Creation by Gore Vidal

I recently  finished reading the Gore Vidal novel, Creation.  Enjoyed it very much.  It tells the story of a fifth century BCE Persian nobleman, Cyrus Spitama, and his adventures and travels.  Cyrus is the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster, who was central to the religion of, what else, Zoroastrianism.  This ancient religion worshipped one deity, whom Cyrus Spitama refers to as ‘The Wise Lord’, and as a monotheism, was somewhat unusual in that time period.  Zoroaster was in personal contact with The Wise Lord, not unlike Abraham and Moses and Noah and Mohammed and, most recently Joseph Smith.  Cyrus heard only the one sentence from The Wise Lord, but that seemed to be enough.

The novel opens with Cyrus Spitama (like he was named after a camel), half Greek, old and blind, reluctantly serving as Persia’s ambassador to Athens.  This is after the Persian wars, after Marathon and Plataea and Thermopylae and the two burnings of Athens, but certainly there is still loathing and distrust  between the two cultures.  Spitama makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Greeks.

He, Cyrus, talks about his youth as an outsider in the Persian court of Darius, and his boyhood friendship with the crown prince, Xerxes.  The recent movie, The 300, portrays Xerxes as eccentric almost to the point of seeming extraterrestrial.  Vidal’s Xerxes is just a garden variety arrogant ruler of an enormous empire who is addicted to power and yet trapped by it.  He is  eventually assassinated by those closest to him.  Sounds familiar. (Julius Caesar ended up that way, and Nero and Caligula and Charles I and King Louis XVI and Robespierre, and those are just the westerners.  Rulers of India, China, Japan and Russia also succumbed to the same fate.  Hard to think of an example here in America, other than Crazy Horse.  We here in North America prefer that our leaders be murdered by strangers.)

But Cyrus, uncomfortable as he was in the Persian hierarchy, was fortunate enough to become a confidant of The Great King Cyrus and sent on trade missions to distant and exotic lands, India and then China.

In India, a heavily populated and profoundly religious, if to Western eyes hypocritical, area called ‘the Gangetic Plain’, Cyrus treats with several of the local kings.  They are all either anxiously awaiting their final reincarnation, or actively plotting mayhem in order  to become universal ruler.  Cyrus is amazed at the variety of religious sects, always comparing what he sees to his deep Zoroastrian beliefs.  Fervent and sincere conversations with India’s ranking savant, the Buddha, left him only baffled.  In time, he marries the daughter of one of these monarchs, the most deceitful and bloodthirsty of them all, but soon makes an acceptable trade deal and returns to Persia.  Not a young man anymore, he manages to avoid serious entanglement with court machinations, and also with the capricious Greeks and is eventually sent to China.  

After years of travel, he arrives in China, is immediately captured and enslaved by a series of squabbling contenders for the title of Son of Heaven.  As in India, any discussion of either religion or politics is circular, specious and ultimately baffling.  But, he does manage to discourse with Li Po, and even make friends with Confucius.  

Eventually, and not easily, he escapes from China and makes his way back to Persia to find that his boyhood friend Xerxes is Great King, but is largely dissolute and disinterested in governing his empire.  He is murdered by his palace guard, and soon his son, Artaxerxes, sends Cyrus Spitama to Greece on a mission, mostly secret, to establish a treaty with Athens that will keep both the Persian empire and the seminal Greek city-state from another conflict. This is Cyrus’ final mission.  The camel has spit for the last time.  

I have read enough history to follow Cyrus’ ancient escapades without  being totally confused.  I even know what BCE stands for.  This book is a masterful blend of arcane facts and vivid details that swirl and sparkle and build until they resemble something very much like a novel.  But, the swirling and the sparkle don’t seem to adhere to anything concrete, like a central theme.  It’s like the salt on a pretzel, but I never found the pretzel.

The title, Creation,  is a clue, or perhaps a red herring, or, most likely, a mirage; something that looked real but just never did pan out  In recreating sages of the age, Zoroaster, Aristotle, Pericles, Li Po, Confucius, Buddha, Vidal frequently has Cyrus ruminate on the central mystery of all religious investigation; i.e., our origins.  What was the beginning, and what was before the beginning?  All these luminaries have answers, or sometimes non-answers, but none satisfy.  Twenty-five centuries later, there are still no satisfying answers.  

Perhaps the best we can hope for, as Cyrus Spitama did, is to live in interesting times.

The Last Lecture On A Tuesday With Morrie

I Recently finished the second of two books with similar themes; death vs. quality of life.  Tough topics to write about.  The Last Lecture is a 2008 book by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg.  It describes, not so much his struggle with pancreatic cancer, but rather his obstinate refusal to let the fatal diagnosis squelch his joy of living.  The book came out of an actual lecture at Carnegie Mellon titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  That concept, achievement, is really the theme and  beating heart of the book, and not the sadness and defeat of a terminal diagnosis.

The second book is older, but perhaps better known.  Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom is about a teacher who contracts Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but still has more life lessons to impart to a jaded, world-weary former student.  It, Tuesdays, is a good deal more graphic about the ravages and insults foisted upon the human body by fatal disease.  Some of the descriptions are cringe-worthy.  I had read Tuesdays with Morrie years ago, when it first came out, and may have an additional level of understanding, even compassion, by virtue of having worked with ALS patients for years.  None of that reduces the cringe factor.

It is impossible for anyone with a limbic system to not sympathize with these men.  Tears, empathy, compassion, and a brief but total illumination of the human condition saturate both narratives.  Both are difficult books to get through.  Each requires periodic deep breaths and extended episodes of staring into empty space.

But, I want to do a literary U-turn here and talk about quality of the writing of the books itself, and not the themes or dispiriting details.  The styles are a study in contrast.  The older one, Tuesdays, is a conventional book, written by a professional writer.  It uses literary techniques developed to keep the reader interested in the story.  It actually weaves two narratives; that of the teacher with ALS, and that of his student.  The tale is not presented in a straight sequence, but bounces around from their college courses together through a long hiatus in their relationship to a chance meeting to the final months of “Tuesdays with Morrie”.  It is skillfully done and delivers three-dimensional main characters, and a couple of interesting support players as well.  Not surprisingly, it was made into a movie.

Lecture, by comparison, was not conceived as a book, but as, well, a lecture.  It was first presented  on a stage, with all the multimedia tools then available; A computer presentation with pictures, sound, video clips,  and the whole lecture videotaped for consumption by us, the eager acolytes of the information generation.  It was a very effective  presentation and delivered a comprehensive view of the author’s life, and a penetrating illustration of optimism and joie de vivre.

I, with my bias toward the written word, chose to read the book version, which is an autobiography  written by an engineer.  As such, it is a compilation of facts and anecdotes laid out in a clear sequence.  It is the biographical equivalent of the Ikea instructions to assemble a chair.  These are the tool you need, this is what you do first, and then what you do second and third. Be sure to use the right screws, and make sure that you don’t have any of the verticals confused with the horizontals.  It gets the job done, and I think that is the highest praise I can give to Ikea instructions.  There is, of course, an overlay of emotion and pathos in Mr. Pausch’s book, he isn’t building a chair, but his step-by- step approach leaves much of his story dry and, um, wooden.

I have since watched the video of the lecture (easily available on YouTube) and come away with a much different conception of Mr. Pausch and what he accomplished in Lecture.  The lecture itself, and the video are is much more coherent and effective than the book version.  It is multidimensional, and perhaps that is what multimedia brings to any project.

Which, I suppose, demands a comparison between the old and the new.  The traditional and the modern.  The ho-hum and the ‘ooh, shiny’.   The Powerpoint presentation or words on a page.  But there isn’t, really, much room for  a comparison.  To me, they just serve different purposes.  

Would you rather travel in a Boeing 737 or just walk?  It depends on where you’re going; to the grocery store for milk and bread, or to Brazil for the Olympics.

Would you rather wear a ten-dollar watch purchased from Ted’s Close Enough TimePieces or strap on a three-pound beauty that is waterproof to a thousand fathoms, accurate to 1/10,000 of a second, and automatically synced to the atomic clock at Greenwich England?  It depends on whether you just want to know when to go to lunch, or if you are the official timekeeper of the International Submarine Race Watching Regatta.

Do you prefer coffee, or an iced coconut half caf mocha macchiato with steamed milk and a peppermint stick?  Well, that depends on…. Actually this one doesn’t depend on anything.  I’ll just take a coffee, please.  Light, no sugar.

Reading for me is a quiet, uncomplicated, undemanding form of recreation.  Like an old friend, it is not a relationship that I have to work at.  No quiz at the end, no time limits, easy to stop in the middle, if my attention wanders, I can always go back.  

If I want to focus, concentrate, be inspired and educated, the new technology is the way to go.  If I want to take the time to integrate information, and enjoy the slow trickle as  it meanders into my brain pan, a book words every time.

Cold Hit

Just finished reading a crime/ police procedural novel by Stephen  J. Cannell called Cold Hit.  Mr. Cannell is something of a latter-day entertainment polymath, having scored big success in producing television shows as well as a series of novels and a couple of acting gigs.

As for TV shows, he was “creator” or “co-creator” (I use quotes because I think the act of creation should have a deeper meaning and greater value than a TV show, but that’s just me) of such winners as The Rockford Files, The A Team, 21 Jump Street, and a few others that even a casual viewer would recognize.  He has also had a dozen or so fiction books published.  Pot boilers, they used to be called I think, and his are pretty well done.  These kind of books are very popular now.  The list of authors is way, way too long for a blog, but I’ll mention two recent series  that I am familiar with.  The Kinsey Millhone books, written by Sue Grafton and the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker.  But, the tradition goes way back.  Way, way back.  Okay, I’ll show off a little.  The 80’s had The 87th Precinct books, the 70’s had Travis McGee, the 60’s had Lew Archer, the 50’s had Mike Hammer, the 40’s had Sam Spade, the 30’s had Nero Wolfe, the 20’s had Agatha Christie… it goes on and on all the way to Sherlock Holmes, and the progenitor of them all, C. Auguste Dupin.  

Who is C. Auguste Dupin, you may well ask?  He is the first fictional detective.  Ever.  And written by someone not generally known for his detective work, Edgar Allen Poe. Edgar A. apparently sobered up long enough to come out of his dungeon and write a pretty good detective story, The Purloined Letter.  Poe’s detective, by the way, has, hands down, the greatest title ever in the long history of detective fiction.  C. Auguste Dupin is the Prefect of Parisian Police.  Alliteration!  Three P’s!  I love it.

The fates of fictional police detectives have taken a turn for the worse since Monsieur Dupin massaged his little grey cells in the City of Lights.  Detectives, especially members of the police force, now have fallen arches, alimony payments and inhabit offices in bad parts of town with metal desks and a lingering odor of stale coffee.

That’s where Stephen J. Cannell’s detective lives and works.  He is Shane Scully and he is a Detective third grade out in California.  He has a wife who is a police captain and has, apparently, cheek bones that are worth describing several times.  He has a son whom he only met at the age of fifteen but is now going to USC on a football scholarship.  He has an alcoholic police partner who tries to kill him and who may be the serial killer that is the central plot device of the book.  Tossed into this heady olio are the FBI, Homeland Security, the CIA, homeless Vietnam era veterans, and Russian mobsters who are planting listening device all over Los Angeles.  

With all these narrative billiard balls careening off each other, and I suppose Shane Scully is the cue ball that gets them careening, mayhem and misdeeds occur apace.  Fibs were told, and whoppers too.  Feelings were hurt and hearts were broken.  Close relationships were threatened, but love triumphed.  Threats were made and shots were fired.  Bad guys were killed by the score except for one or two who were only maimed so they could tell the whole story to a federal prosecutor.  In the end, as it is supposed to be in the world of fiction, all loose ends were carefully bagged, tagged and wrapped up.  It was a good read.

This is not a book that increases your vocabulary or your IQ.  It won’t have you tossing and turning at 3AM pondering metaphysical questions.  Mr. Cannell doesn’t chime in on the existence of free will or add to our investigation of a grand unified theory.  It’s just a good read.

I think Edgar Allen would approve.  

Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut

Just finished reading “Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut. A really odd book.  Part biography, part paean to his family, part sci-fi novel, part, I think, farewell.  He wrote much about his family and friends, and how old they were, and how many of them were dead.  The book is sprinkled with suicides.  Vonnegut has always been bittersweet, but this was much more bitter than it was sweet.

Tough to follow, of course, because one of the fundamentals of the book was the fiction that a hiccup in the universe sent us all back 10 years to 1991, and we had to live those years all over again.  When the 10 years was up, and free will returned, people went into PTA or Post Timequake Apathy.  No one remembered that they had to actually do things consciously like steer a car, because it had all been done automatically for 10 years.  So, when we all awoke to free will, chaos.  Car crashes, people falling down, airplane crashes… chaos.  He jumps around through decades and mixes real people with fictional characters.  Several sections have him talking to his most famous creation, the science fiction hack Kilgore Trout.  

A few funny moments in the book, but it was all much disjointed and at times,  cacophonous.  But, having loved  Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle and Sirens of Titan, and certain that Kilgore Trout is a misunderstood literary genius, how can anyone complain about Vonnegut?

Not Quite Enough

I’m just about to finish a book called “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin” which is a depressing prospect to contemplate.  I often feel bad at the end of a good book, sometimes even at the end of a bad book, largely because my taste in books is somewhat narrow.  I have been a careful reader most of my adult life (too immature to start earlier) and having enjoyed so much good, find it difficult to embrace the bad.  Well, there was that period of Star Trek novels, but I survived it with only minimal damage to my cerebral cortex, much less my pride.   Much of what is published today is dreck, I’m sorry to have to point out.  Or perhaps it is written with younger and more naive audience in mind.  Or perhaps for a subset of the reading population with a shorter attention span.  Maybe it caters to the type of people who wear red caps at Donald Trump rallies, although I have never seen any of that lot carry a book.  Perhaps reading is either frowned upon at those events, or the physical books themselves are thought to be weaponizable, if weaponizable is the word I want, and is actually a word.

But my point, which seems to have wandered off, is that I shall miss the humorous and clever style of Mr. Trillin.  He has been a staff writer with the New Yorker for several decades and has, apparently, taken pains to continually hone his craft.  He is a descendant of the literary humor tradition of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perlman, on up to contemporaries like Woody Allen, Dave Barry, George Carlin, Fran Lebowitz, and I’m sure to be leaving out other witty worthies.  

At any rate, which I just learned has been abbreviated to ‘AAR8’ for social media users, the book is comprised of short pieces and doggerel written from the late 70’s until 2011 or so and covers the germane and the goofy.  And, always with a twinkle.  I chuckled frequently.  I laughed out loud on several occasions.  I even, once or twice, guffawed, which is not like me at all.  Like a summer vacation, or a good glass of wine, I am sad that Quite Enough is almost gone.  It feels like not quite enough.

One of the mixed blessings of aging is a failing memory.  In my case, if I forget all I have read in this book, I can enjoy it again if a few years.  Alexander Pope, who wasn’t all that funny, said “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  Well,  I hope so.