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[829] Inferno – Dan Brown

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“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Ch.38, 211)

Inferno is typical Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code all over again: somewhat repetitive plot line, famous antiquity-rich cities, hidden, cryptic messages and riddles, scavenger hunt with a fast pace. But all that said, it’s worth a read because Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest.

Inferno opens with Robert Langdon being in dulled wits. The professor of symbology awakens in a Florentine hospital disoriented and with no recollection of the past few days, including the origin of a sealed biotube hidden in the seams of his tweed jacket. It’s a carved cylinder (a Faraday conductor) showing Botticelli’s Map of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but altered. The levels of Dante’s inferno has been scrambled, and that, when they are replaced in the proper sequence, yields a message embedded in a mural by Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But the shaking opening turns out to be one of the many tricks jampacked in the book, along with his female partner in adventure, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who is not what she says she is.

From there Langdon runs up against macabre symbols of biohazard, plagues, imagery of Dante’s hell, and poems imitated in Dante’s style. It’s soon revealed that Langdon on a global chase to save the human race following a trail of clues about Dante left behind by the plotter, who adopts an extreme but unethical view about the world. So Langdon is not dealing with downright villainy, but sinister cultism of some sort, the dark scheming that involves curbing overpopulation.

The riddles are intriguing and the twists relentless. Alliance changes and reverse about midway through the book, throwing reader on the edge. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem, but still able to draw imagery and allusions from the work whenever he feels that he needs them. Everything that refers to something else generates more codes and symbols and messages. The book is a constant thrill and confirms that Brown is a plot-maker (but only that). It’s a good story combining science and history.

611 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[827] The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

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“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”

The Luminaries is an entangled, convoluted story, at least told in a convoluted manner, that is set in the 19th century, during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. It’s an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, well-plotted but owing to the stylistic choice Catton so scrupulously pursues, too long due to the reiteration of events. The style is that each successive part is half the length of its predecessor, such that before long the chapter introductions are longer than the text they preface. And Catton’s commitment to delineating a full year’s astrological changes requires looping back to events of 1865-1866 repetitiously for the last quarter of the book.

A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.

The novel attempts to unravel the mystery of a day when a chain of events unfold in the town of Hokitika. A very wealthy man—owner of a gold mine, disappeared. A prostitute tried to end her life. An enormous fortune was found in the home of a hapless drunk, who was overdosed on laudanum. His identity and mining tight had been stolen. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to be part of a bigger plan of an ex-con man. The arrival of a man who is running for councilman kicks off this string of strange coincidences. This ex-con man who has cheated Alastair Lauderback out of his ship then lost the shipping crate by which he had forced the politician’s hand. Inside this crate was a trunk containing gold, a fortune that had been sewn into the lining of five dresses. The seamstress was a crafty woman named Lydia Wells, a brothel owner who was, at that time, posing as the ex-con’s wife, and helping him to steal her ex-husband’s fortune. When the prostitute learned, some weeks after her arrival in Hokitika, that a trunk containing women’s dresses had been salvaged from a wreck, she purchased all five without noticing the added weight since she is an opium user and it as sober.

So a multiple storylines cram the 800 pages, winding up a skein of a mystery that’s rich with sibling secrets, sex, opium and drugs, a doomed love affair, murder, extortion, impersonation, fraud, forgery, and double dealing. It opens like a play, with Walter Moody stumbling upon a clandestine meeting of twelve prominent men in a hotel meeting hall. It’s highly wrought, artificial piece of tale-telling accorded to the astrological framing device. The opacity of this angle results in reiteration of events over and over again. In this respect, the novel appears too clever for its own good. That said, Catton’s use of contemporary slang, circumlocutions, and lexicons befitting the different characters are all spot-on.

830 pp. Little Brown Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr

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“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[811] Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #5

“She had returned to the United States hoping to find out where she belonged—the United States or the United Kingdom. But now I struck her that a woman without a country, without a husband, without parents, and without religion was in the perfect position to be a spy. To be on her own, not answering to anyone.” (Ch.20, 316)

The fifth installment in the series takes Maggie Hope back to her native country. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States has finally joined the war effort in December 1941. In the entourage of Winston Churchill, she returns to America, where she comes to work closely with Elanor Roosevelt after the mysterious death of the First Lady’s personal secretary, Blanche Belfour.

Within the frame of this book, the murder of Blanche’s murder takes priority over the unstable and urgent political situation at large. Whoever behind the murder is determined to incriminate Elanor Roosevelt, to discredit her, and to poison the country with a scandal in the White House on the verge of war. Maggie is quickly drawn into Eleanor’s confidence in order to track down the murderer.

Within the story were days leading up to the scheduled execution of Wendell Cotton, a black tenant accused of killing his white landlord, but out of self-defense. It’s not difficult to put two and two together as Maggie becomes more involved in advocating for the suspension of death penalty. The First Lady is a target of incrimination because of her support for minority and civil rights. Wendell comes to personify all those to whom democracy is denied. Deprived of a fair trial, he really embodies the deep-seated racial and economic injustice that poisoned the society then and now.

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a Tudor mansion where conversations are under surveillance, Clara Hess talks of German rock installation. John Sterling, the ex-RAF pilot, becomes involved in Hollywood commissioned propaganda.

The social fabric is very rich, redolent of details in the White House ministrations and the President’s own secret agent. But Maggie Hope, again, is marginalized and she is involved in no more than a murder investigation that amounts not much to a mystery. The perpetrator has been explicitly stated out front so there isn’t a mystery. In this book social commentary preponderates over Maggie’s assignment. There’s the moral question of colonization: nothing Hitler does is worse than what the Brits did to the natives of its colonies when acquiring them. And how is it that white Americans can become so incensed over the ousting and purging of Jews in Europe and yet not the ousting and purging of blacks in their homeland? Such social critique is what makes the book so engrossing.

319 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[810] The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #4

“Not unless we want to be slaves, and see the rest of the world enslaved as well . . . while I will, with all my strength, defend our right to exist against a monster who would destroy everything honorable and good . . . There’s no glamour in it . . . do anything to make sure the next generation knows peace.” (Ch.23, 267)

The fourth installment finds Maggie Hope on the mend in rural Scotland after she cracked the Nazi’s Compassionate Death Program in which sickly children were sent to be euthanized in Berlin. Her mother, Clara Hess, a top Abwehr agent, is now held captive in London Tower waiting to be executed unless she divulges the secrets of the Nazi. She is in a catatonic state, reverting back to past personalities that the Nazi contrived to eradicate when training her to become a spy.

Meanwhile, in Arisaig, Scotland, Maggie Hope becomes an instructor for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). On the shore she stumbles upon a dead sheep whose skin is encrusted with black, blistering sores—symptoms of poisoning. When attending a friend’s ballet performance in Edinburgh, a ballerina crumples dead to the floor. To Maggie’s consternation, she has the same poisoning symptoms as the sheep. Two other ballerinas, one of whom is her friend, also fall gravely ill. The discretion practiced by bureaucrats alerts Maggie that Britain might be experimenting with biological weapons in preparation for the war. Somehow the murderer gets access of anthrax and uses it for personal vendetta.

This pretty much sums up the action of the book, which is a transition in the series as Britain is about to declare war on Germany. Maggie also has recovered from some personal struggle from the previous assignment. She confronts Churchill that he has used her family connections and she has doubts about continuing as an agent for the Britain. On account of this transition, I do not recommend casual reader that enters the series in the middle. The book often makes allusion to her complex history and draws on her past assignments. Although not much action takes place in this book, it provides a supple fabrics for the historical background, mainly concerning Britain’s reluctance to go to war with Germany without the United States being an ally. There is an allusion to Britain’s knowledge of the surprise attack by the Japanese, which deliberately sought to deceive the U.S. by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. Churchill, certain that the U.S. will respond to any attack with the declaration of war, ponders the moral implications of ignoring the coming crisis.

MacNeal adroitly floats between fictionalized accounts and historical re-enactments while keeping all of the action relevant. The feelings of unrest that permeated Europe in this period (circa. 1941) just before the United States entered the war are documented and add a true sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

301 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[804] The Visitors – Sally Beauman

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“The most powerful spells known to his priests were recorded on the tomb walls—and there was a reason for that. These tombs are not about death, Lucy: never make that mistake—they’re about conquering death. Everything in them is designed to ensure safe passage through the underworld and an afterlife that would never end.” (Ch.14, 123)

Set predominantly in 1922 but spans almost a decade, The Visitors is about the story of 20th century’s greatest archaeological find in Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The story is told by the fictional Lucy Payne, daughter of a Cambridge don, who has been sent to Egypt with her American governess to recover from typhoid, which killed her mother.

In the Valley, Lucy meets the real life Frances Winlock, daughter of Herbert Winlock, American archaeologist and field curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s excavation site near Luxor. Beauman creates a firm friendship between Lucy and Frances—together they shadow the band of real life archaeologists (Beauman thoughtfully provides a list of names in chronological order and divided by geography) in sharing the mounting excitement and anticipation for the new tomb’s discovery.

The Egypt part makes up a bulk of the novel. It is the complex web of relationships and acquaintances in Egypt that will partially contribute to Lucy’s subsequent life. One of the key issues is the proposition that Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) and Lord Carnarvon entered the newly discovered tomb secretly before the official opening with the relevant government officials and removed certain artifacts. This allegedly illegal act tarnishes the reputation of both men, who had achieved celebrity status at the time of the discovery. Lucy reveals the extremes to which people are driven by desire and greed. She witnesses deception and questions by what rights does Carnarvon deny the Egyptians the right to enter the tomb.

Following Lucy’s departure from Egypt, the story moves on to events to her career in writing, her reacquaintance with his father, who married her ex-homeschooling teacher Nicola, her rackety marriage to a closet homosexual, her encounter with a TV producer who asks about her experience in Egypt some 60 years ago.

Beauman has written a book with superb detail, blending real life events, fictional and factual characters really well. Although at times the events that unravel after Lucy’s departure from Egypt can be tedious and not as palpable, Beauman has a wealth of material in which to explore personal relations. Lucy makes frequent references to that past that has entrapped her but also has sustained her to an old age as she has outlived almost everyone.

Beauman’s sophisticated writing style is endearing. The style is comparable to university discourse but the prose flows seamlessly. She makes sharp observations about the behaviors and morals of the British upper class and the American wealthy elites. She really nails that sense of entitlement at the time when imperialism and colonial were at their peak. This is evident as Egyptians are scarcely present in the story, though the new and pressing Egyptian nationalism features in the background.

529 pp. Harper Collins. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[798] My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

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“It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.” (Ch.28, 160)

My Name is Red, set in late 16th century Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, is rich in details, ambitious in scope, and subtle in philosophical meanings. In the center of this book, far from being a mere historical novel, is the recurring Pamuk’s internal East-West war. The novel is set in the time when the Ottomans’ confidence in the ever-expanding empire had begun to be shaken by the power of the West.

The story in a nutshell tells of two murders among Sultan Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist and gilder, the other of Enishte, the cunningly complicated organized commissioned by the sultan to produce a book that desecrates the Islamic religion. By contributing individual style to these art works, Enishte’s artists are accused of heresy, since the deviation of rote perpetual imitation is illustrating away from Allah’s perspective. Allah’s criterion of beauty is the only that which matters. The style the sultan’s artists surreptitiously adopt is that of Italian Renaissance. Figures are individuals, portraits are of specific people, and even trees, dogs, and dervishes are particulars.

Unlike mere decoration of the text, to portray individuals or objects for their own sake is to give them iconic standing. To coin such stature to objects and people is utter disrespect to Allah. The detective is Enishte’s nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul after his uncle had rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte’s daughter, Shekure. He has been summoned back to help organize the book for the sultan. When his uncle is slain, Black hastily weds Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years ago.

The book is itself constructed around the individualizing perspective; each chapter offers the varying first-person truths experienced by the characters. Death, Satan, a coin, a horse, also give their narratives. The irony of the heinous act is the murderer, who is faithful to the older artistic creed, betrays himself by a distinctive and detectable artistic style that proves his undoing. The narrative of Satan is by far the most provocative and profound. It evokes the philosophical duality that evil is as important and necessary as virtue (good). It’s the duality that one cannot exist without the other. Then at the very heart is an aesthetic tradition renewed and glorified without hatred and rancor. Though not always plot-driven, the book is a literary feat delving on how art, religion, and love intersect.

413 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk streak)

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I continue my Orhan Pamuk streak with a title more known to the Western readership, My Name is Red, a murder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul. The opening chapter, intriguingly, is narrated by a corpse:

I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.

The motive of the murder is not monetary, but religious. The premise of the book is relevant of the crisis we fave today. A Sultan commissions a book celebrating the glories of his realm. The artists are to illuminate the work in the European style. But because the figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam and a deviation from Allah’s perspective, this commission is a dangerous proposition. One of the miniaturists is found dead. This book is ambitious in its scope: part fantasy, part history, and part philosophy. It’s at root a mystery but not exactly plot-driven.

[772] The Paying Guests- Sarah Waters

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“And as Frances watched . . . something odd began to happen to her. First her heart started to flutter, then she felt a srt of giving any, around it: a caving in, like the slither of sand through the waist of an hour-glass. It was as if her blood, her muscles, her organs, were steadily dissolving . . . Now Frances’s face was tingling as if growing numb . . . She wanted to be sick.” (Ch.14, p.470)

In postwar 1922 London, the widowed Mrs. Wray and her spinsterish daughter, Frances, have been obliged to admit lodgers out of necessity due to the straitened poverty. Into their genteel south London house moves a young, gaudy couple with their gramophone and colorful clothing. The new living situation signifies the changing social dynamics brought forth by the war. One gets the sense that Waters uses the domestic novel to grapple with the intricacies of a broken civic order and the reconfiguring of gender and social roles—until the focus shifts to a more personal, intimate level.

The arrival of the brash Barbers has unsettled the Wray household. There is persistent undercurrent undercurrent of class awkwardness and intergenerational conflict. Frances reflects that she will never be used to the noises but she needs the money to drive out of debt. Waters captures very neatly Mrs. Wray’s pained denial of the extent to which she has come down in the world; but this embarrassing reality manifests in Frances’s daily weariness and frustration at menial work around the house. The Barbers’ intrusion, which almost feels like an intrusion, depicts such dismantling of social barrier, as people traditionally separated by money and status find their lives intermingling under one roof. But the delicate domestic tension soon gives away to more personal and intimate entanglement. Frances, still smarting from the collapse of her wartime love affair with a fellow suffragette, is drawn to the lively Lilian Barber, who reveals that her marriage is less than happy.

Every day we slip a bit further into it . . . We’d somehow got into the habit of spending time together almost in secret. It’s what we do with the time that’s changed. (Ch.7, p.238)

The developing romance, to my slight dismay, is an unexpected departure from what Waters has set out to do at the beginning of the book. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love. The book is simmering with suspense, and one can feel the full of fear and anxiety in these women.

566 pp. Riverhead/Penguin. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

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“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]