Review: The Name of the Rose

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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: Latter-Day Cipher

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I stand shamelessly in line when any of the ladies from Novel Matters starts giving away books. When they stop, I will even resort to buying them myself. In the case of Latter-Day Cipher I managed to snag a signed copy.

This is a murder mystery with a heavily Mormon flavour, not too surprising seeing as Latayne C. Scott is a former hard-core Mormon converted to evangelical Christianity. I don't read a lot of murder mysteries, so I'm going to try to tread lightly in this review. I neither love nor hate the genre, but for a mystery to really appeal to me, it has to be more than a puzzle in words. I want much more of an experience when I read than that. And Latter-Day Cipher delivered.

We find out in the opening chapters that a prominent - and virulently anti-Mormon - member of Utah society has been murdered, and the body arranged in a bizarre and ritualistic fashion. Selonnah Zee, a Tennessee journalist who thought she was going to Utah on vacation to visit her news anchor cousin, gets called on to cover the case. Other murders and weird incidents follow, in each case accompanied by messages written in an obsolete, 18th-century Mormon alphabet. Selonnah finds herself researching the connections between the murders and former Mormon practices, much to the chagrin of her cousin, a convert to Mormonism who becomes the spokesman of the Mormon Church in regards to the murders. At the same time, many of the characters are in a state of spiritual flux, and their questioning is an important part of the story.

Scott, as a former Mormon herself, treats her characters with respect. While Mormon doctrines are questioned, the people are never belittled.

Three reasons you might like this book

1. A deft use of language, especially in descriptions. Scott's prose is often beautiful, and her eye for unusual but apt metaphors is superb. She tries a little too hard once or twice, but the vast majority of the time, the effect is enchanting.

2. You get an insider's glimpse into the Mormon world. It almost reads like a novel set in an exotic locale. Scott's expertise shines through here, and if you like discovering new cultures, you will be well-served.

3. Well-rounded characters who do not conform to facile stereotypes. This delighted me, personally. Selonnah is a good reporter, but you wouldn't think of calling her hard-bitten or driven. Her cousin, Roger, while fitting the stereotypical image of a news anchor (but don't they all?) has a lot of complex undercurrents going on, particularly in the relationship with his wife. The only woman described as beautiful is nonetheless big-boned and convinced of her own lack of charm. The delightfully named and supremely annoying Lugosi has more in common with Dwight from The Office than Count Dracula, and the man with the over-charged sex appeal is no womanizer. None of them can be summed up in one cute sentence.

Three reasons you might not like this book

1. The reveal of the killer's identity is done in a rather unorthodox, almost anti-climactic manner. Now, I don't read many mysteries, so maybe it wasn't that unusual, but I found it a bit odd. Seeing as I had just come to my own conclusions, it didn't irritate me, but the shift at that point from mystery to thriller didn't quite work for me.

2. You might not like so much space being devoted to Mormon beliefs, although their impact on the story is direct. Spirituality, both corporate and personal, is an important part of this story, and some readers might say it's excessive.

3. No romance or love interest for the main character. Sorry. On the other hand, the marriage relationships of several characters are immensely important, but Selonnah is in town to visit her cousin and cover a story, and that's what she does. Personally, I rather preferred it that way, but your mileage might vary.

Three sentences from page 33

Lugosi wheezed a welcome explanation for why she'd been summoned. "You always wanted to use your criminology background with your reporting, Miss Society Page." His breathing sounded like leaking fireplace bellows pumped painfully through a bunch of hollow cocktail stirrers.

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Christian Bookworm

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