Tuesday 11 May 2004


Centralni Lazne hotel in MarienbadThough I was hardly thrilled when the doctor told me ten days ago that I have pleurisy, I did catch myself thinking, “Well, that’s a relief.” Better to be diagnosed with a “real” ailment than to feel as though I’d never shake the flu I contracted more than a month ago. And the word “pleurisy” has such romantic associations—it makes me feel that I should be taking a rest cure at a spa hotel in Marienbad (even though my only remaining symptom is a sharp pain at the top of my chest when I breathe in deeply).

My doctor wrote referrals for a blood count and a chest X-ray, just to be sure that pneumonia wasn’t lurking around. When I saw her again last Friday, she assured me that I was basically fine, that there was no point my taking the foul-tasting Senega & Ammonia cough mixture my mother had recommended, and that all I could do was to take it easy—that I’d gradually get better over the next couple of weeks. When I admitted I should have taken a week off as soon as I realized I was ill, instead of a just a couple of days, she said, “You were really sick. It can take four to six weeks to recover from this strain of viral influenza.”

My friend Karl, who is also a doctor, pointed out that I should have had a flu shot once the weather turned cold. I’m not against immunization but I’d wondered whether the prevention might be worse than the disease. Now I know better. Since there are no drugs I can take to speed my recovery, I thought about alternative remedies. A little Googling turned up Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberose) so I ordered some from a herbal dispensary in Tasmania (if it doesn’t work, I can get Allan Moult to go round and ask for my money back).

Unlike Karl or my GP, my mother holds to the belief that colds and influenza are always the result of “catching a chill” rather than from contact with an infectious person or object. I’m not convinced, but while lying in bed a few days ago, I gave some thought to any chill-inducing events that might have caused or exacerbated my flu and had no trouble coming up with seven: haircut, hat, ice-skating, pajamas, swimming, echinacea, and Windows XP.

I usually go to the barber every two or three weeks and always have the same haircut: #2 clippers all over, tapered—not shaved square—at the back, and an eyebrow trim. For some reason (perhaps I’d seen someone with really short hair in a movie) I decided to ask for the #1½ clippers, thinking they would leave my hair 25% shorter (six millimeters rather than the usual eight). But I walked out into the frosty autumn evening with hair four millimeters long—I measured it when I got home—wondering how I could have been so stupid.

Mens fur hat with ear flapsI don’t often wear hats but even if I’d had a hat on this occasion it may not have protected me since hat etiquette would have prevented me from putting it on until I was outside the barber shop, by which time the chill might already have entered through my nearly bald head. On the other hand, if the effect of a chill is not instantaneous, a hat might have protected me during the five minute walk home. Since I like having short hair, even in winter, and I’m now anxious about catching another chill, I’ve started wearing a baseball cap or a woolen beanie whenever I go out. But as autumn turns into winter I’m thinking a hat with ear flaps might be better. This Mens hat with ear flaps made from shorn New Zealand possum fur looks good, though I don’t think I want to spend US$175. (I’m hoping our resident hat expert will offer an opinion as to the efficacy of hats as a protection against chills.)

I did wear my woolen beanie when I went ice-skating with my friend Nana and her niece, but it offered no protection from nine year old Mai who glided up behind me and tapped me on the arm, giving me such a surprise that lost my precarious balance and fell flat on my back. As I lay winded on the ice, with Nana and Mai looking anxious and everyone else skating nonchalantly around me, I could feel the cold seeping through sweater and T-shirt into my bones.

Section of citrus patterned pajamas, showing nine circular orange slicesSydney weather is mild enough for one to sleep in the nude so I haven’t worn pajamas since I was a teenager living in my parents house. But when the temperature dropped suddenly one night towards the end of March there may have been a chill hiding in a corner of my bedroom, waiting to pounce. Not wanting to take any more chances, I went to Gowings department store last Thursday to buy a pair of pajamas and was surprised to see an array of brightly patterned pajama bottoms. The lady in charge of the sleepwear department explained that lots of people don’t like pajama tops because the buttons are uncomfortable to lie on, so Gowings offers pajama bottoms that you can team with a loose T-shirt. “What a great idea,” I thought to myself, and bought a citrus-patterned pair to try. The pajama bottom & T-shirt combo works so well that I think I’ll buy another pair.

Perhaps I was foolish to go swimming just a week after I’d spent the weekend in bed, though when I called Dr Karl to check he assured me there’d be no problem. The pool certainly felt chilly when I dived in and there may have been more chills awaiting me on the walk home, particularly since at that point I hadn’t taken to wearing hats.

Echinacea purpurea plantMaybe echinacea doesn’t work as I’d imagined, though I’ve taken it diligently for years—from the first to the tenth of each month and from the sixteenth to the twenty-fifth. The fact that I can’t recall the last serious cold or flu I had before this might simply be due to a placebo effect. In any case, it seems that echinacea is only really effective for relieving the symptoms once the cold or flu has started. I must be a sucker for natural remedies because I still have high hopes for the Pleurisy Root.

Deep down, however, I think Windows XP is to blame. I started feeling sick on March 31, a few days after going ice-skating, but it wasn’t until April 3 that I was able to spend a Saturday in bed. The following day, Sunday 4 April, I woke up and turned on my desktop computer to quickly check my email only to have Windows XP refuse to load because a system file was missing or corrupt. A chill went down my spine. Attempts to repair the installation failed. I’d have to reinstall. Mark Pilgrim might be able to reinstall Windows XP in five hours or less but, even though I had a Ghost image of Windows XP, in my weakened state it took me the best part of five days—the week I should have been resting in bed—to reinstall all my applications, troubleshoot various video driver, mouse, and hard drive problems, and carefully create full Ghost images so next time (hopefully) I can reinstall everything in five minutes. And there will be a next time. Windows applications are, by-and-large, excellent but the operating system itself is a joke. If there are, as Robert Scoble suggests, all these “smart people” working at Microsoft, why don’t they stop dreaming up unnecessary “cool new features” and turn their attention to fixing what doesn’t work?

Needless to say, this wretched affair—along with Gary Snyder’s paean to his Mac—has reignited my interest in buying a Macintosh. I’d be grateful if anyone who has firsthand experience of using Virtual PC could leave a comment. (Unfortunately Microsoft acquired Connectix so it’s now Microsoft Virtual PC: a 45-day trial version is available for Windows but—not surprisingly—there’s no trial Macintosh version.)

Anyway, to cut a long story short (as Halley Suitt recommends), I’m feeling a lot better now, having rested for much of the past week, thanks to an ingenious suggestion by Shelley Powers (which can be the subject of another post).

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Sunday 23 May 2004

Useless but entertaining

I’ve been spending too much time reading detective novels. If I didn’t believe in taking responsibility for my actions, I’d blame Shelley Powers.

Canon Wordtank G50 Japanese electronic dictionaryThree weeks ago, before I realized how sick I’d been, I wrote in an email to Shelley:

This afternoon I’m going to the doctor (woke up feeling lousy, even though I had a good night’s sleep). I think that I’m simply worn out. I could use a holiday. I might go back to bed to play with the new electronic Japanese dictionary that arrived earlier in the week.

(I’d been debating for a couple of months whether to replace my venerable Canon Wordtank IDX-9700 with the spiffy new Wordtank G50 and had finally succumbed. I placed the order with SmartImports in Japan and received it a few days later.)

Shelley replied:

You do sound worn out. I would recommend a useless but entertaining novel or mystery or something of that nature, than a Japanese dictionary, which will probably wear you out even more, but that’s just me.

Glad you’re going to doctor. She’ll probably just tell you, “go to bed with a useless but entertaining novel or mystery…”

I wouldn’t describe myself as a big fan of crime or mystery novels, even though as a kid I loved Sherlock Holmes and I’ve read most of James Ellroy’s books and all of John Le Carré’s. And I’d been greatly entertained by Alan Furst’s pre-WWII spy thrillers, until Language Hat totally undermined my confidence in their authenticity.

Cover of Takagi Akimitsu's The Tattoo Murder Case The problem with useless but entertaining novels, I thought to myself, is that they are so badly written. But Shelley’s advice made sense somehow and I did recall that I’d enjoyed a Japanese mystery novel, Takagi Akimitsu’s The Tattoo Murder Case which was, just as the Washington Post Book World described, “Clever, kinky, highly entertaining”.

So, on my way to the doctor’s surgery in Woollahra, I dropped by Kinokuniya in the city to see if they had copies of the other Takagi novels that have been translated into English: Honeymoon to Nowhere and The Informer. “Out of stock,” said the sales clerk with an apologetic shrug, as she stared at her computer, but I headed off to the Asian literature section anyway.

Cover of Yokomizo Seishi's The Inugami ClanNo Takagi, but Yokomizo Seishi’s The Inugami Clan (A Gothic Tale of Murder from Japan’s Master of Crime) looked as though it might do the trick so I grabbed it, plus a copy of Maruya Sai’ichi’s Grass for My Pillow and headed for the checkout. When I got back home after seeing the doctor, I emailed Shelley about my purchases. She replied:

You make me laugh Jonathon. In a very good way. I should have known you would get a Japanese gothic murder mystery. Don’t take this in the wrong way, but you really are a charming person.

A charming person with a one-track mind, I think she meant. Paradoxically, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so much of my behavior happens outside my awareness so I guess it says a lot about me that not for an instant did I consider getting anything other than a Japanese murder mystery. I had to settle for an English translation because my reading skills aren’t yet up to reading (say) Takagi Akimitsu in Japanese. But I’m getting there and, for when that moment arrives, there are Japanese translations of Agatha Christie, Maurice Leblanc, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting on the bookshelf.

Anyway, The Inugami Clan—which followed the Holmesian model of a clever detective (Kindaichi Kosuke/Sherlock Holmes) solving the mystery on behalf of a well-intentioned but inept policeman (Police Chief Tachibana/Inspector Lestrade)—was just what the doctor (or rather Doctor Shelley) ordered. I wrote back:

Well, that turned out to be a really great suggestion! Reading a “useless but entertaining novel or mystery or something”, I mean. The Japanese gothic murder mystery (which I’d never have thought of buying had it not been for your advice) is exactly what I needed to read. I’m only about half way through—I’ve spent much of the weekend in bed, reading a few pages, then having a nap. Just what I needed to do. It doesn’t even matter that the plot is preposterous, the characters stereotypical, and the writing ordinary at best. Perhaps those are precisely the qualities required for a book to read when one isn’t feeling the best. Was that the reasoning behind your suggestion?

Shelley elaborated:

I did recommend the mystery because it’s not the type of writing that will engage you too deeply. It allows your mind to just disassociate for a time, and this is, to me, as restful as sleep. You spend an inordinate amount of time ‘enriching your life’, with deep and thoughtful movies and books, and learning Japanese, and keeping up with your skills for work, and all your other reading and writing. This is a goodness, but it takes lots of brain firing and emotional and physical CPU processing—if I may use a tech metaphor—and this isn’t necessarily restful.

That was it, of course: too much brain firing and emotional and physical CPU processing. No wonder I felt worn out and in need of a holiday. It occurred to me that I used to rely on crap television shows to allow my mind to disassociate for a time. But, apart from watching The Sopranos each week, there’s no way I could go back to watching TV. Why? The ads annoy me too much.

So, given that Shelley’s theory made sense, I realized I needed to read some more useless but entertaining mystery novels. This time, I headed off to Abbey’s, which has the most extensive crime section of any Sydney bookstore. They even had a copy of Takagi Akimitsu’s The Informer, but as soon as I saw the price—AU$36/US$25 for a paperback that Amazon sells for US$10—I put it smartly back on the shelf.

I hadn’t really given any thought to how I might select a non-Japanese mystery novel and spent twenty futile minutes browsing the shelves. In desperation, I turned to a woman browsing in the same aisle and said, “Excuse me. Do you mind my asking if you’ve read many crime novels?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “And yes, I’ve read quite a few.”

“Could you recommend any well-written crime novels?”

“What do you mean by ‘well-written’?” she asked, with a faint smile.

“I suppose I mean that the prose style isn’t so offensive that it draws attention to itself. And I think I might prefer what seems to be called the ‘police procedural’, where the focus is on the nuts-and-bolts of solving the crime.”

She thought for a few moments, then said: “You might want to try Kathy Reichs, Ian Rankin, or Michael Connelly.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time that she might only have picked “Rankin” and “Reichs” because we were standing in front of the “R” author shelves. I thanked her, picked up a random Kathy Reichs paperback, read the cover blurb, and put it back on the shelf. I knew I’d never get through a book in which the main character is called Dr. Temperance Brennan. I already knew about Ian Rankin—having had to sit through an episode of the Inspector Rebus TV series at a friend’s place—so he didn’t rate a glance. I’m not sympathetic to contemporary British writing and, in any case, that “most compelling mind in modern crime fiction”, “gritty realisation of Edinburgh”, and “dark heart of contemporary Scotland which lurks behind the elegant and historic buildings of the tourist trail” sounds as though it might take too much brain-firing and emotional CPU processing.

Cover of Michael Connelly's The Harry Bosch NovelsAll my hopes were now riding on Michael Connelly who, happily, came up trumps: Harry Bosch sounded like my kind of hard-bitten maverick LAPD homicide detective. Even better, Abbey’s had the first three Harry Bosch novels—The Black Echo, The Black Ice, and The Concrete Blonde—in an omnibus edition for only AU$29.95.

(I know the crime novel cognoscenti will be crying out at the unfairness of my dismissing Dr. Temperance Brennan when Harry happens to be short for Hieronymus, but I didn’t know that until I started reading the first novel.)

Now that I’m reading the fourth in the series, The Last Coyote, I’m glad that buying the trilogy “forced” me read them in the order in which they were written (I’m obsessive enough to have wanted to do that anyway, but the trilogy made it simpler). Connolly writes reasonably well, in the sense that the prose doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling and I’ve only cringed a couple of times in each book at—what I regard as—an awkward simile or metaphor. He also seems to write with authority, in that each procedural detail appears to be authentic—a product of his three years as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I guess. (I use the words “seems” and “appears” because, until I read Language Hat’s post, I was also impressed by Alan Furst’s “authenticity”.) And, the nice thing about reading Connolly’s books in order is that you can see his craft steadily improving: the supporting characters becoming more nuanced, the plots more complex, and the main character Bosch grappling more realistically with his demons.

I didn’t realize how popular Michael Connelly’s books are until I saw these posters on a bookstore door and read at Salon.com that his latest, The Narrows, is No. 1 on the Powell’s best seller list (it’s slipped to No. 5 on the New York Times list).

Michael Connelly detective novel posters

The store had copies of Connelly’s fifth book, The Poet, at a special promotional price of AU$9.95 (instead of the usual AU$17.95). When I asked the sales clerk why, she said: “I think the publishers want to suck you in so you’ll buy his latest one, The Narrows.”

Now—halfway through my fourth Connelly book, with another ten to go—I realize that (with Shelley’s help) I’ve learned something useful about myself. I need to lighten up, unwind more often, take things less seriously. It’s hard though, when you’ve always been a kind of “driven character”, as a lover once told me. That’s why I like Harry Bosch, he reminds me of myself in some ways. Or perhaps I should say, he reminds me of an idealized version of myself: a lone-wolf, intolerant of authority, lugging a ton of psychic baggage, unwilling or unable to sustain intimate relationships…

Even though I know I’m not supposed to overtax my emotional and intellectual CPU, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationshiop between motivation and behavior: not so much about why one criminal robbed a bank or another killed nine prostitutes but more about what motivates Bosch, someone who appears to think analytically and act methodically yet whose successes and failures are due in no small part to his emotions: the way they inform both his calculated decisions and his unreflective responses to events outside his immediate control.

Perhaps the difference between a detective in a novel and someone—like you, or me—in real life is that solving a fictional crime requires a delicate interplay between the protagonist’s analytical and intuitive states of awareness whereas much of the time we are, as Dave Rogers argues,

…not the rational, cognitive thinkers we all would like to believe we are… Most of what we do is behavior governed by non-thinking, largely emotional processes within our bodies. And for the vast majority of the time, it works exceedingly well, so we’re never inclined to think there is anything “wrong” with the way we behave. We’re blind to our own behavior. (“Jane, you ignorant slut.”)

If we’re asked “why” we did something, most of the time we’ll be able to craft what appears to be a perfectly rational explanation. That explanation will almost invariably involve making assertions that cast ourselves in the best light. That is to say, among the set of possible explanations, we will choose the ones that make us feel best about ourselves… (Why Ask Why?)

“We’re blind to our own behavior.” As I said, I’ve been mulling over the degree to which we are prisoners of our upbringing, our experiences, and our sense of mission in life. In every way—and I don’t want to articulate how this is so, for fear of spoiling the experience for those who might be interested—Bosch exemplifies how those factors control his behavior. Connolly’s books are hardly great literature, yet they’re instructive nonetheless.

But maybe, contrary to Shelley’s advice, I’m trying to turn something useless but entertaining into something useful and entertaining. In other words, taking it all a little too seriously. Hey, what do you expect from someone who has a problem with authority figures?

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