Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Travels in Elysium by William Azuski

When someone tells you nothing is as it seems, believe them. They are telling you the truth.

Nicholas Pedrosa comes to Santorini on an archaeological dig, his first dig fresh out of university. Greece is under the control of dictators, the Colonels, but Santorini and the work done there is far from their control -- or so the archaeologists believe. Marcus Huxley is leading the dig and has surrounded himself with a group of like-minded individuals, emotional and spiritual orphans, following Huxley's lead from Sais to Santorini to find the answer to Plato's Conundrum.

Did Atlantis exist and has Huxley found it on Santorini? Only time will tell and Nico Pedrosa tells the story from his point of view. There could be a different reason for Huxley's disregard for archaeological protocol and his race to find the reason behind the empty homes found on one of the hills.

A volcano exploded in antiquity and the homes emerged from the pumice and ash in pristine shape. The paintings on the walls were as fresh as the day they were painted. Kitchens were neatly arranged with pots and pans stowed away. There were no signs that anyone lived in the homes during the eruption. Why were they empty? Where were the bones and the ash entombed bodies? Where were the people?

Nothing is as it seems.

The search for Atlantis is at the center of every culture and time since Plato's Dialogue with Critias.  At the heart of Travels in Elysium it is Plato's Conundrum that is at the center of the story.  Why did Plato end the dialogue in the middle of the sentence? William Azuski offers a running debate on that very question throughout his book.

While the story is off like a rocket at the beginning, it slows down to a crawl like a snail frozen in its slime trail at the middle and continues on, picking up again at the last third of the book and rushing to its conclusion. It helps to keep in mind that nothing about Travels in Elysium is what it seems just as it is also true of Marcus Huxley and the search for Atlantis, except that Huxley is not searching for Atlantis. He has another prize in mind.

What Azuski does very well is create a compelling premise, peopled with memorable characters (living and dead), and sets forth his own dialogue as a philosophical treatise disguised as an adventure. Travels in Elysium is as frustrating as it is rewarding and, despite the need to go haring off after White Lighters -- people who were clinically dead and returned to life -- everything has its place in the story. It is, however, easier to understand Huxley's obsession with finding his truth than to find the key that unlocks Azuski's fantasy until the final page.

Azuski's writing is steeped in philosophy, embroidered with metaphor, and suffers from middle of the book doldrums. Travels in Elysium is surprising and engaging -- and very frustrating at points -- but well worth the read.

Keep one thing in mind: Nothing -- and no one -- is what it seems.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: The Night Buffalo by Guillermo Arriaga

When the earwigs swim through your blood, the night buffalo isn’t far behind.

 Gregorio was just released from the hospital again. Manuel went to see him, unsure whether or not their friendship remained, and went home again certain he had been forgiven. That night Gregorio’s sister, Margarita, called Manuel. Gregorio was dead. Suicide. And Tania had disappeared.

Throughout their school years, Gregorio, Tania and Manuel were close. They were friends and more than friends. Tania was the glue that kept them together and the chisel and hammer that tore them apart. Tania was Gregorio’s girlfriend. Tania was also Manuel’s lover, although she could not be Gregorio’s lover. Gregorio was unable to perform with her, afraid to infect her with his madness, with his disease.

Manuel needs to find understanding. He needs to find comfort. He needs to find the sense of Gregorio’s senseless suicide and make sense of Gregorio’s message from beyond the grave. He needs to find Tania.

Guillermo Arriaga is primarily a film maker and his ventures into fiction showcase his cinematic sensibilities.  In The Night Buffalo he uses language in visual long shots and close-ups that define and refine the idea and the definition of madness in relationships.

In each scene Arriaga both informs and confuses the tangled relationships of the central characters, offering conclusions that never quite bridge the gap between sanity and insanity, imparting a sense of surreal hyper reality. Although the characters seem at first glance ordinary and nothing special, their stories and relationships common clay, throughout the narrative there runs a subtext that dances the razor’s edge of insanity until the fine line between reality and fantasy is so blurred as to be unrecognizable. In between is a no man’s land that reaches out and pulls the reader closer. The Night Buffalo is a stark and engaging tale of madness that leaves the reader wondering about the true nature of sanity and love and the nature of existence. 

Review: In the Valley of the Kings by Terrence Holt

A collection of confusing, wondrous and breathtaking stories.

Drawing from Greek mythology, Egyptian archaeology, science fiction and apocalyptic flights of fancy, Terrence Holt stories delve into the hearts and minds of what it means to be human. Among the eight stories, Holt weaves the threads of loss and fear and takes them from dusty and arid Egypt to the rings of Saturn. No matter where the stories lead, one thing is evident: humanity is a constant.

A viral plague born from a word begins the collected tales and shows the inadequacy and mystery of newspapers and the words that bring people to the brink of destruction and set them free.

Charybdis subjects an outbound spaceship crew to the dangers and uncertainties of space culminating in three men dealing with impending doom in three very different ways. In what could have been a maudlin tale, Holt makes each man’s choice not only logical, but also right.

I expected In the Valley of the Kings to be a straightforward archaeological mystery and was rewarded with obsession, immortality, and the price of intelligence. The story is infused with a subtle horror that thrills as it chills the blood.
There is nothing more unexpected than science fiction elevated to a search for the soul and the meaning of what it is to be human. Aurora and Eurydike are sublime in their exploration of death and resurrection. The writing transcends genre labeling with poetic precision and a sense of the macabre that is as fascinating as it is mesmerizing.

Of all the stories, my favorite was Apocalypse. Although the reason for the End isn’t clearly stated, the sense of impending doom and the indomitable capacity for hope had me riveted. The beginning of the story is slow and almost desultory, building to a climax that has nothing to do with catastrophe. Holt’s storytelling skills are magical, sounding a deep resonant chord that left me with tears and smiles.

The stories are complex and masterful, making use of repetitive phrases and swirling flights of lyrical prose that borders on poetry, windows into the psyche that exhibit the basics of storytelling—to fascinate and enlighten.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Politics of Wrestling

When we first came back to America from 3 years in Panama, I sat in my grandfather's living room and watched wrestling with him. I was introduced to the spectacle and the emotionalism of men battling men in the squared circle, which is what they called the wrestling ring. I saw Flying Fred Curry take down Ivan the Terrible Koloff and Ray "The Blonde Bomber" Stevens take down Ed "The Iron Sheikh" Farhat. World politics fought on TV every Saturday night. As international politics changed, so did the names of the wrestlers, but it was always Americans taking on the world -- and sometimes losing because of dirty tricks.

I was caught up in the spectacle and the cheered loudly for my heroes. I fell in and out of the wrestling scene as puberty and dating and marriage took first place in my life, but on long lonely nights when my husband was overseas or working nights, I found wrestling again. The names had changed, but there were always villains to boo and heroes to root for.

The Hulk was one of my favorites and, despite his flash, Randy "The Macho Man" Savage took my fancy. The Freebirds, a tag team wrestling trio, spawned love and hate, and the grudge matches always got attention. The name keep changing, but the tactics are the same. There are villains and heroes large as life on the screen, but it's all a fake. It's entertainment. Of course, I don't say that out loud where the World Wrestling Federation is popular among the people. I'd be booed and hissed at, possibly beaten about the head and ears, and maybe ridden out of town on a rail. I would hope the people would think me an elitist bitch and maybe pelt me with rotten fruit and vegetables as they urged me to get back into my car and drive as fast as possible for the state line.

I know it's all a fake. I know that the canvas the battle on isn't going to damage anyone. Necks will not be broken and heads will not be cracked. Wrestlers that perfected the back breaker don't break anyone's back. It's all an act. I've seen some of these mortal enemies having a drink after the match. They're friends. They'd have to be to hold up their part of the deals struck behind the scenes. But don't tell the rubes. They believe in all of that.

And so do we to a certain extent. We want to believe it's all true, that those men in the ring are fighting for truth, justice, and the American way -- just like Superman. Wrestling is the modern myth, the new age fairy tale, and it's not much different from politics.

I remember the screaming rage that sounded around the country when it was revealed that John McCain, Obama's political opposite, had had dinner at the White House with the President. How is that possible? They're enemies? They fought each other on TV and radio and in political rallies all across the country. They threw down and drew lines in the sand and dared each other to cross them.

Even more bitterly fought was the war that has been battled in streets all around the country since Obama first tossed his political hat in the ring. People believed in Obama's "Yes, we can!" speeches and they believe in them still, in spite of what has happened in the 5 years since he took office. People still believe that Obama is on their side and working against his political enemies in a no holds barred fight to the death and they support him all the way.

It's all a sham. It's entertainment for the masses while the real deals are brokered behind the scenes as each side takes their cues from the deals being struck. Today it's the Far Right Republicans taking the fall and tomorrow, or even later today, it will be Obama's political tag team taking their licks as news about how our freedoms and rights are being undermined as wire tapping and the IRS investigate groups in secret. It's all wrestling good enough for the WWF title belts.

It's no longer about what is good for the country or the people who elected these people. It's about power and prestige and money, lots of money. Where else could you see evil like Ivan "the Terrible" Koloff" or The Iron Sheikh attack Flying Fred Curry or The Hulk from behind and get away with it? We accept that evil exists in the wrestling ring and it will win sometimes, usually by playing dirty, but we know in our hearts the good guys will eventually beat the evil back and walk away victorious.

Not so in the Congressional and Oval Office wrestling ring. In that ring, Wall Street can drive the Dow Jones up to the sky and then pull out the pins and watch it fall while they rake in the billions, and then walk away with the money after having trashed the ring. They may lose their jobs, but they will still be wealthy and the little people who took them at their word will still be broke and their houses gone. The IRS will make sure of it as they sell it all off to pay the taxes.

What Obama and the rest of the politicians want you to think is that it's about health care and fiscal cliffs and national debt. It's not. All of that is part of the show. It's about keeping the people fighting each other while they make their back room deals and keep the audience high on righteous rage and fear that. It's about keeping all eyes on the men in the ring when the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

And few people will believe it.

I can already feel the rotten fruit and vegetables being readied as I run the gauntlet for the line.

Don't be fooled. It's all entertainment. And we are the ones paying for the tickets while the wrestlers take their bows and the villains this week snarl and bare their teeth in their fiercest villainous sneers. You may hate them today, but they will turn up in a few months or next year as the good guys. Villains come and go, but Congress and the Oval Office are here to stay.

How long before the American people wise up and realize it's all bitter rivalries in the wrestling ring and champagne after the match between these friends?

Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Thing About Time

Forty years ago today I officially graduated from high school. Forty years ago. Today. I graduated high school.

No matter how many times I say those words -- or write them -- it doesn't seem quite real. It's more real to be 40 years old and looking at pictures of myself as a child, but not this.

I've never had a problem telling people how old I am. I am 58 years old. It's a number. My oldest son will be 40 in November on Veterans Day. My boys are on the down side of 30 and sliding head first into 40. None of that gives me pause or makes me feel older, so why does this day that is 40 years from the day I graduated from high school throw me for a loop? I would've thought that children who are middle-aged would have done the trick, but no. It didn't.

One of my school friends told me that he fears the mirror. Seeing pictures of our classmates then and now is also unnerving. I see those pictures with the women in orthopedics sandals and wearing white socks frightneing. When did they get so old? Men going blad doesn't bother me; I like bald men. Well, most bald men. It's like sex. There are men who should sprint over to the toupee maker or Hair for Men and cover that up. They don't have the head for it.

Pot bellies, sagging breasts, breasts that look like the prow of a battle ship (and that's on the men), and all the changes that time and living have wrought over my classmates shocks me to my core. When I look in the mirror I don't see those ravages, but then I don't mind having gray hair or a few wrinkles around my eyes -- crow's feet -- or any of the other changes that have left their marks on me. I also don't have to see me from the outside. It's probably best I don't. I've no idea what traumascars that would leave me with and I'm not as resilient as I once was. 

Forty years ago I left high school behind and faced boldly into the winds of change, shouldering the welcome burden of adulthood, and smilig that smile I always smile when I'm unsure of my ground. I kept thinking, "This is what I wanted to give up my childhood for? What was I thinking?"

Childbirth was easy, but easy the way the first time you jump out of an airplane with a silk parachute strapped to you back and lived is easy. The second time around is always harder and I remember how much I wanted to get up off the labor bed and walk away without giving birth a second or a third time. I wanted the parasite struggling to rip through me to go away, much like John Hurt wished the alien ripping through his chest would go away. The fourth time was easy; I was out and the doctor left me with a tiny hairline silver scar and my hip bones didn't ache with the memory of pushing that basketball through a Meyer lemon-sized hole behind. I woke up and a few hours later I had another son. What could be easier? My body healed and the scar was virtually invisible. It was a walk in the park. Two o'clock feedings were a breeze and I went back to work within a week. I was tougher in those days. Now I just think I'm tougher.

The results are much less tough. I have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom at least once and I haven't slept 8 solid hours in far too long. My feet swell, my joints crack, and I ache some mornings when I've slept wrong. But how can I sleep wrong? I sleep on a pillow on the same side of the bed I've always slept on and the bed is comfortable. What was wrong about that? Oh, yes, I'm older now and things don't spring back the way they once did.

Then I listen to Beanie whingeing about how she can't hold a cross stitch needle any more because of her arthritis. She has ulcers and her scotty dogs (the vertebrae at the base of her spine) don't line up, which may be incipient scoliosis (curvature of the spine -- Gram and Aunt Joan had it), and she has another migraine to top it off. She's 10 years younger than I am and she's a whole lot worse off.

Or maybe she's not.

I think I may handle pain better than she does. I've had lots of practice -- basketballs and Meyer lemon sized holes. I had 2 more children than she did and I fell from a very high tree into a jungle, ripped open the back of my left arm, and walked away. Talk about resilient.

But I can't put my legs behind my head any more. I can only get one leg up to my shoulder. I can't lie on my stomach or the hernia the hysterectomy left behind, which was fixed and recurred, will end up twisting my intestines into knots and surgery will be my next stop.

At least I don't get migraines -- or headaches very often. The Achilles tendons at my heels are stiff first thing in the morning, but that soon goes away the more I walk. I waddle until the stiffness and the pain go away, but then my gait is smooth again.

Okay, so I judge the length of the walk before I take it. I don't run around doing errands the way I once did, not before figure out how many of them I can lump together to save myself time  -- and energy. I'm more willing to hire someone to clean out the gutters (I haven't been good with heights since I fell out of that tree in Panama) and clip the hedge and rake the leaves (good thing I live surrounding by a parking lot). I think before I look and then reconsider the leap. That's not getting older. That's being smart -- for a change.

The good thing is that I no longer worry about who I piss off. No matter what I do or how carefully I phrase things, I know I am going to make someoen angry. So what? They'll be angry no matter what or how I say it, so I say, "Damn! the torpedoes. Full speed ahead." I have finally achieved my ultimate goal. I am a salty old broad. (Broad being the operative word.)

Okay, so 40 years ago I graduated high school. My hair went silver and then began going back to brown. It's in the middle ground between brown and gray. I've learned a lot, lived a lot, and earned some crow's feet and scars. I'm less inclined to be gullible and have become a touch more cynical. I move carefully first thing in the morning and don't sleep all night. But I have traveled and seen life and experienced much of what is out there.

I have lived.

And that's the trick. I'm still here. In another 40 years, I may be the only person showing up for my 80th high school class reunion. At least I will be even more comfortable with myself by then.

Life has a way of surprising us. The biggest surprise is that when you reach the 40th high school class reunion, inside you feel much the same. You're trapped by time and maybe infirmity, but inside you're still the taut-skinned, full haired, lithe, and flexible you that walked across the stage and accepted the paper that meant you had graduated. You survived the high school years and were ready to embark on the journey of adult life.

Yep, we were taken for a ride.