Tuesday, October 2, 2012

September Reading

Here's What I Read in September
All right!  Since we're not talking about baseball, let's get right into what I read this month.

1. The Odyssey of Homer (abridged)

I once planned to read the Odyssey and Ulysses at the same time, reading book one of the Odyssey, putting it down, and reading book one of Ulysses, etc.

That lasted for maybe a day.  I am not proud to say it, but there are books of the Odyssey that I've never read (and I've never touched a copy of Ulysses in my life.  Not proud of that either.)  One of these days, I'll get around to it.

So I taught an abridged version of the epic that is in our literature books.  The students did the reading, and most of them even seemed to enjoy it.  They all made board games to go along with the story, and some of them were really fantastic.

2. "The Honor System" by Chris Jones

This fantastic article comes from the October 2012 issue of Esquire.  Chris Jones tells the story of Teller, he of Penn and Teller, and his struggle to protect one of his tricks from being pirated by a man in the Netherlands who is not only performing the trick, but selling it.

"The Honor System," is not just about magic, an art form I really care nothing about.  It's a rumination on how artists create, and what makes a work of art meaningful to the artist and the audience.

"Shadows," the magic trick that Teller created nearly forty years ago is a great artistic achievement (the word "moving" is often used to describe its effect on the audience), but, being a magic trick, it is nearly impossible to protect from people who want to water it down and sell it to the hacks.  And that's the dilemma of the artist: when an artist creates something meaningful and shares it with an audience, he is leaving his art vulnerable to theft and imitation. The only way for an artist to protect the purity of his work is to keep it to himself.

3. The Final Solution (A Story of Detection) by Michael Chabon

Warning #1: there are spoilers ahead.
Warning #2: I have a lot to get off my chest here.

I have not had a reading experience this disappointing in quite a while.

The Final Solution, as the title states, is a detective novel.  There is a murder at the heart of the novel, as well as a detective, various false leads, and, ultimately, a solution.  I expected Chabon to have a lot of post-modern fun with the detective genre, knowing what I know about his virtuosity and love for "genre" writers.

First, this book fails on a literal level.  It's a half-baked mystery novel without many clues or much suspense.  The reader doesn't ferret out the murderer after drawing conclusions about the characters; Chabon just hands him over to us.  This guy did it, the book tells us.

Second, it doesn't justify its existence as a genre novel.  Is Chabon writing a detective novel simply because he loves the form?  Or is there something more at stake?  I was hoping for some sort of illumination about life or literature that Chabon would reveal through this journey through a tired an over-used medium.  And he delivers a little bit at the end (more on that later), but not enough to leave me feeling cold.

But there are more problems here!  First is the case of the nameless detective at the heart of the case, who is a ninety-something man living in the English countryside (it's 1944), tending to his bees and enjoying the solitude of his final years.  Apparently, this is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes himself, who Chabon re-invented and plopped down in the middle of his novel.

But then again, maybe it's not Sherlock Holmes!  The text never tells us directly.

All of this was entirely lost on me, though, as I don't know much about Sherlock Holmes.  I didn't pick up any of this until after I had finished the book, thrown it across the room, and looked it up on wikipedia.  And that, I don't have to tell you, is not a good thing.

There's a parrot in the book, too.  And the parrot is the companion of a mute Jewish boy, who has escaped the Holocaust in Germany.  The boy doesn't speak, but the parrot does--he recites a string of numbers in German.  Are these numbers part of a Nazi code?  Could they help England win the war?  Or are they merely a MacGuffin?

Well, I warned you that there were spoilers here, so I might as well provide one: no one ever finds out what the numbers mean.  They were a MacGuffin all along.

And that's fine!  I have no problem with MacGuffins!  In fact, at its best, this book put me in the mind of The 39 Steps, with its race to find out the solution to the mystery, only to realize that you never cared about it at all.  But the problem is when you title your book The Final Solution, instead of something like The 39 Steps.  "The 39 Steps?"  Now that's a MacGuffin.   "The Final Solution" is the Nazi euphemism for the Holocaust, and I don't see how it could me anything else.  It just doesn't fit here.

In the last moments of the novel, Chabon gets around to commenting on the genre of the detective novel.  Here, finally, our postmodern Sherlock Holmes wrestles with not only the limitations of detection and the detective novel, but the limitation of words themselves.
The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings--the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life.  And yet...one might, perhaps, conclude...that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst.  That it was the insoluble problems--the false leads and the cold cases--that reflected the true nature of things.  That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot.  
That left me with a tiny bit of satisfaction.  But, if you want to read a fun and meaningful post-modern detective novel, just read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon and be done with it.

4. Learn Hebrew Today by Paul Michael Yedwab

I own many books, but this is the first book that I've ever owned that opens from right to left.

Notice anything odd?
I just started learning the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and I doubt I will ever know how to say much, but I'm having fun nonetheless.


  1. I admit, I relied heavily on the Cliff's Notes when I "read" They Odyssey in college. But I have touched Ulysses.

    1. I read every word of the Iliad, and loved it, but I've never put in the time for the Odyssey. I must get around to Ulysses, though, and sooner rather than later.