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Sunday, May 29, 2016

What I'm reading (#12)

"I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."

So says Casaubon, the main character in Umberto Eco's tour de force novel Foucault's Pendulum.  It's a book I keep coming back to.  I've lost count of the number of times I've read it.  It's like watching one of those ball-and-track machines that you see at science centers -- you keep looking, trying to figure out how the intricate machinery fits together, how all of those gears and springs and pivots interlock to keep the balls rolling, but there's still something about it that looks like magic.  It's a trompe l'oeil for the intellect.


The story revolves around three cynical and skeptical book editors who work for Garamond Press, a publishing company that specializes in books about the paranormal.  Garamond caters to authors who write about such things as mysticism, astrology, divination, black magic, and the esoteric knowledge of such groups as the Templars and Rosicrucians.  The three editors don't believe in any of it; the books are a source of amusement to them, especially given that Garamond borders on being a vanity press, where the authors themselves are paying to see their work in print.

Then one of them comes up with a neat idea.  Over the years of reading reams of this stuff, they've gotten to know all of the tropes, all of the history, all of the lingo.  Why pay others to write books when they could skip the middleman and write one themselves?  Out woo the woo-woos, so to speak.  So they put their heads together and come up with a doozy of a plot -- that the Templars were executed by Philip the Fair of Burgundy not because they were heretics, but because they'd discovered the secret to an incredible source of magical power, and he wanted access.  After Philip broke up the Templars and burned Jacques de Molay and the other Templar leaders at the stake for refusing to reveal the secret, the knowledge went underground, and was passed word-of-mouth down to the present day.

And our three heroes have discovered it, and know how to access its phenomenal power.

Of course, they don't reveal the secret itself.  First, the whole idea is made up from beginning to end.  Second, they want to set themselves up for a sequel, if the endeavor turns out to be lucrative.  And the woo-woos themselves buy it -- not only literally, but figuratively.  They swallow the lie whole.  But it backfires when some of the head mystics kidnap one of the editors, and threaten to murder him if he won't reveal the secret of the Templars.

Which doesn't exist, remember?  But of course, the more he protests that there is no secret, the more convinced his captors are that he and his compatriots are hiding something, something huge.

That, of course, is only the beginning of the story.  How it plays out, how the gears interlock and turn and propel the characters through the novel, is something that has to be experienced first hand.  It's a brilliant inquiry into how we think, why we believe what we believe, and what motivates the human mind.  

And, if you're like me, it's a tale you'll come back to over and over again.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

What I'm reading (#11)

But first, a more-or-less relevant autobiographical vignette.

I used to love to run.  It was one of my best stress relievers, cleared my head when I was feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and kept me reasonably fit.  Then about ten years ago, I started getting serious joint pain.  I was getting "hotspots" -- redness and inflammation in particular joints that would last for a few weeks and then vanish, only to reappear elsewhere.  I was certain I was developing rheumatoid arthritis, a devastating disease that both my mother and my Great-Aunt Marie suffered from.  And for someone who was not only a runner, but a writer and a musician, looking at something that would eventually claim my mobility was downright scary.

So I went to the doctor.  I tested negative for the rheumatoid antibody.  But the literature suggested that in the first couple of years, a significant percentage of sufferers don't have appreciable levels of the antibody.  The pain continued, often causing me to walk unevenly, slowing me to a limp some days.

And (I thought) permanently ending my running career.

Fast forward to last year.  Last summer, it suddenly struck me that I hadn't had a flare-up in a while.  I started paying attention, and went through the fall and winter -- nada.  My knees, which used to ache just from too much walking, were feeling...

... fine.  Like, better than they had in years.  So this February, I started running again, tentatively at first, wondering if it was going to precipitate an attack.

Nothing.

Now, I'm no doctor, but one thing I know is that RA does not get better.  It can ease for a while, but never goes away completely.  So apparently, the antibody test was correct -- I don't have RA.  We still don't know what was causing the inflammation and pain, but whatever it was seems to be gone.

It's a mystery.  But for once, one with a happy ending.

The upshot of it all is that yesterday I ran my first semi-serious race in perhaps 35 years, the May Day 5&5.  I had three goals: (1) finish the course; (2) run the whole thing instead of taking walking breaks; and (3) don't come in last.  I'm happy to report that I met all three goals, with a 5K time of 34:25, and finished right in the middle of the pack.

The reason that all this comes up is that to celebrate my resumption of running, my friend and writing buddy Cly Boehs of the wonderful blog Mind at Play (which you should all check out) last week gave me a copy of Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  This short (180-page) and delightful little memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in the writing process, or even mildly inclined to run.  Murakami himself is a marathoner, running one marathon and one triathlon every year (a level of the sport I have no particular inclination to undertake), and what he looks at is how a dedication to the discipline of training for a sport is like what it takes to be a writer -- or, honestly, what it takes to accomplish damn near anything.


The whole thing is written in his signature whimsical, self-effacing style, often poignant, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.  It's not only a nice window into the life of one of my favorite authors (and someone whose style inspires my own approach to writing fiction); it's a look at how dogged persistence and a refusal to accept the answer of "no" from your body can propel you to reaching your goals.  It's also a gentle and wry look at how our bodies change as we age.  At 67, Murakami is twelve years older than I am, and has had to adjust what he does -- but, hearteningly, not give it up.

And above all, it's simply a fun read.  Murakami has always impressed me at his ability to express mind-bending concepts using simple language, and here he has turned his attention to the philosophy behind a sport I thought I would never participate in again.  So reading his book was doubly poignant for me.

And now, I'm off to go running.  Maybe do some writing afterwards.  The two, really, aren't that different after all.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What I'm reading (#10)

There's a logical fallacy that I call "weasel words."  It's not a fallacy, technically; more a way of insulating yourself from being called out as wrong.  All you have to do is use words like "arguably," and no one can claim you've made an error.  "Kim Kardashian is arguably the sexiest woman in the world."

What?  I said you could argue the point.  Don't yell at me.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Stacy Schiff's book Cleopatra.

I've had a fascination with Egyptian history since my teenage years, so I thought Cleopatra would be a gimme.  Add to that the fact that it's a Pulitzer Prize winner and a New York Times Book Section Book of the Year, and I thought I was going to have trouble putting it down.  Egypt + sexy femme fatale + intrigue with the Roman Empire = unbeatable, right?


Unfortunately, Schiff has to admit up front, over and over again, that the actual documents that mention Cleopatra are pretty thin.  Then what she does is takes that skimpy textual background and spins it into 400 pages by making stuff up, and starting every other sentence with "It could be that..." or "Presumably..." or "Whether or not..." or "We can guess that..."  or "Perhaps..." or "Maybe..." or her favorite, "It can only be imagined that..."

Don't believe me?  Here's an actual excerpt:
In the first place we have Caesar's resounding silence.  We leave all kinds of things out of our memoirs and Caesar (and his ghostwriter) omitted a great many, not least of all his personality.  Caesar wrote of himself with a stern, clinical detachment and in the third person; his style is so limpid and dispassionate as to appear incontestably true.  Which it may well be...  Similarly, one of the few places Cleopatra fails to make a dramatic entrance is in Caesar's Civil War, where her charms are supplanted by the seasonal winds.
Only a page later, we're told:
The queen of Egypt had every political reason to impress and please [Caesar]; personal rapport aside, there would have been a heady admixture of pride, relief, and gratitude.  And she had the resources to impress... Whether or not Caesar had considered annexing Egypt he had clearly discovered that Cleopatra was in many respects similar to her country: a shame to lose, a risk to conquer, a headache to govern.  Some courtiers had remained faithful; among Cleopatra's entourage figured several of her father's advisers.  Those who had not did their best quickly to reassess their conduct.  So presumably did the Greek aristocracy, which had presented Cleopatra with her strongest opposition...
When spring rolled around and the sea reopened, Cleopatra may have sailed home, to return to Rome later in the year.  Two consecutive visits seem more likely than a single extended one; she could hardly have justified an eighteen-month absence, no matter how confident she felt of her authority in Egypt.  That would have entailed a grueling amount of travel, though the southbound trip was a less taxing one.  Assuming she returned to Alexandria in 45, she set out in late March or early April, by which time the northeasterly squalls had abated... If Cleopatra indeed sailed home early in 45, she was again in Rome by the fall.
So the problem is, Cleopatra falls squarely between history and historical fiction, and fails at both. As history, it fails by the standard of not having adequate documentation for all of the things she claims; as historical fiction, it fails by virtue of being...

... well, boring.  How many times can we be told about how vibrant and cosmopolitan Alexandria was, how bluff and hale-fellow-well-met Mark Antony was, how alluring Cleopatra was, without saying "Okay, we get it, thanks?"  Had Schiff jumped into historical fiction with both feet, and had dialogue, action, and rich characterization, it could have been brilliant.  As it was, it felt as if she wanted to create a sense of the mesmerizing character of Cleopatra (and her paramours, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony) without having to embrace the fact that she was writing a fictionalized account based on what slim primary documents exist.

Myself, I'll take honest-to-goodness historical fiction instead -- Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Sigrid Undset's Kristen Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, Philippa Gregory's The Taming of the Queen.  You'll learn more history from those, and at the same time be far more entertained.

Arguably, I mean.  It's entirely possible that I'm wrong.  We could discuss it.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

What I'm reading (#9)

Two guys, a whole lot of dope, and a plan.

That's all that ex-cons Steve Wilson and Eddie Jones need, in Gil Miller's brilliant novel Spree.  And if you're thinking, "Wait.  Plan + dope does not usually = smart," you haven't heard the half of it.


When Eddie and Steve are released from jail, after doing time for the second strike in a three-strikes-you're-out state, they're at loose ends.  Aimless, jobless, no goals except (somehow) avoiding a third arrest that will put them away for good.  And then Eddie gets a call with some more bad news... his brother in Jersey has just been diagnosed with brain cancer, has no insurance, and needs a treatment without which he will die.

And that he can't come close to affording.

So now Eddie and Steve have a mission.  Drive from L.A. to Atlantic City, robbing a few convenience stores along the way as a sort of mercy-based involuntary fundraiser, and save Jimmy's life.

The problem is, Steve's not the sharpest tool in the drawer, and Eddie is very likely batshit insane.  And that's only for starters.

Spree is a wild, exciting, often split-your-gut-laughing-hilarious chase across the United States with two losers that you can't help wanting to win.  To give any more details would give away a plot that is so much fun to watch unfolding that you may well read the whole thing in one sitting.  So climb into a car with this latter-day weed-smoking Butch and Sundance, fasten your seatbelts, hang on, and get ready for a hell of a ride.