Monday, July 28, 2008

Stealing Athena by Karen Essex - 452 pgs

Book CoverWhen Mary Nisbit, a beautiful and vivacious young woman, marries the handsome Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to Constantinople, their future together looks bright. Soon they begin a journey traversing the globe that will culminate in Athens, where Elgin has plans to excavate and transport the ruins of the Parthenon to England. Although Elgin is ostensibly in Constantinople to smooth foreign relations between Britain and the Ottoman Empire, his passion lies with the exportation of the ancient Grecian ruins of the temple of Athena. Throughout their travels, Mary flourishes in the exotic locales and befriends many important and influential people, but she longs for the comforts of home, and struggles through many difficult pregnancies and political upheavals. As the years pass, Elgin becomes more and more insistent in removing and shipping vast quantities of the relics, to the severe detriment of his wife's fortune and the stability of their marriage. Meanwhile, separated by thousands of years, the story of Aspasia is told. Aspasia is the philosopher and lover of Pericles, the statesman who is responsible for the construction of the Parthenon. As Aspasia's story unfolds, we are privy to her ordeals and victories, as well as receiving an enlightening picture of ancient Greece, from the segregation and subjugation of it's women, to the intricacies of it's religious ideology. Through the weaving of these two tales, we get to know these two extraordinary women and chronicle the beginning and ending of this great monument, from it's design and construction to it's deterioration and removal from it's homeland.

As a historical novel, this book really excels. The level of research that went into the book made the story very full and engaging without making it dry and flavorless, and the execution of the story was quite adept. Mary and Elgin's story was the main focus of the book, and I would say that Mary's chapters outweighed Aspasia's about six to one. Mary was a very likable heroine, who was skilfully portrayed as a woman that was easy to relate to, and embodied many of the emotions that a woman of today's time might feel. She was a very credible character who sacrificed much for the love of her husband and children, while still being independent and knowledgeable. I felt more connected to her character than any other in the book, and admired her efficient diplomacy and kindness. It almost seemed that Mary was the foreign ambassador, maintaining the goodwill between the two nations all on her own, while Elgin traipsed around collecting artifacts. I especially enjoyed the sections devoted to Mary's meetings with the Captain Pasha of the Ottoman empire. Their unlikely friendship made Mary's stay in Constantinople much more bearable. His generosity and goodwill seemed to know no bounds, and it was monumental that he allowed Mary to visit the inner sanctum of the Harem and to meet the Sultan's mother, the Valida. Although the sections on the life of Aspasia were interesting and involving, I believe the limited exposure to her character made her less a focal point to the reader. This is not to say that her story was less compelling, only less detailed. One particularly interesting aspect of Aspasia's story were the details regarding Pheidias, lead artist of many of the great sculptures and friezes.

Elgin, however, was a completely disgusting fellow. He was very manipulative and not shrewd with his spending habits at all. Many times throughout the book, he displayed a shocking amount of arrogance and sense of entitlement to the relics that he wished to possess. From the outset, I found Elgin to be almost insufferable and egotistical. There were times when he seemed proud of the work Mary was doing on behalf of the embassy, but even then his wheedling for more money overshadowed the more pleasant aspects of his character. There seemed to be no bounds to his collecting, regardless of the cost or hardship that he created for everyone else. He was single minded in his pursuits, not taking Mary's feelings into consideration, and constantly placing her in undesirable situations. As he was based on a real person, I can only say that I would not like to have met Elgin in reality. The author's ability to capture Elgin's flaws was incredible; he was a fully realized unpleasant ass. Many will argue the merits of Elgin's cause, perhaps stating that the artifacts are better off having been deconstructed and preserved rather that destroyed in their natural setting, and though I somewhat agree with that sentiment, it way the way that the collecting was undertaken that was particularly irksome. There is no way to tell if the artifacts would have been lost had this pillaging not taken place. One of the more heinous opinions that Elgin expressed was the sentiment that the people of Greece were heathens who didn't deserve to keep their temple. The grandiosity of his thinking and his subsequent actions towards the end of the book made me realize that I had not judged Elgin too harshly at all.

Before reading this book, I had not been exposed to any information regarding the Elgin Marbles or the controversy that still swirls about them today. This insight to the history of some of the most important pieces of artwork in history was both unsettling and revealing. It was a testament to the author's capability that I was able to see and understand the historical importance of these valuable relics, while still being appalled at the ravaging of the stones from their origins. The story was extremely involving and intricate, with characters that were well fleshed out and believable. This story inspired many emotions in me, from disgust and incredulity, to admiration and wonderment. Never was the plot dragging or soft. I would recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction as well as those who just want a good character driven story.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Admit One: A Journey Into Film by Emmett James - 198 pages

Book CoverAdmit One is Emmett James' nostalgic and whimsical memoir of his passion for movies. Marking his personal milestones with cinema favorites, James recounts his childhood in South London, telling stories that many will fondly relate to. In the section titled Coming Attractions, he expounds on his childhood. From his mother's giddy fascination with John Travolta in Grease to his experience with a dodgy Santa, James is always entertaining. Through his introduction to petty crime, and his very own ghost story, James recounts his childhood along with his favorite must-see films. The later section, Feature Presentation, deals with his life as an adult trying to break into the movies. This section really takes off, as he divulges his crashing of the Oscars, his hilarious stint as an extra, the unintentional stalking of a director, and his defining moment: a brief appearance in Titanic. Each of these anecdotes is recounted in conjunction with a movie that shaped him during the experience, making this a colorful and interesting tale. As he moves from watching the movies to actually being a part of the cinema magic, he realizes that his dreams of Hollywood are more encompassing than mere movie appearances.

I found this to be a curious book. James relates a story that is at once universal yet unique. His experiences could have been the everyman's, yet the framework and method of delivery made them distinctive. The sections on his childhood would have seemed common and interchangeable without the inclusion of the movie introspection. It was impressive the way that movies shaped and defined his childhood, and sustained him throughout his later years. The later sections I found to be more entertaining, as James went out of his way to maintain his connection to the silver screen. Many of the incidents were zany and incredible, leaving me hungering for more. I felt that he could have divulged more details of his escapades to win and delight the reader. It was almost as if he withheld the most compelling and forceful part of the narrative by leaving off the more satisfying bits of the story. Another puzzling aspect is that the author seems to have bypassed any emotional reflection throughout the book. He never speaks of his deeper feelings about his family or friends (except for a brief excerpt about his father), or expounds on the feelings he had as a struggling actor making his way in show business. Instead of emotional exposition on his part, he catalogs a list of hardships endured at the time. At one point, while having an unexpected adventure in Mexico, he does seem to make the emotional connection, but it is brief. Most memoirs I have read have captured more fully the experience and viewpoint of the subject, and it was odd that this book didn't seem to have that emotional connection to the reader. His attitude throughout the book seemed to be strangely distant and miffed, as if he wanted to simple tell a story, not share it.

On the other hand, his passion for movies and movie making was clearly communicated in such a way as to be infectious. I wanted to go back and re-watch the movies to experience the awe and excitement that James had found, to be shaped by what was on the screen in undefinable ways. Though most people love movies, James took his passion for cinema and channeled it into a life appreciating and being surrounded by the art.

This book had its ups and downs. I loved the anecdotal way in which the stories were described, and found that the book was very clever and witty. James' tone was descriptive and engaging, which gave the book a light and conversational feel, yet I wished that I could have been privy to more of his feelings and insights. I laughed and discovered the joy of film with him, but in the end, felt like I really didn't know him. He was clever in describing the movies and how they made him feel, but that's where it ended. It seemed as though if an emotion wasn't related to a movie, it wasn't worth delving into. A bit of an uneven book, yet diverting and amusing nonetheless.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson - 468 pgs

Book CoverAfter a terrible accident leaves him burnt beyond recognition, the narrator of The Gargoyle begins to receive an odd visitor in the hospital where he is convalescing. Her name is Marianne Engel, and she seems to be mentally ill. Before long, Marianne is visiting frequently, spinning intricate tales to the fascinated narrator. Her fables involve gifted artists, hardworking landowners, outcast orphans; all ill-fated lovers, all with stunningly touching stories. One story though, seems more puzzling than most. Marianne reveals the story of the past. It is the story of the love between the burnt man and Marianne herself, lovers long ago in Medieval Germany. As he begins to heal, the narrator becomes more involved in the stories of the strange woman, not knowing whether to believe in her mental instability, or in the impossible story she tells. Gradually, the lines of perception begin to blur, and the curious story begins to take on its own life, leading the injured man towards the realms of the unimaginable that will culminate in the cataclysmic bowels of hell.

I found this book completely immersing. The atmosphere was deliciously dark and the author's handling of the plot was extraordinarily deft. The story pulled me in and never let up until the stirring ending. The graphic depictions of the narrator's severe burns and subsequent treatment was a little unsettling, but it was extremely well researched and related with an uncommon elegance as to be informative and interesting, as well as shocking and horrific. Though serious in nature, the book also had moments of sardonic humor and exceptional moments of insight. The main story was folded among various other smaller stories, with particular focus on the story of fourteenth century Germany. Each successive story in the narrative grew in focus and detail and all were extremely captivating.

The narrator, who remains unarmed throughout the book, was a bit churlish and cynical, yet I had no problems relating to him or finding sympathy for his character. The talent of the author in his ability to make an unlovable character moving and sympathetic was impressive. I rooted for him to find his way and learn to accept the myriad changes that he must learn to deal with. His eventual bravery in the face of overwhelming obstacles was a heartening change from the self-pity and suicidal despair that first enveloped him. It was as though through each successive chapter I could see the character growing and changing, his mind becoming more resolved, his heart opening and becoming more accepting. It was a tremendous feat to witness. Marianne was also an alluring and compassionate character whose inconsistencies and frailties were depicted in a tolerant and open-minded way, something that is not afforded to most eccentrics. Her struggles with her artistic vision and her fantastical beliefs were never overplayed or too dramatic. Her certainty and determination were admirable, and the passion with which she drove herself was both frightening and formidable. It was interesting to see the two of them react to each other's differences, and to watch their growing attachment unfold. A more unlikely pair could scarce be imagined.

This story will appeal to a wide audience, but the vivid detail of the burn information may be off-putting to some. I feel that the story was actually enhanced by this level of detail. It was extremely believable and accurate, and it heightened the story's impact and made me understand the character's situation all the more readily and believably. The information regarding mental illness was also authentic and informative. As well as advancing the plot, it provided a wealth of character description and enhancement that would have been laborious done any other way. The story was as compelling as the style in which it was written. Some of the passages were downright conspiratorial and secretive, while others were flowing and beautiful. This book had no easy answers. The subject matter was difficult, but ultimately rewarding and thought provoking.

This is a book that I can see reading over and over again, and taking away something different each time. I have not enjoyed a book more than this one in a long, long while. I was amazed to find out that this is Davidson's first novel. He strikes me as an interesting man who has a uncommon perspective on many things. As a writer, he is very impressive. I think this book is destined to be a big hit, and deservedly so. I consider it an instant favorite. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Woman of a Thousand Secrets by Barbara Wood - 483 pgs

Book CoverTonina hails from an island where she doesn't belong. Found in a basket plucked from the sea, she is raised by an elderly couple who recognize her many differences and send her on a concocted mission to find a healing flower. The real purpose for this mission is for Tonina to find her true people and homeland. As she travels across the sea and through the jungles of Central America, she encounters a strange speechless boy, a one-eyed dwarf, and a local hero named Kaan. When circumstances beyond their control force Kaan and Tonina to undertake a long arduous journey together, Tonina begins to learn that the question of her origins may be more complex than she has imagined. As the dangerous mission through the wilds continues, her group attracts a myriad of followers and she and her party encounter ancient tribes, abandoned religious ruins, and deadly enemies bent on destruction. Along with a set of breathtaking discoveries, Tonina discovers that one of her number will be an unlikely ally and friend, and this unexpected partnership may shape the course of her life, forever altering her destiny.

The story of Tonina and her journey was an extremely interesting take on early Mayan and Aztec civilizations. From cultural adversities between tribes, to the religious aspects of the region, the book was an all-encompassing look at a part of world that doesn't get much notice. I found the level of detail of all aspects of the society very engrossing. The book had a directness in tone that made the information particularly entertaining, and although most of the people in the book were fictional, the society and some of the characters portrayed were not. I was amazed to learn of the advancement of the Mayan people in regards to everything from time calculation to cosmetic body enhancements. The religious beliefs of the Mayans and Aztecs were very similar to some of the fundamental truths of Western religion. Most of my enchantment with this book came from depth of the cultural detail and the ability of the author to convey this forgotten culture.

This book was dense with characters, but never became confusing or crowded despite their colorful, in-depth portrayals. I particularly enjoyed the saucy character of One-Eye, the dwarf, and Ha'meen, the aging wizened child who oversaw the palace gardens. Although Tonina's character could be too naive and trusting at times, her intelligence and cleverness canceled out her other flaws. Throughout the story she was genuine and kind hearted, even when circumstances were against her. Only the character Brave Eagle (the speechless boy) seemed out of place. He, in my opinion, was underutilized in the story, and it was a bit confusing to finally see the worthiness of his character apart from being used as a plot contrivance.

The first section of this book, which deals with Tonina's exodus from the island where she was raised, was the only shaky part of the story. It seemed rushed, and the circumstances of Tonina's alienation from the other island dwellers was never fully explained, except that she was different from them physically. I didn't really understand the hostility of some of the others on the island when they reacted to an ordinary occurrence and made it a source for anger and revenge. It was clear that Tonina needed to leave the island, but the catalyst for that conclusion seemed forced and unnatural. This, in my opinion, was the low spot in the book, and because of it, I found it harder to immerse myself in the story. The later sections were more engaging and believable and I found my interest in the story picked up after the first few chapters.

Despite some minor setbacks with plot and character, this was ultimately an enjoyable book. I found it had an odd, irresistible pull to it, and I read along with fervor to find out what would happen next. There were many twists and turns to the tale that were both unexpected and fascinating, and this made up for the previous missteps. This book was an interesting departure from those that I normally read, and I would recommend it for those who would enjoy a peek into primitive Mayan and Aztec culture.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale - 360 pgs

Book CoverA brutal, seemingly motiveless murder and the attempts of an exceptional detective to solve the crime are the crux of Kate Summerscale's compelling book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In the early hours of June 29th, 1860, four year old Saville Kent is horribly slain and stuffed down the hole of the outdoor lavatory. Although the family is not liked among the close community, the suspicion falls on the members of the household, including the maids, governesses and the Kents themselves. When the case becomes unsolvable for the local magistrates, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is dispatched to solve the crime that has so puzzled and horrified the town. What follows are the attempts of a genius detective to solve an unlikely crime. Through missing evidence, hazy claims of madness and adultery, and a public appetite for all the gory details of the murder, Jack Whicher becomes embroiled in the case that ultimately costs him his reputation and public regard.

Whicher is the ultimate detective. Able to accurately pinpoint suspects using scant information and relying heavily on his own hunches, he rises through the ranks of law enforcement rapidly, eventually leading the first group of detectives in history. He is the model upon which the first fictional detectives are based, and his prowess and skill are fully highlighted in this book. Throughout the story, Whicher isn't afraid to pose unpopular speculations, and though the public denounces his hypothesis, he steadfastly works to bring the killer to justice. I found him to be a remarkable man whose abilities were far beyond the time in which he lived, far beyond what we even now expect a detective to be.

One of the most intriguing things about this book was the public involvement and mania regarding this case. From the adulation of the detective prototype by the likes of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, to the involvement of the public in their mass attendance of the trial, the community's hunger for this case was arresting in it's detail. Many of the townspeople wrote letters speculating who the killer might be; one man even falsely confessed to the crime. It was very ironic that the public at that time was so negatively disposed to the idea of surveillance and detection. The idea that people could be spied upon and that their private homes and their proclivities could be brought into the open was extremely uncomfortable for them to imagine. Many looked upon the detective and his colleagues as unsavory operatives waiting to invade the sanctity of their private lives and abodes. It seemed as though they were eager to find out the secrets of the Kent family while shunning the detection that brought these facts to light. It must have been a fine line to walk for Detective Whicher, whose successes only compounded the community's distrust.

The book was meticulously researched and heavily laden with facts. Not only was I privy to the social customs of the time, but also to other murder investigations, detective literature of the time, and facts about the principal characters' private lives. The book was at once enveloping and confidential, while still being surprising and unconventional. The suspense of the story was meted out in an atypical way, and although it ended in a conundrum that couldn't be solved, it was still very satisfying. The one quibble I had with the book was the tremendous quantity of facts throughout. At times it was a little overwhelming. Later chapters seemed to be balanced better and I began to see that the story may have sacrificed some of its urgency by displacing its factual density. The inclusion of photographs and maps was also an illuminating and welcome touch.

This book was a very rich and intricate look at a crime that may not be familiar to many, but whose implications and originality have forever shaped the way crimes are handled today. An interesting approach to the crime novel and an enlightening picture of times past.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Shining City by Seth Greenland - 306 pgs

Book CoverLife for Marcus Ripps is becoming complicated. Marcus, the production manager for a toy company, has a huge mortgage, ever increasing bills, and an elaborate bar mitzvah to finance. His wife Jan is entangled in a business venture that isn't making any money and their sex life is suffering because of it. His live-in mother-in-law is ailing and facing surgery with no insurance. When Marcus's boss announces that the plant is moving to China and he must relocate to keep his job, it seems as if there are no easy answers. Marcus needs to find a way to take care of his family, but he can't find employment and the money is dwindling. Then he gets the news that his misanthrope brother Julian has died. Marcus and Julian weren't close, but it seems that Julian has left him an inheritance. It's a dry cleaning business, and it's the answer to his financial woes. But while investigating his new acquisition, Marcus discovers that the business is a front for a prostitution ring, complete with the women, the clients, and an offbeat Russian gangsta henchman. Initially, Marcus wrestles with his conscience about the change in fortune: how can a middle class dad become a pimp? But the family's needs outweigh his concerns, and he jumps in headfirst. What ensues is the strange and fantastic story of Shining City. Marcus strives to be an ethical pimp, offering his girls 401k plans and health insurance, book clubs and paid vacations. But despite his good intentions, the byproducts of the lifestyle begin to creep into the business. Soon Marcus must deal with threatening bodyguards, a rival pimp, and an attempt on his life. But as he discovers, it's too easy to stay in, and much too unrewarding to get out, plus he still has a bar mitzvah to pay for! The stakes get ridiculously high, and Marcus must decide if he should abandon his new venture before trouble ultimately finds him.

The story told in this book was wickedly funny and wonderfully inventive. I found myself giggling throughout the ride, never being able to predict the twists and turns to come. The subplot involving Plum, Jan's business partner who wants get pregnant and have a child so she could videotape the full experience for an avant-garde art piece, was so bizarrely comical that I marveled at the author's ingenious imagination. Though the book dealt with the touchy subject of prostitution, it was not vulgar or crass in the depiction of the business. The focus, rather, was on Marcus and his experiences with the women and the conundrums he faced as a result of his decisions. The book was exceedingly clever and creative, never missing the punch line, and it sustained the humor throughout. It was pitch perfect, and wildly divergent from most other humorous offerings I've read.

Marcus was a very engaging character. Though pushed into a life of crime, he had all the family values that made him respectable. He was a loving and faithful husband, a doting father and a loving son-in-law. He read philosophy, struggled to understand his new circumstances, and dealt with dishonorable people honorably. I liked Marcus so much that it was easy to accept his moral slide. Marcus's incredulity at his situation combined with his self-effacing attitude made his plight affecting and interesting. Marcus was a genuine character and was easy to relate to. Some of the funniest sections of the book occur as a running monologue in his head when he is faced with perplexities.

One of the things that I found impressive about this book was the level of complexity each character had. From Marcus's pole dancing mother-in-law to the filthy rich tycoons, each was constructed with abundant detail and expertise. The ability of the author to create such meaty characters took it to a greater level of storytelling that I found fascinating. I wanted more strangeness and idiosyncrasy, and the author delivered abundantly.

I enjoyed this atypical and creative story. The narrative propelled itself along in a very unexpected and diverting way that made it an easy and pleasurable read. It managed to be amusing, while not being trite. I would definitely recommend this book to those who would like an entertaining summer read.
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