LMR 20K: Fifth Time’s the…Something

TL;DR:Good 8K, slightly painful 8K, rough final 4K.

I’ve run the Lake Monona 20K (LMR) almost every year since 2009. Along the way I’ve watched it change from a fairly small race to a large one, with all the attendant problems that change could be expected to produce.

For fun, here are my results:

Year Time Pace
2009 1:53:39 9:09
2010 1:41:24 8:10
2011
2012
2013 1:56:41 9:23
2014 1:45:53 8:31
2015 1:50:45 8:53

Holy cow, I was fast in 2010! I ran my half marathon PR that year too, apparently—1:46:02 at the Madison Mini-Marathon. (I have just discovered that there’s a website, Athlinks, which I am probably the last person to find and which displays all my race results ever going back to my first-ever 5K in 2005 in which I finished in 38:05. Holy shit.) So this year was either my third fastest or third slowest, depending on how you look at it.

Okay, where was I? So this race always takes place the first weekend in May, and that means you never know what you’re going to get in terms of weather. Some years it has been quite warm, some years it has been cool and pleasant. This year it was warm.

The course is a nice one; it begins at the Monona Public Library, runs through some hills in the first 5K, has about 10K through downtown Madison/the Near East Side that’s quite flat, and then a few more hills as you come back into Monona. Most of my running group is getting ready to run a 4-hr (ish) marathon at Green Bay in two weeks, so the training pace was set for 8:59 min/mi. Well, good luck. The race now has 1,225 runners, which makes the start quite congested. After shuffling forward for (what felt like) a couple of minutes after the gun (in reality maybe 90 seconds), we crossed the timing mat and took off at an easy jog. At one point, hitting about 9:30, I joked to my friends, “This is the training pace, right?”

One of the better photos from the race.

One of the better photos from the race.

There was a lot of weaving and throwing of elbows through the first two miles. Eventually we managed to find enough open space to really get up to race pace, and to make up time we wound up running a little faster than 8:59 (miles 4–7 were 8:4x, so were 9 and 10). Ironically, the people I was running most with are not doing Green Bay, and neither am I. What the heck. We came through the 10K in about 55:08, which is fine, and hit the 15K in 1:22:25. Then a combination of heat, lack of water, and fatigue started dragging me back, and I slowed to a 9:xx pace. But at that point,we were almost to the finish, so it almost didn’t matter. With about two miles left, we met a guy named Jud from SLC who was having a pretty hard time of it. He was fun to chat with for a little while before he slowed down to walk, and my friend and I kicked it in to the finish.

At this point, I made a critical mistake, which was chugging three quarters of the bottle of water I got handed and then eating a granola bar and half an apple. The sudden entry of food and lots of water into my stomach when I had been moving so hard in the heat undid me. I had to sit down for a few minutes because I felt woozy, and then I slowly shlepped the half mile back to my car to drive home, grimacing from some unpleasant stomach cramps. When I got home, I had a shower and a nap, and then I took a salt tablet with my lunch, which made a pretty big difference in how I was feeling. So, pro tip: if you run really hard, don’t eat directly after you stop running. Give it a moment. Add fluids gradually. You will feel much better. Also, if you’re on a course with infrequent water stops and it’s the warmest day of the year so far, bring both salt tabs and your hydration system. I neglected to bring both, and regretted it.

Em oi! #406: Why I Am Still Awake

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Hat tip, as ever, to XKCD for panel 6.

About panel 5: My cat is in late middle age (she’s 12 this year) and she is fine. She has a bladder stone, but other than that she’s in good health. It’s just that after the sudden death of a loved one, I have developed the neurotic idea that anyone I love can die at any time, so I tend to be a little weird about her. At least I’ve finally recognized that my neuroses are what’s getting in the way, rather than anything in particular about her.

I bought a new sketchbook (from what is apparently the kids’ aisle at Target, because why would adults want art supplies?), and it has both watercolor paper and regular pen and ink paper in it. I accidentally grabbed some pages out of the watercolor section for this comic, so I decided to pull out my brush and sit down with a bottle of India ink and make them pretty. I think I succeeded–a few of the panels are some of my favorites I’ve ever done. It was less time-consuming than I thought it would be, too, taking just a little more than one episode of QI. The uploading was a bit fussier–it’s harder to edit watercolor paper things because of the texture of the paper and whatnot–but all in all I’m pleased.

Anyway, life around here is mildly chaotic. B’s leg is recovering well. And this week we’ve had workmen removing all the insulation from our attics in order to air seal the house. When it gets done, it will be great, because our drafty old house will finally be actually warm (and cool, in the summer). Unfortunately, it was about 40 degrees yesterday with a few flakes of snow, and today the high is 49. Thanks, Wisconsin. I’m wearing four shirts right now.

The other thing is that we decided on Sunday to start letting the dogs sleep with their crate doors open, for a number of reasons but mostly that they’re adults and unlikely to destroy the house without our direct supervision. And it turns out that our neighbor leaves for work at about 5:30 in the morning–I know this because Monday morning and Tuesday morning he woke up (and woke us up) barking very loudly at just about exactly 5:34. When I went down to comfort him, he decided he wanted to go out, and so by the time I got back to bed I was wide, wide awake and had a hard time falling asleep again. This was especially icky since I’ve been getting over a bout of stomach flu and really, really wanted to be asleep and not vertical. Then today, I figured I’d just get up to run early-early (I thought we had to leave the house at oh-my-G-d o’clock so some of the work could take place). I figured Edgar would wake me up, but I set a backup alarm for 6:00 anyway.

You can guess what happened, can’t you? Edgar did not wake up at 5:30. But I did.

I think there’s something in the Geneva Convention about this, Edgar.

We’ll file this comic under RC548 .L86 2015, for Internal medicine–Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry–Psychiatry–Neuroses–Sleep disorders–Insomnia–General works.

Edgar relaxing on his new bed.

Edgar relaxing on his new bed.

Are You Afraid of the Dark (Damp, Tight, Dangerous, Rocky, Cold…): Blind Descent Reviewed

Note to readers: I wrote most of this review whilst sitting in B’s room in the outpatient surgery clinic, waiting for his surgery to be over. So if it seems for whatever reason to be more than unusually disjointed, that’s why. He’s fine, by the way, and recovering well.–Ed.

Tabor, James M. Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth. New York: Random House, 2010. 978-1-4000-6767-1.

There is a whole genre of books about people accomplishing difficult feats in incredibly dangerous environments. Jon Krakauer, for example, has made a living writing this kind of book for some time—first Into the Wild, about an independent or insane (depending on your point of view) kid from a wealthy East Coast family who starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness, and then Into Thin Air, about a disaster on Mt. Everest (one he personally witnessed). In some of the book, the feat accomplished is more subtle; a good example is Peter Matthiessen’s[1] masterful The Snow Leopard, the diary of a trek he made through Nepal with the naturalist George Schaller. And then there’s Blind Descent, James M. Tabor’s book of two speleologists racing to find the deepest cave.

Cave in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

The only photo from the only cave I’ve ever walked through, in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam.

Caving—the type these guys are into, at least—is basically a crazy occupation; I think if you’re not already into it when you start the book, you’re not going to be tempted to pick it up. I have walked through a few caves that were fitted out for tourists, but real caving involves all the fun (and dangers) of rock climbing and scuba diving, except done in pitch black and often with freezing cold water running over you, with wind gusts as loud as a 747 rushing past. Sound like fun? Caving is cold, wet, dirty, hard, exhausting work, and the only thing that relieves the monotony is that cavers sometimes go crazy and get what’s called “the Rapture,” which is like a panic attack except with hallucinations and other terrible things. Also, if you get stuck on Mt. Everest, sometimes they can land a helicopter and bring you down. If you make a mistake and hurt yourself in a cave, you’re pretty much fucked unless your friends can carry you back to the surface—a journey that can involve vertical climbs (or if you’re incapacitated, hoists) of 500 feet or more. And that’s not even going into cave diving, which is basically a quick way to wish for death, as far as I can tell. Seriously, about half the named cave divers in this book died.

The book chronicles several expeditions launched by two men, American Bill (William C.) Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk. Stone works in a group of caves in Oaxaca, Mexico called Cheve (Chay-vay, not like the cheese; a New Yorker article spells it as Chevé), while Klimchouk works in Krubera Cave in the Arabika Massif in the Western Caucasus, located in what is either the country of Abkhazia or the Abkhazia region of Georgia.[2] In the book, their expeditions are set up as a sort of race to the bottom to discover the deepest cave.

Here I have to pause. In order to draw the reader in, Tabor to some extent skips explaining a lot of his terminology. By “deepest cave,” he doesn’t mean the deepest point on Earth (which would be in the Marianas Trench) or even the deepest point on land (which could be, I suppose, the bottom of the TauTona Mine in Carletonville, South Africa or the Kola superdeep borehole, or potentially the valley under Byrd Glacier[3]), but the deepest depth reachable when descending from the mouth of the cave. To put it another way, Krubera Cave’s entrance is in the mountains, approximately 6,500 feet up (159), so when these cavers descend 7,208 (plus or minus 66) feet, they’re not going 7,208 +/- 66 feet below sea level. Tabor also glosses over what the actual science being done here is—although both Stone and Klimchouk are PhD-holding scientists, it’s unclear what either of them is hoping to get out of the caves beyond just messing around in caves for some reason. Stone does develop technology for use in caves (for example, a rebreather for diving, and a sonar machine for mapping), but he does that to support his caving habit and make caving better rather than doing some sort of cave-based research.

Although I think the book has a number of deficiencies, I first want to say that the writing is good and clear and the book is very engaging. For someone with no knowledge of caving, mountaineering, or diving, I understood the objectives each man was trying to achieve and was able to follow—with excitement—the progress through each cave. The major issues were these:

  1. Women: Although there were women along on both expeditions, Tabor is largely uninterested in them and women in caving generally unless they are 1) sleeping with Bill Stone, 2) the discoverer of Cheve Cave (unavoidable), or 3) I can’t think of a third category. Two of Stone’s girlfriends are involved in the expeditions he leads, and both are mostly described as beautiful—although Tabor is forced to admit that both are experienced cavers, he seems surprised when they actually pitch in and take part in the expeditions. Stone’s girlfriends’ appearances are mentioned both the first time they appear, and then again if they come along on a subsequent expedition, as though we might have forgotten that they are “beautiful,” “tall,” “striking,” etc. Another woman, involved in the Ukrainian expedition, is described as “as strong and brave as she was pretty” (231). Spare me. Needless to say, the men’s physical appearances aren’t really touched on, at least not in such obnoxious detail. In the American expeditions, the presence of women seems to be a point of friction between the male members of the team, but Tabor is uninterested in exploring the roots of this sexism, or discussing at all the history of women in caving; he’s equally uninterested in exploring why the Ukrainian teams seemed to include more women and have fewer problems with sexism. His writing style, though striving for some type of objectivity, doesn’t ever escape from these issues—for example, he mentions a woman getting her hair caught in a rappel rack during a descent—“what every female (and long-haired male) dreaded” (218). Why not just say “what every long-haired caver fears”? Does every female caver wearher hair long?
  2. Communism versus capitalism. Of course, Klimchouk grew up and learned to cave in the USSR, and his view of caving as a cooperative venture between a lot of highly trained people, each of whom takes on specific responsibilities, is in many respects radically different from Bill Stone’s strong-leader-tells-people-what-to-do mindset. Interestingly, Klimchouk’s expeditions seem to be more comfortable in some respects for the cavers (e.g., atmosphere—no sex in the camps; better rations) as well as safer (lots of people die on Stone’s trips, though Tabor absolves Stone of all the deaths). But rather than exploring the complexities of this difference, Tabor seems inherently suspicious of communism in a weirdly 1950s Better Dead Than Red sort of way (maybe I’ve just been hanging around far-leftist academics/radicals for too long?) and is uninterested in the political differences between leadership styles.
  3. Stone versus Klimchouk. While the book is framed in terms of two caves, the book is really written in terms of Stone versus Klimchouk, with the first half serving as a biography of Stone and an account of several expeditions to Cheve and the second half serving as a biography/account of Klimchouk and his expeditions. Except—this is kind of weird, and I’ll warn for a spoiler—while Klimchouk wins, he gets barely ten chapters to himself, plus a few more in the “Game Over” section, while the first thirty-one chapters cover Stone and Cheve, plus more in the “Game Over” section.
  4. A few off-color jokes in the endnotes. To be honest I don’t really care enough to list them here. They were off-color, though.
  5. As, I assume, part of the aforementioned attempt to reduce the science to make everything more readable, many questions about caves, caving, and the rules of the competition are left unspoken and thus confusing. For example, Stone’s group proved via a dye test that Cheve is much longer than its current terminus would suggest—the river that flows into its mouth has an outflow several miles and 8,500 feet down. If the cave went all the way through the distance betweeen the entrances and exits, Cheve would be the deepest cave. Yet clearly the water goes all the way through—why does the cave have to be traverseable by humans in order to take that distinction? Krubera has been dug out and widened in many places by its explorers—why is this legal? (Of course most of the time they’re removing breakdown—piles of rubble left by water—but I’m still curious what the stance on digging is.)[4] Why is cave diving so dangerous? Why do divers have to physically hold on to a line with one hand rather than clipping onto it like a mountaineer?
  6. Somewhat annoyingly, while there is a section of photographs, none of them are actually referenced in the text (as someone in publishing, I see this as poor form, though it does happen). Further, while there are lots of attempts to draw a picture using words of a specific cave feature, a photograph would have been instructive. Maddeningly, in a few spots photographs are actually described, but not reprinted.
  7. Finally, there is the weird desire for completion. As understandable as it is, I have to say that it seems a little bit weird to recount the finding of Krubera’s bottom in 2004 as “game over, end of the line, the last great terrestrial discovery has been made.” There are a couple of reasons for this—for one, that actually wasn’t the lowest point in Krubera—a diver has since pushed the bottom down by another 52 meters (although this happened after the book’s publication, so I don’t blame Tabor for missing it). But that’s the thing—as Bilger puts it in the article I linked to earlier, Everest was Everest before Norgay and Hillary got to the top of it, but you don’t really know how deep a cave is until you’ve gone all the way to its bottom. So not only can there deeper points in the same cave, there could easily be deeper caves elsewhere in the world—something Bilger points out, but Tabor seems loathe to admit. While I understand the desire to tie things up, this seems factually inaccurate.

So there are those things. On the whole, though, while I found them annoying and perplexing—and while I would have made different choices in many places had I been writing/editing the book, I found it, as I said, largely engaging, easy to read, and informative on at least the main points of caves, diving, and the bizarre phenomenon known as supercaves.


[1] I am saddened to see, writing this, that Peter Matthiessen died almost a year ago, on 5 April 2014. If you are looking for a good read, I heartily recommend The Snow Leopard. He wrote a lot of other books, too.

[2] Tabor seems uncommitted on this point, but in fact there’s a lot of geopolitical mess going on in this region—Abkhazia wants to be a country of its own, but it’s recognized by only a few other countries, so it exists in a weird sort of limbo at the moment.

[3] Unlike determining the highest point on Earth, these lowest points seem to have a lot of asterisks: the Kola superdeep borehole is the deepest, but it’s man-made and not human accessible—I think the Kola superdeep borehole was specifically conceived as a project to see how deep a hole could be drilled. The TauTona Mine is human-accessible but, again, man-made. The sub-glacier spot is covered with ice (for a while longer, anyway). There are also caves that are bigger than either Cheve or Krubera (such as Sơn Đoòng Cave in Viet Nam, although Wikipedia doesn’t explain in what respect it is the biggest). So as with so many things, it depends on how you’re asking the questions.

By the way—the Wikipedia page for the Kola superdeep borehole gives in two paragraphs more scientific explanation for why anyone should care about going deep into caves/drilling a deep hole in the ground than Tabor gives in his entire book.

[4] This question and some others that have come up for me were answered at least partially in the New Yorker article linked to earlier: Bilger, Burkhard. “In Deep: The Dark and Dangerous World of Extreme Cavers.” New Yorker, 21 April 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/21/in-deep-2.

Passover Comix

I wanted to get these up here before Passover ended and they became irrelevant for another year.

I have been toying with the idea of drawing comics to submit for publication (not in a newspaper, but maybe in a well-known national magazine), and if I had gotten some of these drawn a few months ago, maybe I would have sent them (well, potentially one of the three). But I didn’t. So whatever.
passover comix1

passover comix2

I should explain that we often substitute a carrot for a shank bone because we have never been able to successfully figure out where to get a shank bone. Also, um, gross. The hardboiled egg is actually supposed to be a roasted egg, but…I don’t know how to roast an egg. I had to look up how to hardboil one.

This last comic is part of a (now) long-running joke between B and I that began somehow when I took a boot over to a local place called Cecil’s Shoe Repair. I cannot explain more than that because like so many things, I don’t really understand what has happened. But if you need your boot fixed, I recommend Cecil’s.

schmaltz shack

The menu here says:

Menu
Shmaltz
-Hun [chicken]
-Gandz [goose]
-Pareve*
-Mit onions [with onions]

* “Pareve” means something that, according to the laws of kashrut, can be eaten with both meat and milk dishes. Usually it can be thought of as vegetarian, but that’s not always the case–for example, gelatin and rennent are both considered pareve (because they are too far removed from the animals to really be animal products by kosher standards) but they are strictly speaking not vegetarian. Also fish are considered pareve. I don’t really understand why, but hey, I’m not a mashgiach.

Also I should state up-front that I’m not actually sure if “hun” means chicken in the sense of the animal or chicken in the sense of the meat. Some languages have two words for the two items (like how farmers raise cows but people eat beef). I did this using Google Translate late at night. I don’t actually speak Yiddish.

What else. Oy. I have had a really hard week. I’ll say it. And yeah, I know people who are having actual hard weeks, and I feel really bad using language that might equate my life with theirs, as if having to go to Walgreens at 9pm to buy extra half-price Easter candy were really “difficult” in some way.

Easter candy shame

Easter candy shame

But I do feel just…ground down, unable to concentrate, tired, distracted…part of it is that I am a mammal, and I guess I need to actually take sleeping seriously instead of EVERY NIGHT setting my alarm for six hours after I go to bed, as if somehow I will suddenly (re)manifest the ability to get out of bed at that hour, which happens to be my current strategy. Then I lie in bed for an hour questioning my life choices. It’s fun.

I have been upping my mileage running, and also eating a lot of matzo**, which is lower in calories than my usual breakfast, so that might account for the low energy as well. (Although I have been also upping my Easter candy consumption.) We’ve also had a parade of contractors through our house as we prepare to fix some insulation issues, and then on Tuesday during the first rainstorm of the year, a window suddenly began leaking. We relatively quickly found the source of the problem and kludged together a repair (okay, B climbed a ladder [during a storm–eek] and pushed the flashing back into place). Since then it has continued to rain, meaning that it hasn’t really had a chance to dry out so we can fix it permanently. Also, B is having knee surgery next week, and I’m nervous about it. More nervous than he is, actually.

Okay, I’m pretty tired and I still have to take the dogs out so I’m going to wrap this up. Happy Passover to those who celebrate it, Happy Easter to those who celebrate it, and also Happy Ostara, and any other holidays I’m missing that might have happened. Happy National Poetry Month too. My favorite poem used to be “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I’ve been getting a lot of rejection letters lately and it’s becoming harder to keep an ironic distance from the narrator. So, uh, let’s go with “Personal Ruin” by Claire Wahmanholm, which is in some respects on a similar theme but a lot more hip. What’s your favorite poem?

** I accidentally for various reasons bought five pounds of matzo. As of right now, one week from the first night Seder, I have eaten…one box (one pound). That’s with the people at the Seder helping me, and also with a friend coming over and eating some.

Postmodern Mysteries: Hawksmoor Reviewed

Ackroyd, Peter. Hawksmoor. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Where to begin with this one. How about a summary, I can do that:

Around 1711–1715, London architect Nicholas Dyer is building seven churches. The churches are all being built on various ancient sites around London—places where there are plague pits, ancient cemeteries, or the remains of older churches, both Christian and pagan, because in those spots there is “an Assembling of Powers” (p. 23). Dyer follows a sort of pantheistic syncretic religious tradition that, for reasons that aren’t completely revealed, requires someone to die at the site of each of his churches. In one case, the problem is solved by the son of a stonemason falling off the scaffolding; in other cases, Dyer murders someone and buries them on the site or leaves their body there to be found later.

In the twentieth century (no date is given, but it’s presumed to be modern times, i.e. 1985 or so), Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of murders at a bunch of London churches. All the murder victims have the same names as those killed by Dyer—and that’s not the only similarity. For example, Dyer’s assistant is Walter Pyne and Hawksmoor’s is Walter Payne. Bits of rhymes survive across the centuries to be recollected dimly by various characters. And of course, the places that the characters visit are basically the same—London is, after all, a very old city.

To add somewhat to the confusion, there actually was an eighteenth-century architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked (as Dyer does) under Sir Christopher Wren and built several (six)[1] churches in London in the early eighteenth century, and his churches were mentioned in From Hell as being symbolic of a weird, pantheistic (in that book, Masonic) tradition.[2]

The book alternates between the first person recounting of Dyer—written in a very credible eighteenth-century English—and a twentieth century omniscient narrator. Thus although the death happens before the end of the first chapter, we don’t actually meet Hawksmoor until almost halfway through, which in a traditional mystery novel would be quite odd. It does make it much easier to sympathize with Dyer as a character over Hawksmoor, who remains aloof.

Hawksmoor has been seen as a postmodern novel by critics (though not specifically by its author, evidently) and has won a lot of awards. The book itself is steeped in symbolism and has attracted a lot of notice from academics. I found it interesting intellectually, but I didn’t feel any real emotional pull. The parallels between the eighteenth century and twentieth century start to make the two parts kind of repetitive and predictable. I enjoyed parts of it, and I like the idea a lot, but I don’t think I really liked the book all that much.

One major theme in the novel is the “battle” between chaos and rationalism, with Dyer and his ilk representing chaos and Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society. The 1700s were the beginning of the Enlightenment, and Wren argues that people are beginning to look at the world rationally. Dyer, on the other hand, sees the myriad ways in which people are terrible to each other, wrapped up in superstitions, uneducated, stupid, willfully blind to the truth, and sees the world as being on an unalterable downward spiral. The assumption of the book is that in the twentieth century, Wren’s rationality has won (represented, for example, by Walter Payne’s computerization of police work), but Dyer’s chaos echoes through in the churches (and certainly touches Hawksmoor, who begins to descend into madness during the course of his investigation). I am not sure what the conclusion is, who Ackroyd thinks has won; probably a case could be made for either. For my part, looking at the world today I am pretty sure chaos is winning—people are still controlled by superstitions, which they spend immense amounts of time arguing about and even killing each other over; politicians are controlled by corporations instead of listening to their constituents; we’re unwilling to treat other people like human beings on the most specious of characteristics—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof—one would think, in a civilized world, we wouldn’t need laws to tell people to treat each other nicely, it should be common sense. Americans are more willing to give up their lives than to admit that global warming is happening and have to give up their lifestyle. In short, things are pretty bleak.[3]

And yet. As much as I am convinced that this is a crappy time of human history to be alive, this book reassures me that between the plague and the London fire, the admission of tourists to see the madmen housed at Bedlam, to say nothing of the French Revolution (not mentioned in the book but a prominent event of the eighteenth century nevertheless), every time of human history has always been a crappy time to be alive.[4]

A slightly more optimistic ending that I wrote and couldn’t decide what to do with:

If you read the footnotes, you’ll see I referenced Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who was a blood libel martyr—that is, in around 1255 CE, he was found dead in a well, and someone claimed he had been killed by Jews;[5] as a result of this and some other political factors relating to the collection of taxes from Jews, ninety Jews were arrested and eighteen were hanged.

Seven hundred years later, in 1955, the Anglican Church put up a plaque apologizing for the whole thing. While seven hundred years is certainly a long time to wait to issue an apology, it’s a start. I’m still pretty sure we’re doomed, but, eh.


[1] Interestingly, six of the churches named in the book are real and were built by the historical Hawksmoor; the seventh, the church of Little St. Hugh, is named for a blood libel “martyr” (entirely appropriate for this book).

[2] That’s not to cast aspersions of any sort on the real Hawksmoor, just to note that this book was an influence on Alan Moore.

[3] Alternative sound track suggestion.

[4] I hear there were some days in 1962 that were pretty nice (somewhat dependant on where you were living).

[5] Typically, blood libel accusations included Jews killing Christian children and, in an ironic communion-like twist, using their blood to make matzos.

Em oi! #405: Philosophy Ruins Films

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Well hello. It has been a while since we had one of these little chats, hasn’t it? I’ve been reading a lot, but not blogging too much beyond book reviews. So you’re probably asking, “Hey Em, how’s it going?”

It has been all right. Not great, not amazing, but also it’s going much better than it was in January. I went through a rough patch between seasonal affective disorder and a leg injury. The first was solved with phototherapy, the second with PT, which is just about finished. PT has been a strange collection of triggerpoint dry needling (which is not super pleasant, and the alcohol wipes are giving me a rash) and various exercises and stretches designed to 1) make you feel inadequate when you realize how many of them you keep forgetting to do and 2) fix whatever imbalance exists in my hip that is hurting my ankle. In the meantime I spent a lot of time swimming in January when I was totally off running, and then running only on the dreadmill and elliptical in February—I’ve been doing about 24 miles on the dreadmill and close to that on the elliptical as well. I’ve also been lifting weights a lot; since early September, B and I have switched to a 5×5 program which is a lot more intense than our previous 3×10-type program. My lifts have gone up a lot, which is very satisfying, but I’ve also put on some pounds of muscle and so my bra no longer fits right.* The best news is that as of tomorrow I am encouraged to try running outside again; if everything goes well, I may be able to show up to race the 50-Furlong World Championship in Paoli on Saturday. I doubt I am in condition to defend my title as 8th fastest woman in the world at that distance, but it would be really nice to race again.

What else have I been doing? Learning to code. As in write computer programs. So far if you want a program that spits out a triangle (right or equilateral) in ASCII or that curses at you in a variable way based on your input, I am your programmer. Actually, I have to admit that this is my second attempt at learning to code. When I was an undergraduate, I took the introduction to programming course the UW offered (which is taught in Java). Now I am learning Caché ObjectScript, which is a much less well-known language, but it is easier in part because B is teaching me, and it turns out that he is a much better teacher than the grad student (who may have been a forestry major?) they had teaching the intro class when I took it. B is a good teacher; it’s also convenient to have my professor on site rather than inaccessible except by email sometimes. I may also be a better student now.

Well let’s not go overboard on that.

I’ve also been learning indexing. And Chinese. And editing a bunch of books (I did three full-length manuscripts, on ancient Athens, moral philosophy, and sociology, from the first week of February until last Friday the 7th of March). In other words I have been busy, not sleeping enough, unable to find time to do the things I enjoy or see my friends much, and basically acting like I’ve not developed any coping skills since college. But things will get better now.

A note on podcasts and the like. A bunch of people gave me recommendations, many of which have been very satisfying. The Hound Tall Podcast (formally The Hound Tall Discussion Series with Moshe Kasher) is very funny and a lot more Jew-y than Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (I recommend the George Clinton interview if you haven’t heard it yet). Of course the Ultrarunner Podcast is a good way to keep up with a sport that no one follows but me; my new goal is to get interviewed on there, since I’ll probably never get on Fresh Air. Also, the Moth Radio Hour has some very good stories–also some gutting ones, so do be careful. Finally, John Harris’s excellent podcast/audiobook of The Epic of Gilgamesh was both exciting and intellectually stimulating. I may or may not have time to do a whole review, but in the meantime, it’s highly recommended.

I’m filing this comic under PN1995.9 S695 L86 2015, for Drama–Motion pictures–Other special topics, A-Z–Star Wars films.


*If you are reading this and saying, “Wait, you only own one?”, I will tell you: You obviously don’t know me. Ninety percent of the shirts I now own came from races. I am not an enthusiastic shopper.

Dwelling on How Doomed I Probably Am

Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: The Complete Edition. Read by Max Brooks et al. Abridged edition. New York: Random House Audio, 2013. MP3, 61 files, 12:12:26.zombies

Max Brooks must have been the victim of the most liberal of liberal educations; everywhere in this book are concerns about capitalism, oligarchies, religion, imperialism and colonization, international relations, race and racism.

Let me back up. This audio book, a full-cast performance of Brooks’s World War Z, was recommended to me by some friends in part because of the all-star cast; characters are played by the likes of Nathan Fillion, Mark Hamill, Jeri Ryan, Rob Reiner, Alan Alda, Common, Simon Pegg, and Martin Scorcese, to name a few. Since the book is set up as a series of interviews, the various narrators work really well (with a few exceptions, which I’ll come to in a minute). The effect was more like a radio play than audio books typically are, and in general I really enjoyed it.

World War Z is a survivors’ tale—it follows an unnamed narrator (voiced by Brooks) as he journeys around the world to interview and record the stories of those who fought in the zombie war, so from the start you know that humanity made it through, and that things are, in a certain sense of the term, all right again. The zombies here are your typical living dead: slow, shuffling, intent on eating any life-forms they encounter. Brooks is not interested in, and in fact explicitly rejects, any attempts to humanize the zombies. He doesn’t delve too far into how the plague appears, though he implies that it is related to the Three Gorges Dam project. He also seems clear that “the plague” is a virus, but doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the idea of treatment or a cure.[1] His characters ask questions about the weirder points of zombies as he sees them, like how they can be frozen and reanimate when thawed, or how they can walk on the ocean floor at depths far beyond what a human should be able to tolerate, but there are no answers provided.

The intriguing thing about WWZ is that it’s not just mindless genre fiction[3]; Brooks really uses his characters to land a number of solid and well-deserved blows against humanity, and the US especially. Zombies are actually really interesting this way—they reflect a lot of different neuroses or fears: they can be metaphors for capitalism or consumerism, represent our fears of our own inevitable deaths and the problems with a desire for immortality, or showcase a desire for a radical shake-up of society. Unlike natural disasters, which hit only a limited area, or even diseases or economic collapse, both of which are manageable if you have sufficient privilege (money), zombies are a nondiscriminatory evil. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the recession started there was a zombie obsession in the US. Zombies represent the ultimate stock market crash, one where you never have to face paying off your credit card after you’ve lost your job.[4]

Although Brooks’s narrator tries to be objective, the book as a whole seems to be relentlessly Marxist. Some of the things Arthur Sinclair (leader of the US resource-management program, played by Alan Alda) comes up with, about people doing useful labor and feeling pride in the things they made, seem to come directly from The German Ideology. Brooks has strong criticisms of capitalism in the character of an unrepentent entrepreneur who used Dr. Oz-like canny to sell Americans a bunch of snake-oil vaccines before absconding to Antarctica to wait out the plague. Brooks is also strongly critical of coercive forms of government; under his projections, China becomes a democracy (United Federation of China), and he has a lot of harsh words for the old guard as they leave; Cuba becomes a democracy too, and he has nothing but scorn for the newly created Holy Russian Empire (primarily because of its co-option of [genuine?] religious sentiment to push a totalitarian agenda). In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place to say that he’s generally somewhat misanthropic, though some of the characters fare better than others. He also digs in deep to give a really diverse view of the problem; although there’s strong representation from the US, the story is also peppered with a South African military planner, a Chinese doctor and a sailor, a Sri Lankan translator, an Indian army engineer, and a variety of other people from the global south. He even manages to get a wheelchair-bound guy and a blind man in. In terms of representation, he’s batting a million.[5]

The cast was generally great, though—and I guess other reviewers have pointed this out as well—Steve Park cannot do a Chinese accent to save his life.[6] The characters are a mixed bag. Brooks is particularly interested in the blue collar, working class, soldier-level view, so while we hear from a few individuals who held positions of authority during the war, most of the speakers were or are army grunts, hired help, suburban homeowners, and others who are essentially powerless (or see themselves as such) in the face of “the system.” He even interviews the vice president, but not the president. I will say that in amongst all the scorn, Israel gets off pretty easy (having self-quarantined at the beginning of the outbreak, they suffered a civil war led by the ultra orthodox, but wound up reuniting with the Palestinians); however, I have to admit I found the character of the Palestinian teenager who believes the plague warnings are Israeli propaganda designed to lure Arabs to their deaths (until he sees the zombies for himself) was a very compelling character.

More troublesome in amongst Brooks’s misanthropy was his borderline misogyny. A lot of the female characters in the book are harpies, or else individuals who need men to save them. The first woman we meet, Mary Jo Miller (played by Denise Crosby, also known as Tasha Mutherfuckng Yar), is an unpleasant suburban woman in a loveless relationship with her husband who seems to hate her children and who comes off as really unintelligent and uninteresting. She’s said, at the time we meet her, to have become a developer making zombie-proof compounds, but the transformation from cliche housewife to entrepreneur is not chronicled. In another scene, we listen to a young woman (Jesika Hendricks, played by Michelle Kholos) recount a story in which, while her family is starving through a Canadian winter and she is on the verge of death, her mother bullies her father into trading a radio for some stew[7] by calling him a number of unpleasant names, including the f-word. This I cannot profess to understand; if your child is starving and you need meat, you don’t need to ask your husband to go get it; you as an adult human being are capable of making that decision and trading the radio yourself. Another woman is said to have the mind of a four-year-old child, owing to traumatic events in her past.[8] Maybe I’m just resentful that the men, even the male characters who were kind of scumbags, all seemed to have sweeping plot lines and interesting, exciting ideals they were clinging to (and make surprisingly few references to wives, girlfriends, or other females that populate most men’s lives), while the women seemed largely motivated by their husbands, children, and in one case by her mother issues, and they were almost all in need of rescue rather than being the rescuers. Yawn.

Science fiction and horror books can often be read as inherently regressive. Technology is dangerous, they seem to say; just look at what it has caused. Certainly by waving a blaming finger in the direction of the Three Gorges dam, Brooks seems to be saying the same thing with his zombies. But he doesn’t dwell on the technological aspect of things—the dam may have caused the problem (or perhaps not), but the real issue once the plague begins is humanity’s damn inability to stop fighting with itself and get on with fighting the real enemy. One former Iranian pilot describes the outbreak of nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan because the governments were unable to communicate; a Chinese naval officer describes having to blow up a submarine that spent valuable time and resources tracking down his sub after he defected; a US army grunt (Todd Wainios, played by an extremely effective Mark Hamill) describes being caught absolutely unprepared and overrun by the enemy at the Battle of Yonkers. The grunts typically understand the tactical errors and idiocy of their superiors; over and over, the general story seems to be “the government made decisions that seemed unethical/unintelligent/impossible, but I was powerless to change it.” Even in the face of the total collapse of the world’s systems, individuals are still largely disenfranchised. Scary stuff.

After all that, my favorite section, the one that nearly moved me to tears, was the interview with Darnell Hackworth, voiced by Common.[9] Hackworth runs a retirement facility for former zombie sniffer dogs; he describes the process of training them and the bond he shares with his partner, a now-elderly dachshund mix named Masie (“Maze”). In the midst of a long, long story entirely about man’s inhumanity to man (both in the inhumanity of the zombies and the stupidity of the various crises), the bond between man and dog really stuck out to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sentimental animal lover myself, but the clear affection between man and beast stuck out as a wonderful, caring, normal moment in a sea of other unsettling details.

I don’t mean to sound entirely uncritical, since there were a few plot holes that never seemed to be well-explained to me—chief among them that the zombies freeze in the winter. How many zombies can you kill in a day if they’re frozen? Seems like that could cut down on the problem right there.[10] It’s worth noting that there were a lot of gory if clinical descriptions of zombies that turned my stomach. And certainly the weirdest moment involved Todd Wainios’s description of the liberation of Janesville, Wisconsin. That was kind of a “What the ever-loving fuck” sort of moment.

Sometimes, really great works of genre fiction transcend their genre and become something larger. World War Z is trying really hard to get there. I think it almost makes it. Scathing political commentary aside, it’s got some fun stories, a solid meta-narrative, and it’s also really thought-provoking. In a bad way. By which I mean that after a few days of listening to the story, I started looking around my house and making assessments: too many large windows at ground level—a great selling point when we bought the place, but not great for securing the building. Our fence is only six feet tall and chain-link, built for keeping dogs in rather than keeping zombies out. Our dogs are not really guard dogs and, while they might bark when zombies approach, they also bark when the neighbor goes outside, or sometimes just because they have dog brains and they bark for no reason. I am not really good at keeping plants alive, so growing our own food sounds difficult if not impossible (also there’s six months of winter here). Neither of us can fire a gun. If the economy collapses, my main skills are running long distances and speaking other languages, and B is a computer programmer. We are totally doomed. Doomed.


[1] My understanding is that his first book, the 2002 Zombie Survival Guide, mentioned a few ideas about curing the very recently infected and generally dismissed the idea as untenable—although he notes that in some cases, amputation of the bitten limb may have worked? (This is all based on the book’s wikipedia summary.) Which also makes me wonder about amputation as a treatment for rabies. Sorry, this is a digression.[2]

[2] OKAY I looked it up and it’s actually really neat. So the rabies virus—unlike other viruses, like HIV, which are blood-borne—actually hitches its way up the nerve axons from the place where a victim is bitten to the brain (where it kills you through a mechanism that is still not understood DESPITE HUMAN RABIES CASES GOING BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF RECORDED HISTORY). Thing is, this nervous-system travel is really slow, so if you cut off the affected limb, you can effectively cure the infection. One mouse study found that amputation within eighteen days of infection was sufficient. See G.M. Baer and W.F. Cleary, “A Model in Mice for the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Rabies,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 125, no. 5 (1972): 520–527, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30110879. So the question becomes now: are zombieism (and related conditions perhaps, like lycanthropy) blood-borne diseases like HIV, or do they move along the nervous system like rabies? The literature is remarkably silent on this point (although check this thread on the Straight Dope message board for some opinions). (Future PhD thesis topic anyone? You’re welcome.)

[3] No one is criticizing mindless genre fiction, I’m just not writing about it.

[4] When I bought a house, I read somewhere that a house is basically just an interconnected series of systems—electricity, water, gas, heat, walls/windows (the point being that keeping it in one piece, an intimidating idea for a first-time homeowner, is actually not so bad—you just keep the various systems going). The country as a whole, even the world, are all actually composed of interconnected systems: the delivery of utilities (water, electricity, the internet, natural gas), provision of security, shipping (gas to gas stations, food to stores, parts to factories), the economic system, the health-care system, schools, the roads—a million nodes in public and private networks that work together to make things happen on a day-to-day basis. The substructure, as Marx would say. And I guess the point of a rapidly spreading highly deadly “plague” like that experienced in WWZ is that it overwhelms and crashes a bunch of the systems at once worldwide, versus smaller-scale catastrophes that might crash only one of the systems on a less-than-global scale.

[5] Strikingly, North Korea is mentioned but does not appear; it appears the entire population of the DPRK has vanished. It is suggested that they are underground. (This is rumored to actually be possible.)

[6] In my version of the recordings, there’s also a weird part at the end where a few of the characters sort of inexplicably read the narration to their parts, making the whole thing sound like this. Maybe this got fixed in other releases?

[7] Strongly implied to be human stew.

[8] I didn’t buy this section, for a number of reasons. And she didn’t talk like any four year old I’ve ever met.

[9] Yeah, I know about him because he was on the Nightly Show a few days ago. Seems like a smart fellow.

[10] Wainios suggests the snow is so deep that it’s hard to find them all. Not sure I buy that explanation.

Such Tsuris: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Reviewed

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. 978-0-00-714983-4.

First edition cover, via Wikimedia.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review, or what my potential readers’ background on these topics may be. I guess the place that makes the most sense to me to start is with Yiddish. Or more specifically, this question: “Why is Hebrew the language of Israel?”

The answer is both more simple and more complicated than you’re probably imagining. Way back in the day, Hebrew was spoken. Then it wasn’t—those who saw that Mel Gibson film might remember that some of the characters in it spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew.[1] Also, during the diaspora, some Jews spoke Greek. I believe there were actually quite a few Jewish philosophers who wrote in Greek around the beginning of the Common Era. Hebrew survived as a written language through the Middle Ages in much the same way that Latin did; it was a language in which Jews all over Europe could correspond.[2] Gradually, however, people started actually speaking local languages that were to a large extent creoles—Yiddish (spoken mostly among Eastern European Jews) is the most famous, but there’s also Ladino (spoken in Spain), Judeo-Arabic (different variants of which were spoken in many places across North Africa), and Bukharian (spoken in Central Asia), to say nothing of the local languages of the places the Jews were living.[3]

So we have a linguistic jumble, and around the beginning of the twentieth century, we also have what is referred to as the first Aliyah (1882–1903), in which a bunch of Jews (35,000) immigrated from places including Eastern Europe and Yemen to what was then Ottoman Palestine.[4] What language to speak? Hebrew, as the language of the Tanakh, was perhaps an obvious choice, but there are a lot of problems associated with taking a basically dead language and reviving it. To give an easy example, as languages go along they get new vocabulary words as new things appear. So if a language was last really spoken in the Middle Ages, you suddenly have to come up with words for things like buses or electrical outlets.[5] This work was carried out by one guy: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is typically credited with basically singlehandedly bringing Hebrew back to life. Not only that, after making Aliyah, he and his wife raised their son (Ben Zion Ben-Yehuda) speaking Hebrew, making him the first native speaker in centuries.

Moving on from there, I think the history becomes probably better known to most people. Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine[6] increased greatly after WWII and the Holocaust. In 1948, Israel became an independent country and immediately survived the Arab–Israeli war (May 1948–March 1949); Hebrew became its official language, and Yiddish gradually diminished, as Ben-Yehuda had wanted. Actually, it’s not quite as simple as saying that Yiddish “gradually diminished”—the Israeli government adopted a policy of promoting Hebrew over Yiddish, even going so far as to ban Yiddish-language theatre in the 1950s. For a moment, however brief, Yiddish had a shot, and it didn’t work out.

This is approximately where Chabon picks up, beginning his alternative history of Jews with the question of “What if Israel hadn’t worked out the way it did?”[7] What if Israel had fallen, and Jews from all over Europe had instead made their way to somewhere else? During the aftermath of the Holocaust, there were proposals floated to give Jews a piece of land in Alaska. Of course, no one really wants to live in Alaska, so in real life nothing came of this. But in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, after the fall of Israel, that is where Jews wind up, in a settlement called Sitka, population 4 million.

Meyer Landsmen is a detective working for the Sitka police department, homicide division. Before divorcing his wife, he was essentially their top guy, but for the past two years he’s been in something of a decline. His partner is Berko Shemets, who is half Tlingit Indian and also his cousin. About two months before the Sitka territory is set to revert back to American control (think Hong Kong circa 1997), a man is shot in a room of the hotel Landsmen lives in. The man, Mendel Shpilman, turns out to have been a former ultra-Orthodox Jew (referred to as Black Hats in the book). Worse, he may have been the Tzadik ha-Dor, a man who might have, if the time were right, become the Messiah.

I have to give a little digression here on the Messiah, because if you are familiar only with the Christian idea of Messiah—Jesus descending from the clouds, seven trumpets, various pools of blood and people getting the end times kicked out of them—then you are going to be very confused by that last statement. In Judaism, the Messiah is more of a political position—like a king, basically. Somewhat more complicatedly, there are different ideas about how he gets to come do his job. Many people believe that it is up to people to perfect the world before the Messiah will come. Others put their stock in the rebuilding of the Temple (and I guess the reclaiming of Jerusalem? Although maybe that goes without saying) as the thing that will put everything in motion. These ideas are all sort of referred to in the book without really being named or explained in detail.[8]

Going back to the story: Mendel Shpilman is dead, and of course there is a cover-up and much push-back from higher-ups to keep things quiet. And so we begin a journey through a tiny, complicated, fascinating community. Chabon is playing with the oeuvre of Chandler, and the work is an interesting hybrid of the two of them, with Chabon’s poetry and Chandler’s precision of language. Chabon’s metaphors don’t surprise me as frequently as Chandler’s do; he’s too modern and not inspired enough by Hemingway. But he gets off a few good ones. For those who don’t know a ganef from a shlamiel, there’s a Yiddish glossary in the back of the book.

What else can I say? This book was intense. Unlike (many of) Chandler’s works, there’s something bigger at stake than just figuring out who killed one poor guy—the fate of the Sitka district and its inhabitants is constantly at the forefront of the characters’ minds. Like Chandler, though, Chabon plays a bit fast and loose with some of the plot details; thinking back, I cannot piece together the connection between the main plot and a particular tip given to the main character that leads him into a gun battle . . . but as with the case of who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, I don’t care. The story is too entertaining and engrossing to get hung up on tiny details like that.

The book’s ending is abrupt. Somewhat dissatisfying. Leaves room, perhaps, for a sequel. Of the first three of Chabon’s books that I read, The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, all contain significant Jewish characters and cultural references. I think, in fact, his books have gotten Jewy-er as he went on. Unfortunately, since this one came out his next book was about record collectors and midwives.

Finally, I have to note that despite the book’s centering on Orthodox Jewish men, who inhabit a world in which women are solidly peripheral, there are still a good number of women in the book with not just speaking parts, but some measure of actual power. Of course the main actors (or shall I say villains) are male, but it’s a measure of how attentive Chabon is that over the course of the book Landsmen interacts with a good number of women; in the hands of a lesser (or less caring?) author, there could easily have been only two women in the whole book. Here I think he outdoes Chandler, whose women characters are often around to push the plot forward as villains or seductresses (or seducees), and who are rarely just included as characters who provide information to the detective and then leave in the way that the male characters do. The egalitarian treatment here, in the face of the pervasive sexism of the Orthodox, is a nice if subtle touch.

I don’t have much else to say about this. As a writer, I’m jealous of what Chabon has achieved here. The book is a real triumph—not just of voice, but of culture and world-building. As a (rather unobservant) Jew, I’m excited by the reflection of something I identify with as my culture (if in a distant, somewhat warped way) in the mainstream. And as a critic, I’m comfortable saying to you: read this book; you won’t regret it.


[1] Aramaic is a Semitic language written with Hebrew letters. Today, the place a non-Jew or non-academic is most likely to encounter it is in the Passover liturgy, which has a few songs in Aramaic (e.g., “Chad Gadya”). Parts of the Talmud are also written in Aramaic. Also, not having seen The Passion of the Christ before, I looked it up–turns out the film is also in Hebrew and Latin, which kind of obscures my point.

[2] For more on the transformation from Latin to local vernacular languages (and the advent of nations in the modern sense), see Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson.

[3] My great-grandfather spoke I think six languages, maybe seven, on his arrival in America. He taught himself English by reading the New York Times.

[4] There was also a Second Aliyah, 1904–1914, and then more immigration during the period during which the area was under British control (1920–1948), during which it was referred to as the British Palestinian Mandate.

[5] Latin has also faced this challenge, at least in Vatican City, where you can get the ATM to display in Latin. A friend of mine who is a grad student in Classics claimed that the neologisms they’d come up with in Latin were unpoetic. Hebrew’s neologisms are often drawn from other languages—for example, the word for “bus” is “autobus.”

[6] Seriously, they couldn’t come up with a better name?

[7] I’m simplifying a bit, both in the actual history of Israel and the history of the world as presented by Chabon—the fall of Israel is far from the only difference.

[8] I should emphasize that, unlike Christianity, the arrival of the Messiah in Judaism is not preceded or followed by “end times” of any stripe. Christianity is very much a millenarian religion in that respect. [Ok, since I first wrote this essay, I have been informed by my youngest brother that a religion is only considered millenarian if the apocalypse they are predicting is predicted to happen soon–so Harold Camping saying the world will end on October 21, 2011 (spoiler alert: it didn’t) made him/his followers millenarian, but the general Christian belief that one day the messiah will return doesn’t make Christianity an inherently millenarian religion. I apologize for any confusion my remarks may have caused. –Ed.]

New Year, New Year

rc2_8828 This morning, somewhat against my better judgment,[1] I ran the New Year’s Day Dash, a 5-mile (road) race. Thanks in part to a few friends pacing me the first mile and a half (or perhaps I mean letting me hang with them before they took off), I finished in 40:34, a personal best and about a minute faster than my time last year. Perhaps that will be auspicious.

Everyone has been posting about their New Year’s Resolutions: go to the gym, lose ten pounds, eat healthy, get eyebrows under control. Some good ideas, some not so good. Well, I already go to the gym and I don’t really want to lose any weight, and my eyebrows are a lost cause. Instead, I’ve been thinking about books.

I read a lot. But after Goodreads sent me an email congratulating me on reading three books last year, I started going through my records and memory, as best I could, because surely that couldn’t be accurate. And, luckily (surprise), it wasn’t. I just didn’t review everything I read.[2] But I also have a bad habit of reading in parallel, so I might get halfway through something, then put it down and not come back for a year. Also, I read a lot of books for work–last year, I edited books on topics ranging from screenwriting to the rhetoric of the gross anatomy lab to Asian philosophy to nursing. So if I feel like I read constantly, it’s because I do . . . but it’s not always reading for pleasure.

Having come to this determination, I have made a list of books I want to read in 2015. As a writer, it helps to keep the mind fresh, and I begin to find that it’s important to find an escape from the grind of reading to edit, which is a different type of reading. I have to shut down that part of my brain sometimes. There’s no theme to these books, other than for most of them I saw reviews in different publications and found them interesting, and they’re in no particular order. I can’t guarantee I won’t get distracted or add or subtract from the list, but I’ll see how far I can get with it. My other resolutions are to finish reading/blogging about Ulysses, remember to water the plants in my office, and get my SADs under control. Let’s do this!

  • Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd Review
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Tender is the Night and The Crack Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (maybe)
  • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
  • Island, by Aldous Huxley (maybe)
  • Viviane, by Julia Deck
  • Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon Review
  • Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert
  • Gligamesh, by the people of Babylon
  • The Way of Kings, by Branden Sanderson
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by Lauren Slater (maybe)
  • Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor Review
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard
  • Blueshift, by Claire Wahmanholm (a pre-publication copy kindly provided by the author)
  • I’m not going to say I’m going to read Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre, but every year this time when my SADs get bad I try to.

Are you reading anything interesting next year? Or, alternatively: Any other resolutions?

rct_8273

You can check out book reviews I’ve posted here on the book review and book reviews tags, because apparently I suck at metadata. Also check out the writing category for reviews of films, plays, and other stuff (I promise most of it is not bitching about how difficult it is to write a novel).

[1] Against my better judgment ought to be the title of my blog sometimes. This particular race was against my better judgment because it was cold and I was up late the night before and also I have some tendonitis in my ankle.

[2] I usually only put reviews on Goodreads if I’ve written a review of them, and I only do that when something interesting strikes me about the books to write about.

I Do My Thinking Myself: The Modernist Detective and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. Reprint, London: Penguin, 2014.

Philip Marlowe takes a case for an old general by the name of Sternwood. A rich man, Sternwood has two daughters who run wild. He has received some IOUs—a spot of blackmail for one of the daughters (Carmen)—and wants Marlowe to look into it. As Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood mansion, the general’s other daughter, Vivian (Regan) calls him in to ask if he has been asked to find her estranged husband, who departed suddenly not long ago. He hasn’t, but he will before he gets out of the mess he’s just walked into.

The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel, furnishes a complex and twisty plot in which bad guys and good guys alike go down like dominoes. A woman’s ex-lover shoots a man who is photographing said woman in the nude and steals the photo plate, only to have it taken from him. The thief gets killed by the dead photographer’s lover; then the thief’s girlfriend tries to sell some information about the vanished husband’s ex-lover and winds up getting her intermediary killed by the ex-lover’s bodyguard . . . there’s more, but maybe I’ve made my point. At every turn, wisps of truth float through Marlowe’s fingers as he tries to figure out who knows what and who’s lying to him (hint: it’s almost everyone).

The book is set quite firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Prohibition is over and so, largely, is the recession; the oil derricks[1], which were responsible for putting the city on the map, are beginning to lose their primacy on the landscape, and the place is starting to grow rapidly. Not every detail of the book holds up well by modern standards. For example, the amount of fuss Marlowe kicks up about some pornographic books seems silly by the standards of the internet. A young woman being photographed nude is potentially a major scandal, whereas today it can make someone’s career. There’s a gay character who isn’t treated very well (although to be fair, when Marlowe chews him out, he has just murdered a man in front of Marlowe), and there’s a somewhat perplexing racial slur.[2] In addition, the question of who killed the chauffeur is famously left unresolved—however, I have to admit that had I not read an anecdote in which Chandler confessed to not knowing either, I likely wouldn’t have noticed that detail. Throughout, if these petty complaints ever threaten to overwhelm the story, Chandler throws in another beautifully crafted line to make the reader forget her complaints—although calling them lines fails to acknowledge how masterful his prose is in sum, how well-chosen each word is.

At the end of the book, we leave Marlowe in a bar in something of a moral quandary. Midway through the book, he mentions a chess board in his room: “There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight. . . . The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights” (168–170). By the final pages, Marlowe has taken over the role of the knight, and in doing so proved himself correct. He cannot apprehend the murderer or even reveal the location of the murdered man’s body lest he give the game away. All his attempts to protect the general and his daughters have backed him into a corner. And so he drinks and ruminates fatalistically on death, “the big sleep” (250). This paralysis is intentional. In effect, Chandler is producing a treatise on the modernist detective novel, and does as effective a job in defining it as he does in his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.”

The Victorian detective, epitomized by Sherlock Holmes, is a figure of romanticized panopticism. No matter how grave or petty a crime is, no matter how complex, Holmes reassures us that the criminal will be found. Marlowe, in his own words, is not Sherlock Holmes: “I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don’t know much about cops. It’s not things like that they overlook if they overlook anything” (131). Later he adds, “I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whisky, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it: I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of [gangsters]. I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much” (247–248). Unlike the comparatively aloofness of earlier detectives (such as the aforementioned Holmes; Philo Vance, who is also namechecked by Marlowe; or C. Auguste Dupin) who never get their hands dirty, Marlowe cares about his cases and spends his time sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He also reflects on the process of detection and how it has been represented to his clients.[3] The world has changed a lot since 1893; on the eve of the second World War, there are no reassurances to be found.

Ultimately I don’t think this is Chandler’s greatest novel—I’d give that accolade to The Long Goodbye—but don’t let that hold you back from reading it. Chandler, even on a bad day, is better than most contemporary writers could ever hope to be.


[1] Mentioned recently on Marketplace.

[2] Perplexing in that I’ve never seen an expression like that used. It was clear from context that it was slightly derogatory in some way.

[3] If the modernist detective novel is characterized by a greater degree of self-reflection, a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, and yet a feeling of futility or of being trapped by the situation in which one finds oneself, the postmodern detective novel is characterized by a broadening of focus in an attempt to solve crimes by looking at the ills of the society that produced the criminal, or by a sense that crimes are in some sense unsolvable. I’ll get back to you about the post-postmodern (i.e., contemporary) detective novel.

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