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Sunday, March 27, 2016

What I'm reading (#4)

I want you for a moment to look at what you're reading with different eyes.

Imagine that this text was in a language you do not speak.  You do not know what language it is encoding, nor even which direction the text is to be read -- left to right, or right to left.  And not only do you not know what the words mean, you don't know the sounds that correspond to each letter.  In fact, you don't even know if the letters do correspond to single sounds; in some languages, symbols correspond to syllables, or even entire words.

You are starting, therefore, from nothing.  All you have in front of you is a long string of geometric shapes.

Your task: translate it.

If you are sitting there thinking, "How on earth would anyone even approach this hopeless problem?", then you need to read Margalit Fox's outstanding book The Riddle of the Labyrinth.

The book tells the fascinating story of three intrepid individuals who set out to confront the herculean task of decoding a completely unknown language with an unknown script -- the Linear B writing of Crete.  It was known from a set of clay tablets recovered in the 1890s from Knossos, and had resisted all attempts to interpret it.  Some people thought (with little evidence) that it was Etruscan; others that it was some Celtic or Balkan language, or a derivative of Phoenician; some said it was an archaic form of Greek.  None of these hypotheses had much going for them, although there were linguists, archaeologists, and historians who espoused one or the other vehemently regardless, generating endless arguments in which all sides had no real claim of support.

The tale starts with Arthur Evans, the eccentric British archaeologist who recovered the tablets from Crete and brought them back to England.  He was possessive of his finds, and reluctant to let linguists study them or make copies of the text; partly because he wished to decode them himself (although he lacked the skill to do so), and partly from sheer pig-headedness.  But the other two players in the game, the sensitive,  high-strung British linguist Michael Ventris, and (most importantly) the brilliant and driven American linguist Alice Kober, eventually persuaded Evans to allow them to study the text.

And, beyond all imagination, they eventually succeeded in decoding it.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a fascinating story, the tale of three very different personalities by whose efforts we now can read a script that no one had read for three thousand years.  Fox's narrative is engaging, and she presents us with a lucid explanation both of the scope of the problem and how Kober and Ventris approached and finally cracked it.  This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in languages, ancient history, or contemporary biography.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What I'm reading (#3)

Last week I finished a book with the unlikely title of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif.  Hanif's novel follows in the fine tradition of military satire exemplified most famously by Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H, both of which simultaneously highlighted and ridiculed the military establishment, American imperialism, and the politicians that control it, while making sure not to soft-pedal the horrors of war.

Hanif's book is set in 1988, during the last days of Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan.  General Zia came to power by overthrowing President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who he had tried on trumped-up murder and conspiracy charges for which he was ultimately hanged (protesting his innocence even as the noose was put around his neck).  Because of this and other actions, Zia had his share of enemies, many among his own advisors, and in his last year he became paranoid, suspicious of everyone, and was convinced that he was destined to be assassinated.

In which, of course, he was correct.  On August 17, 1988, Zia and several of his advisors (and the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel) were killed when Zia's plane crashed in Bahawalpur shortly after takeoff, under mysterious circumstances.

But who was responsible?

In Hanif's novel, the answer is... damn near everyone.  The story revolves around a young army officer, Ali Shigri, who hates Zia more than anyone, because Zia had Shigri's father (a colonel in the army and high-level adviser) murdered, then made it look like a suicide.  Ali Shigri is determined to take his revenge, he's just waiting until the opportune moment -- which, he believes, will come when his Silent Drill Team perform in front of the General before his return to Islamabad.

The problem is, Ali is going to have to get in line behind all of the other people who want to be the first to do Zia in themselves.

Along the way, we encounter the dope-addled American army officer Corporal Bannon, Ali's perfume-scented playboy roommate Obaid, the army's conspiring and most likely insane laundry operator Uncle Starchy, a woman who is on death row for the crime of being raped, the Secretary General of the Street Sweepers' Union, and a crow who likes to eat fermented mangoes.

And it only gets weirder from then.

Hanif deftly weaves a story through (real) historical events that is by turns hilarious, appalling, exciting, and absurd.  Anyone who is a fan of military fiction, or is interested in Middle East affairs, or just likes a good read, should pick up a copy of this novel.  You'll love it -- and end by saying, "Man, the world is weird place."

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What I'm reading (#2)

It's not often that I pick up a book that is (1) highly recommended, and (2) by a Nobel Prize-winning author, and honestly dislike it.  Unfortunately, that was my reaction to Kenzaburo Oe's Death by Water.

The premise sounded intriguing; aging writer Kogito Choko has the intent to write a book telling the story of his father's death by drowning following a failed plot on the life of the Emperor of Japan, but by the terms of his mother's will has to wait ten years after her death to have access to the red leather trunk that contains his father's correspondence.  He becomes involved with a theater company that is devoted to producing Choko's works, and the "drowning novel" is anticipated with excitement as the crowning achievement of the writer's career.

The excitement, however, fizzles out when the trunk doesn't contain much of interest, and the novel flounders as well -- devolving into page after page of conversation about theater and philosophy and the arts, with very little else happening.  The overall feel is that you are in a cafĂ© overhearing a couple of full-of-themselves literary types discussing details of their studies, for hours on end.

Troubling, too, is the main character, who comes across as a narcissistic and coddled old man, overprotected by his sister Asa (who is one of the most interesting characters in the book), disliked even by his own mother.  When his wife becomes dreadfully ill, he barely gives her a second thought, passing off her care to his sister and daughter, and only goes to visit her once or twice during her convalescence.  His treatment of his disabled son is reprehensible, a theme in the story that is never explained and never resolved.  It may be that such a character plays better to a Japanese audience -- I could well be impressing my Western standards of behavior onto another culture -- but to me, it was seriously off-putting.

I'm not a reader who demands action and plenty of it; Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum is my all-time favorite book, after all.  But Oe's determination to tell, not show, just wore me down.  If you can stick it out, the last two chapters are wonderful, and cut loose from the rest of the book would have made an excellent long short story or short novella.  But the lengthy slog you have to commit yourself to in order to get there is, in my opinion, hardly worth the effort.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What I'm Reading (#1)

I'm firmly of the opinion that as a writer, you need to keep reading.  And not (tempting as it is) reading only books in your preferred genre.  There are many ways of telling a story, and if you only read the sort of thing you write, you'll never learn more about what other voices sound like.

Read non-fiction too, by the way.  I've gotten lots of ideas for stories from reading about science and history.  In fact, my two scheduled releases from Oghma Creative Media this year, Sephirot (April) and Gears (November), found their genesis in books on Jewish mystical traditions and Greek archaeology, respectively.

So I thought it might be interesting to do periodic reviews of books I'm reading.  Maybe you'll find some new writers to inspire you; maybe you'll reciprocate and send me suggestions of new things to read.

So many books, so little time.


I was wandering around in Ithaca's wonderful indy bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, killing time before a doctor's appointment, and I picked up a copy of Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time.  Intrigued by the title and the cover, I read the flyleaf, and found out that she'd taken Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale and set it in modern times.

At this point, you might be thinking, "Wait, isn't this kind of trite?  Hasn't Gregory Maguire rung the changes on this all too many times, capitalizing on his success with Wicked?"  Well, yes, but that doesn't mean that the trope can't receive a fresh lift in different hands.  (And after all, remember that long before Maguire, C. S. Lewis took a turn at this himself, with one of his least known -- but in my opinion, best -- novels, Till We Have Faces, which is a beautiful, and surprisingly poignant, retelling of the myth of Eros and Psyche.)

Winterson's story centers around the dysfunctional family of Leo, a jealous, angry hedge fund manager who is the stand-in for Shakespeare's King Leontes.  Leo imagines that his wife, Mimi, who is pregnant, has been having an affair with Leo's best friend, Xeno -- and in Winterson's story, the jealousy is directed toward both of them, because Leo himself had a sexual relationship with Xeno when they were teenagers.  In his rage at being the excluded end of the triangle, he has a catastrophic fight with his wife and best friend.  Worse, when the baby is born, he gives the infant to a friend along with $500,000, ordering her to be delivered to Xeno -- since Leo's convinced the child is actually his.

The whole thing comes unraveled when the friend is murdered before he can deliver the baby, and she is rescued by an old man (Shep) and his son (Clo), and adopted.  She's given the name Perdita, "little lost one," and grows up not knowing her real origins.  When she meets and falls in love with the gentle, hesitant Zel, and it turns out that Zel is Xeno's son, the whole story corkscrews along to a satisfying conclusion of wrongs admitted, love renewed, and friendship restored.

Winterson's handling of the story is deft, light, and touching without ever being maudlin or saccharine.  The characters are complex and have real depth, and she explores Shakespeare's themes of jealousy, fate, and loyalty all the more intensely for modern audiences by placing the story in a contemporary setting.  That said, it never loses its mythic, fairy-tale lilt, which would be all too easy considering the dark undertones of the original play.

This was my first introduction to Winterson's writing, and I'm certain to read more.  If you love Shakespeare, and enjoy a classic tale deftly told, check out The Gap of Time.