Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Month In Review and of Things to Come

The biggest news to share this month is that I have joined examiner.com; I'll be blogging about books, and publishing, no rum or video games.  Most articles there will be two-three hundreds words so I'll have a slightly different focus.  Things here will stay the same, so no need to worry.  As I do an occasional review for examiner there maybe so mirror image blogging, but for the most part, at Examiner I'll be expounding on the small points that I usually only mention in the "End of the Month" wrap on on this blog.  I'm looking forward to it; it's not a job, but I will soak up some time.

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

Jericho Mosaic by Edward Whittemore

For comments on books one, two and three of The Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, and Nile Shadows please follow the respective links.

The primary difficulty in commenting on the final novel in the Jerusalem Quartet is in putting it in context. This book stands alone better than any other it’s predecessors. Quin’s Shanghai Circus—a book outside the Jerusalem Quartet—has more unifying events and characters relating to the Jerusalem Quartet than Jericho Mosaic, the quartet’s end cap, does. When viewed on its own, it is an exceptional novel. Readers only have to detach themselves from all they’ve grown to love about the first three books to appreciate Jericho Mosaic for what it is. And in giving up so much, I'd be lying if I said Whittemore doesn't give birth to a bit a resentment on the part of at least this reader.

"Being holy, Jerusalem was an endless source of myth. (page 5)"

Finally. After a book long excursion in Egypt we are home in Jerusalem. The affect this shift in setting has on the reader is substantial and with it comes the great expectations of the series first two books. Sure, like the previous works in the series, there is a great deal of travel: Lebanon, Syria, Argentina, and most notably the titular Jericho, but the beginning of the novel is in Jerusalem. As readers, we brace ourselves in preparation for the bizarre originality that Jerusalem seems to best bring out in Whittemore. However, as the Rolling Stones once said, "You can't always get what you want."
Jericho Mosaic is about an Iserli spy and unrest the Middle East that spans forty years. Tajar, a crippled Israeli intelligence officer 'raises' Yossi, and Iraqi Jew, to the be the greatest Israeli spy ever. Their success is unprecedented--both in dangers and results. Bell is a horrifically scared, Caucasian Christian Holy man who greatly resembles a British intelligence commander from Nile Shadows. Anna Cohen moves to Jerusalem from Cairo and finally settles into a sustainable life including a family of sorts. There is also a lot dealing with the PLO and KGB, the Israeli six day war, and "The Runner" operation: the most secretive espionage circuit ever conceive in the Middle East. Despite the cast of characters and the return to Jerusalem, events are more predictable, and mundane than what we've come to expect from the author.

There are secret agents, double agents, and nods to "a mostly blind Argentine" author but missing are the unique scenarios, and wandering character connections. Much of the Whittemore's pontifications on life are present as we see Bell's life, and that of his close friends, unfold in Jericho. In this novel there is less of a sense of 'story telling' and more of a generic feeling of plot, suspense and straightforward narrative.

Much like Sinai Tapestry the narrative bounces around between multiple characters and never sticks with one long enough to become attached rather, leaves you wanting more. Unlike Sinai Tapestry, Jericho Mosaic is that last book in the series; there is nothing more to follow. All the characters and their lives are extremely interesting but in comparison the presentation feels shallow and superficial to previous characters in the series.

Repetition--a concept one would think Whittemore immune to based on previous books--plagued Jericho Mosaic. I can recall at least three passages which detail the KGB's move to Cyprus; long passages that did nothing to advance the story. It was almost as if Whittemore was running out of material. Themes of two-sided characters, inherent to a 'spy' book, are brought up but never fully explored. There is also a woefully underdeveloped concept of disfigurement: Bell with the face of a demon, Moses an Ethiopian eunuch, Tajar a cripple due to past war injuries all go on to achieve great things in their life yet the novel continually focuses on real horrors of World War II that so easily shatter the phantastic setting of quasi-reality the author had achieve in previous entries. The most subtle, and best developed theme, was of the power of the exile abroad: Bell, Anna, and Yossi all find strength in being away and control over their lives that never seemed possible.

Jericho Mosaic is an exceptional novel and successful on all levels; a book with many layers that would benefit from re-reading. Perhaps the book's only true flaw is that it was the published closure of the Jerusalem Quartet with its meager relations to the previous novels it may have been better to stand on it's own.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Interruption to your Regularly Scheduled Life.

I have friends in from out of town. I have family in from out of town. I have friends in from out of country. I can't wait to see them all, and I'd also like to think that there is time for the standard minutiae of stuff going on that I call my life.

I have had plans the last few day; nothing has come of them. From reading to blogging to cleaning to planning the most fabulous party ever nothing has gotten done, my life has been put on 'hold.'

It would seem the holidays are upon us, and as always, I enjoy them while they're here, but can't wait for them to be over.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An injustice.

I really haven't done this book justice. Over the course of a week I read The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A lot of it I read at work. I also read a good bit on the train. I never really dedicated the time to the book it deserved. With the subtleties of the texts and the longer sections to read before page breaks I'm sure I didn't appreciate it as much as I would have if I had more time to read in a relaxed state of mind. I read when time and energy allow, and unfortunately the wrong book came up this week.

I did like the book, but I don't think any circumstance would have made me like it as much as Strange Pilgrims; the only other work by Garcia Marquez I've read.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nile Shadows by Edward Whittemore

For comments on books one and two of The Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker, please follow the respective links.

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

The Last Song of Orpheus by Robert Silverberg

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

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I think it appropriate to begin my commentary of The Magicians the same way I'll end it: by telling you that it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely worth your reading time. Flaws abound, but get over it; if your reading extends past Harry Potter and genre epic fantasy you'll read The Magician's, laugh, enjoy, and on some level (albeit a very superficial one) be moved to some degree.

Quentin Coldwater is a high school overachiever with his sights set on Ivy League enrollment. His education takes a twist as he winds up at Brakesbills, a school for aspiring magicians. In addition to becoming a magician, he hopes to find that the fictional realm of Fillory from his childhood reading is as real as magic. At Brakebills he becomes what he was in high school: a great but still not standout student. He possesses neither the innate ease that his friend Eliot can perform magic with, nor the fey, god-like power of Alice, a fellow student of his class.

The language used in telling this story is perfect. Grossman employs a contemporary vernacular that is perhaps too intelligent and trending for the nerdy kids using it, but one that feels right to the reader. More than any other aspect it is the speech, both dialogue and monologue that makes the work feel real; as if it is all plausible and really happening in our world. The prose feels kitschy, yet there is an art to what is written; Grossman scores major style points with his prose.

We learn what it is like to train to be a magician in today’s world and the horror that there is nothing to do with your magical abilities of any remote interest to anyone (least of all the magician) once you have completed your studies. The elaborate exposition focuses on Quentin and his magical fraternity of friends as they stumble into adulthood. The plot seems to hinge on a point where entrance to Fillory, a magical secondary world as laid down by C.S. Lewis verbatim in Chronicles of Narnia, becomes a real opportunity. But before we go to Fillory ( "We! Are! Going! To! Fill! O! Reeeeeee!" If you’ve read the book you smiled there too...) lets get back to that stumbling…

The book unrelentingly harps on virtually all the characters alcoholism. Drinking is indeed a culture in many American educational institutions but the kids at Brakebills could possible give the University of Georgia a run for their money. The theme is repetitive and over-indulged to the point where we think these kids can’t do much anything until they had a sip of something. Further more, all the students are winos… I found this point not only incongruous with collegiate drinking (admittedly taking into account only my own experience due to a higher-than-beer-or-cheap-booze-price, weaker overall effect, and sophistication of taste) but wholly unbelievable as at some point it felt like the school was in fact sponsoring these benders. To think what they accomplished by being hammer 24/7 it does make you wonder what they could have done, should they ever be sober. By the time Quentin and Eliot upgrade to illicit drugs I was only surprised they hadn’t gotten there sooner. The collegiate experience felt real—as if I know what magical college should feel like—except that no one got kicked out or put on probation for chronic alcoholism and the social problems that arise from such an affliction. Cause you get kicked out of school for that kinda thing…

In addition to campus wide drinking bouts that would awe Andre the Giant and Ernest Hemingway, all the students at Brakebills sleep with all the other students (and at least one case, a teacher too). The small group of primary characters eventually felt like the cast of a white-washed TV sitcom, where all players are attractive, live on the same street, party at the same bars, and then have drunken indiscriminate sex with anyone else on their street; regardless of gender it would seem… At least with sex, as opposed to drinking, there are consequences to deal with that yield emotional maturity and character growth; the drinking only beget hangovers that were promptly cured with three more glasses of wine.

Drinking to excess and sexual promiscuity are certainly standard college fair, but damn… apparently I was a prude in undergrad and grad school.

With a quarter of the book remaining events do take an odd twist and the novel becomes a genuine epic fantasy quest book as we finally get to enter Fillory. This change of direction isn’t necessarily bad, but to me this last portion either felt rushed or the previous three-quarters were prolonged. The time spent in Fillory is as clichéd and generic as any other genre fiction, albeit infused with a modern attitude and Grossman’s ever-present smart ass sense of humor.
The cast is awesome: a bunch of kids who can out drink Jackie Gleason and W.C. Fields back-to-back and whose sexual exploits make Ramses II look virginal. Life lessons, love, loss and enough tween-age angst abound to the point that these emo kids might call bullshit, and yet all I can say overall is, it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely worth your reading time. Consider this a glowing recommendation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jerusalem Poker by Edward Whittemore

For comments on Sinai Tapestry, book one of the Jerusalem Quartet click here.

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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sinai Tapestry by Edward Whittemore

This novel is a book of stories: anecdote upon anecdote piled on top of each other, not always yielding cohesion, a central plot or even universal binding elements, but always promising entertainment, vivid colorful storytelling, and some of the most original literature ever put on paper.

As there is no chance of the stories events depriving future readers of pleasure, I'll spell out things as cleanly as I can. The original bible was the ramblings of a blind man copied by a mute, dumb imbecile who had a penchant for embellishment. The events of the 'Sinai Bible' as it comes to be called, were predicted seven-hundred years before the actual biblical events. Naturally such a book contradicts every universal truth established in today's three major faiths. This book, is the unifying thread for many of the novel's events and characters. The novel's characters are as outlandish as you would expect considering the premise. "If the Father of the real Bible was an aging blind beggar and the Son was an imbecilic scribe, then Wallenstein would become the Holy Ghost and rewrite Scripture the way it ought to be written. The decision he had made in his cell was to forge the original Bible." This is story unlike any you've previously encountered.

Strongbow is the 29th Duke of Dorset who breaks all family tradition by living past the age of thirty, reading a book, and establishing himself as the world's preeminent scholar on sex in the Levant. In short he is, "a vicious onslaught on the entire rational world of the nineteenth century… In the end nothing could be said of his work except that it was preposterous and true and totally unacceptable." He is also deaf, seven feet seven inches tall, the most capable swordsman alive, turns down an invitation to the Cambridge Masturbation Society (the first to do so in the illustrious history of the club) and the leading expert in global botany. As the study of languages come easy, he takes to wandering the middle east. He eventually finds an original copy of the bible and processing it's knowledge has a very peculiar effect on Strongbow.

Wallenstein is a fanatical monk who decides to forge a copy of the original bible; a project that takes near a decade and claims his sanity. He justifies such a high price in knowing he served the greater good as society isn't ready for the true Sinai bible's truths. As he buries the original, he is observed by the 3,000 year old defender of Jerusalem Haj Harun, once fabled prince of the city. Wallenstein's forgery is later bought and sold many times at extremely high prices as the oldest surveying authentic bible and his life works sees better publicity than Strongbows: a thirty-three volume book on sex, that establishes the principles of "Strongbowism" and see all copies destroyed by the British government with twenty-four hours of publication as it it deemed to be decidedly un-English.

Strongbow's son, Stern, is a bit of a dreamer and writer as well. After receiving a very worldly education he outlines in three hundred pages the governance of a new nation where all peoples of the Levant can live together and in peace. Ironically, such idealic philosophy earns him a job running guns and like his father, seeing his written work destroyed. He finds solace in morphine and Maud, a beautiful American woman with connections to Wallenstein, and Joe O'Sullivan Beare--the Irish hero of the Easter Sunday massacre. (I'll spare you Joe's fourteen other names…) The wild character connections are multi-layered and join many involved in a unique suffering that seems to be a common bond.

While the real Sinai Bible's truths are incessantly on the minds of near all characters there are only loose central elements binding events and characters. Attempting to tease out these character relations and unifying elements is wildly entertaining and nearly impossible upon first reading without taking substantial notes. Collectively, the book feels like little more than an introduction to what comes next, but such a pleasure to read that it is hard to find overall fault.

A narrowing of focus maybe the best way I can describe Whittemores' approach in writing the novel. Events start broad, giving background and what seems an over indulgence of exposition. As events move forward they become more specific and unify multiple characters and Whittemore spends little to no time explaining feelings as the prior 'background' information is so firmly established that we know how the primary characters feel or would act given a certain situation.

As firmly established as some characters become it is how they change that is startling. Events in Syrma, Greece near the end of the first world war take heavy tolls on Stern and Joe. Beare, who has been a war veteran for six of his twenty one years, is suddenly unable to take a life when confronted with the horrific violence of intimate combat as opposed to his long ranged guerrilla warfare in Ireland. Equally sad is watching Stern accept realities of life, and give up on his dreams of peace in the Levant once and for all by the role he plays in this particular battle, and the 'mercy' he is able to grant.

Whittemore's knack of startling graphic violence actually works in this book, where I felt he may have come on too strong in his first novel Quin's Shaighai Circus. Indeed, everything about his writing seems more mature in this novel; from the dialogue to the perhaps overwrought plot complexities.

The book is faux-historical fiction; but it feels real and in some places it feels how events 'should have happened;' not so much an alternate reality, merely a secret one. There are moments when I said out loud, "This is the most absurd thing I've ever read" with a grin on my face, only to keep going. Throughout the duration of the novel, Whittemore spurns the highly preached 'show don't tell' rule focusing on history's highlights that will play a part in his story. He jumps around concerning the books chronology as he introduces new characters and their history. Every new character or chunk of text read makes you want to go back and read something previously covered, not for the purpose of discovering new meaning, but to uncover new mysteries. Despite the near ad hoc feel of the book's sequence of events it reads smoothly, never frustrates the reader and always builds anticipation for what comes next.

There is a constant feeling of starting over as we meet a new character and contrary to what you may think, each new beginning tells us something new about previous events that we thought we had a grasp on. An absurd story, and very unique characters combine for some of the most imaginative reading I've come across; originality like this is rare and an absolute pleasure. It's a grave disservice to English language readership that Whittemore's works are now--for the second time--out of print.

If all the preceding sounds absurd then you should hopefully be intrigued enough to see how it all comes together. He hits on all elements that can be called entertaining, and much like Quin's Shaghai Circus, manages shock and appall with the realities of human condition at war. The Bible is found; wholly rejected, and truth is prized by few. This is not a book that anyone could have written and if most were half as original to do so; it probably still wouldn't have been done this well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cataloging my Library.

I've played around with this idea before, but have never been able to justify the work. I have an odd tactile memory with things in my apartment: as long as I was the one to put something in its' current resting place, I know exactly where it is at any point in time. This, of course, includes my books. I don't have to hunt for a book, should I want to reference a passage, or wonder which stack on the floor of my closet a book is in. (I also never lose my keys.)

My friend, Gabe's apartment burned all the way down this weekend and he was faced with the awful scenario of, 'Ten seconds of snatch-and-grab, what should I take?' I, like Gabe, have good renters insurance, but seeing all he is going through may be impetus to sit down and account for all my books--some of which are rare, and pricey--should such a calamity befall me.

So since I'm going to be taking inventory and re-addressing the records, I might as well not half-ass the job and formally organize my meager book collection. Anyone done this before? What's the best method and how do I start?