It’s time to talk about books, books and more books. Here’s the latest roundup on what I’ve been reading since the middle of December. I think it is a good list of interesting stuff.
- Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov: I can’t believe it took me so long to read this book. Once I started reading it I was enthralled. Absolute brilliance, scathingly funny, Pale Fire is a vision of obsequiousness, hubris, sycophancy and pomposity without equal. I laughed out loud during certain passages, and I mean I laughed out loud in food court or restaurant when I was reading this book. That always brings discreet looks (“Is he nuts?” “What’s up with that guy?”), but I didn’t care. Pale Fire was a damn funny book.
- Baudolino by Umberto Eco: I’ve enjoyed Eco’s work before, but this novel was especially enjoyable. Baudolino is a fanciful, playful romp through medieval legends and history. The title character relates the impossible adventures of his life to a Byzantine official during the sack of Constantinople, ranging from boyhood adventures to a quest for Prester John in the Far East. Along the way Baudolino encounters emperors, bishops, knights, magicians, giants, wonders and monsters of all shapes and kinds. What is real and what is fantasy? That is the crux of this delightful book.
- Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff: I saw the movie adaptation of Alan Duff’s novel many years ago, but my recent travels in New Zealand prompted me to read the original. The unrelenting horror of the first half of the book is slowly replaced by a growing seed of hope; while some may fail and fall along the way, it looks like most of the book’s characters find themselves are working to emerge from the crushing cycle of violence and poverty that wracks their lives.
- The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte: I’ve been meaning to read The Club Dumas ever since I watched the Johnny Depp film adaptation that Roman Polanski made a few years ago. It was called The Ninth Gate, and much of the subtlety and depth of the novel never made it to that movie. In fact a huge portion of the book was simply dropped from the screenplay, which made parts of the movie rather inscrutable. I have a certain penchant for intellectual suspense novels like this, works steeped in literary and historical references. These erudite thrillers usually throw in enough minutiae to keep my brain churning for days afterward. The Club Dumas was no different. What struck a chord with me was the casual gnosticism of the novel, woven deeply into the story about antique books. A funny synchronicity: Both The Club Dumas and Baudolino incorporate gnosticism into the stories but never directly address it. They both deftly dance around the subject, but it is definitely there. But an exploration of Gnostic thought is for another time and another post…
- Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield: I dragged this book with me on vacation, mostly because I have an enduring interest in the Silk Road, and Baudolino sparked my interest in medieval Central Asia, Manicheans and Nestorians. Susan Whitfield offers up an interesting look at life on the Silk Road over the course of two centuries, stitching together stories based on actual documents recovered from the Silk Road city of Dunhuang. Dr. Whitfield presents her subject matter in this uniquely humanizing way, revealing the stories of soldiers, traders, courtesans, nomads, monks, artists and widows during the heyday of the Silk Road.
- Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer: This singular collection of stories spin the history of a fantastic empire that never was, a chimera of Jorge Luis Borges and Ursula Le Guin, Carl Jung and Edward Gibbon. Like Borges, Gorodischer is an Argentine, so I expected similarities with his work. But it has the tones of Le Guin, probably because she translated the work. The stories are epic in scope, archetypical in nature and ethereal in prose. While the stories are fantastic, it is wrong to classify this book as a fantasy novel. It uses fantastic settings and characters to deliver insightful stories and chilling reminders of the archetypes of humanity.