Category Archives: Books

The Poe Shadow

Matthew Pearl specializes in a somewhat particular sub-genre of fiction, namely historical fiction.  His first book, The Dante Club, was about Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno to English, which is historical fact.  He adds, though, a series of gruesome murders seemingly based upon the Inferno which Longfellow and his fellow poets must muster up the courage to solve.  It was a very enjoyable book, fast paced and a bit violent.

Pearl’s newest offering is The Poe Shadow.  Again, it is an actual historical fact, the death of Edgar Allan Poe, that is the catalyst for the story.  And the events of the novel, centering on Quentin Clark, are entirely fictional.  Or, are they?  This novel is more than a fictional account of what might have happened to Poe in Baltimore in 1849.  It is Pearl’s hypothesis on what happened, developed after much careful research and the unearthing of new facts connected to Poe’s death.  That he chooses to present his theory in a novel rather than a journal seems to be due more to his desire to use fiction to present his theory than any real weakness in what he has uncovered.

Quentin, a lawyer in Baltimore, is somewhat obsessed with Poe and his writings.  Upon Poe’s death, which is very mysterious, Quentin takes it upon himself, with no small cost to his career and reputation, to uncover what happened to Poe.  This takes him to Paris, where he finds the supposed inspirations for one of Poe’s most famous characters, the detective C. Auguste Dupin.  Much adventure follows as Quentin and the detective return to Baltimore and try to uncover the truth behind Poe’s death before a charlatan beats them to it, or, worse yet, reveals some fictional account of Poe’s death that is believed more than the truth.

There are many subtle twists and turns that occur as Quentin discovers small facts about what happened to Poe during the mysterious 5 days between his first setting foot in Baltimore and his death.  The one unfortunate aspect of the novel, for me, was that the “truth” is revealed at the end of the novel in a very expository way.  The final story behind Poe’s death is related by the detective, Auguste Duponte, in a relatively dry account.  That the hypothesis had to be directly narrated to Quentin, and thus the reader, in this way was somewhat anti-climactic.

However, overall, the book was very interesting and the theory on Poe’s death proposed by Pearl makes good sense, mostly for the fact that it is not sensationalist at all.  All of the mysterious facts surrounding Poe’s death are attributed to relatively minor occurances, each of which, individually, are nothing extraordinary.  It is the accumulation of such details that lead to the mystery surrounding Poe’s demise.

Harry Poutter

So, during our road trip to Oregon, Lisa and I listened to the 5th Harry Potter book on tape, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was the first direct exposure I’ve had to anything Harry Potter. I haven’t read any of the books and I haven’t seen any of the movies. I’ve sort of avoided them. Not so much because I dislike them, but more because I’m not so interested in them either. Because of the mania associated with the product, I’ve just stayed away. But, we had a long drive and it seemed like a good idea to listen to something, and Harry Potter was as good as anything.

First, I must say, I guess I do understand what people see in the Harry Potter world. The story is pretty captivating, though it does seem to dwell on details and side plots that don’t advance the story much. Though, in the end, most of those seemingly tangential story lines do end up coming back into the main narrative and making a difference. And, I did want to listen to the whole story, all the way to the end, which tells you something about how interesting the story was.

I read some reviews on this book on Wikipedia. There were a lot of interesting and odd analyses of the story and the Harry Potter universe in general. There are some saying that since the main characters are all men, the universe is anti-feminist, especially when considering that some loathesome characters, such as Umbridge, are female. Others say that the books are subversive, celebrating youthful rebellion and the bucking of authority.

I didn’t see that much at all. In fact, I took the opposite from the story. Almost everything that happened in Order of the Phoenix was the direct result of Harry bucking authority, but in a bad way. Much of the story concerns his punishment at the hands of Umbridge, but he is punished because he can’t keep his mouth shut. In the end, the climax of the story is the direct result of Harry’s impatience at his situation. He feels like he knows everything and doesn’t trust or believe the adults around him. That is fine, but it is his defiance of those adults that lead to most of the events of the plot, events that often turn out disasterously. If Harry were just a bit more patient and didn’t mouth off and just relaxed, not much would have happened in the story. In short, it seemed to me that the whole story was driven by Harry’s short temper. If he was even keeled, there would have been no story. The story seems to be a lesson against the impetuousness of youth.

Even so, I enjoyed the story. I’m not going to go out of my way to read more, but I won’t avoid the opportunities to see a movie or listen to another chapter of the Harry saga.

Syrup by Maxx Barry

As you might guess by some of the postings on this site, I have a little problem with some features of our modern, consumerist society. And, directly related to that is how marketing is so tied into our psyches that we are almost literally forced to buy things we have no need of, but want nonetheless. Marketing is the engine that drives our consumer-based economy.

I first encountered Maxx Barry through his novel Jennifer Government. This is about a not-too-distant future in which we identify so strongly with the brands we consume, that we actually take our names from who we work for. Thus, Jennifer works for the Government. It is a scathing view of our market-driven world.

Syrup, in contrast, could take place today or tomorrow. Or even yesterday. It is about a young marketing major, who has renamed or, better said, rebranded himself as Scat, as that is cooler than the name he was given by his parents. He comes up with a million-dollar idea and tries to sell it to Coke, via one of their marketing people, a woman named 6. Scat is screwed out of his millions and thus begins his long path to success and his quest to win 6’s heart.

The novel is about how marketing is used to sell us things we don’t want, don’t need, but are convinced we should have. It is about the role of marketing in society and, as such, is sprinkled with marketing examples that, I presume, are from real-world marketing text books. These examples are pretty blatant in their assumption of the low intelligence levels of the masses. The scary thing is that most of these examples actually work. It would seem we are sheep waiting for someone to tell us something, anything, to do to make our lives just a little bit better.

Eventually, Scat ends up in a struggle with his nemesis, who is also at Coke, and who has put Scat into an impossible situation to succeed. Even though we are pretty confident that Scat will succeed (most protagonists do seem to succeed most of the time), how he will pull it off is always uncertain. This leads to enough tension and suspense that the reader is sucked in. And we are never quite sure how Scat’s relationship with 6 will turn out.

As a commentary on the role of marketing and advertising in our society, I find this and Jennifer Government to be extremely interesting and, might I say, insightful. I think that if we truly realized how much we are manipulated by marketing, we would be appalled.

I am reminded of the lawsuits against the fast food industry for causing obesity. I find these lawsuits pretty damn annoying, because I think that, as a society, we don’t take enough responsibility for our actions. However, I also believe that the fast food industry isn’t innocent. They know more about how we think and feel than we do, and they play to our human instincts to, in some sense, force us to want their product. In some real sense, I think we can’t help ourselves, and these companies are more responsible for some of the ills that face our country than we or they are willing to admit. While we absolutely need to be responsible for our own actions, companies need to be responsible for manipulating our emotions and desires for their own profit.

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya: A Life by Evan S Connell

Read: May-June, 2007

Goya is probably my favorite artist of all time, for two principle reasons. First, he is of Basque origin. In fact, his ancestors (either his grandfather or his great-grandfather) was from the town of Zerain, Gipuzkoa. My mom’s grandfather, Blas Telleria, was from Mutiloa, Gipuzkoa, which is right next door. In doing some research on my genealogy, I found that one of my ancestors was named Blas de Goya, also from Mutiloa. Thus, it seems to me that there is a small chance that Goya and I are “cousins”. Which I find sort of cool.

The second reason I like Goya is because I just plain like his art. Most of it I don’t appreciate much at all. It seems that half of art can only be appreciated in context. In the case of Goya, his paintings of the Spanish royal family, for example, seem to be lauded because he didn’t idealize his subjects and that was radical for his time. For me, it doesn’t seem all that exciting and I don’t really find all that much of interest in those paintings. However, his Black Paintings and many of his etchings are just plain fascinating. I was lucky enough to find a used copy of his complete etchings at Powell’s in Portland. Especially those dealing with the Spanish war with Napoleon I find very interesting. Goya depictions of humanity’s dark side are, in my mind, still unparalleled.

Some of my favorite paintings by Goya include Saturn Eating his Son, the Third of May, and The Colossus.

I just finished reading Evan Connell’s biography of Goya, entitled, simply, Francisco Goya: A Life. Rather than get into all of the minute details of Goya’s life, Connell rather puts Goya’s life into the context of Spanish society of the time. That is, we get to know Goya as much through his interactions with Spanish royalty as through his own deeds. Connell goes on a number of tangents dealing with important Spaniards of the time and their goings on. We learn a lot about the sexual conduct of certain powerful women of the time, partially because these women, including the Queen of Spain, determined so much in the life of people like Goya. I think part of the reason these women feature so prominently, though, is because of the titillation factor.

Connell’s style is very familiar. At first, this was a bit off-putting; it was almost too familiar. But after a while, I became accustomed to his style and actually really enjoyed it. Sometimes, the style makes it hard to follow what Connell is talking about. He uses very colloquial phrases and terms and writes as if he is talking with the reader rather than writing an authoritative biography on his subject.

This is the first book specifically on Goya I have read and it may be that part of the reason that Connell digresses on so many other people is because there just isn’t that much known about Goya himself. I just don’t know. For whatever reason, because of this style, we learn a bit less about Goya the man and a good deal about the Spain in which he resided, the Spain that shaped him and his art. We learn about the foibles of the nobility, the misery of the peasants, and the horrors of war. Thus, as a book on Goya, it maybe leaves a little to be desired. But, as both an account of Spain in the later 1700s and as an entertaining romp through history in its own right, this is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to any Spanish history buff.

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Started reading: ~08/01/01
Finished reading: ~09/01/01
Notes written: 10/26/01

I write these notes more than a month after I finished reading the book. I felt it was a very good book, maybe preaching to the choir in my case, but still making a very good case for the need for skepticism, of a need to think rationally about the things that we encounter every day. Sagan recounts many instances of people being fooled by hoaxes, both obvious and not so obvious, of believing them even after the hoax is revealed. People so desperately want to believe something, anything. They don’t look at things rationally, they don’t try to analyze them. They take things at face value, never trying to understand things more deeply than at the level that they are first told.

Sagan makes strong arguements for the need to strengthen scientific education, not only here, but in all parts of the world. People, especially now, now that our world is dominated by the products of science, need to understand that science more. To be able to intelligently interact with their world, they need to understand it better.

Sagan also points out the similarties between the current “fad” of alien sightings and abduction stories and the apparitions of the Virgin in the middle ages. Of how neither have any hard evidence for their occurence, but still are believed at face value. He describes how current knowledge of the workings of the brain do seem to lead credance to the idea of mass delusions. He looks at the witch trials of previous centuries to show how the majority of people can be brought to believe something that is not true, even something that the educated people of the time try to tell them is false.

Sagan does a great job of telling us why we need to learn science, why we need to think skeptically and critically. He also is sympathetic with people and their desire to believe these things. He would be the happiest man in the world if aliens did exist and visit us, but he sees no evidence of such happenings. He knows that people need to believe, need to escape from their world, either because it is mundane, or depressing, or too horrible to deal with. In some ways, it is an interesting comparison with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. There, comic books exist as a doorway to escape. Sagan knows that people need to escape, but he also feels that we need to be careful, that we can’t confuse reality – that which we can test, for which we have evidence – with fantasy. Joe, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, sees the ability to escape as necessary, as the only thing that has helped him to deal with the events in his life. Sagan, I think, doesn’t feel this is bad, just that people need to be able to tell the fantasies of their escape from the reality around them. And, the key way to be able to do this is to know more about science, as a window to understanding reality, as a tool for doing so.

I agree completely with everything Sagan says. I may not be quite as wanting to find aliens or these things, but I am wanting the fantastic to be real. I would like to see ghosts and have these other shades of existence be real. But, as Sagan, I don’t see any evidence for these things. I think that we all need to be a bit more of a scientist, that we need to be able to tell reality from fantasy just a bit more than most of us are able to. I think that many of us are easily swayed and confused by stories of the fantastic, that we so desperately want to believe in something that lets us escape our mundane lives, our lives too horrible to deal with, that we latch on to anything that comes along. We are, in some real sense, sheep, that would rather be told what to believe than to try to investigate the world and learn how it is for ourselves. This isn’t true just of the nature of reality, but also in every realm of human existence. We are told by our governments what to believe about the enemy, we don’t think for ourselves. Blind patriotism plays the same role here as blind faith in religion. We don’t think for ourselves, we just believe the status quo given to us by those in power. Sagan wants us all to be a bit more scientific so we can also deal with these kinds of fantasies as well.