive impact that Wilsonian idealism – so derided by a contemptuous Theodore Roosevelt who was a proponent of realpolitik if there ever was one – had on contemporary American foreign policy.  It is a vast and sweeping tapestry of history with characters as recognizable as Metternich, de Richelieu, Bismarck, Stalin, Hitler, Giap, Nasser and the 20th century American Presidents striding across the stage.

In its analysis and readability, it is, in most parts, masterful, I dare say brilliant.  Aside from George Kenan’s extraordinary essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (also known as the ‘Long Telegram’) written in 1947, I doubt I’ve ever read its equal in a non fiction work for sheer incisiveness and clarity of prose. I particularly enjoyed Kissinger’s dissection of Metternich and Richelieu’s maneuverings, and how Stalin survived the invasion of his country, as well has the psychological portraits of the many world leaders figured in the book. Kissinger’s recounting and analysis of events in which he himself played a part – the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli conflict among others – are somewhat less compelling, listing slightly more towards an apologia or explanation for actions taken by him, than a straightforwardly objective breakdown.

I have read Diplomacy cover to cover at least three times since I obtained it, and my scribbles, highlights and jottings mark many pages.  It has informed my world view, shed light on historical events and charges my desire to read more about real events and real people, every time I crack the cover. It is dense, scholarly, long and not a light read, so reader, be warned: this is not a trivial intellectual exercise for the scholastically disadvantaged…a solid grounding in history is almost a prerequisite, and Kissinger makes no concessions to you. But for those who manage to dive in and swim to the other side of this sea of scholarship, I can almost guarantee that you’ll walk away with more than you went in with and possessing a greater respect for diplomats and their efforts worldwide.

*

NB. This is irrelevant but I wanted to mention it: the book was given to me by Ken Hermann from Vancouver, a good friend and professional colleague from my first overseas job in Central Asia, back in 1995.  He lent it to me as he was leaving for his turnaround, and died the very same day, along with ten other Canadian expats and three Russian pilots, when the MI-8 helicopter they were in crashed in the Tien Shan mountains. I keep it and look at his name on the flyleaf every year, and remember him and all the others.

 Posted by on March 20, 2013 at 6:05 am