Saturday, January 11, 2014

In which I prove I am not a minion of Satan

Image credit: Jeremiah Lambert
 Okay, that's a pretty heavy opener, I admit. I should start by explaining that I am not a fire-breathing practitioner of any particular philosophy. I don't have an agenda other than to perhaps make you curious enough to read the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
But I have some objective proof, I think, that I'm not working for the Dark Side.
There are two - precisely two - times in my adult life when I have been violently ill from drinking alcohol. I don't mean upset or hung over. I'm talking protracted retching. Sorry for the image, but read on, it's a fact in evidence. And I don't mean my initiations to drinking - yes, I was a frat guy back in the day and found out rapidly and in the presence of an embarrassed date that you don't consume a mixture of types of alcohol at the same party.
No, the times I was very sick had to do with one specific type of drink, and I was no longer a youngster. When I worked in Detroit, I had a boss, a "silver-tongued devil," and one of my responsibilities as VP to his CEO was to buy him lunch almost daily. And we had drinks before lunch, wine with lunch, and postprandial brandies. We even got in trouble once with the bartender for pouring cognac in a spoon with a sugar cube, lighting it, and promptly dunking the flaming thing in our creamed coffees. (It's called a Cafe Royale, and totally against the fire code in any restaurant or public place.)
I know this story is rambling, but I'm getting there. Mr. Silver's favorite drink was a Perfect Manhattan. I think he liked ordering it so he could ask for a Perfect Man, which is indeed what he imagined he was. A shot of bourbon, a splash of sweet vermouth, and splash of dry vermouth, and a twist of lemon - on the rocks in an Old Fashioned glass. Now, if you're feeling adventurous, skip the lemon peel and plop in one or two anchovy olives. Sweet and sour!
Okay, this is a drink to pop the lid off your brain.
Both times I was violently sick it was from sucking down the Perfect Man. But not every time.
I have since figured it out.
Some vermouths, not all, contain the plant extract wormwood. Those brands are, I understand, European.
Wormwood is toxic to the righteous. Look it up.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows

Fascinating, well-researched, masterfully crafted Shakespeare pseudo-history. Silly, overly complicated, implausible, downright infuriating potboiler whodunnit plot - but there's a method to this madness.
Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows bears a lot of similarities to Dan Brown's literate mysteries. It's a rare-book scandal unraveled by following a skein of coded messages. In this case, the messages are 17th-century cryptography. The author seems to have a firm grasp on this arcane stuff, but I can't tell. He explains the techniques in detail, but I can't follow them. Then, I was one of those lazy students who skipped calculus because I had heard that it was hard. My loss, I'm sure.
The Shakespeare invented history is amazing and jaw-dropping. If you haven't read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare you might bring that along. Gruber even invents old documents written in Elizabethan argot. Like the cryptography material, these seem authentic, but I couldn't tell you.
Then there's the mystery plot. He gives us two protagonists - intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin and film freak Albert Crosetti, each of whom lusts after finding a long-lost, heretofore forgotten play of the Bard's - The Tragedy of Mary Queen of the Scots. This material would have been too hot politically for Shakespeare's time, which Gruber provides as both the reason it was written and the reason it had to be hidden. He does provide a synopsis, and of all the invented stuff in this book, this play is the most intriguing. It would have been one of the greatest dramatic pieces ever written, right up there with Macbeth.
This convoluted plot may cause you to pull out what's left of your hair. But just when you think it's insulted your intelligence one time too many, Gruber begins to hint at what he's doing. Miskin and Crosetti have a series of heated discussions about whether art imitates life or the other way around. Crosetti insists that movies, being our collective subconscious, provide models for all our social interactions. As it turns out, Gruber's plot is so unsatisfying because it both apes and defies movie formulas. The good guys do some awful things, make all the wrong decisions, and are not particularly admirable except in retrospect and apology. And the bad guys make Tarantino's stupid killers look smart.
So - I'll just say that the mystery plot is so badly crafted - and I believe deliberately so - that it more than proves its point.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Review: Dan Brown's Inferno

I studied Dante's Inferno when I was in high school, and then in college I wrote a paper on the astronomical references in it, which are extensive and show the poet's depth of knowledge about the subject.
Dan Brown's novel is likewise a descent into a modern hell, using Dante's work as the central metaphor. Professor of semiotics Robert Langdon is back following a coded trail left by a brilliant sociopath whose ego is so huge he craves detection. The plot is formulaic, but masterfully so as are all of Brown's books. My main complaint is that the chase involves ducking into ancient cubby holes, trap doors, secret passages, and such. The narrative details of entrapment and escape provide the engine of suspense. Yawn. Thankfully, there is not much in the way of gun play or car wrecks, although there are just enough to give the adapting screenwriter an excuse for the usual pyrotechnics.Yawn again.
Following an intricate series of coded messages is the staple Brown plot device. You have to suspend your skepticism that a bad guy would go to lengths to create such an elaborate crumb trail. But it is fascinating, and of course it's well researched within the context of the Divine Comedy. The historical background also provides the excuse to run through picturesque locales and their ancient structures, namely the famous buildings of Florence, Venice, and Istanbul. It's a delightful travelogue, and you get a much richer history than any tour guide could provide.
The core theme of Brown's Inferno has to do with the hazards of world overpopulation. This is a serious and sobering subject, and an immensely important one. Ask yourself why it's not being debated on the floor of Congress and you will once again realize how inadequate our political system is at dealing with real problems. I won't spoil this topic for you, but hold the thought that an urban legend (and conspiracy theory) is that consumption of GMO grains causes infertility.