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Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

January 30, 2017 1 comment

inferno-coverEvery now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.

I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol)Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.

Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.

Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.

First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.

Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.

Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.

Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.

Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.

As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.

Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.

Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.

And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*

The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.

All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.

In Which Anastasia Writes A Review

January 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Dearest readers,

I just wanted to take some time to share this review from my fiance Anastasia on the play “Informed Consent” by Zoe Laufer.

Anastasia’s take on the play is much more critical than others, and I find myself largely in agreement with her criticisms. The issues raised in “Informed Consent” are complicated and require careful and subtle understanding. To heighten the drama, it seems to me that complexity is substituted for one-dimensional conflicts that simplify and obscure, rather than elucidate, the problem.

The scientist has motivations that make her obsession with the research much more personal than what happened in real life, and I believe that this skews the conversation that the play tries to create against the scientific research aspect. Like other plays Anastasia has reviewed, such as Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” it seems that the drive to create a compelling narrative for the heart overtakes the story for the brain. Complex ethical and philosophical issues can be explored in theater, but “Informed Consent” and “The Hard Problem” do the topics that they cover a disservice and, therefore, their audiences.

Make no mistake: I certainly believe that we should have these kinds of difficult conversations, especially the one that “Informed Consent” tries, but fails, to elucidate. But narratives can be a dangerous way to approach them, and these two plays show why. Ascribing emotional, personal motivations to the researcher undercuts the argument in favor of scientific research while doing nothing to really advance our understanding of the ethics involved between the Native American tribe and the researchers.

In case you’re wondering, in large part I sympathize with the Havasupai Tribe’s concerns and I think that the University and the researchers erred and acted somewhat unethically. But I do not believe that automatically makes the scientific questions raised and the answered found ethically wrong, or morally wrong. My hope is that, in the future, researchers will tread carefully and ensure that they do have consent for the kinds of genetic studies that they want to perform.

I also hope that if someone writes a play about future ethical issues in scientific endeavors they will not distill the side of science into a character with made-up questionable and personal motivations that were not present in the real events that seem to poison the well for science and scientific investigations.

A Christmas Card from My Father

January 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Anger seethes at the bottom of all of the emotions whipping around my mind whenever I conjure a thought of my father. Barry Derke, erstwhile volunteer firefighter, tow truck driver, and county jail inmate. Current struggling alcoholic. I’ve wasted many–too many–hours swallowing the bitter bile of hatred that rises from the sad parade of bad memories I have of him. And that hatred shames me, deeply. What makes a man worthy of hate?

Barry

Was it the physical abuse when I was a child? The times I had to drag him out of a local bar? The many times he let me down by failing in his role as a father? The loss of the house? The money he took from me? Maybe it was all of that, but none of that. When I think about all of that–all of those bad memories–they make me angry, sure. They make me reduce a man to merely the sum of all of his bad decisions. But they don’t make me hate.

It’s the absence. The deep sense of loss. The feeling that something important was taken from me, though I’m not quite sure what that something is. The fact is that I remember having a father, and I remember what it was like to have that kind of guide and role model in my life. He taught me how to read when I was very young, and because of that I had always been ahead of the curve in reading and writing. Every single test put me in the 99th percentile. Barry is probably, more than anyone, responsible for who I am today.

He taught me how to take things apart and put them back together. He coached my basketball team in elementary school, and one year he was my baseball coach. The story of my father is one of contradiction and contrast. He is, under the alcoholism and the problems that stem from that, a good man. Or, at least, I see him as an inherently good man. But that nature was twisted into something that I grew to hate and despise.

I have tried several times to separate him from me–to push him out of my life so that I might have peace. But I’ve learned that underlying all of that anger is a layer of emotion even deeper, and it swallows up everything else. It’s fear, and it is potent. I have written previously that I am an atheist. I don’t believe that there is an afterlife. I believe that this is all we have and all we experience. As such, the only experiences I will ever have will be in the 72 or so years that I’ll inhabit this planet.

So I fear the day that my father dies and all I have to remember him is the hatred and anger.

Sometimes when I sleep I dream of the time he does and the images haunt me. Things left unsettled. Emotions raw and exposed, never healed, and never able to heal. If we are the sum of our decisions and our actions, Barry is a hard problem to solve. And what am I if I don’t even make an attempt? What does the sum of my decisions and actions equal?

Bitterness? Regret? Both of them are ever present in my mind, but I’d like to think that, over the years, they have lost power. And there are so many variables to track. I learned of an older half sister that doesn’t want anything to do with me after earnest attempts to reach out. How am I supposed to factor that disappointment in? Does Barry bear the blame for the intense sense of rejection I felt when it became apparent I had no place in my sister’s life?

Despite all of that, I strive to give him the benefit of the doubt. I try so very dearly to keep the hope alive that he will change. That maybe he can put the bottle down and never pick it back up. Foolish. There’s always some trigger. There’s always an empty bottle with dregs dripping slowly onto the carpet, an indelible stain on my efforts to bridge the divide.

When I ran for State Representative in 2014 he was arrested for a DUI and evading arrest by leading police on a chase. He was in jail for almost a whole year.


And yet, even after all of that I did my best to forgive him and reestablish a relationship with him. Even after all of the indignities of my youth I still saw enough good in him to make the attempt. The feelings are still so fucking raw from all of the failures, and as time goes on they only compound. Every year, after one of our setbacks, I toy with the idea of cutting him out of my life and moving on. Soon the anger starts to subside and I slowly let him creep back in.

I do not, at this point, believe that he can change. I do not believe that, after all he’s been through, he really wants to change in a substantive way. So where do I go from here?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. Part of me wants to just accept the most cynical of my instincts and just take it for what it is, and that’s the part that’s winning my inner struggle. We had made plans for my birthday last year, which happened to have fallen on Thanksgiving. My fiancee and I were to go to his place and enjoy some wine and dessert, but his partner texted me that very day to tell me that he had hurt his back, took a pain pill, and went to sleep.

It was only later that I learned, from my mother, that he was drunk. And this is the pattern that’s so familiar to me, and what makes my cynical nature win out. My father is defined by two things in my mind: his drunkenness and his absence, and he lived up to both.

I ask myself when did the positives become outnumbered by the negatives of Barry? Or, rather, when did the weight of the negatives overcome the weight of the positives? Like so many of my questions surrounding the man, this one is unanswered and I doubt it ever will be. I know I put my finger on the scale to try to balance out the negatives, and I struggle even now with how far I’m willing to press down on the scale.

And I’m putting less and less force into it. I skipped the Derke Family Christmas to avoid him, a move I already regret. It didn’t help that he and I wound up in the same room that night, anyway, and it was extremely awkward. I remove some more of the force I apply to the scale and I’m close to being able to let the gravity of his life win out over my own and separate myself from him.

But then I get a text a week after the new year: “U get ur card?”

To which I replied, an hour later, “Not yet.”

I got the kitschy card a few days later. It was cheap, and it was obviously reused; another name in another place on the card was kind of a dead giveaway. All it said was “Merry Christmas, Love Dad and Brenda.” A $50 gift card to a local gas station slipped out of the card and onto the floor.

I sat on the card for a few more days, turmoil playing out in my mind. Do I respond? Do I let him know I actually got the card? How much do I say before he thinks he can come back in? I do not know and it’s tearing me up inside.

I’m planning to move to Philadelphia sometime around June. This is not to run away from Barry or any of my struggles here–or so I want to believe–but to run to my future with my fiancee. The time for reconciliation with my father feels to be slipping away. As I’m going through the things I want to take with me, or leave behind, I come across an old photo of my father holding me as an infant.

My Father

I stare silently at the glossy slip of memory for ages. At one point I feel tears welling in my eyes.

I put my finger back on the scale and text back: “I got your card. Thank you.”

 

Categories: Life Tags: , , , , ,

Red Ink

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Red Ink

I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.

The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.

First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.

I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.

Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.

An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.

Musings on Writing in a Cafe

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I never really appreciated how sitting in a cafe can be conducive to the creative process before now. Before I saw them as loud, distracting things to avoid. But as I sit here, sipping Earl Grey and writing a book review, it strikes me how human it is. It seems to me that creative endeavors are human endeavors, and human endeavors are typically loud and annoying.

You could drown it all out by putting on headphones, but you miss isolated threads of conversation: “I was thinking…” and “That’s not how you…” What are they talking about, I wonder? The jazz music in the speakers overhead, the atonal beeps of the cash register, the whir of the cappuccino machine–the environment sings with activity, and the melody is alive and pulsing.

People talking, reading, studying–all with their own stories. So just look up and take it in from time to time.

Categories: Life, Musings, Writing Tags: , , ,

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 1 (Introduction)

January 11, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.

Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.

While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.

Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.

I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.

So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.

Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.

This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.

The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.

But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,”  and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.

So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.