Tuesday, November 30, 2010
December is looking all kinds of awesome and for reasons you may not expect. I'm hosting a badass party this coming weekend with an very impressive drink menu (more to come on that later). I plan on committing to doing some serious reading on my borrowed kindle--much more to come on that later. Also, I have plans to go see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which has been my favorite book in the series thus far. (I go to a movie two or three times a year, so it's big deal for me.)
I hit the "forty-nine books read this year" mark in November and since my goal for the year was fifty, I'll feeling pretty good about where I stand. The Last Song Orpheus, The Magicians, The General in his Labyrinth, and The Dragons of Babel were all solid; only the first failed to strike me as anything special.
I also cranked out so massive reviews this month; naturally I cheated. It was a lot of fun posting my thoughts on Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet. It was also a lot of work. I had been reading a book a month since August and wrote comments for each upon finishing the novel. I didn't post the first comments until I was done with the last book. I had planned on doing a brief commentary on the series where I'd explain that my comments on the individual books were focused on the entertainment side of the writing and in this planned post focus on some of his amazing literary allegory and overall talent that I intentionally glossed over in the individual reviews in hopes of getting a potential reader excited enough to track down the books. I abandoned this post as soon as I read Josheph L Winland Jr master's thesis on Sinai Tapestry. He certainly made me consider Strongbow in a different light, and overall I think it's great to see Whittemore's work getting scholarly attention.
Great as the Jerusalem Quartet was and as much as I enjoyed each book, I'm glad I'm done with it. There is something exhausting about books in a series for me. Sure it's comforting to return to something familiar from time to time, but I like new things even more.
I'm setting aside six books to read next month. (I can actually see progress in my shelf of unread books!) Three are short novels from the Chronicles of Narnia and the rest are the most varied books I could ever put side-by-side. Don't you just wish I'd say what they were?
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Nile Shadows represents a departure from so much that has previously been established in the first two novels of The Jerusalem Quartet. Whittemore ceases to obsess with the vast network of character relationships and connections, wandering narrative, and perhaps the biggest change of all, he leaves his setting--Jerusalem--behind. What's gained is a bit awkward and perhaps more conventional of a novel, but these incentives come at a cost to pre-established characters and to a degree, all that made the first two books of the series as remarkable as they are.
It is difficult to overstate the power of the novel not taking place in Jerusalem. The novel's move to Egypt is permanent and there is a sense of starting over. O'Sullivan Beare is brought into Cairo by a mysterious trio to do some investigative work with his old time friend, Stern. We have to adjust to Cairo just as O'Sullivan Beare does and it is a stiff experience. We never quite get used to it and things always feel a bit out of place, even for an underworld pro the likes of Beare.
Contrary to the previous entries in the series, Nile Shadows has a strong traditional story arc and it is spelled out for us on the first few pages. The novel opens with the climax and then backtracks in an attempt to make that climax resonate strongly with the reader after the fact: a difficult proposition that many have tried before and a device that I've never been a fan of.
As we never saw the milieu of characters lives in the first two novels Beare is brought in just to discern that in Stern's life. It seems that Stern, a born Jew, has gotten himself heavily involved in some dark business concerning World War II and there are multiple intelligence agencies that would like to know exactly what he has been up to. There is a false plot involving a stolen code that explains all of Rommel's success in North Africa and what has been bought and sold for the Germans to obtain such a code, but the real story is much more personal. Beare, and a handful of Stern's other friends, know that Stern's time is very limited. He is involved too deeply in both sides of the war efforts; too valuable and too much of a liability to be left alive by all those who value him. Before his life is prematurely cut short, those who care about him make it there most earnest desire to communicate to Stern how much he has meant in the lives of so many.
Stern, being an idealist and dreamer who once outlined the constitution and governance of a Levantine nation where all could live in peace and prosperity, is struggling to find value in his life as his goals have been so exponentially scaled back. David and Anna Cohen who almost view Stern as a father, the horrifically scared Bletchley, and Liffy, whose acting ability make for a disturbingly good spy all try in there own way to help Stern see the fruits of his labors. While the new characters all feel real and are well fleshed out the problem is the pre-exsisting ones never seem to mesh.
Stern, Beare, and Maud (yes, Maud is in Cairo as well working for an intelligence agency) standout perhaps too much at the expense of the story. Stern never feels concrete. We learn of his past and what he has been up to through all the novel's new characters who in some way or another are connected to his life. Sympathy comes easy however he remains aloof and on the fringe of the narrative; never taking direct action and only fleetingly making tangible appearances. O'Sullivan Beare perhaps absorbs the worst of the damage as it is he that the novel follows in the search for clues as to Stern's past. While his endearing sincerity and openness remain, Beare feels like little more than a vehicle for other characters exposition. Beare is at the whim of Liffy, Amhad, and others only so they can preach their life's philosophy's and fill in the gaps of Stern's life. This marginalization of one such as Beare hurts but doesn't have the overall undermining affect on the novel as one would think. Beare is the focal point of the story but plays little more part than a prop. Maud's moments seemed to be little more than incidental fan service, though they felt good and I loved everything shared in her scenes they did little to advance the story of the novel.
In gaining a straight forward traditional story presentation Whittemore abandoned the freewheeling nature of his previous novels and things become a bit mundane. There's Waterboys and Monks (the two largest espionage groups in Egypt), hand grenades and tanks, Churchill's secret flagship and wild parties thrown by a living mummy but the dream like atmosphere that made the previous entries as exotic as they were have faded like the past novels main characters. Gone are Wallenstien, Haj Harun and most noticeably Jerusalem, and so to is the sense of wonder that they created.
It's perhaps the most accessible novel Whittemore had written, one that would still benefit from re-reading, but overall much easier to grasp. Nile Shadows is satisfying on all levels but feels more like a remnant of previous entries and what perhaps should have been the true beginning of something else.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I bought this book on a whim. I wasn’t familiar with Silverberg’s previous publications, merely the title appealed to me. It’s a bleak, dry telling of Orpheus’ life and one that didn’t leave me wanting an encore.
Orpheus is cursed to live a cyclical life. One in which he knows the outcome of events before they happen only because he has lived and been reborn into this life for all eternity. The repetition in Orpheus’ life is perhaps what gives way to repetition of his story telling.
There are certain phrases that Orpheus is compelled to use nearly every page. I can’t over emphasize how annoying this became. His character descriptions were no better. At the mention of Jason I could mentally add—before Orpheus would say it—that he was foolhardy and cautious. I could do this, because the printed word ‘Jason’ seemingly couldn’t appear without his signature adjectives.
If you’ve ever known someone who couldn’t tell a story face-to-face in a satisfying manner that entertained you for even mere seconds then you know what it’s like to read Orpheus’ tale. This is not a narrative in which you read what happens as events take place nor is it exactly a memoir. It’s as if Orpheus, the main character, manages to tell a second-hand account of his own life in the most detached manner possible. He tells of his love for Eurydice, his travels to Egypt, and his time on the Argo with Jason to recover the Golden Fleece, all in the most plodding, plaintive I-couldn’t-care-less tone of voice. Perhaps it’s due to his knowing what will happen in his life as he has lived it before but, it’s as though his entire life as a demigod is a chore.
There is not a lot of backbone to Orpheus, especially so considering he’s the son of Apollo. He marches straight into the Hell and demands the release of his love after her early death. As she dies a second time, lost to Orpheus forever, all the spirit in him is gone and he limps along in life nearly oblivious to the fact that he is, alive.
There was nothing in this short novel that I could say was bad or even poor, yet I never felt Orpheus was even remotely interested in his own life, so why should I be? The Last Song of Orpheus is short and ultimately satisfying yet it’s nothing I’ll be adding to my play list. What should have been a glowing, unique story (a myth that has survived for how many years?) is spoiled by an overly somber, melancholy to a fault, storyteller.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Monday, November 8, 2010
A twelve year poker games comes to a close, ending with the three who first began it. The stakes are nothing less than complete control of Jerusalem's underworld. However, from start to finish this game is rigged and the pot inconsequential.
Just as its predecessor Sinai Tapestry did, Jerusalem Poker spurns conventional storytelling and what many—myself included—would deem to be of paramount importance: a central plot. However, don't call the novel flawed; the differences are not a bad thing.
Two new primary characters get introduced in this volume to Whittermore's already huge and wildly varying cast. Cairo Martyr is a black Moslem with plans on repaying the Arabs for there centuries long involvement in the slave trade by stealing Kabba. Cairo's cousin, Munk Szondi is not only a Wallenstein, but also the connection of all the Middle Eastern based characters to the eastern European and Asian ones.
The character connections are endless, and always enthralling. Making the connections is part of what the book is primarily occupied with. Concerning current events very little is ever said. We learn of Cairo's mentor Menelik Ziwar (Strongbow’s life-long best friend) a living mummy who never leaves his sarcophagus, and how Cairo has ground Egypt's pharaohs of old to dust and made a fortune in selling them for their aphrodisiac qualities in addition to being a cure-all for any aliment. But once he makes his fortune and states his long term life plans, very little is said of what is presently happening in Cario's life.
Munk's background is perhaps a bit more developed. We puzzle out his connection to Skanderberg Wallenstin, come to grips with his phenomenal military career, and learn of his exile from his family in the most intense and amusing knitting scene you'll ever read. We see how 'The Sarah's,' the female portion of his family that owns the greater oil wealth of the middle east try to buy back the Ottoman empire from Strongbow--whom they didn't even know bought the empire to begin with. It's all as beautifully bizarre as it sounds.
Much more is learned of Strongbow as Whittemore incessantly dwells in the past. The poker game all but has Strongbow's stamp of approval: it is played in the room he wrote his thirty-three volume treatise on Levantine sex, his sundial erratically chimes midnight at any time of the day confusing the players, and the scarab that has been used by Strongbow and his son Stern to smuggle just about everything in an out of Jerusalem presides as co-games master, sharing the honor with Haj Harun.
If the story had to be distilled in to a central element, for me, it would be the growth and development of Joe O'Sullivan Beare whose father, with the gift of prophecy, proclaimed him to be the future King of Jerusalem. There is no conventional plot or point of conflict that all events build toward and yet there is forward motion and things never become stagnant or feel bogged down. Joe has problems claiming what is 'his' until he can bring other events to terms he can understand. He knows where the Sinai Bible is and has known for twelve years; yet can't bring himself to uncover it just yet. He knows where Maud is, his one-time wife and mother of his child but won’t go to her; he knows about his children and finally does get to see half of them. The final chapter where he meets his son for the first time is perhaps the most moving and flawed. Bernini, O'Sullivan's son, is nothing more than a vehicle for some of O'Sullivan's beautiful reminisces on his life. Bernini prompts his father with the right questions and proper indulgences however, he's is far too intelligent for his age. This issue becomes larger as we learn of Bernini’s learning ability being slower than other kids his age. It's a unique passage--as is the book--where upon completion you wouldn't change a thing due to the summation of the affect it has on the reader.
The Levant at large is again the main character as we see Jerusalem, Egypt, Greece and many other locales in a way that makes you believe they have to be exactly as Whittemore uses them. If ever this part of the world needed a tour guide or travel agent to attract interest Whittemore would have been the best choice.
Quasi fantastic elements return and as in Sinai Tapestry many of these events surround Haj Harun, who among other things, recalls the story of Daniel in the lion's den before the event actually happened. He also leads us to underground Jerusalem where a few ghost or possibly real people are still living; Masons from the times of the first crusade. It is on this trip to underground Jerusalem that Joe finds his one-thousand year old cognac bottles that he drinks his poteen from. The fantasy elements are never dwelled nor elaborated upon and the effect is a glancing confusion of ' is this real or not?' which is probably exactly what the author intended; a brilliant display of less is more. Cairo also experiences a good bit of the supernatural being a mummy tomb robber. Whittemore, who was ever in possession of a dark sense of humor seems to shine in these scenarios. Nothing here will haunt your dreams but leaving you laughing with wonder and thinking, 'What the hell just happens?' The only exception to the reality bending absurdity would be Haj Harun, himself; who, the more he rambles, the more believable to the reader it becomes that he is a three-thousand year old defender of Jerusalem.
We learn of his phenomenal sexual exploits with a Persian princess centuries ago. As if we weren't already sympathetic to Haj, either for his lunacy or curse of living three thousand years, we learn that real heroes, like dents in a helmet, 'go unnoticed' and this knowledge cast a somber cloud of reflection on the reader when thinking of all the characters you will come to love in the novel. Furthermore, Haj may not be the only near immortal character around, other than the ghost of Jerusalem's' past, Haj alludes to at least two others who have been around for a few thousand years.
A complaint would be a similarity in characters voices; which is particularly bad considering the wildly diverse characters in the story. Outside of Joe saying 'Jaysus,' and speaking in broken Gallic--and at times broken English--and starting to ramble as much as Haj, there isn't a great deal of distinction in characters voice until we get to Nubar.
Nubar is dying of anal syphilis, and a nasty mercury addiction that isn't helping either. Not only does he carry on the Wallenstein family tradition of mental instability and some unhealthy sexual habits, he ups the ante with advanced alcoholism, and self imposed starvation. Hyper acute paranoia, obsession, and dementia all make for an interesting personality, but his role in the novel remained a question to me. He feels the Sinai Bible is his by rights as his grandfather forged it, further more he thinks it is the equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. He is a comic, chaotic display of epochal mental instability, but otherwise a diversion from O'Sullivan Beare, Cairo and Munk.
The women of Joe's life get more interesting as we come to understand why Maud left both a paradise in Jericho and O’Sullivan Beare (who outside of being an extrodinarily successful criminal is an exceptional family man). She left without saying goodbye or with Joe ever being able to hold his first born son; without a word or letter as to where she went. In understanding her past history of people walking out of her life she panicked and left before Joe could ever dream of leaving her. Maud aside, it is Theresa that is perhaps more complicated and in need or greater help, and considering where Maud is mentally that is saying something. Whittemore's female characters are absolute psychological nightmares; but they serve a purpose other than tormenting themselves: they all seemingly get to torment Joe.
Most central to Joe’s development is his relationship with Stern. Stern is vulnerable, that is why people like him; that is why he is a morphine addict. Joe is the opposite despite all he's been through in his life he is solid. The only outward affect of his life's troubles is his drinking: an insatiable habit that has lead him to home-brew. Joe always wishes he could meet one of the great figures of the 'past' as his 'place' isn't solidified and he can't appreciate his life’s achievements.
Joe and Stern try to patch things up twelve years removed from Greece and World War One. Stern is tormented by the eight-year old girl he had to kill. She desperately asked, "Please" and the word has haunted Stern ever since. It goes unsaid that it was supposed to be Joe to do the deed, but the man who had killed virtually everything that's ever lived froze and Joe couldn't do it. Joe was too mad at himself, his life and the world to deal with the situation. Stern acted out of terrible mercy. The two try to reconcile events they never should have lived through but ultimately can’t.
All characters have problems relinquishing the past and it impedes them in the future, (Sterns inability to make new friends, or rekindle with Joe, Maud preemptively leaving Joe, Joe constantly recalls the 'Black and Tans' of Ireland and his inability to get over his past life to get out of his position in his current life), this is why Whittemore dwells on Strongbow and Wallenstein as they provide solid paths for the reader to follow while we try to navigate the unpredictable world and the amazing characters Whittemore has living in it.
Jerusalem Poker is a book that will certainly benefit from re-reading. It’s not an easy piece of fiction to get through but it is one of the more satisfying novels I’ve yet to come across and one that few who've read it will be able to forget.