Sphere

Thrust into my hand as a book “mind-blowing for a 16-year-old boy,” I read this as I walked to and from work, sometimes to just churn through it, sometimes because I knew that walking would distract me from the horrible writing. Yet Crichton excels at moving a plot along, sprinkled with scientific bits. It was a welcome reset button from the headier stuff I’ve been reading, but not recommended. A team of scientists descends into the Pacific to assist the Navy in opening a sphere found on a spacecraft from the future that crashlanded at least 300 years in the past (time travel!). The crew narrows down to three after various deaths, then power struggle once everyone has been inside the sphere and acquired the ability to think things to make them true. The psychologist almost takes off in the submarine without the other two, but recognizes his “shadow” self has overtaken rational thought. Eventually the three surface, keeping mum until the decompression tank, where they talk over events, decide to use their power one last time to forget this happened, plant a false memory.

Writing about writing

Is there anything more meta than writing about writing? Unfortunately, I must indulge in this conceit, having just sweated and worried and self-loathed myself out of 300-ish words for a blog post about sidewalk etiquette. Last week, I begged and wheedled my way into a guest column of sorts, and once the green light was flashed, it began.
First, the ideas come swarming, and oh they are all such delightful fireflies. I was consumed by the thought of what I was going to write about. Spent hours thinking, thinking. Took a pass at writing some of those thoughts down, mostly an incoherent list. Let the document sit on my screen, flashing incompetence at me, but at least it was a start. Walked away. I had days to complete it, I would be fine. And then the dreaded deadline approached. I frantically dusted off the woefully incomplete bits of ideas, and got to work. Wrote, rewrote, deleted, read, reread, rewrote. Got to a point where I was satisfied with it, and then shared with a few people.
Constructive criticism is truly amazing. Fresh eyes on the words pointed out the thinness of certain elements, made suggestions. I took some of the suggestions but ignored others because they didn’t feel like me. It was starting to hang together. So I read and reread and rewrote and deleted. And then, nervously, I hit send. I thought the anxiety of writing was wrecking, but I hadn’t counted on the wait between send and editor feedback. Oh the agony of a few hours.
This has to get easier with practice, right?

All the Names

After an evening listening to translator Margaret Jull Costa read to the California Book Club, surrounded by books and nestled in a comfy red leather chair with wine in hand, I picked up what she claimed was her favorite book by Saramago, All the Names. It’s been awhile since I’ve been swept up in delirious delicious bits of phrasing and story, and almost needed Ariadne’s thread to lead me through this labyrinth.
The simple yet complex tale of Senhor José, clerk in the Central Registry responsible for filing birth and death announcements, who lives in a house attached to the Registry and who has a key to enter the Registry during off-hours. One day, he gives in to his desire to sneak into the Registry to pull the cards of all the celebrities whose clippings he saves in a closet. On this quest, he discovers the card of a non-celebrity, an unknown woman, and becomes obsessed with the quest to discover more information about her, taking more and more risks, breaking into a school, conquering his fear of heights, talking to her godmother (who lived on the 1st floor of the building she was born in), eventually finding out about her death, visiting her grave and sleeping in the cemetery only to be awoken by a shepherd and his flock of sheep who confessed to moving the graves around. As a last resort, he contacts the girl’s parents, her mother slips Jose the keys to the daughter’s apartment, lets him poke around looking for answers.
Beautiful, dreamy, great translation by Costa.

Essays and Aphorisms

Cheery old Schopenhauer had me giggling from the start. He starts with a bang, with a section on the Suffering of the World, detailing that life is penance we live for the sin of being born. Pleasure is less pleasurable and pain is more painful than we expect. We need suffering or we would bore ourselves to death. The futility of existence is then explored, how we’re focused on longing for the future then find that we didn’t appreciate life. Boredom as proof that existence is valueless because boredom is the sensation of the emptiness of existence.
I’ll brush past a few sections that were beyond my grasp, the antithesis of thing in itself and appearance. He touches on the fact that will vs. intellect, will wins and carries over after our death. There is the moment now (phenomenon) and then the forever of before life and after life. My problem with palingenesis is that we have more and more people (billions more now), so the denominator is getting astronomical, which makes us weaker people if we are all still sharing the same numerator of will. He’s adamantly against the idea that suicide is wrong; what is wrong is to be forced (against your will) to live just to soothe others.
There’s a fun chapter on women, full of nonsense I won’t dive into, which leads me to believe Schopey was unlucky in love and lacked diversity of companions (he later states that beards are sexual/obscene, which is why women like them). My ire beginning to rise, I then read the section which provoked and humbled me, his assertion that those who read a lot do not think original thoughts. “The thoughts of another that we have read are crumbs from another’s table, the cast-off clothes of an unfamiliar guest.” And the painful idea that “Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself.”
Religion he struggles with, as a foe of philosophy (real truth vs. allegory). Then a comparison of poetry to philosophy, “the poet can be compared to one who presents flowers, the philosopher one who presents their essence.” He criticizes the mass of men as idiots and bemoans that the greats must be dead before they are recognized.
He dives into comparisons of the vices listed in the Bhagavad Gita and Buddhist, Chinese, Indian texts. “The foundation of morality ultimately rests on the truth expressed in the mystical formula tat twam asi (This art Thou).” He moves from ethics to aesthetics, “the melancholy effect of the inorganic nature of water is in large part abolished by its great mobility, which produces an impression of life, and by its constant play with light : it is, moreover, the primal condition of our life.” He lists his favorite novels, the “crowns of the genre” as: Tristam Shandy, La Nouvelle Heloise, Wilhelm Meister, Don Quixote; “the task of the novelist is not to narrate great events but to make small ones interesting.”
The psychology section had me underlining several choice bits, including “Genuine contempt is the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another; it permits of indulgence and forbearance…” and “If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.”
On Books and Writing also got lots of highlighting from me. Don’t write until you’ve thought, don’t write if you have nothing to say. Throw books down if they are bad because time is precious. “Only he who takes what he writes directly out of his own head is worth reading.” He suggests that newspapers should have fines on people who use incorrect grammar, poorly chosen words, or repetitive words.
Finally, he bemoans the loss of Latin as a unifying language, saying that the common language brought him closer to writers across all the European centuries, he would feel less connected to the books if language barrier was up.

If this is what it has come to, then farewell humanity, noble taste and cultivation! Barbarism is returning, despite railways, electricity and flying balloons. We are finally losing another advantage enjoyed by all our forefathers: it is not only Roman antiquity which Latin preserves for us, it is equally the entire Middle Ages of every European land and modern times down to the middle of the last century. Scotus Erigena from the ninth century, John of Salisbury from the twelfth, Raymond Lully from the thirteenth, together with a hundred others, speak to me directly in the language natural and proper to them as soon as they began thinking on scholarly subjects: they still approach close up to me, I am in direct contact with them and learn to know them truly. What would it be if each of them had written in the language of his own country? I wouldn’t understand as much as half of it, and real intellectual contact with them would be impossible: I would see them as silhouettes on the distant horizon or, worse, through the telescope of a translation.

My Ears are Bent

Another refreshing collection of feature stories written for newspapers and magazines by the esteemed Joseph Mitchell. You get a sense of a young man bumping around the city of New York at all hours, scouring up stories, listening to folks whine or bleat with joy. Drunks, strip joints, bars, preachers, voodoo doctors, Coney Island, pickpockets, anarchists, comic designers, George Bernard Shaw, and wrestlers.

The least interesting people to interview for an afternoon newspaper are the ones who probably should be the most interesting, industrial leaders, automobile manufacturers, Wall St financiers, oil and steel czars, people like that. They either chew your ears off with nonsense about how they are self-made (“When I landed in this country all I had was seventeen cents and a poppyseed roll and now I am chairman of the board.”) or they sit around and look gloomy. After painfully interviewing one of those gentlemen you go down in the elevator and walk into the street and see the pretty girls, the pretty working girls, with their jolly breasts bouncing about under their dresses and you rae relieved; you feel as if you had escaped from a tomb in which the worms were just beginning their work; you feel that is would be better to cheat, lie, steal, stick up drugstores or stretch out dead drunk in the gutter than to end up like one of those industrial leaders with a face that looks like a bowl of cold oatmeal.

The Lost World

The original Jurassic Park story, writ by our old pal of Sherlock Holmes fame but employing his other favorite character, Professor Challenge. A quickly read adventure tale of exploring the Brazilian jungle plateau where pterodactyls and stegosauruses still reign. The reporter Malone offers up himself as witness along with Lord Roxton and Professor Summerlee to verify the absurd tales Challenge returns to London with. Malone is mostly motivated by the rebuff of his marriage proposal to Gladys, who prefers an adventurous man. The party become stranded on the plateau and must fight ape-men, dinosaurs, and befriend Indians in order to return. Challenge smuggles a pterodactyl back to London as incontrovertible proof. Gladys, of course, has gone and gotten herself married to a dumpy clerk in the meantime.

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom

Thrilling true story of prisoners’ 1941 escape from Siberia to India on foot, unaided by mule or other animal. The Polish prisoner gets tortured for not confessing he is a spy (his crime? being Polish), shunted off to 300 miles from the Arctic circle, where he joins up with other strong, like-minded prisoners who make a break for it with the help of the Russian army commander’s wife (who gives them an invaluable ax handle, bags filled with food, and advice). Trudging through the snow, they eventually head into Siberian spring, and cross over into Mongolia. Their first meeting with people gives them the magic word of “Lhasa” to let everyone know they are pilgrims headed to Tibet.
They cross the Gobi Desert with little food and no water, relying on a few oases and muddy cracks in the land. The woman who joined up with them dies first, flopping headfirst over from sunstroke. Another prisoner follows not too long after. They begin to eat snake. Finally the landscape changes again, they head through China and make their way into Tibet, relying on the hospitality of anyone they run into. The group speaks a hodgepodge of languages: Russian, German, Polish, French, English, but they’re able to communicate with Tibetans by gestures and bowing. The group is self-sufficient, making their own shoes and jackets, uncoiling wire they find trashed in the desert which then helps them climb Himalayan mountain passes. When they reach India, they are safe, recuperating under British Army care.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time

I loathe adventure stories where the author inserts himself as a character. Adams is particularly bad at this, the whinging out of shape hiker on the Incan trail, but he’s oh so clever. He meets the ex-president of Peru and his wife at a Barnes & Noble cafe (RIP), who insists he take a muffin for the road. Really, Mark? Leave these awful details out, my friend, focus on the good bits that don’t involve you.
The premise is that adventure travel editor Adams will get to go on an excursion of his own, mimicking the “discoverer” Bingham’s route via a month-ish long hike through the Andes, guided by a fearless Aussie and a team of muleteers and cook.
What I learned:
* Machu Picchu and sister sites line up along a solstice-friendly plan thousands of miles apart.
* The “discoverer” Bingham tells a dining audience at the NatGeo society “Buried in the jungle, we found a city called Machu Picchu. That is an awful name, but it is well worth remembering.”
* Bingham was the role model for Indiana Jones (Yale professor, the celestial connection of light flooding in at the perfect moment to illuminate something)
* People are entirely too hurried when they visit the site, even those trekking for days to get there.
* Pizarro was probably the first looter of the site, requiring massive amounts of gold as ransom for Incan emperor Atahualpa in 1532, mobilizing the entire Inca kingdom to collect precious metals (Atahualpa was still killed).
* Tupac Amaru was the last Inca emperor, our contemporary rapper Tupac was named after him.

The Bottom of the Harbor

Great collection of New Yorker articles by Mitchell about New York and its various watery states, from the fish market and Sloppy Louie’s, to the Staten Island oyster and New Jersey shad fishermen. Interviews that stretch for pages with quotes that had to have been crafted by Mitchell himself, the rhythmic cadences of his phrasing giving him away. Fantastic time capsule of 1950s and earlier NYC life. He ends the collection with Rivermen, “As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of life is to stay alive and to keep on staying alive as long as you possibly can.”