Review: The Name of the Rose


The Name of the Rose has got to be the most philosophical mystery novel of all time, the one the most layered with symbolism and cryptic meanings. To fully appreciate the book that launched Umberto Eco's career as a novelist, it would be helpful to be well acquainted with several languages, at least basic notions of philosophy and logic, as well as medieval church history. Fortunately, Eco has wrapped all of this in a first-class mystery story, so readers with a less classical education can skim through the denser parts.

The novel takes place in a fictional medieval monastery (modelled very roughly on Monte Cassino) in fourteenth-century Italy. Preliminary talks between proponents of papal and imperial power are about to take place there. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan and a former inquisitor, arrives on a mission from the Emperor, accompanied by a German novice, who is the first-person narrator of the story. They find out on their arrival that a young monk has just died under suspicious circumstances. In the next seven days, there will be a series of deaths which William is tasked to investigate and hopefully put an end to, in the midst of multiple personal antagonisms and a high-level political dance between the delegates of the Pope, the Emperor, and the abbot himself.

William is a stand-in for the modern man, our window into the medieval mentality, which another very important element of the story: the medieval mind which assigns deep symbolic meaning to virtually everything, and for whom authority is more trustworthy than evidence interpreted by very fallible human beings. William is an anomaly, disabused by all the abuse of authority that he has seen, and at the forefront of the new kind of thinking that will sweep the world during the Renaissance. We find ourselves at a pivotal point in history. He is very much a Sherlock Holmes, in a world that really doesn't know what to make of him. Adso, his young assistant, is very impressed by him but also rattled profoundly. He is in many ways a Watson figure. And where is Moriarty, you ask? We spend most of the book realizing that he must exist and then finding him and, true to form, the story concludes with a dramatic between him and William-Holmes.

But because this book is more than a whodunnit, the now elderly Adso who is telling the story finds himself at the end of the book reflecting on the meaning not only of the events he witnessed but of life itself, and the meaning of everything he has ever been taught or believed.

Eco is a semiotician, someone who studies the meaning behind signs, which are themselves representatives of reality. The constant play between meaning, symbol, and reality is at the heart of this novel, and it is quite clear that he wants to bring us to a deep reflection on these things.

I was very much taken at the beginning of the story by how well Eco establishes the setting and the atmosphere. We find ourselves at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery is built on a snowy winter day, and we truly do find ourselves there, in another place and another time. It was beautifully done.

There are generous sprinklings of passages in different languages throughout the story, for the monastery is a very international place, with monks of many different nationalities, drawn to a monastery famous for its library and its learning. These are never translated, although occasionally reworded by one of the characters. Fortunately for me, my studies were in foreign languages, but the Latin was perplexing to me. This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but you might find it irritating. Anybody who likes a light read will hate this book. It is dense and requires quite a bit of thought to be appreciated. Those who enjoy the challenge will love it. It is certainly fine example of how literature can expose you to worldviews and experiences totally different from your own. The fact that it has not gone out of print in the last thirty-five years also speaks to the broadness of its appeal, despite its difficulties.

I would really love to explore the parallels between the fictional abbey and the famous Monte Cassino, but that would turn this into an analytical essay more than a review, and more to the point, would necessarily involve some serious spoilers. So I will refrain. For those who are interested in such things, Monte Cassino also inspired A Canticle for Leibowitz, an excellent work of science fiction which also provokes thought about the nature of civilization, faith, and learning.

Umberto Eco's website

Review: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber packs a powerful emotional punch. Shortly after he started writing it, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and I can only believe that this contributed greatly to the powerful sense of impending loss that grows throughout the story. That Faber can bowl us over emotionally with such understated storytelling and such a relatively quiet plotline says a lot about his talent. When I finished, I had to close the book and just think about it for a while and deal with the emotions.

Peter Leigh is a pastor who is accepted as a missionary to the alien population of a planet (presumably the only planet) where mankind has set up a colony. The colony has been established by a wealthy corporation, USIC, for purposes that are not clear to Peter. He doesn't really care anyway. He is so thrilled to have this historic opportunity that he asks few questions. He regrets that they did not also accept to send his wife, but both of them take on this temporary separation in a spirit of sacrifice. When he arrives at the planet Oasis, he finds that the challenges facing him are entirely different than what he expected. And while he is there, the situation on Earth, which was bad when he left, deteriorates rapidly and his wife is left to handle it all on her own. She is not a fragile flower, but they have been a very close couple and the separation at a time of such great stress is very difficult for them.

Where Faber really excels is in depicting the interior life of Peter. I was quite honestly surprised. Faber makes no secret of his atheism, but both Peter and his faith are drawn sympathetically and plausibly. I think Faber missed the ultimate core of what faith is all about, but in all fairness, a lot of Christians do too, which is why they crumble under stress. I will resist the temptation to go any further into a theological analysis of the book – that's not what this blog is about – but it was an important part of my personal reaction to the story. I have been involved in missions, and I have also been separated from my husband for long periods of time, so I could relate to this story on a lot of levels. Faber gets the human side of this very, very right. Where he gets the faith part wrong is where a lot of people get it wrong, so it is a fair take.

An aspect I found very interesting which I have not seen mentioned in the reviews I have read is the culture shock that Peter experiences when he returns to the base. This is a common experience among missionaries. As they adapt to the culture they are working in, they feel increasingly out of synch with their own. We get a fascinating look at Peter's mindset gradually becoming alien. Faber went to considerable trouble to make the aliens genuinely foreign. Although roughly humanoid, their psychology and culture is quite different. Peter finds it very exasperating trying to get information out of them because their perceptions and preoccupations are so very different. But he settles into their way of thinking and living and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with humans.

I found the chapter titles a bit mystifying until I realized that each one was the last line of the chapter, giving us a brief flash of where this chapter might be heading. And the brief flash was invariably misleading, at least for me.  A rather intriguing way of doing things.

The normal science fiction enthusiasts might find this story a little too quiet for their liking. This is a story of Peter and his attempt to grow into a foreign culture without growing away from his wife, of him trying to maintain his faith – so central to his life – as it is buffeted by storm. So if you are looking for a rip-roaring, plot-driven story, go elsewhere. If you are looking for a beautiful and haunting portrait of a human soul, The Book of Strange New Things is for you.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Review: Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul. Those are the words to an old song, words that kept rising in my spirit as I was reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I have been telling myself for years that I should read the book, and I should have listened to myself years ago. This book is a treasure, an old chest spilling light when you lift the lid. My copy came from the library, but I will buy my own as soon as I can. This is a book I want to keep close to me always.

Gilead is a rambling letter from an elderly father, John Ames, to his young son, written because John knows he will not be there for his son's adulthood. He reflects on life, on family, on faith, circling round and round his family's memories, taking them a bit deeper each time. At the same time, he is remarkably transparent about the issues he is working through in the present, centered mainly around his ne'er-do-well namesake, the son of his best friend, one who seems to be worming his way into the heart of John's much younger wife and their son. On the whole, this does not sound like a riveting book. But it is.

"There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth, even if no one remembers it. To look at the place, it's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now. But what must Galilee have looked like? You can't tell so much from the appearance of a place."

This is what is so marvelous about John Ames. He sees the sacredness in the simple things of life. He looks at life from a place of deep instruction, deep faith, deep humility, deep simplicity; he looks at life and he loves it. He wrestles with its imperfections, with his own imperfections, with those of his father and his grandfather, and he loves it all without loving or justifying the imperfections themselves. This is a balance that few of us attain to, and it is absolutely awe-inspiring to spend a few hours living inside the head of a man who has arrived there, however difficult the journey and precarious the position.

A book to read, to re-read, to cherish.

Review: Rivers

Oh man! I mean, OH MAN! Tear my heart out, why don'cha, Michael Farris Smith!

I first heard of Smith and his debut novel Rivers on a Twitter chat where they were featured. It was an interesting chat, so I checked the author website and first pages, and decided it was worth looking closer. I am not at all sorry.

Rivers is a near-future dystopia. (And a thriller. And a literary novel. People who know me know how happy this is making me already.) Climate change has brought about an almost non-stop barrage of hurricanes battering the Gulf Coast states and as they increase in frequency and strength, the American government gives up. They draw a line ninety miles north of the coast, evacuate all but the most recalcitrant, and suspend all government services below the Line. Cohen is one of the most recalcitrant. He refuses the expropriation offers, ignores evacuation attempts, and holds out in one of the few houses left standing, riding out one hurricane after another. After all, he has a house. He has money. Most of all, he has ghosts, ghosts he doesn't want to leave.

Smith's mostly spare prose is haunting in its impact, as Cohen moves through the non-stop rain, eventually reaching a tipping point. He decides to leave, a group of women and children in tow. He is up against predators, mostly human, increasingly violent weather, and a host of logistic challenges that are monsters in and of themselves. There is a twist that I maybe should have seen coming but didn't, and flashbacks to a sunny vacation in Venice.

I often binge-read, devouring a novel in only one or two sittings. It was impossible with Rivers. I needed a break from the intensity and all that rain. Do not mistake this for a complaint or a criticism. It is a masterful book, which hits all the bases I look for to deserve the moniker of Gourmet Reading: superb understated prose, powerful characterization, and a plot that keeps me turning pages. In this case you can throw in an incredible depiction of the setting as a bonus.

So yes, if you are a fan of anything but light fluff, read this book!

Michael Farris Smith's website

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A cultural classic, a cultural horror story

A review of the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Sordidness, pain, the degradation of victimization, bodily secretions of every possible kind, all rendered in exquisite language: this is The Bluest Eye. A pillar of modern American literature, it is essentially a horror story, and Morrison wants you to feel the horror all the way.

It is the story of the utter undoing of a little girl, the ultimate victim, and how almost everybody in her life is complicit in her undoing. It is told primarily from the point of view of another little girl, Claudia, but there are frequent digressions, digging back generations in the lives of people central, or even peripheral, to the story. This would be annoying and definitely adds an emotional distance, but Morrison's central goal is not so much to create empathy as to answer the question “how”. How can an entire culture be full of such self-loathing that it destroys its own young? The answers are unsettling and not at all pretty. Morrison's eye is unsparing, and she is not trying to comfort anyone. Nor is she trying to condemn. She is shining a light on all the ugly creatures that live under rocks, exposing them so that hopefully they can be dealt with.

Fortunately, Morrison's language frequently tilts to the poetic, making some of the pain and ugliness bearable.

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their worlds move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.

The story itself is no surprise; the outcome, or a good deal of it, is announced from the very first lines. Again, it is not the “what”, it is the “how” that needs to be revealed. It is revealed through the characters and their life stories, and even the most disgusting of them are portrayed with some sympathy. Even the pedophiles are not just brutes (although that they are) but also severely damaged human beings.

And running through it all is the oppressive, crushing incantation of the Dick and Jane readers of the time, the symbol of white conformism.

The 1994 edition that I got my hands on also included a surprisingly critical evaluation of the book by the author, which I found very interesting. She discusses some of her artistic choices and what she considers her artistic inadequacies.

Toni Morrison Society website

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