Book Review:The Lost Goddess

Tom Knox’s latest scientific-historical thriller, The Lost Goddess, creates constant tension through the use of dual narratives that eventually come together in a rather disturbing, and unfortunately, unfulfilling manner.
The book opens with archaeologist Julia Kerrigan excavating the limestone cave systems in a remote part of France. She unearths a hopefully career-defining discovery: ancient skulls marked by one distinct feature. They all have small holes, purposefully drilled in the frontal lobe area, prehistoric trepanation. Thus Knox’s first narrative revolves around Kerrigan trying to solve the mystery of the skulls, which leads her on a scientific path of discovery that is bisected at every turn with misdirection and murder.

The second narrative arc deals with British photojournalist Jake Thurby, who is traveling through Cambodia on a quest both to find “the story” that will allow him to finally make his mark as a journalist, and to bury a very haunted past. Jake’s life is turned upside down when he meets American-educated Chemda Tek. Chemda is a Cambodian attorney who is investigating the truth behind the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. These communist rulers of Cambodia in the 1970’s are remembered primarily for their policy of social engineering, which resulted in brutal atrocities including the genocide of over 2 million Cambodians.

Chemda takes Jake to the mysterious Plain of Jars where the remnants of many of these hideous acts can be found.  Many of the victims hidden in the plain of jars share the same trepanations as those Kerrigan has found in the ancient French caves. As Chemda and Jake begin to piece together a horrifying secret revolving around neuroscience, human hybrids and ancient history, they become targets of some very powerful people in Asia who want to keep their secrets hidden.  Here begins the roller coaster of chase scenes, grand historical revelations and killings that populate the majority of this fast-paced novel.

Tom Knox clearly knows the ingredients for creating this kind of  novel that has been perfected by the likes of Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

1.  One male lead in his 30’s but who is emotionally immature and somehow holding on to his teenage angst.
2. Two competing female leads, beautiful and academically inclined.
3. A historical puzzle that potentially leads to supernatural revelations.
4. Modern science to either refute or confirm #3.
Stir together with an ample dose of frenetic chase scenes until plot has reached near boiling point.

The Lost Goddess incorporates all of the above, but fails to reach the heights of his fellow authors. While good genre fiction relies on stereotypes to a certain degree, they succeed when those stereotypes elicit the reader’s sympathies. These characters just don’t. The formula itself is too transparent to allow us to become invested in them. I wanted to see how everything was solved, how it all came together and that kept me reading. But,while the plot moves along at breakneck speed, and the mysteries involved are intriguing and fairly original, I never really cared what happened to those involved.

The writing at times borders on amateurish. The setting of much of this novel is Cambodia, by all accounts a very beautiful and lush landscape. However, some of the descriptions are overly poetic for this kind of book . Knox also seems to write with his thesaurus at his side and falls into the trap many writers do wherein he substitutes a $100 word for a simple term that would have done the job just as well. This kind of verbal gymnastic serves only to distract the reader.

What I find most intriguing about the novel are the snippets of history detailing the short prominence of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. While I was alive during their reign, I was too young to have ever heard much about them. I knew Pol Pot was a Hitleresque character, but beyond this vague analogy I did not have any real knowledge of the absolute horrors committed there in the 1970’s. Here Knox succeeds as am curious enough to explore this a little further and plan on reading up on this regime in the near future.

So overall, I found the story entertaining and worth reading even though the characters left much to be desired. And most importantly, The Lost Goddess
has pointed the way towards future reading adventures, as I now want to know more about this brief period of asian history.

Did You Know There Was a Hobbit Day?

Me either.

But apparently there is, as I got an email this morning notifying me that September 21, marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, and tomorrow is Bilbo Baggins’s birthday, traditionally celebrated by Tolkien fans as “Hobbit Day.” While I won’t be donning  any Hobbit gear, drinking any mead, or celebrating a Second Breakfast this weekend, this occasion does give me an excuse to wax philosophical on one of the reasons I think Tolkien’s fantasy world still has a hold on popular culture after all these years.

It all has to do with the sense of tradition that is missing in much of the modern western world. In Middle Earth there is a certain sense of solidarity that permeates everything. Yes, I realize there is also a  full share of conflict between and amongst the races, but undergirding it all is a unified concept of what the world is all about. Whether you are a hobbit, man, elf or orc you hold certain things about your world to be true and certain things to be false.

This sense of belonging is something that is powerful in Tolkien’s, as as well as many other fantasy writer’s, worlds. Readers gravitate towards it because we crave that clear sense of right and wrong, of what is true and beautiful. We could use some of that certainty today in our lives.

Modern life (in the West at least) is a study in contradictions and opposites. Are you a conservative or a liberal? Straight or gay? Christian, Muslim, Jew or Atheist? Did you go to public school or private? Are you a Maker or a Taker? While we all inhabit the same space we seem to have such divergent views on the reality of life that we exist on separate planes. What is missing is a set of commonly held traditions.

Life in the West used to have a surer sense of itself, but the turmoil and innovation of the 20th century put an end to a lot of that. While we once celebrated the Western Cannon in schools we now push for diversity for diversity’ sake. Where we once had strong multi generational families we now have a record number of unwed mothers and broken homes. Religion used to be a foundational aspect of people’s lives (if not spiritually then at least culturally). Today we have the lowest numbers of church attendance we have ever had in America and Europe is seemingly a lost cause. And yet we as a people are hard pressed to want to give up our modern conveniences and lives to return to this simpler way of life.

In many ways we can not turn back the clock. But in our reading and viewing we can chose to culturally remember a time of greater foundational security. Perhaps it never really existed at all, but the fact that we crave it says something about the nature of what it means to be human, and writers like Tolkien knew how to connect with that. That is why, 75 years after its publication, people all around the world will be celebrating Hobbit Day.

I may just have a glass of mead after all.

Pioneer Life, Tea Parties and the Modern Man

At a recent library sale my wife happened to pick up a book entitled, Pioneer Life in Western Pennsylvania. It was published in 1940 and was part of a series written in conjunction with the Western Pennsylvania Historic Survey. My wife knows me well as I have always had a thing for old books; the poetry of the prose; the simple style of illustration; the colorful political incorrectness, all make them a pleasure to read. I have only gotten about a third of the way through this book, but I am already seeing some interesting touch points between the lives of the pioneers and the idealized image of early America that many in the Tea Party movement hold dear.

What the Pioneers Believed in 

Americans have inherited from these pioneer men and women, who had been trained in the hard school of experience to win the rights of”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” an unusual sense of what is just in lawmaking. It was to establish these rights more firmly that pioneers struggled in the wilderness; they wanted personal liberty and economic freedom, the right to a full life. In pursuit of happiness these men and women sought the unsettled lands of the western country. And they defended their enterprise sturdily, whether they were threatened by poor living, Indians, illness and hunger, or by unjust officials and intruders.

Today’s Conservatives

This ideal sounds a lot like the rhetoric coming from many on the right today. Economic freedom, liberty, the space to make your own life- these are all part of the spirit that animates us. However, as I read through this time-capsule of a book I am struck by how much our forefathers suffered for the sake of their liberty. Near starvation, premature death, crippling poverty, and a work week that simply never ended. And they did this all without any of the safety net that our modern government provides. No medicare, no social security, no unemployment, no low interest home loans.

Could we, could I, approximate this lifestyle today? While we all speak of wanting government out of our lives- do we really? I’m so spoiled today I get upset when my town considers suspending trash pick up service, and yet I still call myself a conservative.

I think my answer would be: We may not have a choice. Before I explain, we need to go back in time a bit, peel back the layers of the nanny state to a time when people truly had liberty and truly had risk. Back to a time when a wrong economic or employment decision could lead to true hardship and even death.
Political Changes of The 20th Century
 One has to look to pre-Great Depression America to find this type of life. Much of what we consider today to be the nanny state has its genesis in the policies of the early 20th century Progressives. The early 20th century was a time of progressivism, communism and fascism. As the United States entered World War I, President Wilson used it as an excuse to arrest dissidents, close newspapers and recruit tens of thousands of neighborhood informers. He and others believed that the increase in state power was the same as the evolutionary process.

FDR softened, but continued the trend using The Great Depression to revive the idea of war socialism. This ideal continued through the 20th century: the radicalization of the 1960’s, Johnson’s “Great Society,” Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village,” and Obama’s business-like desire to control everything. This focus on the government as the ultimate answer to happiness, while well intentioned, has lead to debts that are spiraling out of control. We are currently watching Greece fall; Spain and Portugal will most likely be next. And as a video I posted just a couple days ago suggests, the U.S. is not far behind.

Western Civilization Today
Citizens of the Western world, and the U.S. in particular, are like spoiled children. Mom and Dad have been covering for us for the better part of a century, and we of course like it. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad can’t support us indefinitely and we are quickly emptying their reserves. We are metaphorically the 40-year-old still living in our parent’s basement and it is time to get out. The separation is going to be painful.What happens if we don’t leave the protective wing of the nanny state? Well, eventually it will run out of money. Social Security will be here one day and gone the next. Everyone will have government provided health care and then they won’t. The shock will be brutal. It would be much better if we weened ourselves off slowly, starting today. Grandfather in people who have always counted on the government to provide, but tell those coming up, clearly and honestly that we can not afford to do this forever. And while we may not need to resort to our pioneering forefathers, they do have some valuable lessons to teach.
  • Life is hard, and not everyone wins.
  • Hard work gives you a chance at a good life, not a guarantee.
  • Freedom from risk, real risk, is servitude. And while it is security; it is certainly not liberty.

Lessons from My Father

My dad was a small business owner for almost 25 years. From the age of 9 through college I worked with him. This small retail establishment was in many ways my school. I didn’t learn math or literature or science there. I learned people. There has never been a more valuable thing to understand if you want to be successful in this world. And I don’t just mean financially, I mean making a real difference.
Unfortunately I forgot just about everything I learned.

Just about 10 years ago my oldest child was born. At that point my wife and I were not sure whether or not she wanted to go back to work, so we decided to start our own micro-business as a way of making some extra income.I had always been a writer, so we embarked on a resume writing adventure.

Starting out I felt I needed to compete with others who had a much larger footprint in the marketplace. They had large staffs, I had me. They had huge advertising budgets, I had none. They did massive volume, and therefore charged relatively low prices. So, I did my best to be cheaper. I presented myself as a much larger company with multiple email addresses that in actuality all went back to me. I did my best to be one of the big boys in the field. Over the years it allowed my wife to stay home and home school our kids while still keeping a roof over our heads. But it has never really thrived.

Then I started thinking about the lessons I’d learned watching my father all those years ago. I asked myself: what made him successful? He had to compete against stores much larger, with bigger staffs, bigger advertising budgets and cheaper prices, yet he thrived.

I realized what he did, and I failed to do, was build a business relationally based around just dealing with people. He didn’t deal with customers so much as deal with friends. Some were old friends, some were new friends, some were one-day-only friends. But the point was he related to people on an individual basis. People were treated justly, fairly, and that made a difference. This was what he could do that other, larger, more multifaceted, businesses couldn’t do. It is what made him stand out.

So over this past summer I changed my business model entirely. I stopped trying to pretend I was something I was not. I dropped the pretense that I was a bigger business than I was. I redesigned my website to make it perfectly clear I was a one man show. That I was a teacher who wrote resumes as a side business, and that I was damn good at what I did. My business emails became much more personal. I looked at my clients less as paying customers and more as people who needed my help. Payment would come, but that was secondary.

I also stopped trying to compete with bigger companies on price. I raised my rates- considerably. But I told people exactly what they were getting for their investment- me. Not a big-box style service, but a personal writer who would walk them through the process, make them more comfortable, and provide them with a product they would be proud to use.

And what did following my father’s implied advice get me? The best two months I have ever had. More clients have of course meant more money, but something even more important has happened. I have started to really enjoy my work. And I have gotten emails like this one from my most recent client:

I think you hit a homerun! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this! You most definitely have a special gift! How you were able to transform my resume into something I would never have been able to do….is amazing! Don’t be surprised if you get more business …. because I will definitely be recommending you to all my family and friends that are in need of professional resume builder. I will keep you posted on my career search. 

What makes this so impactful to me is this one line, I will keep you posted on my career searchThis really means a lot to me because it means this client and I made an honest connection. Yes I provided a service for a fee, but I also connected relationally. That will probably lead to more business and that is great. But more important is the fact that it leads to a more fulfilling job. It took me almost 10 years, but I have finally implemented the business lessons my dad taught me about how to treat people justly.

If I haven’t said it before, thanks Dad.

Book Review: Diary- a Novel

Author Chuck Palahniuk is always an interesting read. Over the years I have read a handful of his works such as (of course) Fight Club as well as Choke and Survivor. Diary came out in 2003 and has similarities to his other works, but does stand out as one of the more revelatory novels in the Palahnuik cannon.

“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”

The book is written, obviously enough, as a diary. Misty Wilmot, a once-aspiring artist is now working as a waitress in a seaside hotel on Waytansea Island, which stands in for a Martha’s Vineyard tragically gone wrong.  Her husband is in a coma after an apparent suicide attempt. The book thus opens as a “coma diary” that she is writing to her husband as she wonders if he will ever come out of it. As the book unfolds Misty, and her latent artistic talent, become pawns in a twisted and slightly supernatural conspiracy that threatens not only her husband’s life but hers and many others.

Diary is an odd combination, even for Palahniuk. It is part Choke, part Stephen King’s Misery, mixed with a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The novel is just hard to classify. On the one hand it fits in the modern horror genre, though the horror is more psychological in nature and like all of  Palahniuk’s books there is plenty of dark humor. After reading quite a few of these, I am used to the constant odd educational trivia diversions he takes both to perversely advance the plot as well as satirically poke fun at his own characters. (The first five pages alone have over 15 different scientific words for “fat” and “wrinkle” as Misty describes in detail exactly what her husband looks like after 100 days in a coma.) But while a novel like Choke seemed to rely heavily on this narrative device to tell his story, in Diary something more significant is going on.

This novel may actually be better classified as a work of  neo-meta-fiction. Certainly the fictional blind-leads and dead-end plot contrivances give the reader a solid mental workout.  There is no subtlety in Palahniuk’s writing here. His words seem to dig into the reader, more often than not borrowing their way right under your skin. In telling the story of a once-ambitious artist and her struggle with the very concept of art, whether suffering is a prerequisite, whether you can ever create something that matters, one can almost hear the author himself grasping at what it all means.

“Any time some well-meaning person forces you to demonstrate you have no talent and rubs your nose in the fact you’re a failure at the only dream you ever had, take another drink.”

In the end what Palahnuik seems to say is that all we ever create is what we already are and therefore the struggle is meaningless. Diary appropriately references Plato’s Cave. It is here where all we see are our own shadows. We never see others for what they actually are; instead we only see aspects of ourselves reflected in others. We see what we want to see, which is of course only ourselves, for it is all a self portrait, a diary.

Book Review: Eaters of the Dead

I’ll put the bottom line up front for this review: Eaters of The Dead, by Michael Crichton, blends history, fantasy and science in a way that makes the read both enjoyable and educational. The novel tells the story of the real life adventure of a 10th-century Muslim who travels with a group of Vikings. The first portion of the novel is a factual retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s personal account of his journey north and his experiences with, and observations of, the Northmen. The second portion of the novel is a slightly reworked version of what is probably the most important epic poem outside of Homer- Beowulf.

Like most people familiar with Crichton’s work I have read the greatest hits list of titles: Jurassic Park, The Lost World, The Andromeda Strain. In fact I have even read some of his lesser works: Timeline and Sphere. Yet, while I had a copy of Eaters of the Dead sitting on a shelf for the past ten years I have just never gotten around to picking it up. If I had known (or remembered) that it was inspired by Beowulf, I would have read it a long time ago, and it was only by accident that I picked it up last week.

I had been doing a little last minute preparation for a brief lecture on The Hobbit to be given at the start of the school year. One of the aspects of Tolkien that has always aroused my interest is how he incorporates established mythologies into his newly created worlds. Shadows of Beowulf, an epic that as a scholar Tolkien spent quite a bit of time with, can be seen throughout Middle Earth. In The Hobbit, the dragon Smaug is loosely based on the dragon scene towards the end of the poem.

As I spent a little time coming up with some cursory comments on Beowulf I stumbled across an anecdote about Crichton. I mentioned this in my previous post, but to recap; Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead as part of an argument about the merits of the Beowulf story line for modern readers. This reader thinks he made his point. This novel is able to combine history and a reinvented Norse mythology in a way that is eminently readable.

Interspersed throughout the book are detailed footnotes, which both give the illusion of an actual historical text, and also provide a good deal of background on Viking and Muslim culture in the tenth century. While I knew that once the first three chapters were completed the rest of the book was pure fiction, Crichton does such a good job at keeping the narrative in synch that I could allow myself a willing suspension of disbelief.

One of the best attributes of this novel, in this reviewer’s opinion, is it’s brevity. Seventy-five percent of the text deals with a plotline that most high school seniors are pretty familiar with; so keeping the reader engaged in a retelling of a well-worn tale is quite an achievement indeed. Aside from keeping his story relatively short (by his standards) Crichton keeps the reader’s interest in large part by investing his main character and narrator of much of the tale, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, with a real voice. Seeing Viking behaviors and traditions through his eyes is an interesting twist. Much of the Viking lore has that familiar feel that comes from a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons, comic books and action movies that plagues even the most studious reader. When Fadlan is shocked by one of the various actions of a real and historical people we as readers find ourselves a little shocked right along with him.

While Michael Crichton may never be able to shake the reputation as the father of Jurassic Park, the short novel, Eaters of the Dead, shows that this writer of blockbuster sci-fi also had a more academic side. I for one am glad to finally find this out.

Interested in reading more? Here are some related books you may find interesting.