Moby Dick

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Jun 252018
 

“Call me Ishmael.” It may be the most widely known and evocative opening in fiction ever written.

Herman Melville’s daunting, massive, intimidating magnum opus “Moby Dick” has a perhaps undeserved reputation of being hard to read and harder to get through (unlike Dumas’s unabridged “Three Musketeers” where the opposite is true). Like many other “great” novels, it is perhaps more scary in abstract than in reality, because, re-reading it for the first time in thirty years, I was struck by how (relatively) short it actually is. And like many other books I’ve appreciated over the years, it succeeds in marrying perceptive character studies with not only a fully realized, practically foreign world, but solid philosophical underpinnings just tailor made for meandering conversations.

“Moby Dick” is so well known, and so well established in the field of letters, that it seems almost superfluous to assess the plot, which can be summed up by simply noting it’s the whaling voyage of the Pequod, which, under its obsessed, part-mad Captain Ahab, seeks to find and destroy the white whale. But within that simple narrative structure coil greater questions about the nature of good and evil, free will and choice, man’s relationship with God, madness, obsession, racism, defiance, friendship, duty, death, and even ruminations about the meaning of life itself. It channels the Bible and Shakespeare (notably Macbeth and Lear). If one can embrace the rather heavy handed Victorian prose – I highly recommend that a reader take time with this novel and not speed read through it – it will fuel more conversations than half the rums in my collection. I won’t go in depth about the plot, except to note that after many foreshadowings, speeches and events, it all climaxes in a thrilling three day chase, where, at end, all perish but Ishmael, who survives in…a coffin.

Like many books ostensibly speaking to and about a larger than life character, Melville chose to write from the perspective of an observer – Ishmael. Ishmael is an archetypical innocent abroad, and we learn about the business of whaling, and the other people aboard (for this is a “lifeboat” or “ark” story too) through him. His voyage of discovery is ours, right from the point where he naively castigates the innkeeper of the Spouter Inn regarding Queequeg’s selling a shrunken head. Ishmael gradually takes from many different points of view in an effort to form his own opinions, as we must ourselves in our journeys through life. A notable example of his growth is his friendship with Queequeg, a man of a different colour, culture and faith, with whom he finds a common human experience underneath all the differences that supposedly would set them apart – all the more amazing since even handed treatment of an interracial, intercultural (and implicitly homosexual) relationship was written in the pre-Civil War years.

A key point of the novel is whether the whale is consciously evil or not, from which flow other questions like whether his attacks are random and defensive or deliberate and offensive, which in turn allows us to consider the relationship of a civilized, self-aware human being with the more elemental forces of nature (or even the stupidity of hunting an animal that doesn’t have a notion of revenge). My own take has always been (like Starbuck) that the whale doesn’t have any particular beef with Ahab, but isn’t about to get harpooned just for fun either, and will mess up anyone who tries…quite successfully. And I suspect Melville shared this view: observe Ishmael’s perusal of the painting at the inn, where he notes that the whale is “exasperated”. Blinded by his own madness, willing to risk everything (including ship and crew) to kill the whale which so badly damaged him, Ahab imputes motive and villainy to the animal, perhaps projecting his own fierce character onto the whale in a vain effort to suggest that there was meaning to his loss, a greater design of the universe…and that his tragedy was not his own fault. But consider also that a natural creature without morality that fights or defends itself from instinct, also has no mercy, which brings to mind the films “Jaws” or “Alien,” both of which featured impartially hostile forces (and in the latter, a single survivor in a lifeboat).

All this said, Moby Dick has its issues for the modern reader. The chapter on Cetology has probably repelled more students (or put them to sleep) than any exam on obscure points of Shakespeare ever set. The alternating monologues, reflections and lowbrow interludes skewer a narrative which we want to be more smoothly running…it’s like a sputtering engine on a cold day, turning over but not quite catching. At the end we are left with a novel that is a mirror of its own chapters regarding the different parts of the whale (“The more I consider this mighty tail, the more I deplore my ability to express it”) – we see the pieces without every quite coming to grips with the whole. In this lies both its difficulty to the modern reader, and its power. Because when you get down to it, Moby Dick can be approached in many different ways and from several perspectives. And it’s instructive to note that Melville cleverly did not state his own predilections in black and white: he expressed (so far as I could see) no opinions as to which side was “right”. Instead he put all the events and speeches and actions out there, leaving the reader to make up his own mind.

Herman Melville was an American author whose first three novels gained much success in the 1840s before he sank into relative obscurity – though he continued to publish less successful works for many years afterwards – from which he was only rescued in the 1920s by various academics who reviewed his life and works and linked him to the emerging Modernist ethos. Moby-Dick was published in 1851 and was not immediately seen for the classic it now is (probably an inspiration for every unsuccessful novelist seeking to pen the next Great American novel). In point of fact, it received scathing reviews, especially in England where it was first published, mostly by influential critics who were confused by the lack of an epilogue (where Ishmael survives) and did not appreciate the writing style. And in America, reviewers took their cue from there. It did not help that by the time the book came out, the whaling industry was in decline and maritime adventures no longer a focal point of literary curiosity…the west was. It took decades for the novel to receive a fairer hearing.

After all this time, Moby-Dick remains one of those seminal books which had an influence over many generations, and in many fields. In its pages we can see Lovecraft and Stephen King’s themes of monstrosity hidden beneath a banal façade; it supplies a subterranean metaphor for the fight against overwhelming, faceless odds, for American dreams of exceptionalism, the monomania of political and financial overlords who care little for the lives they impact; Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella did paintings referencing the novel; and there are tons of movies that take the unstoppable leviathan as their motif (like the Terminator). And of course, how could I not comment on “Star Trek II” with a deliciously over the top Ricardo Montalban quoting Ahab at every turn (as did Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory” when he quoted the quote, so to speak).

In fine, Moby Dick is rightfully regarded as a classic, and will remain there for as long as people puzzle over the meaning of life. The novel is an ocean of metaphor and allusion from which we can take any perspective we wish, interpret it how we feel, and still not come up with a definitive answer to anything. A tough read it may be, and a coherent narrative it is not. But for those who take the time to pass through its pages, it can be a literary treasure that rewards the effort taken to complete.

Asterix & Obelix

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Oct 022015
 

asterix

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I challenge anyone to read the adventures of the two indomitable Gauls, Asterix and Obelix, and not bust out into a belly laugh at least once. Much like Herge’s Tintin, there’s a peculiar flavour to these illustrated graphic novels (for this is indeed what they are – it would be incorrect to deem them mere “comics”) which American illustrators of humour have, for the most part, lost or abandoned – the ability to write and draw a story that is more than just a four strip daily funny, and make it long, absorbing, hilarious and riveting, stocked with a pantheon of characters that not only act funny, talk funny, but are named funny.

As with Tintin, there are many favourites of the series, held by many people – I’ve always preferred the first ten or so myself, and for the purposes of this essay, I don’t think I’ll touch on any in  particular, though Asterix in Britain is a perennial goodie and I always enjoyed Asterix and the Goths, Asterix in Switzerland, Asterix and the Great Crossing, Asterix the Gladiator and Asterix at the Olympic Games.

A short review of the situation is as follows.  It is 50BC.  Ceasar has conquered Gaul.  All?  No…one small village of (you got it) indomitable Gauls holds out against the roman legions by virtue of their druid’s ability to brew a potion that grants them superhuman strength.  So the Romans surround the village with four fortified camps named (and here we start with the naming) Torturum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.  There are various Romans throughout the series with awesome names like Chrismus Bonus, Marcus Ginantonicus, Gluteus Maximus, Arteriosclerosis, Gastroenteritus…I could go on but you get the picture.

The Gauls in this village all have names ending in “-ix” (a nod to Vercingetorix, a real Gaulish chieftain who surrendered to Caesar), and are a smorgasbord of rib ticklers: Vitalstatistix, the chief; Fulliautomatix the blacksmith (son of Semiautomatix); Geriatrix, the oldest guy in the village who somewhat improbably has a young and lusciously drawn, never-named wife; Unhygienix the fishmonger (son of Unhealthix) with a wife named Bacteria…and of course the titular hero Asterix, Getafix the druid and Dogmatix, the tree-loving little dog Asterix’s best friend Obelix loves.

These laughing, fighting Frenchmen go on to have some of the most unusual adventures in comic books, and in the ancient world – they go (variously) to Switzerland, Britain, America, Spain, Germany, Corsica, Paris, Rome, the Olympic Games, Egypt, even the Middle East – and in each case they meet a colourful cast of supporting characters who are uniquely drawn and have quirky characteristics of their own that reflect something of their national cliches.  Take, for example the Brits and their stiff upper lip and love for having a cuppa in the middle of a battle; the Egyptians and their predilection for obscure (and ginormous) architectural monuments.  I’ll grant you that stereotyping is rife throughout the series – but I see it more as a gentle nudge and wink from the authors than anything malicious or demeaning.

Part of what gives these adventures their charm is the ongoing gags throughout the various iterations: Obelix’s continual efforts to be allowed to drink some magic potion (since he fell into the cauldron as a baby he is permanently super-strong and Getafix won’t allow him to have any more); the inevitable thrashing, bashing or stringing-up which Cacofonix the bard gets any time he wants to sing; the rivalry between Unhygienix and Fulliautomatix; Obelix’s love of collecting legionary helmets (with or without Romans still attached) and eating boars; the pirates on the high seas whose father-son team (never named) have these hilarious conversations (the crippled son always speaks in pig latin), occasionally interspersed with gloomy commentary from the black lookout in the crow’s nest who keeps getting a “sinking feeling.”

Whether you accept and love the series depends on your sense of humour, I think, and whether you feel comics or colourful graphic novels of this kind are a suitable vehicle for slapstick and gags and puns and laughs. My recommendation would be to get them, and keep them and reread them every so often, and share generously. For my money, they are among the funniest, best examples of comic book humour ever drawn, and every time I read one, I feel myself shedding a few years, and becoming a kid again, and laughing just as hard as the first time.

 

The Short Stories of Ray Bradbury

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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.

Conan the Warrior

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Apr 012013
 

“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 and penny dreadfuls of the disreputable past, 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 Nietzschean 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.

4 Early Novels by Dick Francis

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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.

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“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).

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“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.

Watership Down

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Mar 312013
 

It’s a curiosity of Watership Down that everyone who has ever read it (at least, those I have met) seems to believe it is a discovery all his or her own. People get this look in their eye when the book comes up: it’s like they are welcoming you into a secret brotherhood or something.  There are a few books like that: they’ve dropped out of sight and memory, but their adherents revere them and reread them, constantly.

Watership Down was published in the UK 1972 and has much faded from public view, I think, though Stephen King has mentioned it more than once in his novels.  Like Rowling and Tolkien, two other British writers who had a good grounding in classical literature and who were inspired by tales they told their children, Richard Adams based it on stories he related to his daughters, and thirteen publishers rejected it before it was finally picked up by a small house too poor to even pay him an advance.

Plot wise, this one is at heart deceptively simple: a young and undersized rabbit called Fiver foresees the destruction of the Sandleford warren, and he and his brother Hazel, together with several other rabbits, against the Chief Rabbit’s orders, escape to find another home, safe from The Thousand (as their manifold enemies are called). The first third of the book chronicles their journey to Watership Down, and then the second describes their search for food sources and mates to establish their colony as viable…and how they run into Efrafa. The third describes the infiltration of, and war with, that warren

Given its length (500 pages of dense, closely-set typeset) and subject matter (rabbits), it’s not surprising how little appreciated Watership Down is, these days: but let me dispel any doubts right here: it is a cracking read, a wonderful, magical tale, a thoughtful meditation on character and society, and a rip-roaring adventure story…one of those books that cannot be clearly defined in any particular genre: it is in turns heroic fantasy, naturalist, religious, adventure, mythological, odyssey and Greek tragedy.

It explores themes of exile, survival, heroism, community and political life. It mixes elements of social commentary with models of social systems themselves, from the tightly run but slipping Sandleford warren, to the shudderingly creepy home of Silver and his fat poets, to the casual life of Watership Down, and the brilliantly depicted dictatorship of Efrafa under General Woundwort.

Like many great novels, Watership Down takes us out of our world, and locates us somewhere new, yet tantalizingly familiar (another facet it shares with Middle Earth, or Hogwarts): in this case into the lives of rabbits. Richard Adams researched rabbit life deeply, but the strength of his creation is revealed in the way they speak, in the way they see humans, in the rabbit mythology and customs and all the practices of daily life: feeding, breeding, elimination, foraging. These rabbits have a vocabulary all their own (“owsla”, or police/army rabbits; “hruhdudu” – tractor; The Thousand; and so on).  They have a body of myth and legend, a legendary hero (El Ahrairah, the trickster) hearkening to man’s earliest tales, and more, all the dissensions, problems and arguments of humans, as projected through the lens of lapine life.

The language should also come in for comment; for while the book starts slowly, and the journey to Watership Down takes its time, I challenge any reader not to squirm at the craziness of Silver’s warren, and their odes to the shining wire; not to hold their breath when Bigwig enters Efrafa (the tension in that section is well nigh unbearable); and not to feel their blood pounding in the Last Battle.  Just listen to this: “Word went out that the…feared owsla had been cut to pieces on Watership Down…and then the Thousand closed in.” And the epilogue, where Hazel dies, is nothing short of masterful.

It is my feeling that Watership Down could not have been published in the US (as noted above, it was barely accepted in the UK).  It is too lengthy for a children’s book, too wordy for most adults, has too many passages declaiming the idyllic countryside of England.  My own opinion is that it is one of the great novels of our time, transcending its seemingly commonplace subject matter.

Some critics over the years have found fault with certain themes of Adams’s novel.  It has been considered sexist in its depiction of bucks and does (at odds with the reality of rabbit life), and the somewhat ruthless search for mates after the victory of finding Watership Down came in for criticism; the book has been dismissed as a mere adventure story celebrating male camaraderie (Adams had been a soldier in WW2 which may have had an influence).

The thing is, the overall narrative structure and strongly written passages rise above such matters. We read too much crap in our day and age. Hardly anyone reads classical literature these days, to their detriment.  We are inundated with fingernail parings of rapturously received minimalist prose, experimental literature, Booker Prize winners that no normal person can parse without getting a headache, while truly ambitious and large-themed novels of power and scope which tap into a mythical unconscious are somehow sneered at and spat upon for not being 100% politically correct.

Here’s something that’s not short, doesn’t pander or condescend to you, and is what it is. It rewards those who finish it, and I dare say, who reread it. It’s a plump, well-boned, meaty tale of great passion, and when you’ve put this one down, you know, without a doubt, that you’ve really read a novel.

Arabian Sands

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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.

Chariots of the Gods

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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.

Europe: A History

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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.

The Coming Plague

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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.

Masters of Doom

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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.

Diplomacy

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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.

The Great War for Civilization

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Mar 202013
 

 

What an enormous, sprawling, wide-ranging, dense, tragic, magisterial narrative has Robert Fisk spun out of his journalistic experiences. I have read Edward Said’s works on the Middle East, Huntigndon’s “Clash of Civilizations,” and passed through many histories of that troubled part of the world, but it is my considered opinion that this outcome of thirty years’ reporting there is in a class by itself. Personal, compelling, well-researched and passionately written, it is on a par with “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” for unbridled emotional and intellectual impact.

Fisk’s writing is a tour of the modern history of the middle east (although he digresses to other points from time to time). He writes about his interviews with Osama bin Laden, the Armenian genocide (it was the Congressional recognition of this in 2010 that made me go back to the book), the Algerian civil war, and 20th century histories of Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  Through it all you get the sense of his outrage at how, as the British Empire waned and shrank and the American one rose, whole populations were manipulated, used, killed and moved as pawns across a strategic board, with fear and hysteria as coercive weapons. Nowhere is this more clear than in the account of the Iraqi invasion and how, by deliberately manipulated intelligence and populations whipped into war frenzies of hatred and revenge, the Western Powers commandeered the oil in Iraq, and labelled anyone who disagreed as being on the side of the “terrorists.”

This brief account of the book does little justice to the sweeping arc of Fisk’s accounts of the Middle East.  Yes it’s a weighty read, and yes, it’s long – a book covering this much history can hardly be anything else.  But his personalized writing style and in-place observations of the events that shaped the region for over a century are a valuable counterpoint to the drier historical tomes written by more erudite historians, and there’s no denying is research, or his passion for the innocent dead.   Indeed, it is these accounts that inflate the book (a fact bemoaned by many). Fisks acts as a speaker for the dead, presuming to ask why.  And if he writes stridently and with too many words, I can only recall the Emperor’s whine to Mozart about too many notes. And Mozart’s reply…”Which ones should I cut?”

I reiterate that if history is not your thing, this book won’t do much for you.  But as year passes year and we are no closer to a Middle East peace, and nations continue to go to war in that region, then perhaps a book like this, unashamedly partisan and mourning the waste, is in itself, perhaps, a good thing to take hold of and read through, if only just once.

The Fifties

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Mar 202013
 

The Pulitzer-prize winning author David Halberstam’s study of the 1950s remains, after three readings, one of the most enjoyable works of history I ever picked up by accident. I was in a small bookstore on Yonge Street in Toronto and needed two more books to round out the $25 I was spending. The other one has long since been relegated to a shelf somewhere, but I keep picking this one up every year or two to go through it again.

Halberstam’s central thesis is that while the sixties was a seminal decade in American life – Vietnam, the counterculture, birth control, rock and roll, peace, love and what have you, all rocked the nation – the germination for many of the events that defined that decade actually originated before that, in the immediate post-war years.  More, many smaller, less visible, but not less impactful occurrences also happened during the fifties which arguably had more far-reaching effects: Levittowns, the Cold War, discount stores, the beginning of the black migration from the south to the northern industrial centres, the origins of the Beat generation, the changes in cinema, decline in radio, advertising, research on contraception, fast food (the chapter on MacDonalds’s is brilliant)…I can go on and on.

Halberstam’s masterstroke is to make his chapters short and tightly focussed instead of droning on for hundreds of pages on grand themes that would inevitably try the patience of a scholar.  Starting with the late 1940s, he sketches the main events from a political perspective.  Truman, MacArthur, the origins of the Cold War, atomic reasearch, the return of GIs from service, the nascent middle class, are all touched on briefly.  After that he ranges more widely, and not always chronologically, because his chapters tend to focus on one thing at a time.  In a book this large – okay, okay, it’s 800 pages long — I’m amazed that it contains as much as it does in 46 succint chapters.  And if the book has a weakness, it’s that the chapters are not labelled, only numbered, so one is not sure what one is getting into until halfway through a section (this is why my edition has my chapter titles inked in – “Rosa Parks and the advent of Civil Rights”, or “the 1952 Presidentials” and “The emerging impact of TV”…and we won’t even discuss the highlighting that is on almost every page).

David Halberstam was a journalist and author who cut his teeth reporting on the Viet Nam war, and wrote a seminal work on US hubris leading to that debacle and the subsequent influence of those policies and decisions called “The Best and the Brightest,”  which I also recommend highly. He first came to my attention when I read his book “War in a Time of Peace” which discussed the low intensity conflicts that raged following the end of the cold war and how the US dealt with them…in particular, Haiti, the Balkans and Somalia. He was a Pulitzer prize winner and loved baseball and sports, about which he also wrote several highly regarded books.

This glowingly positive review is probably not going to change anyone’s mind.  If you’re not into history or current affairs, well, then I doubt I can convince you to pick up a tome this large in between all your other concerns.  I myself usually take about a month to go through it.  But if you are at all interested in the history of the 20th century and the forces that shaped American society and culture – and by diffusion, that of much of the western world – then this book is well written, informative and one of the best of its kind.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Mar 202013
 

The Flood Tablet

Then came the flood, sent by gods’ intent…
And Ea [gave] this advice to me:
“Arise and hear my words:
Abandon your home and build a boat
Choose to live and choose to love…
Be moderate as you flee for survival
In a boat that has no place for riches
Take the seed of all you need aboard…”

Tablet XI, Column i, The Epic of Gilgamesh

Aside from historical and biblical scholars, not many people know about The Epic of Gilgamesh, though my research suggests that the character seems to be somewhat of a subterrannean cultural icon and is referenced quite often in the arts; those that do know the epic, came to it not as a classic in its own right but because they heard or read that it provided one of the first independent written records of The Flood (a fact not as startling as it may seem, since many creation myths from around the world have a destruction of man by gods in a titanic cataclysm as one the central theses).

But like Moll Flandersthe RamayanaHuck Finn or The Tale of Genji, it shares a unique genealogy: it is among the first of its kind, if not the first.  It may be the oldest tale ever written, and the earliest work of literature known to man.

The Epic is a Mesopotamian myth; it is a series of short episodic poems from the proto-kingdom of Sumer, which flourished around four thousand years ago (divorce and property rights were developed here, for the trivia nuts reading this). It describes the adventures of the King of Uruk, and his best friend Enkidu (in this it parallels the Kyrgyz hero-myth of Manas and his best friend Almanbet, though the legends are not strictly comparable), and is inscribed on twelve stone tablets found at the city of Nineveh, once part of Babylon, in 1849.  Various interpretations suggest that the oldest part of the tale is from Sumer itself, but later Akkaddian additions created the famous 12 cuneiform tablets which form the basis of most modern translations.

In the first part of the Epic, Gilgamesh is a king, two thirds god, one third man, who oppresses the citizens of Uruk by – among other things – indulging himself in the droit de siegneur (the “prima nocte” made famous by Braveheart).  They cry out to the gods, whose create a primitive man of the same power as Gilgamesh; he is Enkidu, covered in hair and living in the wild, until found; seduction by a temple prostitute is the first step in his civilization (an interesting twist on Rousseau’s thesis that it is civilization that corrupts the Eden-like state of primitive man).  He goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh and after a titanic battle, they become friends

The next tablets tell the various adventures the two friends have: the slaying of the demi-god Humbaba; the encounter with the goddess Ishtar after returning to Uruk, and Gilgamesh’s refusal of her advances (Ishtar is part of the the prototypical triumvirate of elder gods, corresponding to the Sumerian Innana, Egyptian Isis, semitic Astarte…and the (downgraded) greek and roman goddess of love); her petulant plea to her father Anu to avenge her humilation by sending the Bull of Heaven to wreak destruction on Uruk.  The heroes slay the bull, but the gods decide one must die for this affront to heaven, and after a short illness interspersed with many vividly recounted dreams, Enkidu dies.  Mad with grief, Gilgamesh seeks to find a legendary man called Utnapishtim who may be able to to provide him with the secret of immortality and of regenerating life…since he has been alive since the Great Flood.

And here we come to it.  Try and imagine the impact such a statement on a four thousand year old tablet must have made on a mostly secular but still religious culture which had not yet been exposed to Darwin. The description Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh corresponds very closely with the Flood Myth of the bible (and with many other myths in world culture, but I won’t go into that here), most particularly how one family was given advance warning to build a boat to ride out the flood, and then, after the waters began receding, released a bird to see whether it returned.

In the event, Utnapishtim instructed Gilgamesh how to find the sacred flower that provides immortality, but after Gilamesh discovers and picks it, the bloom is stolen while he bathes by….what else?  A serpent. (I just love this stuff…even a modern novelist can hardly better this one)

Gilgamesh is one of those stories at the root of our memories and culture, so basic that we can’t see its murky outlines underneath our common notions of storytelling.  Much like Robert Johnson’s primitive licks which whisper from under the bedrock of current rock music, Gilgamesh is one of the prototypical tales without which none of the others can be properly understood.  He is the first Nietzschean superman, the most basic wandering hero like Rama, Hercules, Manas or Conan.  He calls to our unconscious mental picture of a Jungian first man with correspondences in Aboriginal, Lakota, semitic, Hindu, Greek, Inca, Polynesian and shinto mythology. He is the first recorded attempt in world letters to nail down the concept in a permanent form. The epic dealt with sex, religion and flawed beings in a realistic way not found again for literally millenia, questioned dogma and the gods themselves, and told a coherent story that actually had a point (though scholars feel it is still incomplete and not all tablets have been recovered)

And for a legend this old and this dusty, it’s actually still referenced a lot in modern art and historical forms.  Consider: Atlantis theorists refer to the Epic constantly as a secondary source for the Flood Myth they claim underlay the sinking of that fabled isle; Phillip Roth wrote a novel abut a baseball player Gil Gamesh, whose story arc followed the epic; it has been translated into Klingon for Star Trek fans (along with Hamlet) and been the focus of at least one episode in The Next Generation; at least three operas of that name have been written in the latter half of the 20th century; perhaps due to its oral backgrund, a variation of the legend has often been performed in theatre; and Japanese anime references it in Sword of Uruk and in Gurren Lagan (there’s this mecha called Enkidu…); even Hercules: The Legendary journeys, an American TV series, had Gilgamesh make an appearance. Think this is all?  In the Final Fantasy video games, there is usually a boss called Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu; in Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance, there’s a Viraxo ship named Enkidu; in Civilization IV Beyond the Sword expansion pack, the leader of the Sumerian civ is called Gilgamesh.

Joseph Campbell’s powerful work The Hero With A Thousand Faces (which helped George Lucas fashion Star Wars, by the way) probably comes closest to allowing us to understand the peculiar longevity of a character in myth mostly forgotten and rarely read. The Hero on a Quest holds a fascination for us all because it is embdedded in our subconscious, part of our race memories of a wandering past.  We seek the unattainable both within and without our physical selves, seek a state of grace and strength over and beyond the mundane lives we live. Gilgamesh, strong, kingly, flawed, who lost his best friend and gained knowledge if not enlightment, speaks to that part of us that rises above the petty considerations of our world and searches for a more sublime state of mind.

Shogun

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Mar 202013
 

Book Review: Shogun – James Clavell

James Clavell was the real thing.  A prisoner of war in Changi (source of the inspiration of his first novel, King Rat) he somehow managed to rise above his experiences in war to write perhaps the definitive fictional account of pre-Tokugawa Japan in Shogun. Sure Christopher Nicole wrote a truer account in his novel Lord of the Golden Fan, but it lacked the snap and punch of Clavell’s creation, lacked the in-depth research, the feeling, the entire mentality of Japan. Let me put it this way: at the end of Shogun, you spoke some Japanese and had more than an inkling into the entire mindset of the culture.  Few novels I’ve ever read have such a sense of verisimilitude, or drew you so deep into the complex inner life of an entire people.

The story follows Jonathan Blackthorne, ship’s navigator, who is blown by a storm into a bay in the Japanese islands in the late 16th century.  The story follows him through his initial hostile reception by the local daimyo (feudal lord) and Portuguese priests, through to his secondment to the entourage of the daimyo Toranaga and his gradual assimilation into Japanese ways of life. And what an assimilation it is, because Clavell contrasts the western mind with that of the Japanese, makes us understand the utter foreignness of one to the other, the politics, obligations, dietary practices, and in Blackthorne’s learning, we learn alongside him.

Alongside this is a primer on history and politics of pre-Edo Japan. For those who know nothing of this, there was a period of many years where various powerful families and clans and feudal lords battled for overall supremacy in Japan (the late Warring period); in  the late 16th century one general managed to unite most of the four main  islands but could not take the title of shogun (regent for the emperor) because of his common birth: after a rash invasion of Korea and China, he died, and one of his regents finally took power and stabilized the empire for over two hundred years until Commodore Perry forced the islands open in the 19th century.  Shogun tells the tale of this interregnum and the steps leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600 (with foreshadowing of the taking of Osaka castle later…but I digress).

I know this sounds somewhat dry, but trust me, it is anything but. Strategy, tactics, political maneuvering, great battles, treachery most foul, love all tender, ninjas, samurai, madams, sex, violence, swords, guns, power and command, all wrapped up in a long, delicious serving of a novel that isn’t afraid to go where the story leads, without compromise. And in all that we meet characters not soon forgotten: Blackthorne, Toranaga, Mariko, Tsukku-san, Ishido…the list is long and distinguished.

This is the novel that introduced Japan to the average western reader. From battle ethics and seppukku to hygiene, diet and cha-no-yu, the interwoven narrative lines flow harmonically, like fish in a Zen rock garden pool. Beautiful, economical and seamless, Clavell’s insights on human nature have produced a masterwork of historical fiction, not to be missed by any.

And if that isn’t enough for you, well, there are always those ninjas.

NB The full TV miniseries is faithful to the book and is not a television event to be missed if you can get the entire thing.

On The Road

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Mar 202013
 

On the Road was the shot across the bow of an older generation, and heralded a new direction in American letters. Jack Kerouac pioneered the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative style and dream worlds made flesh, flashbacks, flashforwards, plot departures and side trips, meandering soliloquies and sounded the first thrum of the counterculture. It is the Star Trek of the hippie sixties, presaging much of what came later, its uniqueness seen mostly in retrospect

At all times biographical, On the Road is a journey into the mental state and physical surroundings of Sal and his friends, who disdain the middle class existence they have (and about which not much is ever said) and who dare to do more than dream, by heading out on the great freeways and highways of America to discover themselves and sample what there is of life.

In form, On the Road is spare on plot (if one can even said to exist) and long on character. The various individuals who populate Sal’s life and travels are carefully drawn and in the structure of the observations about them – the novel is written in the first person – the only nod to development can be seem…that of Sal and how is growing maturity over a period of years leads to his gradual mental adulthood. Beyond that it’s just a series of vignettes about places visited, people met, things experienced, sights seen.

On the Road is a paean to the great new adventure of America – travel on the highways. The post war generation had no ‘good’ war to fight, no new territories to explore or conquer…what they had was a large sprawling land loosely connected by roads, and Kerouac himself travelled extensively on them (in a way he was like Steinbek), and the experiences he had germinated for years until he put it all down.

What sets On the Road apart is the narrative style. As Bob remarked in our discussion – “Where’s the damned plot?” It has none. Kerouac reputedly wrote the whole novel in three weeks fueled on coffee, and he typed where his thinking led him.  Like Catcher he talked frankly – if amorally, distantly – about sex, about drugs, about the lure of the road to the detriment of personal relationships, about women, homosexuality, music (jazz), and anything else that occurred to him as he was putting it all down. This leads to a casual style of writing which almost lets one see what Kerouac is seeing, and offended the purists of the day who labelled it lazy and anti-intellectual.

For the many others who read it – and that seems to have been a great part of the youth of America at one point or another, another similarity it has with Catcher – it was a book that resonated, captured their unease about their lives, its pointlessness now that their surroundings were safe and perhaps even affluent; it encapsulated their idealism about getting away from The System and life spent working for The Man, and living a purer, more innocent life where the rat race had no place.  It wrote about people not often written about, the Common Man (much like Peyton Place did). It was a major part of the works of the Beat poets (Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac himself) who were the source of the whole Beat generation of the fifties, which developed into the hippie counterculture of the sixties, what with its characteristics of drug use, easy love, eastern religious sensibilities, and the desire to experience life in all its facets, with all its immediacy.

Seen now, at a remove of over half a century, it’s difficult to clearly grasp the world into which it detonated with such force. Race relations had not yet burst into the great movements of the sixties; it was still deemed safe to hitchhike and travel the highways alone; vast tracts of the continent were still  isolated from each other and a large part of the population remained rural, clinging to a more sedate, conservative lifestyle, ignoring the great social changes brewing underneath the deceptively calm exterior and behind the white picket fences. Drugs, sex (even less the seedier aspects of it), violence were seen as distant and never, ever written about.

Kerouac and the Beats changed all that. We live in the inner world they helped make. Cable, always-on computers, porn freely available, TV shows with graphic violence, sex and drug use, the infantilizing and numbing effects of popular culture (“pro” wrestling and reality shows are prime examples of this craziness), the baser side of man’s nature always on display, books written using any kind of language, on any kind of subject — the mental world which surrounds us, and the ability to write and watch and create fiction of this kind, of anything we please or can imagine, can all be traced to those crazies in the post war years who risked obscenity trials, jail time and contempt to realize an inner vision that proved to be more durable, and more freeing, than that of all those member of the Thought Police who sought to stop up the bottle and stuff the genie of free expression back in.

I may not like the writing style – I marked On the Road down savagely – but there’s no question in my mind of the debt modern society owes to the Beat poets like Kerouac and his generation.  Every time I use an obscenity in my own writing, or discuss sex frankly, it is to some extent  the Beats that I owe my right to do so. They fought the battles we don’t have to, and we eat the apples of the tree they helped water.*

For a discussion of the Beats and their effects, Halberstam’s The Fifties is a good reference, as, of course, is Wikipedia.

Wizard’s First Rule

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Mar 202013
 

A young woodsman called Richard Cypher (hint hint) is out in the woods, pondering the murder of his father, when he sees a beautiful woman (is there any other kind?) being stalked by four men. He intervenes, and rescues her from death. From this rather quick beginning, Terry Goodkind has spun the tale of “Wizard’s First Rule.” “When writing a short story,” Chekhov supposedly said, “Finish it, then chop the first three paragraphs.” We get dropped into the action so rapidly in “Wizard’s First Rule”, that one suspects Goodkind may have known the quote.

WFR (I’m a little too lazy to be typing the whole thing every time I refer to it), is, at first blush, a groaning retelling of Tolkien.  When you think about it, it has all the trappings: innocent youth going on quest to save world – a sylvan northern place, of course – from evil bad guy, aided by friends and (of course), old wizard.  It’s a bildungsroman from start to finish – though finish may be the wrong word, since this book is the first one of eleven equally weighty tomes. Why me God?, I groaned as I saw the stat: can these things not be afflicted with the Multiplicate Virus?  Was I gonna have to plow through millions of words in order to grasp what amounts to an introduction?

And Terry Goodkind, who published this work in 1997, doesn’t make the going easy either.  After a that rather lurching beginning that drops us so disconcertingly into the main events, he tediously sets up character and world and scene in what consists of half of a 900 page novel.  It’s like the journey to Rivendell took twice as long. He mixes elements of Middle Earth, the Quest, the numinous object and modern pop culture in a medieval setting in often intriguing ways. It’s quite a read.

This version of Middle Earth is a land divided into three spheres: Westland, without magic, Midland with it, and the more easterly realm of D’Hara, also with magic. The three lands are separated by a now-failing boundary which once prevented passage between them, set there by wizards long ago, but still within memory of the living. The ruler of D’Hara, an evil emperor (aren’t they all?) called Darth Vader – sorry, Darken Rahl –  is taking over Midland and possesses magic greater than even that wielded by the great wizards of old.  In a nutshell, it becomes Richard’s task to stop him, since Darken Rahl is bent not only on world domination, but actual world destruction.  One wonders what he’ll do with the wasteland he ends up with.

WFR is a self-contained story – much to my relief – and to some extent suffers from what I term “First Novel Syndrome” – which is that suspicious effluvium one finds in some first novels: occasional loose plotting, language that doesn’t ring true, motivations and interactions and events that occur just a little too conveniently. In this instance, these matters exist and can be spotted – the sudden appearance of Scarlet is a particularly egregious (and irritating)  example of the phenomenon in action – but are fortunately not always that obvious.  It’s sad that a novel this ambitious and this taut needs to resort to clumsy plot devices to get our boy out of a corner Goodkind has written him into.

I can go on about the world Goodkind has created, the characters he populated it with, and the backstory and history with which he fleshes things out, even the long narrative and intricate plot: but that would be pointless. In a series of this kind the crucial questions are always the same: is the world a unique one, populating our mental landscape with new images and distinctive characters? and are the old legends of our time woven in new and spellbinding ways?

And so I must be honest: once one gets past the issues I mention, slogs on past the halfway point when all is made clear (more or less), when one finally has a good grasp of the issues, the history and the culture of the world…then things really do take off.  And better yet, Goodkind clearly had his multiplicated stretch-limo of a series in mind from the beginning, since it is obvious he is setting things up for future novels (full disclosure: in researching WFR, I peeked at summaries of what comes later), and that gives this book a solid historical and cultural grounding and a richness and depth not always found in fantasy wannabees and pretenders to Tolkien’s throne. Stilted and choppy dialogue aside – too many conversations take place simply to inform the reader – the core relationships between Richard, Zed and Kahlan are solid (if straightforward), and required. And I have to admit: Goodkind enjoys springing surprises on us, he changes direction on a dime, and yet his plot makes good use of all previously supplied information – he does not cheat.

The fantasy books that stick with us are those that have a strong storyline, do not bore and have both environments and characters we care about. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the worlds of Fionavar, Middle Earth, Earthsea, Discworld and Donaldson’s Land are all places that have colonized our imaginations and enriched our reading with their magic and heroic tales. Now here is the world of WFR – imperfect, intriguing, interesting and powerful. Not all will be enthused by having to read eleven books, and like Jordan’s epos The Wheel of Time, it may fail at the back stretch: but with this one work, Goodkind has created an entry that, if it avoids the pitfalls all too common inn the genre, may rise to share a table with the best of them.

I’d say that for a book I started out disliking, that’s no faint praise.

The Catcher In The Rye

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Mar 202013
 

“Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, seems to be one of those books one either loves or hates.  Ostensibly the sory of one bored, directionless rich kid’s sojourn in New York, this short novel presaged the counterculture of the 1960s by over a decade, and arguably fired the imagination of an entire generation of post-war Americans like no other novel since. The reclusiveness of the author, and its being found in the effects of two high-profile American assassins, have merely raised public awareness of the book and enhanced the reputation surrounding it. People either despise its antihero or praise its carefully observed portrait of youthful alienation. Whatever your opinion, once you’ve read it, you always *have* an opinion.

***

The first-person narrative of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of “Catcher” begins as he is expelled from Pencey Prep, a fictional preparatory school not unlike the one Salinger himself attended in his youth. He ignores the paternal advice of one of his teachers, gets into a fight with his roommate and departs for New York in the middle of the night.  Not wanting to return to his own family he books himself into a cheap hotel, and has varying encounters with three tourists, a prostitute (and her pimp) and generally wanders around for the next few days in a fog of loneliness, self-pity and a drunken haze. He sneaks into his parents’ apartment while they are away, in order to see his little sister Phoebe, for whom he has an idealized affection not unlike that of Travis Bickle for Iris, or Jake la Motta for Vickie (though she seems to have a similarly naive view of him at times). A key sequence takes place when Holden tells her about a fantasy he has in which he saves children running through a rye field — hence the title of the novel — which points up his immaturity and childish view of the world.

After leaving Phoebe, Holden visits a much-admired former teacher of his, Mr. Antolini. Mr. Antolini is another central figure in Holden’s journey, the one who dispels his grandiose fantasies by observing that it is the stronger man who lives humbly, rather than dies nobly, for a cause. This rebukes Holden’s ideas of becoming a godlike figure who symbolically saves children from “falling off a crazy cliff” and being exposed to the evils of adulthood. Holden’s subsequent response to Antolini’s apparent homosexual (“flitty”)advances sunders this relationship also, but it is unclear whether this has in fact occurred the way Holden tells it, and he himself wonders – in the first sign of growing mental maturity – whether his assessment was correct.

In the closing act, Holden decides to move out west, with about as much forethought and consideration as all his other actions, and at first decides to take Phoebe, then changes his mind, taking her to the zoo instead.  And while he makes up his mind to go home and “face the music” (whatever that may be in his context), it is unclear what he actually does, since it appears he closes his narration while staying in a mental asylum (or having just emerged from one) and then planning to re-ener school in the fall.

***

Many forests have been cut down to provide paper for the reams of analysis springing from critics’ pens on this novel. Is it as great or as influential as people say it is?  Like all art in literature, it boils down to a matter of opinion.  What seems clear is that it is one of the best-known, most-referenced, most-quoted books on alienation, childhood’s end, and teenage angst ever written. It was a shot across the bows of the staid early 1950s establishment that lived in a simpler, less complex mental environment where America had not yet taken the cutural centre stage of the world. It was heralded and decried in equal measure, villified often and banned frequently. Its narrative style, profanity and frank discussion of themes like religion, drugs and sexuality — which were still ruled by a more prudish morality in public discourse — ensured its immediate fame (and notoriety), and that of its author.

Salinger found his own, unique voice and went on to inspire a different school of American fiction. He reintroduced an emotional range and unsentimental candour to American writing which had all but disappeared with the terse masculinity of Hemingway’s spare prose. To this day, most American writers find their voices through an apprenticeship to one style or the other. Decades of close reading and analysis in classrooms have placed Salinger’s fiction on the same footing in the American literary canon as The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn. So although he never published a second novel his work exerted an enduring, and wide-ranging influence over the style and content of modern American fiction.”Huckleberry Finn” had a similar impact on the readers of its time, and indeed, the two novels share many thematic elements.

The consensus of Liquoratures’ members is that while we admired the prescience of the author in addressing the aforementioned modern themes, and while we were intrigued by Holden’s progress throughout the book, we despised Caulfield himself: his constant whining, his judgemental behavior, his lack of vision and self-criticism, his uninformed narcissism and baseless opinions on everything. My 17-year old daughter read the book within a week of the Club, and interestingly, came to exactly the same conclusion. The irony of all this is that we decry Holden’s opinions and judging of others, while in order to do so, we do exactly what he did (though hopefully with more knowledge and critical thinking).

Two pieces of insight which came from our discussion are worth mentioning here.

One, we thought that for people possessing a certain mental maturity, achievers who are reasonably confident in who they are, probably don’t hold with Caulfield’s judgements and dislike him. But for the lost, the disconnected, the visionless and pathless, for those who lack a direction in their life – mostly the young, I suspect – “Catcher” would probably hold real meaning.

And two, how far is it to go from making snap judgements and formless, baseless assumptions about people one barely knows (and these judgements are almost always negative, it is interesting and sad to note), how difficult is it to move from saying “This person has an aspect I do not like” to saying “We must do something about him”?

That second point, encapsulating something of the intolerance of our times and the dreadful repercussions of people who take that step, perhaps hints at the enduring appeal of “Catcher in the Rye” and its buried power, which is still there, not dead, awaiting a call.

The Namesake

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Mar 202013
 

The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake is a family drama that illuminates the author’s signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations. The novel takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays their hope of respecting old ways in a new world. And we watch as Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With empathy and insight, Lahiri explores the expectations bestowed on us by our parents and the means by which we come to define who we are.

What has made this book stand out is the quality of the writing (Lahiri won a Pulitzer for her previous book of short stories “The Interpreter of Maladies”), quite unlike most plot driven books we have read.  There is a certain voluptuousness to the prose, something about its elliptical style, that draws you into the mental world of each of the characters; and the evocative descriptions of everyday life, the small details of what it is like to see the western world through eastern eyes, resonates deeply.

To some extent, as an outsider to many cultures, I appreciate this level of storytelling — but on a reread, I found that what moved and interested me most was actually the interplay of relationships between generations, between father and son, child and parent (and indeed it is on this aspect that our discussion focused most intensely). And, as something at right angles to our previous reading, it proved a welcome challenge and stimulating topic by virtue of its difference and change of direction.