03 May 2007

The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown

This was a very popular book a year or two ago. I think it's been made into a movie as well. It's a thriller that deals with the search for the Holy Grail. Along the way, we find out that the Holy Grail is not meant to be the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, but it is rather a depository of documents that tell the "true" story of Jesus, and incidentally of Mary Magdalene, who -- as it turns out -- was Jesus' s wife and the mother of their progeny. Indeed, we learn that there is a "royal family," descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, that are alive today.

There is a lot of discussion about the decline of appreciation for the feminine in the Christian church, and how the pagan religions had great respect for this aspect of humanity. Didn't Tom Robbins cover this about 30 years ago?

All in all, a disappointing book.

What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

373 pages (Hardcover). William Morrow 2007.

A terrific new mystery from Laura Lippman.

Heather and Sunny Bethany, two young sisters, disappeared in the late seventies while on a shopping trip to a local mall. For thirty years the police have been unable to find them. Now, a disoriented woman, involved in a hit-and-run auto accident, claims to be Heather. She says that she and her sister were abducted, her sister killed, and that she had been forced to live under an assumed identity until her captor turned her out when she reached age 18.

Lippman lays out the mystery for us with extensive flashbacks into the Bethany family's lives. Miriam and Dave, the parents, are slightly quirky products of the sixties and seventies, but mostly just normal loving parents of two bright girls. The sisters get along fairly well for siblings with a few years of age difference; there's a certain amount of unwelcome-baby-sister-tagging-along, but we find that Heather, the younger sister, may actually be more mature than Sunny.

The detectives are mostly believable; I did find some seemingly superfluous aspects of their characters slightly irritating (why do we need to know that Infante is a womanizer, and Willoughby independently wealthy?), but this is picking nits. Lippman was probably just trying to make human beings. It's not that easy, and another reader might not feel the way I did.

I was interested in the use of the word "police" in this book. While used in all or most of the conventional (to me) ways, it was also used as an objective noun, as in "Willoughby was a retired police," or "I am a police." In the lexicon to which I am accustomed, this would have been "policeman," or the more politically-correct "police officer." Perhaps in Maryland this is a common usage. And perhaps I should learn to ignore such minor anomalies, but I found it interesting, if not distracting.

We are given the outline of the mystery, all the necessary characters, all the pieces of the puzzle. I will not spoil this mystery, but I am proud to say that I figured out a small part of it before reading to the end. This was just enough to involve me, not enough to make me disenchanted -- in short, this is very skillful mystery writing.

I think Laura Lippman's books will be at our house again -- I hope it will be soon.

02 May 2007

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

312 pages, paperback, Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin) 2006.

This is the story of No Man's Land, the dust bowl, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska in 1935 -- the people who, unlike Steinbeck's Joads, didn't leave for California and the Grapes of Wrath.

The Dust Bowl, the storms that ravaged the High Plains during the Depression, is an event that goes on my imaginary list of "Things They Didn't Teach Me in American History." This was, quite simply, a man-made environmental disaster on a grand scale. Faced as we are with the possibility that our current actions and habits are changing the Earth's climate, this is a sobering story for our times.

Dust storm texas 1935

[Image from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Dust_Storm_Texas_1935.jpg]

Egan is an entertaining writer, he follows the story of disaster and despair by following individual histories of some of the people who lived through, or didn't live through, these storms and their consequences.

Beginning with the decimation of the Comanche, the killing of the buffalo, and the eventual stripping of the prairie grasses in favor of wheat, Egan shows us how the stage was set for such a tragedy. He exposes the disingenuous boosterism that caused the irresponsible settling of the Plains -- the result of which was the erosion of millions of tons of topsoil by wind.

Egan enumerates the cost in human lives and misery graphically and believably -- this could be a dull, depressing list of grievances and injustices, but instead he uses artful characterizations of the real people involved to bring the time and place to life.

This is good reading for anyone, but I highly recommend it for young Americans. They will have the burden of living with the next man-made disaster on our Planet; they will have the responsibility to try to mitigate it. Perhaps in some small way Egan's work can facilitate this Herculean task.

Search Google with the term "Dust bowl."

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked this musty paperback off my shelf. I've found much in Tom Jones, including a great deal of delightful language and terrific entertainment. And I have been surprised to find much wisdom, for examples of which I offer the following.

On Karma:

"...nothing can be more reasonable, than that slaves and flatterers should exact the same taxes on all below them, which they themselves pay to all above them..."
Henry Fielding. Tom Jones Book I, Chapter VI.

On Mental Illness:

"The diseases of the mind do in almost every particular imitate those of the body."
-ibid. Book IV, Chapter XII.

On Self-Knowledge and Honesty:

"for let a man be never so honest, the account of his own conduct will, in spite of himself, be so very favourable, that his vices will come purified through his lips, and, like foul liquors well strained, will leave all their foulness behind."
-ibid. Book VIII, Chapter V.

On Confidence Men, Tricksters, and Software Marketing Executives:

"...men are strangely inclined to worship what they do not understand. A grand secret, upon which several imposers on mankind have totally relied for the success of their frauds."
-ibid. Vol. II, Book XI, Chapter II.

On Literary Criticism:

" ...the slander of a book is, in truth, the slander of the author: for, as no one can call another bastard, without calling the mother a whore, so neither can any one give the names of sad stuff, horrid nonsense, &c., to a book, without calling the author a blockhead; which, though in a moral sense it is a preferable appellation to that of villain, is perhaps rather more injurious to his worldly interest.

"Now, however ludicrous all this may appear to some, others, I doubt not, will feel and acknowledge the truth of it; nay, may, perhaps, think I have not treated the subject with decent solemnity; but surely a man may speak truth with a smiling countenance. In reality, to depreciate a book maliciously, or even wantonly, is at least a very illnatured office; and a morose snarling critic may, I believe, be suspected to be a bad man."
-ibid. Vol. II, Book XI, Chapter I.

Tom Jones is, Fielding tells us, a "history," which will deal with an exploration of "human nature." And what a wonderful history it is. This is the kind of novel for which the word "rollicking" was invented. Fielding must have been a very funny man; his insight into human foibles and shortcomings is sharp and timeless. He spares noone, noble or common, from the point of his wit.

Read Tom Jones online at Bartleby.com.

I read this book slowly over a long period of time, about 5 months. I sort of miss it now, it was a good friend over that time. I can't add to the volumes of intelligent and educated criticism of it, there has been much written about this novel in the last 258 years. One critic said words to the effect that he had never seen a more perfect plot, and I couldn't agree more.

To Henry Fielding in Heaven, thank you, sir.