Sunday, October 24, 2010

Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - U is for Unsworth.

By the early twentieth century the world had already been referring to the Ottoman Empire as the "sick man of Europe" for over fifty years. So as the widely-anticipated Great War loomed on the horizon, competing nations jostled to position themselves to seize the bounty expected when the Ottomans finally fell. Barry Unsworth sets his novel at the fringes of Mesopotamia, a seemingly desolate corner of this fragile Empire, but one that holds hidden wealth for those who are poised to take it.

English archaeologist John Sommerville has staked his fortune on this bit of desert for a more romantic reason than wealth or strategic advantage. He has bet his fortune on a few hills and hopes that excavating them and finding signs of lost empires will finally make a name for him as a professional archaeologist. But the money is running out and discoveries are scarce, prompting a desperation that his wife of only a few years senses, and disdains. When plans for a German railroad progress, Sommerville fears the line will cut through his camp and end any chances at success. In a desperate gambit to slow the railroad's construction, Sommerville sets in motion a chain of events that will affect not only the lives of those at his camp, but the ambitions of nations watching the weakening Ottoman lands.

I found the beginning of Land of Marvels less than engaging. The stakes were difficult to grasp at first and Sommerville is initially unsympathetic in his paranoia and waffling ambition. But the plot gathers speed, just like the steam engine Sommerville imagines hurtling past his camp, and the book becomes far more enjoyable. The book is at its best when drawing delicate comparisons between empires, different ages, and man's ambitions. I used the gendered word there advisedly - I found Unsworth's renderings of his three female characters to be the weakest parts of the book. But overall, this is an enjoyable read, and certainly thought-provoking.

It pairs well with another book I'm reading - The Idea of Decline in Western History. Unsworth's novel reminds us that all empires eventually fall, while the other book, a sort of history of political theory from the past 200 years, points out that the pessimism and predictions of the "end" have always existed. I suppose that each human enterprises will eventually change beyond recognition or end, but our ability to foresee that end is extremely limited.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grand Cayman and Gateway Drug Books

We spent the holiday weekend down in Grand Cayman, celebrating a family wedding (for whatever reason Columbus Day is still a holiday! I'll take it though). It was the second time we had been there and it was still just as lovely. With less than 50,000 people in all of the Cayman Islands, it's a pretty quiet place, especially in off-season, which early October is.

I spotted two bookstores, which might be the only two on the main island, based on the population density and a guidebook I read. Which makes me wonder, is one bookstore per 25,000 horrible? It sounds like it to me. But there are probably other places to buy books, at least for beach reading. I was pleased to see a lot of the people we were traveling with reading, and many of them reading some quality books. Yay for that. Before arriving on the island, I had given my reading-reluctant sister The Hunger Games, hoping that the book would prove to be the literary crack that the twitter-verse seems to think it is. She devoured it. Double yay. So if anyone out there has other books that might serve as similar crack, I'd really love to hear the recommendation! Christmas is coming up and I must proselytize the religion of reading!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Turquoise Ring, by Grace Tiffany

This is part of Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - T is for Turquoise (and Tiffany)

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice begins with Antonio, who will famously owe the Jew Shylock a pound of flesh, stating, "And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, That I have much ado to know myself." To know oneself is a challenge, and even moreso to know another. The Merchant of Venice paints of harsh picture of Shylock but Shakespeare scholar Grace Tiffany takes us beneath the surface, delving back into his life and the lives of the women around him to reveal a sensitive and mournful man. In doing so, she asks us how much we really know about ourselves and each other.

The Turquoise Ring begins with the story of Leah, the headstrong young Spanish woman, half "Old Christian" and half Jewish, who captures the heart of Shylock, or Shiloh as Ms. Tiffany tells us he was first called. Leah gives Shiloh the turquoise ring, gifted to her by a Moorish swordmaker, as a token of her love. That love is dangerous in Inquisition-era Spain, but Leah persists in her affection for the pious Shiloh and marries him, against her Christian father's will. She will pay the greatest price for her embrace of the Jewish faith, leaving Shiloh deeply wounded and the single father to a young girl. Horrified by his fate, Shiloh flees Spain for Venice, hoping to find a tolerant home for himself and his infant.

Shiloh's hopes are to be disappointed as his story winds through Venice and the Terra Firma provinces in Italy, picking up the tales of the various characters who populate Shakespeare's play. His daughter's own rebellious love introduces us to women representing the various wrinkles of faith and character in sixteenth century Europe, as they all struggle to gain control over their lives against the bigotry of their time. Their efforts drive the novel's plot and reveal the humanity lurking behind the scowling face of Shylock the moneylender. This was a rich, beautiful read - I highly recommend it. (And no knowledge of Shakespeare is required to enjoy it!)

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma