Two Weeks In Europe: Day 5 – When In Rome (And The Vatican!)

Continued from Day 4…

Our wakeup call came at 5:30, but I was already awake. Today was the big one. We’d be in Rome this morning. Rome, The Eternal City. Rome, one of the crowning achievements of human ingenuity and creativity. Rome, one of the most important places in the history of Western civilization. After years of reading books and articles, seeing movies and documentaries, I’d finally get to see it with my own eyes.

Yeah, I was excited.

I wasn’t the only one, either. Though we’d planned to get up earlier to beat the morning crowd at the Windjammer, we found that every else had the same idea. Every table on Deck 9 – even the ones outside – was packed. It took a couple of laps around the restaurant before I found a couple of unattended seats. We ended up sharing space with a family from the Philippines. Unlike us, they were taking their time to enjoy their food; this wasn’t their first time to Rome, so they knew what pace to set. After exchanging contact information and business cards, we gathered lunch supplies, packed up, and waited at the designated meeting point for our tour. Our group gradually grew to a few dozen, and we shuffled off the ship within the hour.

As soon as I disembarked, I was struck by how cold it was outside. I’d anticipated the chilly temperatures – I’d gotten used to it after a couple of mornings – but the wind felt like a knife on my cheeks. Our guide’s voice was lost on the breeze, but he kept waving and beckoning us toward the small fleet of buses nearby. A massive sea wall loomed across the road from us, “WELCOME TO CIVITAVECCHIA” painted in letters two stories high. After being assigned our tour number (a little sticker that seemed perpetually on the verge of falling off), we climbed aboard. We were each handed a fold-out map of Rome. I compared it with the my travel guidebook and realized the unfortunate truth: There was too much to see. Even if we stuck to the most famous and touristy areas, there was no way we’d be able to see everything in one day.

The tour guide explained the choices in simple terms: we could either spend the day exploring Rome, or in the lines and crowds of the Vatican. Like a travel-themed Highlander show, there could be only one. We’d be dropped off in front of St. Peter’s Square in the morning, and we’d have until the late afternoon to get back. As the guide went around selling Vatican Museum tickets in advance, Mom and I quietly debated our options. Vatican City is self-explanatory; the sheer amount of history and culture would be mind-boggling. We’d get to see the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and some of the most famous works of art in the world. But that would also mean being stuck in the seemingly endless horde of tourists for the entire day. If we wandered through Rome, we’d get to see more sites at our own pace. That meant improvising an itinerary in an unfamiliar city and somehow getting back to the meetup point on time. When we asked the guide, he recommended the latter; it was our first time in the city, so we should get as much out of it as possible.

I leaned back and grumbled, but I knew he was right. The Vatican would have to wait. When I asked Mom what she wanted to see, she immediately chose the Colosseum. Which, to be fair, was at the top of my Things To See In Italy list. Of course we’d visit it, just had to find it. How hard could it be?

…It was on the opposite end of the map.

Okay, so obviously we’d be saving that for last. We’d have to start at St. Peter’s, then walk across town to the Colosseum. No problem, I’d done literally three times the amount of city hiking in a day. But that was in San Francisco, on my home turf, and without a time limit. On this trip, both endpoints and hours were established; all that was left was to find a walking route that was not only efficient, but maximized the amount of sites we could visit. After staring at the map for several minutes, I had it all planned. We’d walk from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, cross the Tiber via Ponte Umberto, follow the street to Piazza Navona, then turn left and head to the Pantheon, continue on to Trevi Fountain, take a slight detour north to the Spanish Steps, and then head south for the Colosseum. Getting back to the Vatican from there would have to be improvised depending on how much time we had left. It would be a little rushed, but doable.

After getting through the Vatican’s parking garage – a concrete monstrosity apparently capable of handling dozens of tour buses at once – our group trudged out of a tunnel and and stopped right in front of St. Peter’s Square. Like any piece of history, it was so much grander than anything seen in a book or painting. The sheer size amount of open space, the way the rows of columns curved like cupped hands, the gargantuan fountains, the Egyptian obelisk that has lasted since the Roman Empire…This place had seen – and survived – so much. I’m pretty sure I spent that first half hour awestruck, gaping and drooling over every last detail. Mom and I walked around the square and took photos, but we knew we couldn’t stay long. The tour guide wasn’t kidding; the line to get into the Basilica wrapped around the perimeter of St. Peter’s, and the constant influx of visitors made it hard to tell where it ended. Remembering the choice we’d made, we left the Vatican behind.

Our quest for the Colosseum started off relatively smoothly. Castel Sant’Angelo is right next to the Vatican, so finding both it and the bridge was easy. I’d also read and watched Angels and Demons years ago, so I my inner bookworm was geeking out. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time there; the museum lines were too long, and the bridge (and its wonderful statues) was too crowded for decent photography. When we crossed Ponte Umberto, I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and view. The Tiber was almost serene; there were only a few joggers and bicyclists on its banks, and only one tour boat chugging upriver. We waved at the tourists as they passed underneath, then continued to Piazza Navona.

Fun fact: Like most ancient cities, Rome’s layout is pretty unusual. The narrow alleys, twisted, interconnected thoroughfares, and clustered buildings make navigating it a daunting task. Which makes sense, given how it’d be a massive obstacle for invading armies. But for modern visitors, it just required more time with the map. I’d started second-guessing myself when we emerged onto Piazza Navona and a whole new crowd of tourists. They were there for good reason; the fountains and architecture here are among Rome’s finest. The piazza was practically overshadowed by the Sant’Agnese in Agone, but everyone’s attention was focused on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (AKA the Four Rivers Fountain). Originally designed by Bernini in the 1650s, it featured another obelisk supported by four gigantic statues. They represented the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata, the four major rivers in which continents the Vatican had authority. It was meant to represent the power and influence of the church, but I was more impressed by how lively they looked; like all of Bernini’s sculptures, these were incredibly detailed and seemed to capture the human form in motion. Just look at the way Ganges is posing in style, or how Rio de la Plata is stumbling back in fear. You wish you could make something that cool.

On our way to the Pantheon, we wandered past Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. It was relatively deserted, but about half a dozen art or design students were hunched over their sketchbooks, trying to capture the building’s perfect arches and hallways. A couple of alleys later, we reached out next stop. That feeling of awe consumed me again. St. Peter’s Square is incredible, but the origins of the Pantheon predate Christianity itself. Just stop and think about that. It was rebuilt – the timeline is still debatable – but still. This architectural relic, standing tall and proud in the modern world, was already old when Vatican City came to be. As I walked past the front columns and into the building itself, I was struck by its unbelievable scale. The Pantheon is topped by the world’s largest unreinforced dome; I had to nearly bend over backwards to see all of its intricate designs. Even with a wide-angle lens, I’d have to lie down on the floor to even attempt photographing it. The oculus at its center loomed overhead, casting the afternoon sun on the walls like a gigantic spotlight. I tried taking a panorama (never thought I’d do that inside a building), but I could only record about half of it. We spent nearly an hour wandering around the Pantheon, looking at wonderful artwork, and the tombs of King Victor Emmanuel II, Umberto I, and (most famously) Raphael.

I was still reeling from the history overload when we stepped outside for a much-needed break. While it was cold in Rome, we were wearing three layers of clothes each, I was carrying our food, guidebook, and camera, and we hadn’t stopped since we’d left the Vatican. There was an open spot right in front of the Fontana del Pantheon, so we sat down for a few minutes, snacked on our sandwiches, and watched the ebb and flow of people. I wandered around for a bit and took a few more photos of the building, though it was nowhere near as fascinating outside. I also noticed people walking up to a small fountain nearby, refilling their empty water bottles or just getting a palmful of refreshment. I’m normally concerned about germs and contaminated drinking water – I avoid the tap at home whenever feasible – but I remembered the old adage: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I threw caution to the wind, restocked my supply, and silently prayed I wouldn’t get sick.

Next stop: Trevi Fountain. In a city full of fountains, this was supposed to be the grandest of them all. It wasn’t that far away, either; according to the map, it was just a couple of streets away. We quickly set off…

…And immediately got lost.

It was then I realized the problem with our little map: it didn’t present the landmarks just by name, but by small, caricatured drawings of them as well. The little cartoon versions of the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain partially obscured the streets necessary to reach them, and names of those streets weren’t even listed. Also, the drawings were facing in incorrect directions, which made them far less useful as reference points. In retrospect, I was being an idiot; Trevi Fountain was to the slight northeast. All I needed was the position of the sun, and I could’ve figured it out instantly. But when you’re tired, cold, and stuck in a huge crowd, it’s easy to get distracted. We wasted about fifteen minutes walking in a circle before another traveler pointed us in the right direction. Pro-Tip: the alley to Trevi Fountain is to your left when you’re facing the front of the Pantheon, no matter what your cruddy tourist map says. There’s also a “This way to Trevi Fountain” sign to guide the way, which of course we missed on our first run.

Now going the correct way, we took a few minutes to get souvenirs. I added another keychain to my collection, and Mom got on another magnet for her fridge. The shopkeeper was Filipina, which was somehow surprising; she and Mom chatted in Tagalog while I finished shopping. By that point, however, we both needed a restroom. There happened to be a McDonald’s along the way, which proved to be the absolute worst part of the trip. Like any McDonald’s in Europe, the place was overrun with tourists; the line was nearly out the door, and the roar of hungry patrons was deafening. We squeezed through the horde and went upstairs to the restrooms, only to find there were more than a dozen women already lined up against the wall. I got my business done mercifully quickly, but the single-toilet men’s room was horrendously smelly, dirty, and rancid. Seriously, you could smell the filth even behind the door. I was in there for barely a minute, and I felt sick when I left. Come to think of it, I should probably report them to whatever health inspectors Rome has…Anyway, Mom saw how absurdly disgusting the place was and decided to leave.

We kept walking until we came to Trevi Fountain itself. Mom made a beeline for the Melograno restaurant nearby, which was far more sanitary and less crowded than McDonald’s. No bathroom lines, either; she was back in fifteen minutes wish some gelato for the both of us. In the meantime, I pushed through the crowds and attempted to get a look at the fountain. I was disappointed to discover that it had been closed off for restoration; the entire area was surrounded by plastic, transparent barricades. While it was possible to see the fountain, it was drained of its water, and construction crews were hard at work. It ended up reopening just days after our trip ended. No use crying about it now. As I finished my gelato, I looked at my watch and considered our options. If we picked up the pace just a little bit, we’d still have time to see the Spanish Steps.

At that point, however, I hadn’t learned my lesson about using the map’s landmarks as reference points. The Spanish Steps were less than a ten minute walk away; we just had to go north and follow the street. But of course, I had to follow the map. A few minutes later, we’d mistakenly climbed up to the Quirinal Palace. Fun fact: The Spanish Steps were also closed for restoration, but I didn’t know that at the time. Feeling rushed, angry at myself, and utterly tired (hauling all that stuff wasn’t helping), I took a moment to sit down and regain my bearings. The front of the palace doubles as an elevated lookout point; the rooftops of Rome spread out as far I could see, and I could just make out the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. We had only a couple of hours to make it back there. How much more could we possibly see?

Our problems were partially solved when we started climbing back down and came across a Carabinieri. He was incredibly nice and gracious enough to point us in the right direction; I’m sure he’s probably sick of answering tourists’ questions countless times every day, but the effort was very much appreciated. Just a short walk down to the Piazza Venezia, and then past it via the street to the left. It was a simple as it sounded…for the most part. Crossing a street in the heart of Rome, even with the pedestrian signal, felt like the parting of the Red Sea; a narrow path with potential death bearing down on you from all sides.

Once we made it past the piazza, the rest of the walk was breeze. The Colosseum loomed high in the distance, and the road to it was a straight line. Our only obstacles were the thick, impassable throngs of fellow tourists, and our own exhaustion. I was still doing fairly well, but Mom kept falling back repeatedly. When we reached the Roman Forum, I gave her a chance to rest. As we looked over the railing, I took a few photos and gave her a brief history of the location and its importance. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but there was precious little time left. By the time we reached the Colosseum, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to go inside; the lines were huge, and we’d basically have to run through the tour. Instead, we settled for walking around the entire perimeter and peeking in where we could. It wasn’t nearly as much as it could’ve been, but it worked with our time constraints. Mom was happy that she finally got to see something she’d read about as a child, and that’s what really mattered.

As the wonder and awe of the Colosseum faded, reality started sinking in. We were about an hour’s walk away from St. Peter’s. We could totally do it, assuming that we didn’t get lost on the way back. We briefly considered taking the subway, but I don’t think either of us had the energy left to learn another map system. We’d trudged all the way back to Piazza Venezia when I realized that we couldn’t make it back on foot in time. Mom was going far too slow, and I’d lost faith in my navigational skills. After walking and debating for a few more minutes, and we finally settled on a taxi. I collapsed into the front seat, told the driver where to go, and turned on my camera. If I was going to be leaving Rome, I wanted one last, unique memory: I recorded the entire taxi ride from the piazza back to Vatican City. The drive took less than ten minutes, but it felt so much longer.

After paying up and thanking the driver (Keep being chill and awesome, Alessandro!), we were back where we started. Aside from the position of the sun, nothing had really changed; the line to get into the Basilica was still endless. We had 45 minutes left. Not enough time to see a museum, but just enough to do some shopping and find the Vatican’s exclusive post office. Seriously, the Vatican Post Office! It’s hidden behind the pillars to the right, within shouting distance of the Sistine Chapel. I bought a postcard, addressed it to the family back in California, and handed it off to the worker inside. Said worker was a big, burly fellow who was probably making fun of my inability to speak Italian. Anyway, that postcard is currently stuck to my fridge (it arrived two days before I returned home), and I got a Vatican-exclusive euro as part of my change from the transaction. At that point, Mom got tired of me dragging her around to take photos. She left in an exasperated huff without warning, so I spent a few minutes in a near-panic trying to find her in the crowd. She’s a fighter, but she’s not quite as resilient as she used to be. She knew where the meet-up location was; I just hoped no one tried to mug or pickpocket her while I wasn’t around.

She was fine, thankfully. We met up shortly before the designated time, still annoyed with the other. I spent the last few minutes taking photos; it took me several tries, but I managed to get a panorama of St. Peter’s Square from the front. I ducked into the Vatican gift shop and quickly searched for a decent souvenir. I didn’t want to get a cross – I’m not particularly religious – and I didn’t want to bother with overpriced jewelry that I’d never wear. Instead, I opted for something a little bizarre, but a uniquely perfect keepsake: holy water. That’s right, I have a vial of holy water from the Vatican on my shelf now. In terms of unusual travel trinkets I’ve gained over the years, that tops them all. I’m glad I was able to hold onto it; according to our tour guide, the short walk back down to the Vatican parking garage is a haven for pickpocketers. He even had us carry our backpacks in front of us. Aside from a couple of missing group members (who ended up getting back on the ship late), the trip back was uneventful.

When we piled back onto the tour bus, I felt weariness wash over me like a tidal wave. We’d been up before dawn, explored one of the greatest cities on Earth, seen so much art and history…and that was just a taste of Rome. We’d have to go back there someday. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I was woken up by the tour guide explaining the importance of Civitavecchia. Fishermen in ancient times would go to the port at the end of the day to sell their catches, and the tradition is still alive today; dozens of boats were docked nearby, silhouetted against the sunset, crates of fish already being sold. Had we not been on a fully-catered cruise, Mom and I probably would’ve gotten something. Instead, we staggered back onto the ship, traded travel stories at dinner, and called it an early night. After all we’d done, we’d earned a great night’s sleep.

To be continued…

Advertisements

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Wind/Pinball Review

It finally happened. After years of letting them fade into obscurity, Haruki Murakami brought Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 stateside. For longtime English-speaking fans, the 2015 release of Wind/Pinball was a dream come true; finding translated copies of these novels was almost impossible. The fact that they were were the first two entries in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” made things even worse. While it wasn’t necessary to read them before A Wild Sheep Chase, having some background on the unnamed protagonist and the Rat would’ve been helpful. Now that the full story is here, Western readers can finally get the experience as it was meant to be…for better or worse.

For those of you expecting another round of Murakami’s bizarre shenanigans and magical realism, be prepared to reign in your expectations. Wind/Pinball were his first two novels, and it shows. Hear the Wind Sing is about the college-aged narrator coming back to his hometown during summer break and spending time with the Rat, his longtime friend and binge-drinking partner. The novel tries to encapsulate the sense of change and budding maturity of a young twenty-something. The narrator gradually realizes that the summers of his youth are long gone, and how much of his life he took for granted. He tries to track down a former high school classmate, but fails miserably. He’s had three previous girlfriends, yet can barely muster any memories of them. He attempts to romance a young lady – who, of course, has only nine fingers – but the relationship barely goes anywhere. We’re only given a glimpse of the girl’s issues towards the end of the novel (she’s practically a precursor to Yuki from Dance Dance Dance), but little else. Murakami’s female characters are often regarded as shallow satellites to the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious here.

Considering that Hear the Wind Sing is the first entry in the “Trilogy of the Rat,” it’s no surprise that its namesake is the more interesting of the two main characters. Unlike the narrator, the Rat has yet to take the first few steps into adulthood. While all of his friends are off studying at the universities, he spends his time getting drunk and avoiding responsibility. He uses alcoholism to drown out his sense of loneliness. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he loathes being rich and considers himself a social outcast. Like the narrator, he confronts some harsh truths: the times are changing, his friends are leaving him behind, and he needs to be able to connect with people beyond drunken debauchery. It’s rather telling that the narrator introduces the Rat as a “virtual stranger to books,” yet he’s seen reading literature in almost every scene he appears after. Whether this is a result of the Rat’s curiosity towards novels or an attempt to strengthen his friendship with the narrator remains ambiguous. Regardless, his character development adds flavor to an already bittersweet story.

The Rat’s issues are taken a step further in Pinball, 1973. Thanks to his wealthy background, he’s able to spend every day at the bar and have drunken flings…but they’re not as fulfilling as actually living. He’s well aware that life is passing him by, and he has yet to find a purpose. There’s a vague notion that he needs to leave town and find his own place in the world, which is nicely illustrated with Rat’s association with the town’s waterfront. As a child, he used to go down to the beach every night; there was a beacon that would turn on at sunset, and he could sit on the pier and watch the waves. However, his current girlfriend undermines his nostalgia. She lives in an apartment near the beach, but loathes the location. She’s complains about the ocean and shuts the blinds on her window, thus cutting the Rat off from the allure it gave him. It’s foreshadowing their doomed relationship, as well as the Rat’s ever-growing wanderlust. While his decision seems obvious (and a foregone conclusion to English-speaking fans who read A Wild Sheep Chase first), his character development is satisfying.

The narrator’s storyline is a little less straightforward. He’s already made the transition into adulthood, but gets a serious case of nostalgia. His focus is on a pinball machine called Spaceship, which used to be part of the bar where he and the Rat frequented. He goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of playing pinball. The dazzling lights, and the rush of a well-played game, the satisfaction of a new high score…and the inevitable burnout. Anyone who has grown up with video games will understand the sentiments all too well. However, it was something more for him; he describes as an obsessive love affair; it is intense, costly, and ultimately fleeting. He also has to face the unfortunate reality: reliving your past isn’t as easy or fulfilling as it sounds, and most people won’t share your passion, let alone even know what you’re talking about. The narrator goes to great lengths in his search for Spaceship, but recapturing those moments is something else entirely.

Pinball, 1973 also serves as the starting point for Murakami’s signature elements. Anyone who’s read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will perk up when the narrator mentions wells, and the name (and fate of) “Naoko” ought to give Norwegian Wood fans a jolt. There’s even a pair of identical twin girls – called 208 and 209 respectively – who inexplicably live with and interact with the narrator, yet he never questions their origins and possibly otherworldly existence. It all seems like typical Murakami, but not as structured or developed. Some of these aspects, much like the love interest from the first book, feel tacked on at best. Aside from providing the narrator a little emotional depth and some surreal conversations, they add little to the story. If anything, they’re the rough drafts of the stuff we’ve come to expect from the author.

They don’t make these novels necessarily bad, though. Every author, no matter how popular they are, has to start somewhere. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts at storytelling, and it shows. They’re not perfect by any means, but they do well at capturing the loneliness and confusion of someone coming of age. Longtime English-speaking fans will be glad to finally get the missing pieces of the Trilogy of the Rat and read the story as it was meant to be seen. Though far from Murakami’s finest, it’s still an interesting look into a great author’s humble beginnings.

Go Set A Watchman Review

Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.

SPOILERS

Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of  some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.

It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.

This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance,  which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.

Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.

“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway)  they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.

Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:

“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”

“After what I said to him? After the-”

Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”

No. She had not. She was terrified.

“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”

There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.

Daily Prompt: Facing The Inevitable

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about mortality. Specifically, when you realize you weren’t immortal and how you reacted to it. This actually happened to me a couple of times when I was growing up, the first of which when I was still a child. When I was in elementary school, I’d always spend my Christmas vacation at my grandparents’ house. It was a tradition that involved weeks of decorating the house, wrapping presents, and cooking yummy desserts. But 1995 was different; my grandfather had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was rapidly declining. I’ve already written about watching him die, so I’ll skip straight to the aftermath. That was the first time I’d ever been so close to death, and the realization that yes, it is a thing that happens. But I never cried over it; I never knew my grandfather as a person, but as an old man who gave out laughs and tickles whenever possible. When the adults awkwardly asked me if I had any questions about death, I shrugged and said no. He’d been sick for almost a year, and the writing was on the wall. With it came the understanding that death was an inevitability – it was just a matter of how and when – and that I’d have no choice to accept it. So I did.

Yeah, I was kind of creepy as a kid.

The second occurrence happened a few years later when I was in high school. I was walking onto the campus when I witnessed a car speed through the red light right next to me…and into a kid who happened to be in the crosswalk. I’ll spare you the details – pretty sure I’ve mentally blocked out the worst parts – but I’m sure you can imagine it. I pride myself on being a fighter now, but back on that chilly, bloody morning, I couldn’t do anything. I stood there, utterly transfixed by death’s proximity and brutality, and I watched a dozen or so people run to assist in what was already a hopeless cause. I knew it was already over, that other people were taking care of it, that I’d just get in the way. I slowly turned away, hands slightly trembling, and numbly walked to my first class. I don’t think I spoke that entire day, even when they announced the accident and death on the PA system.

It was then I realized that death wasn’t reserved for just the old and sick; anyone can die anywhere. What made more of an impression was the sheer randomness of it; there was no dramatic build-up, no final family farewell, nothing but a big hunk of metal zooming into an unsuspecting victim. And if could happen to some kid crossing the street, it could happen to me. If you look at the mortality rates provided by WHO and do a little math, that roughly translates to two people dying every second. Yeah, think about that. I’ve had that stat burned into my mind for years. It’s a sobering reminder that my – and everyone else’s – days are numbered. I don’t fear death, though; I’ve embraced my mortality head-on as I’ve grown older. I’ve come close to dying myself three or four times now, so I’d like to think we’re on good terms. I’m more afraid living a disappointed and unfulfilled life; there’s far too much to see and do, and I refuse to be just another statistic in a history book.

The acceptance of mortality is a double-edged sword, though. It’s a very liberating experience, but it can lead to a slippery slope of some rather grim philosophical pondering. Death is an inevitability; you cannot escape it forever. Most people try to ignore it by distracting themselves with whatever they can. The advent of social media has certainly ensured that people desperate to be remembered and acknowledged won’t (for better or worse) be forgotten so easily. For others, particularly anyone severely depressed, it underscores how vapid and pointless daily life can be; death is ever-present, so why bother sticking around? For me, I’ve come to realize that life’s inherent meaninglessness isn’t a bad thing; as Nietzsche once explained, you can give life your own meaning. Skipping out early is an option, but there are so many, many better ones to try first. Since death is coming regardless, might as well do – and be – something awesome to pass the time. It’s not easy to do – I still have moments when I feel the exact opposite, and I do not look forward to growing old – but it’s more fulfilling than the alternative. My problem is finding happiness and fulfillment, but that’s a whole other issue.

As for death, it’ll stop by and visit eventually. I intend to make the wait worthwhile.

Opera At The Ballpark 2015

Yes, you read that title correctly. I spent last Friday evening watching opera in a baseball stadium. The San Francisco Opera performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the War Memorial Opera House. The show was simulcast for free at AT&T Park, the home of the Giants. Wait, you exclaim. How can something as classy as opera work with something so low-brow as baseball?!

Incredibly well, surprisingly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a music critic. I’m geek when it comes to multiple subjects, but I’ve never studied music. I sing poorly, don’t play any instruments, and can muster little more than a shout. The latter is why I find opera fascinating; The quote, “opera singers are the olympians of the music world” is the most apt description I’ve ever read. How much raw talent, dedication, and training does it take to reach those vocal plateaus? My exposure to opera is above average at best. My mother was part of a church choir and loved singing along to Phantom of the Opera on cassette (which I brought to school once, and was promptly ridiculed for it). My father constantly listened to Andrea Bocelli every time I visited, and once had me watch the entire performance of Les Miserables: The Dream Cast In Concert on tape. You know, the one with 17 Valjeans in the encore? I’ve only been to one show in person, which was Phantom at the Curran for a Christmas gift in 1997.

Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

Appropriately enough, it was my mother who told me about the event. We met up after work and walked to the ballpark. I hadn’t been inside since Labor Day weekend in 2000 – during the summer in which it originally opened – so I was interested to see how it changed. We were under the impression that we’d be able to sit on the grass, but were rebuffed by security once we reached ground level inside the stadium. Only visitors who came in through the side marina gate – and sporting the green wristbands to prove it – were allowed onto the outfield. Getting that far would’ve required us climbing back up to the main area and walking to the opposite end of the stadium. I was a little ticked about that (the staff in charge of the lines out front should’ve explained and guided newcomers accordingly) but decided on something better:

Yeah, that’s right. I got seats next to home plate at AT&T Park!…While the Giants were out of town. Heh. It was perfect for what we needed: good chairs with solid backs and beverage holders, and a stone’s throw from restrooms and restaurants downstairs. It exemplified the advantages of watching opera in a stadium; it’s more comfortable, you don’t have to dress up, you can take your kids, and there’s food, accommodations, and friendly staff at the ready. You’d be surprised how well garlic fries and a cold drink go with the opera. Just kick back, relax, and enjoy the show. Putting it on the jumbotron is a great idea as well; not only does it do split-screen to display multiple singers at once, but subtitles as well. That’s a huge benefit for those who don’t speak Italian or have trouble following what’s being sung. That way, the spectators can enjoy the plot and comedy without much confusion.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. Traditional opera houses are renowned for their phenomenal acoustics, but ballpark loudspeakers and big screens can’t quite replicate the experience. It probably doesn’t matter to 99% of the visitors, but there is a difference. Also, attending an opera means you’re actually inside a building, not an open-air stadium. Summer evenings are pleasant in San Francisco; the temperature is still decent, and there’s a slight breeze by the water. Skip forward to 10 or 11 PM, and things have gotten chilly, misty, and the gorgeous dusk sky has been devoured by fog. If you’re going to stay for the whole show, bring a couple of extra layers to keep warm. I was fine, but my mother was shivering under a sweater and jacket. Also, if you’re taking BART, keep in mind that you’ll need time to walk back to the station. After the awesome curtain call, we had to duck out in front of most of the crowd in order to make our train.

As for the show, it was hilarious and amazing. Opera is often stereotyped as being some stuffy, serious, incomprehensible, yawn-inducing thing exclusively for snobby old people. That’s unfortunate (more like absolutely ridiculous), because The Marriage of Figaro is essentially an 18th century romantic comedy. It’s got witty writing, romance, scandal, intrigue, snark, slapstick, likeable protagonists, a scene-stealing drunk gardener, and (of course) killer vocals. I could spend all day watching Philippe Sly and Lisette Oropesa bicker as Figaro and Susanna. Or Nadine Sierra constantly – but narrowly – outsmart Luca Pisaroni‘s Count Almaviva, for that matter. I heard 30,000 people laugh out loud at the look on Susanna’s face during the “Su madre?!” scene, and pretty much anything Angela Brower did as the oh-so lecherous and gropey Cherubino. No matter how old you are, watching a lovestruck idiot awkwardly hide under a bed sheet is somehow the funniest thing ever. If nothing else, this will make you believe that 18th century servant women could Judo-throw their foolish husbands.

The fun wasn’t limited to the show, either. During the intermissions, they displayed some classic Looney Tunes that involved the opera. All of us cartoon geeks in the audience recognized and laughed along to excerpts from Long-Haired Hare and Rabbit of Seville. Val Diamond of Beach Blanket Babylon took the stadium by storm with a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out To The Opera.” There was also a marriage proposal on the jumbotron, and apparently he said yes.

It’s interesting how it’s come to this. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the opposite. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro 229 years ago. I wonder if he ever imagined his music would survive this long, or himself playing to a crowd the size of a baseball stadium. The fact that there was such a huge turnout is not only a testament to the opera’s appeal, but to the performances as well. If something’s great, people will come to see it. It’s also thanks to the San Francisco Opera engaging the fans in a direct and modern way. They were very active on Twitter, encouraging viewers to make comments and displaying them on the jumbotron. I tweeted throughout the show (only during the intermissions, because it’s the polite thing to do), and got some great responses from the staff, performers, and fellow viewers. I even got a response from Susanna, which prompted me to geek out in the best way. This kind of approach is perfect for younger generations who’ve gotten used to sharing everything on social media.

You know what the best part was? There were lots of kids. Sure, some of them probably thought they were coming to see a baseball game. But they got the chance to experience something new and different. Something that they may not appreciate now, but they will later on. That’s how opera – and all other aspects of our culture – survive; we pass it all down in as many ways and influences as we can think of, and hope it sticks. Judging by the success of Opera At The Ballpark, we have nothing to worry about.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…