Monday 21 October 2013

Twilight: First Chapters, First Impressions

My son just finished reading Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. He said he was reading it to see what all the fuss is about--the same reason I am reading it. He said, "Chapter Nine is the worst."

I have not reached Chapter Nine yet. At this point, it is much the same as Fifty Shades of Grey: a young woman meets a mysterious young man. Bella is fairly banal in personality. She is also clumsy, which leads me to believe that very soon she will be stumbling and falling into Edward Cullen's arms, just like E.L. James's heroine stumbles and falls into Christian Grey's arms. The Cullen family is rich and handsome, just like the Grey family is. I read that Fifty Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction, and so far the first chapters corroborate this. Meyer's writing is better than James's, though.

Thursday 17 October 2013

The Da Vinci Code: Page Turning as Entertainment

The Da Vinci Code is designed to be a page turner. Even though I was not always pleased with what lay on the next pages, I was certainly turning them. The chapters are very short, and they sometimes end with a piece of information whose details are not immediately revealed. That means having to turn to the next chapter to find out what the details are.

Actually, that usually means turning through three chapters. The book has many characters with many subplots, and the shifts between the subplots means that two or three chapters may go by before the story returns to the plotline that has ended so abruptly. The existence of subplots was a welcome change from the previous book I read (Fifty Shades of Grey). 

At first, I liked reading about the various holy sites and relics that the book describes. I read the illustrated version, which has nice stiff paper and many colour illustrations. I value books that teach me something. At some point, however, I realized that the details about these sites were often incorrect.  I have never been convinced about the pseudohistorical coverup of the Catholic Church and the Priory of Sion, but I thought the details about the places and relics were true--the book gives many details, often revealed in long speeches that the characters give to each other.

The first time I did my own fact-checking was in Chapter 20, a flashback to when the hero, symbologist Robert Langdon, is telling his students about the number phi, or the divine proportion.  Langdon tells his students that this number represents a ratio found not only in geometry but also in nature, so that, for example, the ratio of the diameters of the adjacent concentric spirals in a nautilus's shell equals a numerical constant called phi. I had never heard of this, and I was surprised because that is an extraordinary piece of information.

The reason, I found out through a series of Internet searches, I had never heard of phi in nature is that the claim is not true. The divine proportion, also called the golden ratio, is a ratio in geometry that artists have used in designing objects, but it is not true that this number appears consistently in proportions of the human body or in a nautilus shell. People certainly seem to have tried to find the golden ratio in nature (like in a romanesco broccoli head), and individual objects may have this ratio somewhere, but the only ones who are convinced of its absolute imminence in all nature are, well, crazy people.

Sacred vegetable [picture from Wikimedia Commons]
I kept reading, though. More codes, pieces of history, and descriptions of buildings flew past me.

At Chapter 26, the adrenaline of turning pages turn into something else--a spider-sense-is tingling hormone?--when I began to read about the book's details about Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was into goddess religions. That was news to me. The book does another flashback to another scene of Langdon in the classroom, this time with a class of convicts in a penitentiary. Here, Langdon tells his students that the woman popularly called the Mona Lisa looks androgynous. I looked at the picture that my illustrated book provides. She didn't look androgynous to me. Then Langdon says that "Mona Lisa" is Da Vinci's anagram for Amon L'Isa, a term that represents a union of male and female power. I said to myself, huh: did Da Vinci really use the word "Amon"? Did Da Vinci know English?

More Internet searching didn't reveal any evidence that Da Vinci knew English. More importantly, Da Vinci did not give his famous portrait any title at all. A sixteenth-century Italian art historian, who was born many years after Da Vinci died, gave the painting an informal title. English speakers call it "Mona Lisa" because Giorgio Vasari calls it that ("Lady Lisa," basically, based on the theory that this is a portrait of someone named Lisa Giocondo). Italians call the painting "La Gioconda," rather than "Mona Lisa." (Footnote: I became familiar with the use of "Mona" to mean "Lady" when I read The Decamaron. All the women are called "Mona" something in that book.) Doing this research made me take more seriously the many Da Vinci Code debunking websites out there.

The last straw for me was when I found out that Brown changed the name of a Da Vinci painting, Virgin of the Rocks, and switched the identities of two of the people in the painting, a big switcheroo, too, between Jesus and John the Baptist. These changes make Da Vinci seem like a better candidate as the grand master of the Priory of Sion, a hoax created by Pierre Plantard, who tried to convince people he was the king of France.

That is when I became angry. All this effort to send characters (and the readers) around France and Great Britain, dumping all kinds of data on us through long dialogues between the different people looking for the different mysteries, and much of this data is wrong?

The book goes on to make many other claims believed by, well, crazy people, and not by the unnamed historians and scientists that the book often invokes.

Perhaps it served me right to think I would actually learn something through this book. The book is not based on history,  but on pseudohistory.  I suspect that this book sold so well because people believed the pseudohistory. Many people would rather believe conspiracy and pseudohistory than learn actual history, which is more difficult to do quickly and sometimes is more banal.

I decided that this book was no better than those narratives that attribute all kinds of historical events to the machinations of the Freemasons, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Illuminati, the Jesuits, the Jews, the FBI, the mafia, Teletubbies, and African-American presidents. I enjoy some of those books, but they are a low level of enjoyment (I laugh at them, not with them).

I also noticed that the page-turning devices were just tricks to get me to keep going, like eating the mediocre hors d'oevres at a dull party keeps me going. Soon the codes began to sound stupid (the code writers like to write in eighteenth-century poetic language for no good reason I can see), and the answers to them are disappointing. The point of view shifts became clumsy attempts at creating suspense. A supposedly heroic character describes his actions in his own point of view, but he never reveals, even in his thoughts to himself, that he is the one behind all the murder and blackmail. This book has a kind of narrative crudeness that I expect in low-brow and middle-brow mystery stories.

Finally, the book that is about a pro-woman religion still has men doing all the rescuing and men in all the positions of power (even in the so-called pro-woman religion).

The book had no real intellectual or even spiritual content, in the end. Its content betrays everything that the book's characters purport to support. It is empty page-turning.

I lost faith in the story, and the page turning became more like the page turning I did for Fifty Shades of Grey: I was trying to get it over with.

Friday 11 October 2013

The Da Vinci Code: First Chapters, First Impressions
A monk, from the novel The Monk by Matthew ("Monk") Lewis

The first chapter is a prologue in which a large albino shoots a curator in the Louvre after extorting a secret that the albino already know about. The curator dies slowly, digestive fluids flooding his body, with a large painting by Caravaggio lying on top of him.

This opening unleashed all my fond memories of the sensation fiction of the early 19th century, especially that magnificent outpouring of paranoia and moralization, The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall, by George Lippard, or the monk-loving gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe  and Matthew Lewis. I anticipated some fun.

Into the first and second chapters (the chapters are short), I became disappointed. The writing quality is below that of Lippard's, unfortunately: Brown's is the Spartan writing of screenplays. The thoughts coming out of the main character, Langdon, are banally juvenile, more like what a teenager might think than a scholar. This so-called "Harrison Ford in tweed" is so blatant a copy of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones that to have another character say so explicitly is an anticlimax. I actually winced when Langdon pulled the old "look in the mirror" trick so that he could describe himself to the readers, another trick that writers of low imagination and inexperience pull. I pursed my lips with impatience when a police inspector absurdly flashes a photo of the dead curator to the good professor (why?)  and drags Langdon out of his hotel room (at the Ritz, of course--this is going to be another one of those books where everyone has to be rich) in the middle of the night to take him to the scene of the crime (that seems rather irregular police procedure). Well, I guess this book isn't aiming for realism.

The mystery is compelling, though many years ago I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the book which served as the source for the novel's overarching mystery, so I know already where the plot is heading. My foreknowledge of the novel's premise may make this book drag for me.  This edition has pictures (it's the illustrated edition), so perhaps that will help keep me turning the pages. Well, I have to keep turning the pages: I've promised to read this book.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Colbert, Munro and Murderous Albino Priests: A Miscellany

In an earlier post, I noted that The Colbert Report had a book club, called the cOlbert Book Club, and I wondered if it was a one-off thing to help promote the film The Great Gatsby. It turns out that there are now two books in the book club. The new book is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. On September 11, Colbert had writer Tobias Wolff and documentarian Shane Salerno as guests. Wolff spent much of his segment negatively criticizing Salinger's other writings. Salerno was more neutral about the subject of his film, which digs around Salinger's private life, something that may actually be easier to do now that Salinger is dead. Over the next decade, new Salinger books are going to be published.

Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The news made my day.

I just picked up my copy of The Da Vinci Code from the public library. I am reading it now and will post a First Chapter, First Impressions on that book soon.