March 12, 2015
(++++) TANTALIZING MEMORIES
The Book of Memory Gaps. By Cecilia Ruiz. Blue Rider Press. $16.95.
Members Only: Secret Societies, Sects, and Cults—Exposed! By Julie Tibbott. Zest Books. $14.99.
Short and bittersweet, Cecilia Ruiz’ The Book of Memory Gaps is a strangely affecting little collection of 14 one-paragraph (sometimes one-sentence) tales of people with misshapen memories of various sorts. Adorned with drawings of neurons on its front and back pages, framed by a concluding quote from Jorge Luis Borges and an opening one that starts, “We are the things we don’t remember,” Ruiz’ book uses understated illustrations filled with muted colors to complement poetic language based on real memory conditions and disorders. For some reason, the sufferers here – which is not to say that most of them know they are suffering – are almost all Russian: Pyotr, Ivan, Nadya, Viktor, Natasha and others. Two particularly poignant tales are of musicians. In one, “Alexander quit his career as a composer when, for the fifth time, without noticing it, he wrote a piece that already existed.” The illustration shows a well-dressed, mustachioed man holding an ax that he has used to chop two legs off a grand piano. In the other music-related story, “Pavel keeps forgetting what he just did. He has been rehearsing the same melody over and over for almost a year. The entire neighborhood has left.” He is a silhouette, seen through a window, playing a violin, in a building on a canal or river in which all other spaces have broken windows – which are also seen throughout the darkened building across the water. Whether Pavel’s playing has driven the neighborhood away or whether matters have deteriorated around him without his noticing is left to the reader to decide. The delicacy with which Ruiz portrays what is essentially a series of stories of mental illness, or at least incapacity, produces involving wistfulness rather than distancing judgment. One little story shows a woman named Koka sitting at a table in a room whose only other furnishing is a hanging plant that appears to be dead. She has just rediscovered money she once hid – but the currency has changed and “the bills were no longer in circulation.” Another tale is of a ballerina named Polina who is “not able to create new memories” and believes every night is opening night – leading her repeatedly to perform in “a used discolored costume” to an empty theater. There is pathos aplenty in these little stories, but there is provocative thoughtfulness here, too, which will be especially intense for readers who realize that they too remember, or think they remember, having memory lapses of one sort or another. It would be stretching the truth to call The Book of Memory Gaps charming, but it would be wrong to call it charmless. It is a strange little book about the strangeness of memory itself and the many ways in which the world we perceive, re-creating it day after day from our memories of how it appeared the day before, may be very different from the one seen and lived in by others.
Strangeness and memory mix in a different way in Julie Tibbott’s Members Only, a fascinating – if somewhat too glib – look at 22 secret societies and sects (with passing references to quite a few more). The organizations profiled here include ones whose names are quite well known, even if their practices are understood at best imperfectly: Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians. There are others that readers may have encountered as byways of history: Know Nothings, the anti-immigrant group that briefly flourished in the United States before the Civil War; Thuggees, the murderous bands of roving criminals in India about whom Mark Twain wrote and from which the word “thug” is derived; and the Knights Templar, much-feared medieval Crusaders whose mysteries inspired The Da Vinci Code and several films. There are university-based, still-operating secret groups, such as the well-known Skull and Bones at Yale and the less-known group called The Machine at the University of Alabama. And there are the Bilderberg Group, which possibly influences the course of many nations in the world today; the Bizango, which practices its own form of voodoo in Haiti; and the Thule Society, which helped inspire Nazism and claimed many top Nazis as members. For each group, Tibbott explains when it started, whether or not it remains active, to what extent it is exclusive and secretive, how threatening it is or was (and to whom), and how quirky it should be considered. Her chapters on the groups include a sometimes uneasy mixture of accurate (if surface-level) historical research with commentary that takes far-out notions a little too much at face value – for instance, regarding the Illuminati, that “the majority of US presidents…share a common ancestor” but that “there are those who believe that the beings in these bloodlines are not even human, but reptilian humanoids.” Tone is Tibbott’s difficulty in Members Only: she is not sure to what extent she wants to mock the groups, to what extent she simply wants to explain them, and to what extent she wants to warn readers to take them very seriously indeed. Also, Tibbott is described as “an editor of teen fiction at a major publishing house,” but if so, she is badly in need of a better editor herself: among the many gaffes and improper usages here are misspelling Adolf Hitler’s first name as Adolph; writing “must possess have high morals” (page 47); saying “banned together” rather than “band together” (page 100) and “cut and dry” rather than “cut and dried” (page 103); saying that Germany “was going through tough times, with [sic] having been defeated been defeated in the First World War” (page 187); and discussing when the Thuggees (erroneously spelled with a single “g” in the table of contents) “were could embark on the hunt for victims” (page 217). The uneven tone and frequent mistakes undermine the fascinating material here, leaving a (+++) book that is less revelatory than it could have been but that still contains plenty of food for thought, as well as a frisson of titillation that will enthrall conspiracy buffs and conspiracy debunkers alike.