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Tue, 19 Aug 2003

The DaVinci Code

— SjG @ 4:05 pm

Dan Brown, 2003, Doubleday

Brown couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a Hollywood thriller screenplay, or an Umberto Eco tribute. So he selected elements of each, and thus The DaVinci Code was born.
It’s an action packed tale, spanning roughly two days time, where the Grail Conspiracy collides with greedy Church officials, eccentric British knights, Harvard Symbology professors, and, of course, the requisite blood-line of Jesus. While it’s a fun ride, I frequently found myself wanting to get a bit … er … medieval on Brown. His transgressions start with his cribbed-from-Fyodor’s place descriptions, to his tour-guide size comparisons. How many times must I read the square footage of a building or a plaza? And must I be told that the Louvre is longer than three Eiffel Towers laid end to end, while the Grand Gallery is as long as three Washington Monuments?
Then, borrowing a page from any techno- thriller, Brown has high-tech tracking gadgets and frequent cell phone usage. Unfortunately, he feels the need to go into detail on how these things work; even more unfortunately, he gets it all hopelessly wrong. Cell phones ringing on planes over the mid- Atlantic? A tracking dot that “continuously transmits its location to a Global Positioning System satellite that [police] can monitor” which works to an accuracy of two feet, even when the trackee is underground.
The overall plot is, as mentioned before, a fun ride. It’s full of the improbable narrow escapes and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t switcheroos that make for a good Summer action film, mixed with enough history and Grail legends to give it an intellectual patina. Still, in the end, we’re left unsatisfied. It’s difficult to have strong feelings for any of the characters, as they’re often presented as foils for a plot point or an opportunity to lecture on semiotics. The twists and turns get less and less believable as the pages pass, and, by the end of the book, we find that we wish it had ended a few twists back.

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Mon, 18 Aug 2003

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates

— SjG @ 4:04 pm

Captain Charles Johnson, 1724, republished by Conway Maritime Press, 1998, nonfiction.

This book, published in several editions in the early eighteenth century, is a fairly straightforward accounting of the lives of some of the biggest names in what is called the “Golden Age of Piracy.” It includes a number of the familiar names, such as Captain Kidd and Captain Teach (Blackbeard), as well as some of whom I had never heard. The book has been republished as a portion of the edition of 1724, leaving out many of the histories, but including a preface and a discussion of who this Captain Johnson actually was (it was long believed that this was a nom de plume for Daniel Defoe). Others have noted that this particular edition mixes and matches various editions of the book, and are quite critical of the editor; as I haven’t read any other versions, I’m unable to comment on this.
While probably shocking in its day, today’s reader may find the book almost dry. The English language has undergone some evolution since the time of the writing, and some readers may find Johnson’s text stilted or challenging. He also is very concerned with accuracy, even when it gets in the way of a ripping good yarn — Johnson chronicles litanies of ships looted (by type, and by captain) in a Deuteronomy-style list. There is a great deal of description of the mundane aspects of sailing ships (whether for trade or piracy), such as the frequent need to careen the ships and clean the hulls, as well as provisioning them for further journeys. Johnson also frequently reproduces (in their entirety) letters or documents that may have appeared in court cases or were sent by pirates that duplicate his description of events, or the final speeches of pirates who were hanged, or proclamations that affected their exploits, or lists of names identifying who was convicted and who acquitted.
The prurient details hinted at by the lurid title are rarely detailed, although in certain histories (such as that of Captain Low), there is a fair amount of murder, brutality, and mayhem provided in shocking portrayals. Johnson also dwells on the cases of Mary Read and Anne Bonny with a particular glee, as the idea of women pirates probably was about as controversial as you could get in the 1700s.
Where I found the book most interesting was in the descriptions of places, social mores, and world events. In several places, Johnson describes (or quotes others’ descriptions) of islands or places, and the patterns of life in those places. We also get a view of the American colonies, half a century before the American Revolution, not to mention views of far flung places like India and Madagascar. Having traveled in India, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary commentary on Aurangzeb (“the Grand Mughal”).

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Sun, 17 Aug 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

— SjG @ 4:03 pm

J. K. Rowling, 2003, Scholastic Press

Well, our fears of “anticipointment” were fortunately misplaced. J. K. Rowling has managed to pull off another Harry Potter book which is great fun, involving, and quite entertaining. In fact, this book addresses one of the complaints I had of Goblet of Fire, which was that everyone seemed to take Harry’s word for the critical events at the end of that book, even though there were no witnesses.
As usual, I offer some predictions of what will happen in the next book(s) … taking into consideration that I’ve been wrong on all counts thus far: Snapes will not survive the next book, and Harry will belatedly discover Snapes’ good qualities. Harry will become the Protection from Dark Arts teacher. Harry and Ginny will finally hook up, as will Ron and Hermione. The House Elves will rebel, but probably against Hermione’s organization — they’ll provide good intelligence into the workings of the Death Eaters. Neville will hook up with Luna, and Neville will be the one who finally offs Voldemort.

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Sat, 16 Aug 2003

The Ringmaster’s Daughter

— SjG @ 4:02 pm

Josten Gaarder, 2003, translated by James Anderson, Phoenix Press

(I’ll admit to having read this book while on a long flight, so the myriad ways that such conditions affect a reader may be worth taking into consideration.)

The book is based on the premise of a brilliant narrator, Petter, who overflows with narrative. From his childhood, he has had the ability to tell stories, to invent, to embroider, and to fill in limitless detail. In fact, he has difficulty differentiating between his stories and actual events.
He has so many stories, so many scintillating aphorisms, and such an abundance of ideas that he goes into business selling them to authors who have run into writer’s block ( or who are good at the craft, but short on ideas). We witness Petter’s growing fear when it looks like he may be caught at his game — perhaps some authors would go to extreme measures to avoid having their secrets revealed? We hear a few of the stories Petter creates for his authors. We also become privy to his memories of his past, particularly the bittersweet memories of his mysterious lover Maria.
The voice of this book is reminiscent of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, as it’s from the perspective of an individual who is, in one field at least, vastly superior to his fellow humans. And for at least part of the book, we enjoy this perspective. Particularly when Petter dwells on those who write, those who wish to write, and those who can’t write, he has some quite entertaining observations on the perception of writers versus the reality.
I found myself disappointed by a few elements of the story; Petter’s imaginary [?] companion, the three foot tall man, detracted from the telling. And then there’s the ending, much of which we see coming long in advance, which leaves us cold.

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Sat, 9 Aug 2003

The Unburied

— SjG @ 3:54 pm

The Unburied
Charles Palliser, 1999, Washington Square Press

Palliser is an expert in creating gritty, dark, atmospheric tales loaded
with exquisite detail, and The Unburied is no exception. It comprises three interlocking murder stories, all seen from the perspective of one of the least admirable narrators in memory. In fact, the book is singularly lacking in sympathetic characters, and yet still manages to keep our interest.
A University Professor gets called to visit an old friend, many years after a spectacular betrayal. He makes the visit, and, while there, his friend tells him of one of the mysteries surrounding the place, and the tale of an unsolved murder. From there, we get caught up in a snarled web of Gothic intrigue.
With the sole exception of one conversation that seems inexplicably drawn from a modern book on emotional recovery, the entire book moves quickly, has an unrelentingly grim atmosphere, and is quite engaging.

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