History With a Wide Lens(Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World – Justin Marozzi)

July 2, 2007 by

Popular history is a tough field. The broad target audience usually precludes meticulous, detail-oriented research and analysis. Historical fidelity forbids (or should forbid) the imagination of speculative and interesting details. Unless the author can find an untold story (the recently reviewed Salt by Mark Kurlansky) or can make a novel historical argument without alienating readers (the fascinating Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze), a work of popular history will struggle to be either enlightening or entertaining.

Justin Marozzi’s recent history of Tamerlane takes an unusual approach to the problem. His book is not so much a history of Tamerlane the man as of the idea of Tamerlane through history. Though most of the text is devoted to straight history, perhaps a third takes a broader focus. Marozzi provides a wide assortment of collateral information to contextualize his story. Accounts of the author’s expeditions to various relevant historical sites are most common, but the political exploitation of the Tamerlane story by the Uzbek government and Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great are also explored.

At its best, Tamerlane’s roving style gives the reader a fuller account of Tamerlane’s impact than a conventional biography would be able to. The inclusion of so much present-day material is also a valuable source of historical perspective. When Tamerlane is at its best, it’s a great reading experience.

But all too often, one part or another falls short. The historical research can be disappointing. For example, Marozzi often cites contemporary reports for the population of a city or the casualties in a battle. As Marozzi repeatedly concedes, such accounts are notoriously unreliable, but he goes on citing them without even attempting to provide more accurate figures. Worse, the writing often seems hastily put together and poorly edited. The arrival of a Spanish ambassador at Tamerlane’s court is described at length twice in the book, for no discernible reason. Occasionally jarring informalisms and the meandering organization of the book contribute to this impression.

Tamerlane is an intriguing departure from the norm of historical writing. Its blend of biography, travel writing, and modern politics is something I’d like to see more of. The book itself is less exciting, simply because it fails to do justice to its concept. If you’re a bored reader who wants to learn about Tamerlane, you could do worse than Marozzi’s book. And if you’re a popular history author looking for an idea, please read this book and write a better version!

A World of Possibilities (Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson)

June 21, 2007 by

Near-future science fiction writers have a difficult task. They have to make their worlds different enough to be interesting but similar enough to be believable. It’s fine for Star Trek to talk about dilithium crystals and tricorders in the 23rd century, but something a little more credible is needed for 2020. At the same time, a world where cell phones are slightly smaller and TVs are slightly bigger would scarcely make for compelling reading.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash succeeds at this difficult task better than any comparable book I can remember reading. The plot is hard to describe without ruining it, and I won’t even try. Suffice it to say it’s intelligent, engrossing, and preoccupied with the role information plays in civilization. The real joy is the way Stephenson creates bizarre things that still have an unmistakable feel of “rightness” to them.

The Mafia are still in their original business, but they’ve also developed an especially ruthless pizza delivery arm. The idea is preposterous at first, but on further reflection it starts to seem like a conceivable extension of the early-nineties obsession with the thirty-minute delivery. Likewise, the federal government has evolved into a bureaucratic, paranoid software development company that controls its employees with mountains of regulation and monitors them with regular polygraph tests. The freshness and feel of Snow Crash are even more remarkable considering the book was first published in 1992. The book’s Internet-based “Metaverse,” for example, is a perfect anticipation of a modern multiplayer online role-playing game.

Science fiction revolves around possibilities. Stories must be logically coherent and technically plausible. Snow Crash takes it a step further and makes its world culturally possible, even (especially?) when it’s at its most far-fetched. The result is both thought-provoking and delightful.

A Fable About Writing Overambitious Fables (The Alchemist – Paolo Coehlo)

June 7, 2007 by

[Sorry about the long break since my last post. With finals, graduation, moving, and getting set up in Cleveland, I’ve been a bit too busy to write. But now I’ve got almost nothing to do except read books and screw around on the Internet, so I’ll try to make up for it.]

There’s a reason the fable is no longer an important form of literature. It is a simplistic genre that is best suited for conveying basic moral ideas or maybe some sharp satire. Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream tries to use the form to convey inspirational philosophy, and it fails miserably.

The plot is simple enough. A shepherd boy has a dream. A gypsy and a mysterious man claiming to be a king convince him that this dream means that his destiny is to find a buried treasure near the Pyramids. With no further prompting, he’s off to face the predictable sequence of adversity, perseverance, self-discovery, and success. Oh yes, and of course true love.

The Alchemist would be nothing more than a trite, boring children’s story if not for Coelho’s unnerving sincerity. The inescapable impression is that Coelho believes he is conveying deep philosophical insights. That makes for an awkward reading experience when all the reader can see is the stale leftovers of a mediocre inspirational speaker.

Fantasy elements have a rich history in literature, particularly in Latin America. But where other authors have used the supernatural to make the world seem richer, Coelho makes it shallower. His mythology centers around the idea that everyone has a “Personal Legend,” a particular destiny of his very own, which the universe conspires to help people achieve. Coelho seems to think the concept is an empowering one, but I can’t imagine why. The author’s vision of life as a sort of cosmic scavenger hunt might offer some hope to the alienated and disaffected, but I find the idea of a benevolent fate planning out everyone’s destiny to be simply depressing.

At least Coelho deploys some solid technique in his misguided philosophical quest. I was particularly struck by the way he manipulated the time setting of the book. At some points, I would have sworn the story took place in the fourteenth century. At other times, it seemed to be no more than a hundred years ago. Even now I’m not really sure when it was. Coelho aims to produce a timeless, vague setting, and he succeeds.

Neat authorial tricks aside, The Alchemist remains a deeply disappointing book. The plot is unexciting and the philosophy vapid. I sincerely hope that your Personal Legend does not include reading this book.

Five Reasons I Did Not Make It Past Page 35 (Melissa Bank – The Wonder Spot)

May 25, 2007 by

Page 1: “She turned to Jack now and said, ‘Is your jacket small?’
If it was, I didn’t see it, but my mother had already worked herself into what she called a tizzy. ‘How is it possible for a person to outgrow a suit in a matter of weeks?’ she wondered aloud, as though we had an unsolvable mystery or a miracle before us, instead of the result of Jack lifting weights and running all summer. He’d lost his blubber and added muscles where once there had been none; about once a day I’d put my hand around his bicep, and he’d flex it for me.”

Page 2: “When my mother tried to coax the dog out of the car, Robert said, ‘He wants to come with us.’
‘The dog will be more comfortable here,’ she said.
I thought, We’d all be more comfortable here.
Robert said, ‘Please don’t call Albert “the dog.”‘
My father said, ‘Never mind, Joyce,’ and my mother said, ‘Fine,’ in the tone of, I give up.”

Page 8: “Maybe she’d learned how to pronounce the Hebrew words, but you could tell she had no idea what they meant. She read with zero expression, as though reciting the Hebrew translation of a phone book or soup label, the only semblance of an intonation a pause at the end of a listing or ingredient.
In contrast, my mother, who was no more fluent in Hebrew than I, appeared utterly enthralled; she even nodded occasionally as though finding this or that passage especially insightful and moving.”

Page 12: “The bandleader was singing, ‘Put your right foot in, and shake it all about,’ and the three of them did it along with everyong else, without thinking, as I did, Why? Why would you put your right foot in and shake it all about?

Page 31: “When he answered, his voice was so quiet I didn’t think he wanted me to hear him: ‘I wasn’t going to get to play.’
‘Why not?’
He raised his voice to normal volume, but it sounded louder because of how quiet it had been. ‘ “Why?” ‘ he said. ‘Because I’m not good enough.’
I was about to say, That’s not true, but I realized that it was true; he wouldn’t have said it otherwise. I waited a minute, and then I said, ‘That sucks.'”

The Perils of Political Fiction (Shalimar the Clown – Salman Rushdie)

May 11, 2007 by

Conveying a political message through quality fiction is a difficult task. Salman Rushdie’s latest offering, Shalimar the Clown, highlights some of the challenges. At times, the book shows us the writer whose passionate, urgent voice earned him death threats and exile. But at others, the political focus takes away from the story. As a result, Shalimar is good, but not as good as it could have been.

Unsurprisingly, some of the best parts of Shalimar take place in Kashmir, in the past. Fables and tales of children growing up in an idyllic past provide the backdrop and the meaning for the contemporary part of the story. Here, Rushdie is in his element. The travails of a village of traveling chefs feel comfortably familiar and homey without draining them of their authenticity. The experience is exciting, enlightening, and enjoyable all at once.

The other great parts of the story also take place in Kashmir in the modern day. The idyllic past is charming, but it quickly becomes consumed by the struggles that have since torn Kashmir apart. Rushdie’s righteous anger is ably communicated, and the menace of the Islamic terrorists and the Indian military occupiers is vividly drawn with fascinating, frightening magical realism.

The modern American frame story that tries to draw everything together is distinctly less interesting. Part of the problem is that Rushdie’s musings about the culture of Los Angeles lack the exotic foreignness of Kashmir. A larger issue, though, is that the frame story is heavy-handed and inhuman. The pointed symbolism of the life of a girl named Kashmira lacks any semblance of subtlety or the authenticity that makes some of Shalimar so good.

That’s a shame, because the failure of the outer story really weakens the overall impact of the book. We’re left with a mostly enjoyable, at times disconnected story combined with some political anger. The reading experience is not bad, but when you put Shalimar down, don’t expect to take away a lasting message.

Not Stale Yet (Paul Auster – City of Glass)

May 4, 2007 by

Experimental novels fail more often as novels than as experiments. When one succeeds, then, it’s worthwhile to look deeper than the trick. City of Glass, the first novel of Paul Auster’s New York trilogy, deserves its popularity and acclaim, and not just because there’s a character named Paul Auster.

The cover of my copy of the trilogy has an Escheresque cover: a hand holding a pen, and three books, one of which has a cover picturing the hand holding the pen. That’s about how the narration works in City of Glass: it’s a detective novel about a detective novelist, and without giving too much away, let’s just say that there’s Quinn and Paul Auster and “I” and we’re definitely meant to puzzle over exactly how they relate to each other. I was shocked, though, to feel that technique engaging me and drawing me into the narrative. Pointing to meta is rarely anything other than a stale joke; it doesn’t thrill us to see sitcom characters watching a sitcom any more than it shocks us to see the word damn. Escher’s been dead, after all, for 35 years.

City of Glass isn’t just well-storyboarded. It’s cool, and full of sharp prose and curious characters. Auster plays with the detective-novel form–you’ll just have to trust me, because I don’t feel comfortable giving any spoiler more detailed than what’s implicitly between these dashes­­‑-but retains the vigor. The obsessive protagonist, the creepy villain, and the extreme situations they find themselves in are all well-executed and fun to read. In an early scene Quinn intends to discover his man and stumbles on two in the same building who fit the description perfectly. It’s a meaningful counterpoint to the aforementioned narrative jumble, and it’s also expert characterization set in an accurate, vibrant New York City.

If you want an intricate, robust plot and want to see it resolved, City of Glass will disappoint you. But intrigue, good dialogue, surprise, and consequence are all here, as Auster brings to life not just characters but an aging form.

Ancient Chinese Wisdom (Chuang Tzu)

April 27, 2007 by

A sad fact is that the best known Chinese philosophers are often the least original and challenging. Confucius’ moralism is nice, but I find little in it that speaks to the modern reader. Lao Tzu is so mystical as to be either useless or profoundly banal. The great sage of ancient China was a man few today have ever even heard of, much less read, but he offers both philosophical insight and literary beauty.

Chuang Tzu, whose writings are known by their author’s name, was a philosopher later grouped into the Taoist school. (Lao Tzu is usually recognized as the first and most influential Taoist.) Broadly speaking, Taoists responded to the political chaos and violence of their times by declaring human striving futile and advocating “inaction” or wuwei.

Chuang Tzu’s concept of inaction is profoundly liberating. Rather than condemning action as such, he urges his followers to abandon calculation and dithering and follow their inner nature. In this way, he is essentially the antithesis of Hamlet in his “To be or not to be…” speech. A favored metaphor is the example of a skilled butcher. When faced with a difficult joint, an experienced butcher doesn’t calculate the position of the bones and the optimal cutting path, he simply cuts by instinct and succeeds.

Not that Chuang Tzu is just an exceptionally precocious hippie, urging us to follow our feelings. He expresses wuwei as a stirring triumph of the individual over society and the state: “All the titles and stipends of the age are not enough to stir him [the sage] to exertion; all its penalties and censures are not enough to make him feel shame.” In a culture where disfigurement and death were common penalties for dissidents, this statement reflects considerable courage.

Chuang Tzu’s courage arose in part from his skepticism. He refused to believe that wealth was better than poverty, virtue better than vice, or life better than death. The last point is illustrated in this beautiful story:

Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first taken captive and brought to the state of Chin, she wept until her tears drenched the collar of her robe. But later, when she went to live in the palace of the ruler, shared his couch with him, and ate the delicious meats of his table, she wondered why she had ever wept. How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?

Chuang Tzu’s philosophy is refreshing, but the true joy of his work is the writing itself. Blurring the line between prose and poetry, Chuang Tzu uses a formidable array of literary powers to convey his ideas. Too often, mystical philosophy founders on its inability to communicate ideas that are fundamentally ineffable. Chuang Tzu avoids this trap. Even when his concepts are impossible to put directly into words, he uses a mixture of humor, mythology, imagined dialogues, and metaphors to lead the reader along. The combination of fun and intellectual discovery is rewarding and completely unique.

In a time when the demands of society are increasingly complex and burdensome, Chuang Tzu offers an unusual and valuable perspective on how important the things that seem so urgent really are. The fact that he writes brilliantly and beautifully only makes it more tragic that he’s not more widely read.

Uncommon Grace (The Great Fire – Shirley Hazzard)

April 22, 2007 by

I devour love stories and have no particular interest in the literature of war; therefore my standards for both are high. Only a breathless recommendation from a demanding critic induced me to purchase Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, which I read joyfully. Somewhere there must be an attic full of Hazzard’s drafts; there is no other explanation for the shine of each of the 326 pages of this novel set in the aftermath of World War Two.

A couple is in love but circumstances prevent their relationship’s realization. Around them, a world dies: a beloved brother is gravely ill; a good man dispenses advice and then passes away; and old age fells another generation. The plot is not intricate, but not so simple that the reader feels shortchanged. The well-chosen details happen in dense paragraphs or are subtly revealed in meditations, dialogue, or physical description.

It is in these modes where Hazzard shows her expertise in character and setting; her lush scenes would seem quaint if not for a complete lack of cheap sentimentality. When a sister and brother are united in spirit as she recites classical history to him, we feel enriched and charmed, as nowhere is Hazzard cheaply dropping names or pushing buttons. Elsewhere the cliche is drained from cliches and only beauty is left, as in an early passage describing Peter Exley’s close friendship with Aldred Leith:

[Peter’s father] had given up expecting sense from this only son, whose bookishness led nowhere and who frittered the last of his youth scrambling round crammed little countries and learning dead inimical languages like Italian and Japanese.

Peter’s unaffected impressions were meanwhile sent to Leith, whose letters at this time comforted him, supplying a companionable measure of intelligence, and testifying, within Exley’s isolation, to a previous sharing. He saw how Leith, more reticent than he, nevertheless responded to new circumstances as to fresh existence, experiencing antipathy or charm as the essential matter of finite days; accessible, even so, to dreams engendered. Out of their mutual reprieve, Leith had salvaged immediacy; had kept the fugitive vow of every man in battle: If I get through this, the hours will be made to count.

Note that Hazzard takes some liberties with grammar and sentence structure; this combines with the aforementioned plot tendencies to create a book that demands vigilance not only with content but mechanics. The attention is easily given to a book of this caliber, however, and is repaid many times over. From Japan to China to Britain, from acres of ruin to the small internal revolutions of distant lovers, Hazzard is pitch-perfect, and the result is a masterpiece.

The Virus (The Geographer’s Library – Jon Fasman)

April 17, 2007 by

Phase 1: Infection
It happened to me last summer. I walked into the living room of my apartment to see my roommate “Clarence” lounging on the couch reading a book.

“What’s up, Clarence?”

“Not much, just reading a book.”

“Cool. What’ve you got there?”

The Geographer’s Library. It’s a cool mystery. It’s about a murder that’s mixed up with all sorts of alchemical mysticism.”

“Awesome! Can I check it out when you finish with it?”

A week later I was cracking open Jon Fasman’s debut novel, expecting high-brow version of The DaVinci Code, mixing drama, history, and shadowy conspiracies.

Phase 2: Contagion
For a hundred pages, I was delighted. Mysterious murder, check! Likeable young protagonist slowly being drawn into an investigation that’s way beyond his depth, check! Interesting intercalated chapters detailing the strange histories of alchemical artifacts in the victim’s possession when he died, check!

So, when my mom saw me reading the book and asked me about it, it was only natural that I gave her a glowing recommendation and offered to lend it to her when I was done.

Phase 3: Sickness
At about page 150, a sickening realization set in. Nothing more was going to happen. The young protagonist (becoming less likeable with every page) was going to keep running in circles and learning nothing at all. The artifact chapters became almost indistinguishable tales of people somewhere in the Soviet Union being tricked out of artifacts and then murdered by a sinister organization. The only consolation was that the book had to end eventually, at which point the author would be obligated by the conventions of fiction to conclude the story. Right?

Phase 4: Aftermath
Not really. When the book could no longer physically contain any more aimless ramblings, all I found was a slapdash ending that explained none of the book’s earlier events. The chapters about the alchemical artifacts ended up having no relevance to the book’s plot at all. It took me a while to get over my rage at the author, but eventually the healing began. That’s when my mom called to yell at me for recommending the book.

Gone Too Soon (Michael Donaghy — Dances Learned Last Night)

April 14, 2007 by

It is a great blessing and a mild curse that there is far more worth reading than any of us will ever get a chance to read. Kurt Vonnegut’s passing has brought to mind the spring day last year when I learned, well after the fact, of Michael Donaghy’s sudden death. I had nobody to share the news with; nobody around had heard of Michael Donaghy.

Donaghy was one of the best contemporary British poets, though he remained obscure in America. I’ve never seen a book of his for sale, except at his reading I attended. Usually I’d just shrug my shoulders and note that the American mainstream has a maximum of total interest; not every competent poet, or history of salt, can hit the radar.

The sort of merit exhibited in Dances Learned Last Night, however, makes it uniquely unfortunate that we’re missing out. Donaghy is not a Stevens-level visionary — Harold Bloom would likely say that he has talent but not genius — but few can match his tack-sharp diction or modulation of tone. His poems are usually short but achieve a communicative fullness: to read one is to be expertly navigated through some human tempest. “Machines” is a typical sure-footed delight, and begins:

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

Dances Learned Last Night is a pleasant compilation: the selections are faithful to the scope of Donaghy’s output yet form a coherent volume. Some of the shortest poems lack the substance of his best work, and in some of his more prosaic efforts we find a poet less at ease in the form, but there is much here to enjoy. Nobody hits my nerves quite the way Donaghy does; my library would be, as the world is, distinctly poorer without him.