June 25, 2009

The Last Templar **

** The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury, 2005

Back in the 90s I read The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's first novel. It was great. So I read his second, Foucault's Pendulum. It's a mesmerizing maisma of counterfiet conspiracy theories disturbingly come to life, in a sort of Our Man In Havana fashion, only with bigger words. And, as all good conspiracy books do, it harkened back to the Templars. In fact, Khoury gives a nod to Eco on page 74.

"You know what Umberto Eco said, right?" "No." "'A sure sign of a lunatic is that sooner or later, he brings up the Templars.'"

Liking what Eco did with the Templar vibe, I saw this book on the bargain rack in a weak moment and thought perhaps I'd give it a whirl. To cut to the chase, it's not as bad as The DaVinci Code, but it doesn't miss by much.

Khoury is no Eco, but then, who is? Even so, New York Times bestseller status notwithstanding, a book that uses the world clambered even once is suspect. When it uses it somewhere around a dozen times, occasionally twice on the same page, we're talking about some regrettable writing.

On page 14 my fears were confirmed when I read this paragraph about Tess, the female lead:

People just noticed her, period. They always had. And who could blame them. The seductive mass of curls that framed the warm green eyes that radiated intelligence usually triggered it. The healthy thirty-six-year-old frame that moved in relaxed, fluid strides confirmed it, and the fact that she was totally oblivious to her charms sealed it. It was too bad she'd always fallen for the wrong guys.

Well, of course she did. And why wouldn't she? Doesn't everyone? Especially female protagonists in romance novels and conspiracy thrillers? And then this on the next page.

She could hear traces of chamber music and tracked it to an all-female string quartet tucked away in a corner, sawing away energetically but almost inaudibly at their instruments.

And if Tess can be unreasonably beautiful while falling for the wrong guys, why couldn't the quartet be "sawing away" at their instruments? Why, indeed?

Despite such a discouraging beginning, I clambered through the whole freaking thing, all 523 pages. It's a story of religious fraud and a massive secret suppressed for centuries by the Catholic church that could destroy Christianity as we know it. Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

Add in a 20-page exposition on the Templars 1/4 of the way through, a 30-page religious argument 3/4 the way through, and a purple storm sequence worthy of the opening pages of The Bourne Identity, and what's not to like?

***SPOILER ALERT. But the thing that annoyed me as much as the writing, if not more, was the main message. Suppose an authentic historical document were discovered that conclusively and indisputably proved that Jesus, by his own admission, was just a man with some good ideas and that the Church invented the Son of God idea to retain power over the masses. The conclusion of the book is that if such a document were discovered, it would be better to destroy it and let the world continue to believe a lie. Devout Christians (in this case, the male protagonist and a cardinal from the Vatican) and agnositics who see the good the church does (the female protagonist) would endorse such an action. I may be completely delusional, here, but I think that most devout Christians are seekers after truth and would rather deal with the truth than base their life on a lie. Well, I would at any rate, so the premise did not ring true with me. SPOILER ALERT***

If you're stuck on a plane for several hours and you find this crammed between the seats, it would be a toss up between reading it or catching some sleep. Your mileage may vary.

June 18, 2009

Welcome to the Monkey House ***

*** Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut, 1998

Back in the 70s I fell for a chick who didn't fall for me. I know, a real heartbreak. That's the bad news. The good news is that as a result, I found The Woman, who always was and always will be the chick for me. And, the other chick and I still remained friends, although via the US postal service at considerable geographic distance, which is the best way to do things with former objects of one's affections.

A year or so later she turned me on (via handwritten letter, a complete anachronism now) to Kurt Vonnegut. I immediately went out and bought a 3 book boxed set and delved into his early stuff from the 50s and 60s. My favorite was Player Piano, his first published novel which he graded as a B novel (on a A-D scale).

It's been many years since I've read Vonnegut. I snagged this collection of short stories from The Number One Son after I proposed a new song-writing project. We shall see if anything comes of that.

But on this we both agree: this book is killer diller. And we both came to the same conclusion, that the most powerful story in the book is Adam, the penultimate story. Holy freaking cow is all I can say. There's other good stuff here, too, but by all means, read that story.

June 11, 2009

The Miernik Dossier **

** The Miernik Dossier, Charles McCarry, 1973

I'm not big on spy novels, but I like the occasional well-written specimen. I'm particularly fond of Wm. F. Buckley's Blackford Oakes novels, which I'll re-read one of these days.

Back when I was writing Hell in a Briefcase for Phil Little, he frequently mentioned Jason Bourne. I'd seen the movies but not read the books. Since I'd never written a thriller, I decided it would be a good idea to read these seminal works, starting with The Bourne Identity. The first paragraph of which goes like this:

The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. The waves rose to goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white sprays caught in the night sky cascaded downward over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining agasint wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying.

I wish I were kidding. We're not in Kansas any more, Toto. We're out where the Bulwer-Lytton buses don't run, raving like Eddie on acid.*

Not that I'm one to gainsay millions sold, movies made, fame and cash (especially the cash) to be garnered. If I knew I would make that kind of cash writing that kind of trash, I'd write it all day in bucket loads. But no man is guarranteed tomorrow, or best-seller status, regardless what he writes.

But we're not talking about Ludlum (not anymore, we're not), we're talking about McCarry, who is no Ludlum, thank God. With accolades from the likes of Richard Condon and P. J. O'Rourke (for crying out loud) I figured it was worth a trial spin. I grabbed a few Paul Christopher novels, but research showed I was missing the first in the series, so I shelved them conveniently out of reach until I could snag The Miernick Dossier, which I did last month. A plane trip (which is a story in its own right) afforded the opportunity to dig in, and I did.

This book, McCarry's first published novel, gets 3 stars for intruige but is downgraded to 2 stars because of the narrative style. It's literally a dossier, a collection of documents written in different voices and styles. It's done well, but the self-imposed restriction of his choice prevents the kind of character development that would have made this book truly enjoyable.

However, I did like this line from the title character: The wretched will always find something they do not undertand to die for.

We shall see how the next one goes.

*Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is the author of the infamous starting line, "It was a dark and stormy night." The full opening sentence went thus: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." I'll give Ludlum this. Like Bulwer-Lytton, he got a semicolon in the first paragraph. Good on ya, mate!

June 4, 2009

The Closers ***

*** The Closers, Michael Connelly, 2005

Another Bosch book. It's been a while since I read one. This one has some interesting twists and is as addictive and consuming as the others. Bosch hasn't lost it. Don't miss it if you can.

June 1, 2009

Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

I spent a lot of time trolling through cutout racks in the 70s. I discovered this gem in 1975. Took it a year to make it from LA to Fred, Texas. The album featured an incredible trombone-laden, barbershop quartet version of Purple Haze that revolutionized my life. They closed with this version of Happy Trails that Van Halen later ripped off.

Noted for obliterating classics like Swan Lake (Swamp Lake) and Hungarian Dance No. 5. Here's their redition of the Flight of the Bumble Bee aka Bumble Bee Boogie.

How about the Beer Bottle Polka?