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[829] Inferno – Dan Brown


“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]

[828] The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George


“Memories are like wolves. You can’t lock them away and hope they leave you leave.” (Ch.1, 5)

The Little Paris Bookshop has a very promising start: a bookshop on a barge called the Literary Apothecary on the bank of Seine in Paris, a bookseller who not only loves books but has a nearly mystical ability to assess the deepest feelings and wounds of his customers, and cats that nudge behind bookshelves and keep his company.

For twenty years Jean Perdu is still heartbroken over his lost love, and the room Manon used to live in has been barred by a giant bookcase. But when Perdu reads the letter from her, sealed and stowed away for twenty-one years, everything changes for him. He decides to set sail for the town in southern France where Manon was from, along with a best-selling author who is stuck in a writer’s block. Together they embark on a trip to small quaint towns where they use books as currency to exchange for food and services.

The journey is an emotional one poised on self-reflection. Perdu experiences a self-awakening that frees himself from the compulsion to only make the right moves. There’s a lot of soul searching and conversation in the head, as he wrestles the thoughts that all these years he has endured loneliness because he did not want to trust love again.

All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layers of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. (Ch.19, 137)

But ironically, as much as he prescribes books to his wounded customers, he is the one who is sorely in need of nourishment and healing; and he is not cured by books, but by friendship, time, and love. Hurt feelings have their time distance and they have to run the course.

I appreciate the concept behind this novel, which really should be a short story. Before halfway it has become flat and has exhausted the point it’s making. The book barge Nd the book trade peter out early, and I do not expect the book to be a romance in the most literal sense.

408 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[819] Lost Horizon – James Hilton


“Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared . . . For what possible reason could four chance passengers with the British Government aeroplane he whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?” (Ch.5, 103)

A British group of four, one of whom consular officer Hugh Conway, leaves India in the 1930s by plane only to be skyjacked and whisked away to the distant Tibetan mountains. In the fabled mountainous rampart of Shangri-La, in the valley of warmth and beauty, where a group of lamasery pavilions cling to the mountainside, they find a people leading lives of simplicity, moderation, and peace. Despite the hospitality offered, a part of Conway still insists that there’s something queer about the place that he cannot blame the truculence of his fellow Mallinson, who insists on leaving right away.

We want to return to civilization as soon as possible. (Mallinson) And are you so very certain that you are away from it. (Chang)

As the group becomes settled, a deep anesthetizing tranquility begins to sweep over Conway, who prefers the peace and quiet of Shangri-La over the racket of the world. He undergoes some curious transformation of the mind and becomes comfortable with the surrounding. A meeting with the reclusive High Lama affords him the secret behind the confounding mystery of the place.

This is a strangely absorbing and fascinating story that has sustaining interest in me. The atmosphere of the setting is soothing but the mystery behind is stimulating. There’s a spiritual force and an underlying philosophy that carries the reader’s imagination beyond the scope of the book. The power of this novel is in the sense of potential peace that is evoked. This sense of peace, calm and profundity is available to everyone but is not for everyone. Metaphorically, it’s the personal journey in search of that inner peace that is Shangri-La. That reaching true enlightenment for those who seek it, will find the Shangri-La.

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

[806] The Sisters Mortland – Sally Beauman


Published under The Landscape of Love in the United Kingdom

“I can feel the force of my stare, over thirty years later . . . It had never occurred to me that these three girls, whom I’ve already pursued for months, alive with curiosity, peeping out at them from trees and hedges, spying on them in the church, even in the house, wondering if they will be my friends, . . . Are they assessing me, dismissing me, accepting me or judging me?” (Ch.26, 359)

With a slow beginning, this novel, revolving around three sisters in their derelict abbey-turned-home in 1967, grows in me as their complex relationships, between themselves and with their admirer friends, run the courses to an excruciating end.

Adolescent Maisie narrates the first quarter up to the end of the tragedy that befalls her. Despite a mild mental disorder that confines her to her home, she is bright and well-versed, endowed with an intractable will and peculiar thinking. She keenly observes the maturing of her older sisters: the bookish and emotional Finn and the alpha female-ish, vain Julia. They over the years become inextricably entwined with the friends and the tragedy that summer becomes the focal point by which they contemplate in later years what have gone wrong in their lives.

Along the visitors are Lucas Feld, a transient young painter executing a portrait of the sisters, Daniel Nunn, the gypsy grandson of the family housekeeper who is in love with both Finn and Julia, and Nicholas Marlow, a neighbor training to become a physician. Maisie watches their coming and going in silence. She withdraws to her world of reading and dusty keeping, and communes with the abbey’s dead spirits. She is an outsider, the family misfit. Despite the family’s effort to protect her, trauma befalls her and nobody knows why she jumps off the abbey tower.

Dan’s narrative, which makes up s heft portion of the book, is one of wrenching memories. He’s also prompted to search for the past of his family and the circumstances under which his mother died while giving birth to him. He’s a filmmaker burned out from drugs and travel, stricken by a sense of loss and misery. He has a moment of mental clarity—being on the verge of death but for the critical assistance that reaches him. He sees in a moment his whole life, in its minutest incidents, arrayed before him simultaneously. These images are all retrospective of the days leading up to Maisie’s tragedy in the abbey back in 1967.

Beauman paces the book well, carefully weaving the different perspectives together. Maisie’s dreamy and vague narrative is justified as more details are revealed later by Dan. Suffice to say that what happens to Maisie and the cause of it have lasting impact on everyone in years to come. Beauman also depicts Britain as divided between the poor and the privileged through Dan’s self-pitying rant on dreams unfulfilled. The ultimate driving momentum is the plethora of secrets and betrayals, the infidelities, the lies piling up on lies over the years. It’s an exploration into how secrets come back to haunt us, how nothing is as it seems, and how relationships are bound as much by love and as by guilt.

432 pp. Time Warner Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[804] The Visitors – Sally Beauman


“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]

[802]A Sudden Light – Garth Stein


The narrator, Trevor Riddell, is the 14-year old scion who visits the crumbling, supposedly haunted Riddell House with his father in a quest to try to convince his senile grandfather to sell the family’s property. Living with Grandpa Samuel is the overbearing, kooky Aunt Serena, who has her own secret agenda. Trevor is trying to repair his parents’ unraveling marriage but it’s obvious that money will not resolve all his father’s issues. Jones Riddell is trying to come to terms with his mother’s death from years ago, which sent his father berserk.

The house is founded on a huge piece of land. The patriarch Samuel thinks he has a moral duty to fulfill the intentions of his ancestors and let the family estate return to the forest as an expiation of the sins of the fathers, who had been money-grubbing timber barons that exploited workers and dissipated the forests. Grandpa Samuel doesn’t want to let go of the property because he thinks his wife’s ghost is there with him.

There are just way too much going on that if the book would have concentrated on one or two things Stein dabbles in, the potential of the story would have been achieved. What irritates me the most is the overuse of easy information dumping: it’s obvious a 14- year old teenager cannot have had the vantage point to describe the whole situation, regardless his being precocious. To get around this problem, Stein supplements Trevor’s knowledge with “timely discovered” letters, diaries, and ghostly speeches when explication is needed.

The novel starts off with an enticing atmosphere: a house deep in the forest with huge carpeted room full of books. The many rooms and secret passages. The supernatural qualities of the house are taken for granted. The overall execution of the plot is a flop. Almost the entire book is devoted to the question whether the house should be sold or not. All the back stories told by ghost and the timely discovery of diaries and letters that shed light on the death of a gay greatuncle’s death are really stretching credulity. Ironically after all the contrived twists and turns the ending is straight as an arrow.

396 pp. Simon & Schuster. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[793] A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler


“But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved one might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories—all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth.” (Ch.7, 248)

The book revolves around a Baltimore family and their house over four generations. Tyler has woven defining moments of each generation with flashbacks, giving us a story of a family that could be any of ours. The novel opens in the present, with Abbey and Red Whitshank. It’s Abby, a retired social worker; Red, who inherited his father’s construction and their grown-up children reader gets to know best as the family slowly disintegrates. Abby by far captures one’s attention and she is the glue of the family. She is this self-denigrating, self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother one hopes will never show up at the school function. She breathes down on her children’s necks.

The book begins and ends with the miscreant, Denny, the prodigal son, who calls home to inform his parents he’s gay. (He’s not.) He’s a college dropout, irregularly employed, and single parent. No one in the family can cope with his existence. His sister, Amanda, nails it, in a moment of exasperation, that she shall not be forgiven for “consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.” Denny complains his parents never paid him any attention, but Abby has always cared for him the most. Even Tyler has a soft spot for him, and she renders him more lovable than he is forgivable.

When Red has a heart attack and Abbey becomes dithery, the family converges to take over, but that ironically reveals fractures within the family and reignites old jealousies. The dutiful son Stem, who is not even a Whitshank by birth, moves in to care for the aging parents with his judicious wife Nora and children in tow. Denny’s sudden arrival arouses new tension and leads to brew of guilt and resentment. Abby and Red’s family is the bread and butter of the novel as this drama plays out, but Tyler digs deeper in the history.

The origin of the Whitshank house is how Tyler plays against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood and its heart. The house was initially commissioned by a rich businessman, but Junior, Red’s father, who is hired to build it, set his heart on the place the minute he sees the blueprints, crafts it to his own preference and eventually acquires it by some mild chicanery. He was also entrapped by a teenage girl who bides her time and eventually becomes his wife. Junior’s daughter Merrick rises above her station and breaks into the high society—and a loveless, worn-out marriage. It was Abby, in her unflinching way, even at a young age, who confronts Junior that he resents his snooty neighbors but apes their ways.

This is the kind of novel that chronicles minor calamities and daily happenings that shape a family, any family. It deals with what makes a family at root: parental love and a sense of belonging. The parts on Abby and Red’s family are more tightly written and capturing than the others. But overall it is an absorbing read.

465 pp. Vintage UK. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]