Inferno-Dan Brown




Ok, why am I even writing about this book?  Because I started this blog to record the books I’ve read and my thoughts on them, so feel free to move along and read more insightful minds tear apart Dan Brown’s latest:)

Why should anyone read Inferno?

1–You have visited Florence and/or Istanbul and want to relive your trip through Robert Langdon’s run away from authorities and bad guys/girls.

2–You have not visited Florence and/or Istanbul, but have watched many travel shows about them and wish to expand your virtual touristing to novel reading.

3–You love Dante.

4–You hated Dante when forced to read excerpts from Inferno in high school and want to see if Dan Brown can make it interesting.  Or give it a hatchet job.

5–You know Dante from a video game and thought you’d get your eyes off of the gaming screen and into some summer reading.

6–You have a secret lust for Robert Langdon/your humanities professor and his professorial sartorial know-how.  Try not to picture Tom Hanks as Langdon if this is the case.  Unless you’re into Hanks in that way, but, seriously, ew.

Confession:  I loved Da Vinci Code.  I did not love Inferno.  So many have imitated Brown’s formula that his own work reads as an imitation of Dan Brown.  I love Dante and Florence, want to visit Istanbul, secretly lust after Robert Langon and his professorial garb, and like a lazy read, but it took a bit for me to get into Inferno.  I found myself paying attention to the writing and that’s always a bad sign–like watching for the microphone that keeps dipping into the shot during a suspenseful movie.  That’s just not where the reader/viewer’s attention should be when a writer is trying to race you from one plot point to another.  And there’s simply not enough Inferno in Inferno.  Dante scholars may be relieved, but I expected more.

I skipped the Uffizi in Florence because I didn’t want to spend my limited time standing in line, but now I have a renewed pledge to go back and get my ticket in advance.  My desire to visit Istanbul was increased, but with the events in Gezi Park last week, I’m nervous about the possibilities of such travel in the middle-range future.

On a related note (that will make more sense once you’ve read the book yourself), I heard a story on NPR this week about the US government using reproductive controls to manage the out-of-control mustang population out west.  And today the New York Times confirmed that the Obama administration has the records of all phone calls from Verizon Business Services for a three month period.  Cue the creepy music.  Book your ticket to Florence. Get out your copy of Dante’s actual Inferno.

Finished 5/13



Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World–Shereen El Feki


The West has spent a fair amount of time talking about sex in the Muslim world since 9/11, but sex behind a veil–in fact, focused on the veil.  The hijab, the burka, the tradition in some Muslim families to cover the faces and/or the bodies of women.  These narratives have drawn Muslim women as oppressed and Muslim men as oppressors.  

Shereen El Feki’s look at sex in the Muslim world, focused primarily on Egypt, but dipping into surrounding countries for various chapters, parts the veil and tells us that Muslims are struggling with many of the same issues as non-Muslims in the west, as well as some particular to the Islam of their own countries’ cultures.  

What we learn:  Muslim women receive more sex education than Muslim men because they educate one another.  Muslim men are often left with porn or prostitutes as their teachers, leading to some serious mismatches and unhappiness in marriages.  Virginity for women at marriage is at a premium, in fact life or death, leading to a variety of strategies that allow young Muslims to engage in pre-marital intimacy, yet maintain the facade of virginity.  One of these strategies is anal sex, something that would like surprise most in the west.  Another is surgery to “restore” virginity.  

In a particularly heartbreaking chapter, El Feki looks at the lives of homosexual Muslims.  Another surprising revelation from this chapter is that the translation of “gay rights” into the Muslim world has complicated the acceptance of Muslim gays, who have become identified with Western imperialism and forced a western dichotomy on a Middle Eastern world in which sexual identifications are more fluid.  This fluidity seems possible, in part, because current Muslim marriages are so often about procreation rather than the romantic love model of the west.  If one’s spouse is for procreation, one can also have a lover, of whatever sex, who fulfills the romantic love portion of one’s life, without forcing anyone to identify as gay or straight.  

The end of El Feki’s book was bittersweet as we watch many of the movements of the Arab Spring settle back into old patterns and a new movement budding in Turkey around Gezi Park in Istanbul.  El Feki hopes that the uprisings will bring democratization of personal relationships as well as more public discourses and she sees media as an important tool in this transformation.  Her work, which gives all of us, Muslims included, a look at what is actually happening inside bedrooms and this look is a great first step to breaking down the barriers between appearance and reality that El Feki describes as so plaguing the Arab world.

For those who have read widely on sex and repression, you will smile to see Foucault put in an appearance before El Feki has her last word:)

This book is an important read for anyone interested in the Muslim world, in Western world/Muslim-Arab world relations, for those interested in global women’s rights, global gay rights, and the spread of human rights.  That should cover just about everyone, right?

My only complaint is the cover art on the dust jacket.  Really?  But that speaks more to what publishers see attracting readers in the West than to anything about intimate life in the Arab world.

Finished 5/13

The End of Your Life Book Club–Will Schwalbe (Audio)

end of your life book club

I saw this book in the Book Pages I picked up in the library this winter and this spring finally downloaded it as an audiobook.  It was worth the wait.

Will Schwalbe began an informal book club with his mother as they waited for her chemotherapy treatments for pancreatic cancer.  Along the way he realizes they had been in a book club his whole life and wonders how many book clubs his mother was in with friends and family members.   The book is about books and reading, it’s about life and its meaning, and it’s about mothers and sons and seeing one’s mother as a person beyond her motherhood.

Schwalbe’s mother was ahead of her time–a “working mother” when only those who had to work to survive were doing so, a woman who went from head of admissions  at Harvard to a small school in New York, and who began work with refugees through the Women’s Refuge Commission.  In one of my favorite stories, Mary Anne, struggling with her teenaged daughter, takes her to a refugee camp for the summer and changes the direction of their relationship and her daughter’s life.  The rest of us go to the salon or shopping.

Some of the books the Schwalbes talk about are amazing, such as The Lizard Cage.  The books are amazing, but so are Mary Ann’s responses.  I found her an amazing contradiction:  almost OCD as Will tells about her need to control everything and everyone around her (even if she was usually right), but focused on others as her life’s mission.

Because she spends her life focused on others, focusing on herself to deal with the cancer seems to be a challenge and she finds comfort in a small book, Daily Strength for Daily Needs.  It’s a second-hand (or third hand or more) book and the marks on its pages Will believes gives his mother as much comfort as the words printed on the pages, themselves a collection of words from other books.

I loved this book for its meditation on books and reading, on the physicality of books, on mothers and sons, on the meaning of life, and on the way to die.

The success of the book club they began can be measured by Amazon’s recommendations.  Search for any of the titles and you’ll see the rest suggested for your purchase.  Books do that.  They touch someone and then someone else and someone else.  And we touch them.

Finished 5/13

Jesus: A Historical Portrait–Daniel Harrington, SJ

jesus historical portrait

Father Harrington was my New Testament professor in graduate school and he was and continues as the editor of New Testament Abstracts, which means he has read all of or a summary of every book published in English related to the New Testament. He’s a reading wonder.

This slim volume condenses the orthodox scholarship on Jesus in response to popular culture attention to his life, such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and more scholarly work on the Gnostic Gospels.

There are few surprises and none of the sensations that Harrington argues against. At times it seems Harrington wants to say more, but is constrained by the genre of a pastoral-themed book for general readers that seeks to counter the misinformation of the popular media. The majority of the book first appeared as newsletters under the same title and publisher and Harrington has maintained that quick in-and-out approach in these chapters. I wish he had gone into more depth and been willing to engage a bit more with the debates, but it’s a good entree for someone looking for a summary of solid scholarship on the life of Jesus.

Finished 6/4/2013

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo–F. G. Haghenbeck


If you’re a Frida fan or if you’ve seen the movie of her life starring Selma Hayek, this novel will not contain any surprise plot twists,  If you are a fan, however, you are likely to enjoy spending time with Frida and thinking about the contexts in which she created her beautiful self portraits.  Haghenbeck combines bits of narrative with pieces of Frida’s secret book, which contains recipes and details of Frida’s deal with her Godmother, death, with whom Frida makes a deal following her train accident.

The recipes made the novel an odd mix of chick lit and indie-film insight.  

I hope to see imitations because any book that brings readers to Frida cannot be all bad.

Finished 2/9/13

The Lizard Cage–Karen Connelly


This book has a strange path to my list of favorite books of all time   I’m still working my way through the library shelves (and yes, I’m only on the C’s) and came across The Lizard Cage on my last trip out.  I have a huge pile of “serious” books to read for my professional life, so this felt a little extravagant and I almost returned it without reading it, but serendipity happened and, while I was listening to the audio book (review forthcoming) of The End of Your Life Book Club, The Lizard Cage came up as one of Will Schwalbe’s and his mother’s favorite books.  So, after finishing Dan Brown’s Inferno (review forthcoming), with great anticipation, I started The Lizard Cage.

Reading this book is a meditation.  It’s absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful and awful and awfully beautiful.

Set in Burma seemingly in the 90s, the book begins with a child in a monastery sought by what seem ominous figures for what he carries in his bag. The scene then changes to the cage, the prison in which the Songbird, named for his politically motivated lyrics, Teza, is held in solitary confinement, where he watches ants, cockroaches, and a spider to retain his sanity and hunts and eats lizards, despite his Buddhist beliefs, to survive.  Teza meditates and reminisces about his childhood and the youth that led him to the prison.  He interacts with various servers and warders who display a range of degrees of humanity.   The first “friend” the reader meets is his server, who brings his food and empties his latrine pail.  He brings cheroots, which Teza smokes, but which bring a greater gift, the newsprint in which they are wrapped, which he carefully unwinds and reads as cryptic messages, a modern poetry of the oppressed, from the outside.  In contrapose to the server/friend is Handsome, the warder, whose violence sits on his face and moves in his gait.

Connelly creates an amazing sense of space and community within the confines of the solitary cell.  The reader hears the prison beyond move and breathe through Teza’s ears and his reminisces of former warders and servers.  When she introduces an orphan boy who lives within the confines of the cage, however, the reader begins to see the cage as even more cruel than through the eyes of Teza in solitary.  Connelly suggests that Teza’s solitary world is safer than that of Free El Salvador, as we know him from his t-shirt, a donation from the west, the irony of which seems to escape all but Teza.

This idea of safety is not the only presumption Connelly builds in the first part of the novel that she turns on its head in the second part.  Teza’s server/friend becomes the tool for his near physical destruction and possible mental destruction when he tries to lure him into an act of writing, an act forbidden in the prison, especially for politicals, that would extend Teza’s sentence in order to decrease the server’s own.  Handsome’s villainy is not undone, rather magnified in his actions, but a flashback to his own childhood complicates the simple outlines of good and evil constructed in the novel’s opening.

Through his treachery, Teza meets Free El Salvador, probably twelve years old, who becomes his new server.  The words on his t-shirt spike Teza’s interest, a chance to read, to see text every day, and the boy and his plight become Teza’s hold on his hope for humanity following his server/friend’s betrayal.  Together with an ally and former warder, Chit Naing, Teza works to free Free El Salvador from the cage and from the boy’s fears of leaving home.  Connelly releases the reader from one anxiety, as we know Free El Salvador makes it to the outside because we meet him there at the novel’s beginning, and gives the reader hope through Chit Naing, who has worked in the prison system for years and who chooses the path of compassion and selflessness despite the danger to himself.

Connelly cares for the reader in other ways.  When the brutality and inhumanity of the cage and the world that created it becomes too much, she leads us into meditation with Teza.  Like an experienced yoga instructor, Connelly brings the reader into focus and gives us refuge in our breaths.  Life is suffering, she relates as Buddha’s first teaching, and the novel’s plot supports that, but how we handle that suffering defines who we are, as the varying responses of her characters also demonstrate.

I will never forget Teza, Free El Salvador, or Chit Naing.  That Connelly lived in Burma and has written nonfiction on the plight of the people there heightened my horror at the events in the novel, which she says in her afterword are based on the experiences of people she met in prison camps across Burma.  I will never again hear the name Myanmar on the news and not think of the government’s attempt to whitewash its history, to rebrand itself for the sake of western consciences.  The big question becomes, as I believe Connelly intends, how will I respond, what action will I take, in response to the suffering she has laid bare? What is my character?

Finished 5/31/13