An American Abroad

Blogging The Iliad, Book 8 – The Tide of Battle Turns

Zeus, the CEO of OlympiCorp., whose memos are scorching, summons his staff for a Saturday morning C-suite meeting. Though it’s only 9:00, he’s already in a bad mood because he had to cancel his golf game to come into the office. Then his PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t work right and his bad mood turned to fury.

(“PowerPoint?” Athena texted to Hera, who was sitting right next to her. “Who the fuck uses PowerPoint anymore?”)

(“ROFLMAO,” Hera replied.)

“OK, let’s get this thing going,” grumbled Zeus. “My intern, Sisyphus, messed up my slides, so I’m going to go bare on this. By the way, just so you don’t underestimate my wrath, Sisphyus is now doomed for eternity to using Windows Vista 2006.”

A subtle, collective gasp went up from the conference room table and the room fell silent.

“Now that I’ve got your attention,” continued Zeus, whose waistline is substantial, with a smirk on his bearded face, “let’s get down to business. You know why we’re here. This Trojan War thing is getting completely out of hand. What are you immortals doing messing around with it? It makes us all look foolish and it’s starting to affect our bottom line. Burnt offerings have fallen off 6.7% in the last quarter. I’m getting calls from our biggest stockholders.”

He paused for a moment to let that sink in.

“Did any of you see the article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal?” he continued. “Anyone?”

(Hera discreetly slipped her mobile phone into her lap and texted Athena, “Who the fuck reads the Wall Street Journal anymore?”)

(“BigZ does, apparently,” she texted back.)

Zeus glared at them.

“It said investors are starting to lose confidence in our enterprise,” Zeus continued. “Too much instability, they think. Even Buffet, who usually doesn’t bother with the day-to day, is pissed.”

He paused.

“So,” he went on, raising his voice, “I’m going to put a stop this right here, right now. If there’s any more—ANY more—intervention in this stupid war by ANY of you on EITHER side, you can start boxing up your office. Don’t mess with me on this, because my shield is thunder. Disobey me and YOU WILL ATONE! I will go all medieval on your immortal asses!”

There was an uncomfortable silence around the conference room table.

Finally Athena spoke up, timidly. “Father Zeus, whose stock options are formidable, um, would it be OK if we didn’t actually go and fight with the Achaeans but just gave them some cheat codes and tactics and stuff?”

Zeus looked furious for a moment, as if he was going to start some serious smiting. But then abruptly his face relaxed into a godlike grin.

“Hey. I was just fuckin’ with you. And you fell for it! You shoulda seen the look on your faces!”

And mighty Zeus, whose laugh is two Buicks rubbing together, broke out into gales of mirth. Literal gales. But then he stopped abruptly.

“But don’t you dare test me on this,” he added, glaring at his wife and daughter.

(Hera discreetly texted Athena, “My husb can be SUCH an asshole…”)

And the meeting broke up.

Down on the field of battle, the Trojans have apparently eaten their Wheaties. Hector, especially, is putting a big hurt on the Achaeans, cutting them apart and pushing them back to their ships. Zeus is firing up the Trojans, while Hera pleads with first one god and then another to intervene on the Achaean side. But the morning meeting with Zeus has had its effect. No one is in the mood to join the losing side at this point.

Even Athena has to be cajoled. But finally she agrees to join Hera in saving what’s left of the Achaean lines. And once again, Zeus is pissed.

He calls another meeting, but since Hera and Athena are busy saving the Achaeans’ asses, they Skype in. By this point, Zeus, whose blood pressure is alarming, has worked himself up into a lather. A literal lather. He promises vengeance on any of the gods who help the Achaean side. And he has some choice words for his wife and daughter, calling former the b-word at one point. But he has trouble with the Skype interface, so it’s unclear whether Athena and Hera get the message.

And the sun finally goes down before the Trojans can mop up what remains of the Achaean forces.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 7 – Ajax Duels with Hector

When I was in the third grade, I was discussing global politics with some of my classmates. The Cold War was on and had heated up in Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. None of us knew much about the Cold War or the Soviet Union, but of course that didn’t stop us from loudly declaiming on it. “What we should do,” said Randy Parker, “is take our biggest guy and their biggest guy and put them on some island alone together and let them fight it out.”

We nodded, impressed. This passed for serious wisdom at age 8.

So this chapter, in which the battle-weary Trojans and Achaeans agree to a fight between champions, makes a certain kind of elementary schoolyard sense.

But really, neither Randy Parker’s nor Hector’s proposal of single man-to-man combat is remotely rational. If Johnny beats Ivan, would the Soviets really just say OK, we give up? If Ivan beats Johnny, would the Americans really just content themselves to Soviet rule?

That’s why this chapter is so familiar and yet so frustrating. The whole battle-of-the-champions thing is NOT set up to settle the Trojan War. It’s staged for the amusement of the gods, who as an afterthought feebly try to justify it by observing that at least the mass battlefield slaughter will stop for a day. In other words, it’s intended as entertainment. I half-expected Athena and Ares to set up a Mount Olympus office betting pool on the outcome.

Maybe that’s Homer’s point: it’s just as senseless for the Achaean army to battle the Trojan army as it is for Ajax to battle Hector.

A subplot about morale issues in the Achaean army gets some attention here. They’ve been at war for nine years with nothing to show for it. So when big brave bold beautiful Hector issues his challenge to fight a single Achaean soldier, the Achaean army just consults its footwear. Only when Nestor, the old Achaean soldier, calls them out do volunteers come forward.

Nestor’s speech could be read as a call to honor. But it could also be read by more cynical types (who, me?) as another instance of old men urging young men to go off to die in pointless wars.

So the battle begins—and I have to say, Homer’s at the top of his game in describing the fighters and their combat. But then—spoiler alert!—there’s a major anticlimax. Ajax gets Hector on the ropes and is about to finish him off when Apollo swoops in, picks Hector up, and declares the battle over. Miraculously, everyone is OK with this ambiguous ending. Hector and Ajax hug it out and exchange gifts. It seems like no matter what the gods do, the mortals in this story (Diomedes excepted) are cool with it.

Then Homer returns to another subplot, namely, how Paris touched off this whole pointless war by abducting Helen. The Trojan leaders, desperate to stave off defeat, suggest to Paris that he give back all the plunder he took from the Achaeans, including Helen.

Paris says he’ll give back the booty–just not Helen’s booty.

Sheesh.

I could understand this if there was any real indication that Paris was deeply in love with Helen and couldn’t live without her. But Paris seems to love no one except himself.

I could even understand this if there was some indication that Helen was a sexual dynamo with a magic pussy. But all she seems to do is sit around moping and cursing the day she was born, which is not very sexy at all, really.

And so the chapter ends with both sides taking advantage of the tenuous lull in the fighting to bury their dead.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 6 – Hector Returns to Troy

In this chapter, Homer goes full soap opera. Knowing there’s a good chance he will be killed and Troy will fall, Hector goes to see his mother, his brother, his wife, and his infant son. This is the first time Homer devotes a whole chapter to Hector, and he comes off well.

He refuses his mother’s offer of a glass of honeyed wine for fear that it will dull his mind and blunt his purpose; instead, he tells her to go pray to Athena for the salvation of the Trojans.

Then he sees his brother, Paris, who gives such a whiny wimpy rationalization for why he’s not on the field of battle along with the rest of the Trojan men that I wanted to shove Hector’s twelve-foot bronze spear up his ass. Paris just sits by and polishes his fancy unused armor. Hector attempts to persuade him to get off his butt, and I’m thinking if this whole Valiant-Defender-of-Troy gig doesn’t work out for Hector, he could make a good living giving corporate motivational seminars.

Finally he visits his wife and son, who have already fled their home. I was struck by the relationship between Hector and his son. It seems very modern in the telling. Hector, bristling with armor, scares the child, who starts crying. Hector laughs gently, takes off his helmet, and begins tossing the boy up in the air, much to his delight. It’s an intimate scene, and though I’m no expert on classical literature, it seems rare to have a major character so physically involved with the rearing of an infant. Usually when we see father/son relationships, the boy is at least old enough to pick up a sword. There’s a tearful parting, as Hector pours out his fears that his wife will be abducted by the Achaeans when Troy falls and taken away to work as a slave. You’d think that Hector would want to buck up his wife’s spirits, to tell her not to be afraid, but instead he spills out his sorrows, doubts, and anxieties. Again, this strikes me as surprisingly modern.

Meanwhile, Hector’s mother has dutifully prayed and made offerings to Athena in hopes she will spare Troy, but Athena spurns her pleas. It’s hard to know what to make of Athena. All these gods and goddesses seem capricious. And while Athena has been an admirable character in previous chapters, here she comes off as a cold hard bitch.

Finally, Hector leaves the city and at the very end of the chapter, he is overtaken by his brother, Paris, who’s finally grown a pair. It’s a cinematic scene, with thundering horses and gleaming armor and the two brothers reunited on the battlefield as brothers-in-arms.

This chapter verges on–but never quite topples into–melodrama. It engaged me much more than the previous chapter which had lots of action and no feeling. I kept expecting Hector to go for a quickie with his wife, but apparently he’s too noble for that. I’m sure if HBO does an Iliad miniseries, there will be a sex scene put into the script there.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 5 – Diomedes Fights the Gods

I returned to The Iliad after a two-week absence and found this chapter waiting for me. Here, the focus of the story shifts radically from the kings and generals of the earlier chapters to the soldiers fighting in the fields. Dozens of new characters are introduced, most of whom are brought into the narrative at the moment they are slain. And I was reminded of the scene in Fight Club where a man dies a pointless death and only then is called by his name. Because when they are alive, members of Project Mayhem have no names. Only in death do they have names. His name is Robert Paulson. Or Coeranus or Chromius or Alastor or Alcander or Halius or Prytanis or Noemon or….

This chapter’s descriptions of the agonies of the ancient battlefield are stomach-turning to this day. And Homer here reminds me of a peacenik carrying a sign reading “War is the real enemy.” Only after slaughter after meaningless slaughter do the gods realize that Ares, the god of war whose bloodlust is never sated, is the true enemy of both gods and humans. Significantly, it takes two goddesses, Hera and Athena, to make almighty Zeus see this.

This was a numbing chapter, not an enjoyable one. After the tenth or twentieth soldier is gaudily impaled by a bronze spear thrust into some vulnerable part of his anatomy, the chapter becomes less a tale of individual heroic death and more a grim accounting of the slaughter. Homer wants us to see it and be revolted.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 4 – The Truce Erupts in War

My friend Neil Gussman, the foremost of the people who inspired me to read The Iliad, tells me that it’s a book about the messy realities of war, a story for and by soldiers. I finally saw what he was talking about in Book 4.

There’s an intro where the gods decide to force the Trojans and the Achaeans to war for their own petty reasons. Athena comes to the field of battle and convinces a Trojan archer to break the truce and shoot an arrow at Menelaus. The arrow flies, but Athena flies faster and makes sure the arrow doesn’t kill him. Instead, he’s wounded in the goolies or somewhere just north thereof.

Then follows a military motivational treatise. Here we have the archetypes from every movie you’ve seen where a commander to rallies his troops. Some appeal to pride. Some insult and shame. Some deploy rational, measured argument. Some wave the bloody shirt.

And then the war begins. Homer spares the reader no gory detail as men are speared, pierced, and ground into the dirt to die. It’s a horror show that becomes its own motivator, even to the most chickenhearted troops. Twice, Homer concludes a set piece with “…and the dark came swirling down across his eyes.” (Actually, “whirling” in one, “swirling” in the other.) It’s death as the culmination of chaos.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 3 – Helen Reviews the Champions

OK, just finished Book 3 of The Iliad. Finally we get the sex and violence. But no one comes out of this chapter looking good. Paris is (pardon the expression) a pussy. Menelaus is befuddled. Helen lacks agency. Aphrodite is a troublemaker. And all the soldiers of Troy and Greece want to do is to go home.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 2 – The Great Gathering of Armies

In the course of my research about this chapter, I found a transcript of Homer’s meeting with his editor where they discuss this chapter:

Homer: My loyal friend and staunchest promoter, Oeditus, I bring you greetings from Hellas where the olive-scented glades grow green and ripe and the long-haired Achaeans eagerly await my chronicle of their daring exploits.

Oeditus: Hey, good to see ya, Homey. May I call you Homey? Yes? Good. So how’s the wife and kids?

Homer: The immortal gods be praised, my children are in the rosy-fingered dawn of their youth, charging to and fro with energy to rival that of the swift runner Achilles. And my wife is as lovely as Helen and as tractable as Briseis.

Oed: Good, good. Glad to hear. OK, to business. Now Homey, I read the scrolls your messenger dropped off last Tuesday. And, um, they’re great, great stuff you got there. Really great. Yessir. But listen, Homey, I’ve got a few suggestions . . . you know, just minor things, really, no major changes, of course.

Homer: . . . Yes?

Oed: Right. So first off, I gotta say, that the whole plot here is pretty complicated. Not that complicated is bad, no, but it’s just, well, you might wanna think about making it easier to follow. I mean, you’ve got Achilles’ mother going to Zeus and asking for his help in making sure the Achaeans lose in battle without her son, just to teach them a lesson about what a big macher Achilles is. And the Big Z agrees and sends a dream to Agamemnon telling him to strike while the iron is hot, but all the while the Big Z actually wants Agamemnon to fuck up and for the Trojans to hand his ass to him on a plate. Have I got it so far? Eh?

Homer: . . .(nods)

Oed: Then Agamemnon – by the way, could we change his name to something shorter, punchier, with more fricatives? you know, like Rocky or Spike, something like that? think about it, OK Homey? – anyway, Agamemnon tries the old reverse psychology trick on his troops, telling them to just pack it in and go home. And he thinks his troops will be all pissed off and want to fight to the end, but no, they run like little girls to catch the next ship home. So then Agamemnon’s lieutenants have to give a bunch of flowery speeches to get the men to fight. Have I got this right? Look…it’s too complicated. Too many flip-flops, too much conniving, you know? The whole thing reads like something out of that Raymond Chandler guy or one of those noir luftmensches who’re always writing these stupid complicated stories that no one even wants to figure out.

Homer: . . . (sigh)

Oed: And another thing. It’s thin. I mean, like what really happens in this chapter? It’s just a bunch of Greek guys standing around talking. Now look, I know you, Homey – are you sure it’s OK I call you that? – and I know sooner or later you’re gonna deliver the goods. You know, the violence and sex and plunder and all that. But we’ve gotta put something in this chapter to make people want to read on, or we’ll lose them.

Homer: (sigh) What would you have me do?

Oed: Well, I’d like some action right in the second book, bam, keep everybody interested. Bam! But like I said, I know you and I know you won’t go for that. So how about this: I want you to dump your notebook. All those notes you took about which soldiers were from where and in what divisions? Just toss ‘em in there at the end.

Homer: I do not understand you, O gimlet-eyed master. You say my story runs slow like honey on a winter’s day, but now you want me to add lists of names and places that will be unknown even among the peoples of the Peloponnese? Surely this will neither quicken my narrative nor spice my poetic themes.

Oed: Homey, I gotta hand it to ya. You’re a smart cookie. Really smart. I like that. But you don’t know jack about the publishing industry. There’s more than one way to keep a reader interested, you know? All those soldier names you showed me? All those towns, villages, islands? You drop just one of those names, you increase sales by at least a hundred. And that’s in the smallest meanest little burg in the Achaean world. You take a medium sized city, island, whatever, mention its name, and bam, you’re talking another two thousand sold. Everybody likes to read about themselves. Everybody likes to read about their neighbors to see if there’s any dirt about them. Everybody likes to read about their hometown. Makes ‘em feel important. It’s all about the drachmas in this business, Homey. And the names you got in your notebook are gold. Gold! No one’s actually gonna read all those lists, they’ll just skim the page til they find their brother, their city, their legion, their great uncle, whatever. You’re not writing this chapter to be read. You’re writing it to make money, yaknowwhatimean?

Homer: I will heed your counsel, O seller of others’ words. Your cunning and ingenuity rival that of the many-turned Odysseus.

Oed: Damn right. Oh, and speaking of Odysseus . . .

Homer: …Yes?

Oed: Oh, nothing really. But I was just thinking, if this Iliad of yours hits the bestseller list and sticks there like Old Navy on white trash, you could do a sequel about this Odysseus guy. Him, I like.

Blogging The Iliad, Book 1 – The Rage of Achilles

OK, I finished Book 1 of The Iliad and I’m pretty disgusted with this Achilles guy. He seems like a wus to me. He whines like a little bitch that Agamemnon doesn’t appreciate him. When Agamemnon forces him to give up Briseis, the concubine he abducted, he steams and stews over the insult to his honor but never breathes a word about being heartbroken – or even actually liking her. No, it’s me me me all the time with this guy. Then he decides to sulk and let the Trojans beat the crap out of the Achaeans. The height of his adolescent sulkiness is reached when he goes to his mother (!) to complain about how it was just SO UNFAIR that he had to give up his concubine. He commits an act of treason by telling his mother to have the Big Z put the whammy on the Achaeans so that everyone will know that they are nothing without him. And his moms actually goes along with this!

Hato Rey: My New Neighborhood

Tomorrow I celebrate three weeks in Puerto Rico and nine days in my new home in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey. It’s a neighborhood of vertical living and working. I live in a cluster of apartment buildings between 12 and 16 stories tall. At street level, large shade trees provide relief from the tropical August heat. At my level, the eleventh floor of a building on Calle Honduras, gentle breezes blow from the balcony to my kitchen. I get home from work, get some cross-ventilation going, and cook myself dinner.

In the morning, the skies are light blue with puffs of seaside clouds. This is what I see out my window.

Downstairs, out through the lobby, and just a short block away down Calle Mejico is a city park one small block square. There are basketball courts and a swingset for the kids–but at the center of the park is a pavilion with shelves of books free for the taking.

I’ve seen Libros Libres (Free Books) in several parts of San Juan. It’s a mystery to me who sets them up, who tends them, and who frequents them. But I’m glad they exist. I’ve helped myself to one book so far, a hardboiled detective novel by Ross Macdonald. I plan to crack it next weekend.

Though most of Hato Rey is office towers and apartment buildings, there is an old human-scale district just north of where I live. There, the houses are made of wood and breeze block and are, at most, two and a half stories tall. The streets have letter and number names, not the Latin American nation names that the streets have where I live. It’s not a well-heeled locale, but it has a jaunty feel to it that the concrete towers of Hato Rey lack.

The only institutions in this part of Hato Rey are housefront churches of the evangelical Protestant variety and this place, which is called a chinchorro in Puerto Rican Spanish.

Chinchorros are tiny hole-in-the-wall bars–literally, in this case. Customers get their drinks through the window and then sit on ratty old plastic lawn chairs right in the street or on the sidewalk. They are loose, boisterous, fun places.

Darkness comes earlier here than it does in America. From my kitchen window, I look down onto a deserted parking area.

Tomorrow I will get up early again and explore more. Because right now, there is nowhere I would rather be.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 3

The authors of the books featured this week have distinctive voices, the kind you can identify from a single paragraph.

There’s the amphetamine-fueled Beat Generation prose of Jack Kerouac. The media-drenched flat affect of Alex Garland. The compassionate and erudite tut-tutting of Theodore Dalrymple. The dreamlike unreliable narration of James Salter. The sardonically twinned Thai and western perspectives of John Burdett’s Thai/American police detective. These voices speak to me still.

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Yes, that’s me in the photo. I’ve been a reader since I was a kid.

Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you’re interested in other books I’ve enjoyed, check out Part 1 or Part 2 of this series, or go to my buy page.

On the Road
Jack Kerouac
This classic beat novel never really grabbed me and shook me, but it has become something more like an casual friend -- the kind of guy you're never intimately close to, but who shows up in your life from time to time with stories of interesting adventures and then disappears again for months or years at a time. Kerouac's prose is as relentless as his characters' peregrinations across the US, their late-night bull sessions, and their thirst for the sensate. As his protagonist and stand-in, Sal Paradise, says, "[T]he only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
The Beach
Alex Garland
Comparing this book to, say, Michener's The Drifters,
one can see how much youth culture has changed in fifty years. The Beach is a fusion of video games, movies, violence, dark politics, and -- oh yeah, travel. There are drugs, too, but whereas in earlier travel books drugs are seen as routes to spiritual bonding, here they lead generally to bad trips of both the figurative and literal type. Garland also offers a sharp critique of hipper-than-thou western travelers who glom onto a beautiful "undiscovered" spot somewhere in the developing world and ultimately wind up ruining the things that made it so special.
Zanzibar to Timbuktu: A Journey Across Africa
Theodore Dalrymple
(Available for Kindle only)
Theodore Dalrymple's real name is Anthony Daniels. He has been quoted as saying he chose his nom de plume because he wanted "a name that sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world." This is to say that he is a man of conservative mien and mind. But whereas many conservatives who travel (the awful P.J. O'Rourke comes to mind) put on a sneer and leave compassion at home, Dalrymple seems truly to care about the poor people of Africa he encounters in his overland journey from Zanzibar to Timbuktu. There is compassion for the impoverished, the criminal, and the crazy. And damn, the man can write.
A Sport and a Pastime
James Salter
By telling his tale of an affair between a ne'er-do-well American college kid and a rather ordinary French shopgirl through the voice of a man who knew them only peripherally, Salter was able to give his prose a shimmering, dream-like quality. Our narrator frankly admits he is embellishing, filling in details, adding things he couldn't possibly know. His descriptions of the couple's sweetly transgressive sodomy, for instance, tell us more about what's really going on in the narrator's head than what's going on in the couple's bed. The flashy, expensive, but decaying car the couple borrow and drive around France feels like something out of The Great Gatsby. As with Gatsby, the reader never doubts that Salter's couple is racing toward its demise, but we are only too glad to go along for the ride. One of the most neglected and underrated prose stylists of the mid-twentieth century, Salter has written a book that illuminates the almost inherently doomed nature of even the most torrid expatriate seductions.
The Royal Thai Detective Novels
John Burdett
Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1)

Bangkok Tattoo: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (2)

Bangkok Haunts: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (3)

The Godfather of Kathmandu: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (4)

Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (5)

I'm cheating with my counting here, since there are five books (to date) in this series about police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former gangster, former Buddhist monk, and current member of the Bangkok police force. The books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu, and Vulture Peak) hang together well, with story arcs that go from volume to volume. I first read Bangkok 8 on a trip to Thailand at Christmas time, 2013. I concluded then that it was a far better and deeper guide to the city than Lonely Planet.

As a whole, the series is about corruption: of the flesh, of the political process, of law enforcement, of daily life. But these books are no jeremiads. Indeed, they go out of their way to explain how what we in the west view as corruption has a rational basis in the Thai mentality. Along the way, Burdett explores the conflicts between farang (foreign) and Thai culture, Thai attitudes toward sex, drugs, and popular culture, and between powerful factions in Thai society. The protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, narrates all five books in the first person and frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, often in a way that challenges foreign assumptions about Thailand and its people.