Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tanner on Ice: Lawrence Block

An intelligence agent who does not sleep, who is then put to sleep for 15 years (that was years, it’s not a typo) and wakes up feeling fresh as rain and looking 15 years younger, manages to go back to his home, is contacted by his earlier employers, is sent to Myanmar to topple the regime there (by assassinating a political leader – Aung San Suu Kyi), gets arrested, escapes, disguises himself as a monk (and so does his companion – a woman disguised as a monk!), incites a rebellion, succeeds, and comes back to the U.S. Do I need to say more?

Of course, there is some humor and political commentary, but nothing more than would come out from a regular water cooler chat.

I’m relieved I’m done with the book; I’m disappointed I started on it in the first place. Lawrence Block has written quite a few books – the others can only be better. But I think I’ll stay away from them. There are enough options in crime fiction, and in other forms of writing for me.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Everything Bad is Good for You: Steven Johnson

Everything Bad is Good for You (EBGY) is a tribute to pop culture – an argument that the complexities ushered by the popular culture of today, particularly in the form of video games and television serials, have actually sharpened our cognitive faculties.

Inspired by Woody Allen’s mock sci-fi movie Sleeper, Steven Johnson introduces the concept of the Sleeper Curve: “The most debased forms of mass diversion—video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms—turn out to be most nutritional after all.”

Starting from an American Professional Baseball Association (APBA) card game Steven played as a child, and using examples of a whole range of games like Pacman, Dungeons & Dragons, Ultima, EverQuest, Grand Theft Auto, and Age of Empires, EBGY debunks some popular myths about games and makes a strong case for (video) games. Some of the conclusions Steven draws – games are about delayed gratification; games are hard and hence not always fun; games hit at the reward circuitry of the brain; and the key in games is deciphering the rules – are interesting, insightful, and logical.

Using examples from serials of the past like Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Frasier, and Starsky & Hutch, and the more-modern day ones like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, ER, The Sopranos, and Desperate Housewives, among others, EBGY argues that there are three facets of television serials today – multiple threading, flashing arrows, and social networks – that make them more complex and cognitively more enriching than those of the past.

EBGY also touches on the Internet as another facet that is contributing to pop culture, with the almost inevitable nod to Google (“Google is our culture’s principal way of knowing about itself”). A brief mention of films rounds up the Sleeper Curve argument. (Steven’s assertion that Lord of the Rings is more complex than Star Wars, while true in terms of the parameters he has used, might not go down too well with some Star Wars fans.)

In the second part of this two-part book, Steven touches on how the complexity of the environment has led to an increase in the average IQ of humans (using the results of James Flynn’s investigation of IQ tests). And, while Steven himself admits that the link between the IQ increase and popular media is hypothetical, suggesting that the link is logical is probably a bit ambitious. And that perhaps is the weakest ground Steven stands on in the entire book.

In a sense, what Steven seems to be attacking in EBGY is an innate human preference for the past over the present, the concept of the “good old days.” And in a battle like this, he has the cards stacked against him, from two angles: his work is going to be approached by people with a fair degree of skepticism, and the past is always likely to have more data support than the future (there will always more dead geniuses than living ones).

Notwithstanding that, EBGY, is a good “old-fashioned work of persuasion.” A great example of this is the argument he makes when he takes a hypothetical situation: What if books had followed video games in the chronological order of things? This defense of video games (pages 19-20 in the hardbound Allen Lane Penguin edition of 2005) alone makes the book worth reading.

One final word: on the title itself. Everything Bad is Good for You sounds a touch desperate, a tad too deliberately contrarian, if you ask me. (As an aside, a colleague saw the book and thought I was into self-help books now.) May be Steven could’ve called the book The Sleeper Curve, in the tradition of The Tipping Point and The Long Tail?

Tailpiece: You will do well to keep an eye on one of Steven Johnson’s sites – Surely an idea for the future.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Imperium: Robert Harris

Imperium is a fictionalized biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. It traces the rise of Cicero from a common man to senator to aedile to praetor and finally to the summit: “at forty-two, the youngest age allowable… the supreme imperium of the Roman consulship”.

Imperium is written through the eyes of Cicero’s confidential secretary, Tiro, who probably merits a page in history himself, credited as he is with having created the first formal form of shorthand. And, as he very coyly says: “I can modestly claim to be the man who invented the ampersand”.

In addition to being a chronicle of Cicero’s life, Imperium also serves as a commentary on Roman politics and, as an extension, on politics as it has been through the ages and is still practiced today. Most of what was relevant to politics and public life in the Rome of Cicero’s time seem just as valid today as well – a politician’s worst nightmare (“the requirement to give a straight answer”), Cicero’s overarching and high-sounding campaign slogan (“Justice and Reform”), and his quip that “the business of governing the state was merely something to occupy the time between polling days.” Cicero’s definition of politics is chilling in its simplicity and truth: “…he thinks that politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.”

And it is not just in word that the different aspects of politics comes through in Imperium, but in deed as well. The fact that Cicero marries Terentia because she is rich and he needs money to finance his political campaigns is one example. Another example is the dichotomy when Cicero prosecutes Gaius Verres for corruption, and later on, defends Catilina even though Catilina is known to be corrupt.

The commingling of law and public life enables the author to weave in a lot of pithy aphorisms into the narrative. Here’s a sample.

“Only three things count in oratory. Delivery, delivery, and again: delivery.”

“The first rule in politics, Tiro: never forget a face.”

“An ounce of heredity is worth a pound of merit.”

“The one golden rule of cross-examination is never, under any circumstances, to ask a question to which you do not know the answer.”

To me, the defining paragraph in the book is this description of how an orator prepares for a political speech, and the little sentence at the end that defines Cicero.

No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gracefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory.

Another interesting feature of Imperium is the banter between Cicero and Terentia. He may have married her for money but there was more than money she brought to the table, best expressed in the advice she gives him as he prepares for his opening speech in the prosecution of Gaius Verres: “Make your speech shorter!” This simple but eventually significant advice of Terentia ensures that Cicero’s most famous and significant address ends up becoming, ironically for a man known for his oratory, “no speech at all.”

All this makes Imperium a very interesting read. However, considering that “all he [Cicero] had was his voice,” we could may be have done with more of Cicero’s oratory. More than once, Tiro gives us bits of Cicero’s speech and then starts reporting it and describing the results it produced. It might have been more interesting to read the entire speech and feel the consequences. May be a first person narrative by Cicero would have been more powerful and insightful into the mind of the man. An autobiography as opposed to a biography, perhaps.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

March Violets: Philip Kerr

(part of the Berlin Noir trilogy)

There was one other reason (apart from obvious one: it is crime fiction) I picked up Berlin Noir – to get a feel of the streets of Berlin in the mid-30s (I figured it was an easier way than reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or some such). And March Violets, the first book in the trilogy, did not disappear on that count. Set in 1936, around the time the Olympics kick off in Berlin, it traces the exploits of Bernie Gunther, a policeman-turned-private-investigator, as he gets commissioned by industrialist Hermann Six to investigate the murder of his daughter and son-in-law (among other things).

The encounters Bernie has with different people and the places he goes to give a good sense of anti-Semitism (“there’s no telling when they’ll ban Jews from breathing oxygen”), Berlin under the Nazis (“a big, haunted house with dark corners, gloomy staircases, sinister cellars, locked rooms, and a whole attic of poltergeists on the loose…”), Hitler (“…isn’t it how Hitler got elected in the first place: too many people who didn’t give a shit who was running the country?”) and the Hitler Salute, the shaping of Nazi Germany (“I am not interested in The Past and, if you ask me, it is this country’s obsession with its history that has partly put us where we are now: in the shit”) and the absoluteness and thoroughness of the regime, summed up in the simple but chilling logic in the question at the end.

“I have this friend, an engineer, who tells me they’re building an autobahn right across the Polish Corridor, and that one is projected across Czechoslovakia. Now why else would that be but to move an army about?”

What struck me the most with March Violets is the tone, especially considering the setting (Germany) and the nationality of the author (English): it comes across as extremely American. While there is the odd mention to Sherlock Holmes (“You can tell a lot by a client’s shoes.”), the tone of the narrative seems very American (including a reference to Dashiell Hammett, though in a not-so-positive sense: “He’s an American, but I think he is wonderful”).

“Detection is all about chain-making, manufacturing links” asserts Philip Kerr. However, you do get a sense that Bernie goes about his task in a not-so-logical a manner. There seems to be an attempt to make him a gun-toting, heavy-drinking, irresistible man with a swagger – the archetypal detective of dime novels, which tends to take away from the narrative a bit. Moreover, the use of the first person narrative does tend to grate at times, especially when Bernie is attacked. For a man to be coshed and still say “I was getting tired of being knocked out” does stretch the imagination a tad.

The other complaint I have about March Violets is the rushed treatment of final phase of the book – the phase set in the concentration camp. It stretches credibility that Bernie finds his quarry so conveniently and quickly. Moreover, a bit more of a description of the concentration camp could have been interesting. I think I will come back to the other two books in this trilogy later on – may be I will get more of that.

Post-script: March Violets is a derisive term used by original Nazis to describe new converts to Nazism.