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What I’ve been reading lately

Because it wouldn’t be Book Week here at the Cutlery Drawer without me Voicing Some Opinions.

The Name of the Rose–Umberto Eco

A murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, starring a genius Franciscan friar and his Benedictine novice! There’s sex! Lies! Scandal! Heretics! Whoredom! Politics! The Spanish Inquisition! Shady pasts, dubious futures! Suspect motivations, secrets, betrayals and passion! Holy crapoly, it’s got it all. And then there’s the religious debates: the role of laughter and imagery in religion; there’s semiotics and biblical theory; there’s debates about the nature of heresy and power and money in religious orders. This, people, is not a light read. The plot is involved and complex, but then the debates among the characters about these major, complicated issues make things even more challenging — but totally worth it. Every discussion they have is stimulating and fascinating, and leaves you thinking.

I read this in my first year at uni, mostly out of pretentiousness. I enjoyed it, but it was way out of my league. I thought so at the time, too, but I enjoyed the ride all the same. To reread it now was really satisfying: I was gripped. I wanted to participate in the debates the characters were having and ask them for more explanation. If I left my bookmark in a particularly compelling point, I worried about the characters while I wasn’t reading it. I fretted that they wouldn’t catch the murderer in time, or at all (I could remember how the murders were committed, but not by whom). Completely fantastic. The language lush and the themes challenging, complex and inspiring; and the characters so real that I count them people I know (I can’t think of any higher mark of a writer’s skill than to create characters that I have to actively remind myself are fictitious). What a delicious book. A hard one: you’ve got to concentrate while you read, because the conversations take subtle and significant turns that, if missed, will result in baffledom down the line. But a hard book is not a bad book. The Name of the Rose is fantastic. It also triggered an Umberto Eco lust that I was happy to further indulge:

Baudolino–Umberto Eco

Baudolino rocks. I just finished it this morning and I’m basking in the sticky, dazed, happy afterglow: I keep going over memorable scenes in my head and thinking “oh yeah, that bit was awesome!”. Baudolino, the main character and narrator of most of the book, is a storyteller in the richest, most involved sense: he’s a first-rate linguist and liar, and these two aspects of his personality form the basis of his life story. The book is his retelling of his life story to a Greek, Niketas, he rescues from Constantinople, which is crumbling under the Fourth Crusade. His life is incredible, full of friends, journeys and adventures, and lots and lots and lots of lies. Good ones, strong ones, that serve a purpose greater than the pleasure of hoodwinking: they’re nearly always to prevent death or help people, but they’re lies on an epic scale — which, naturally, leads you to wonder how much of his life story is true and how much is made up. (I think it’s all true. Well, you know, true in the book.) Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about the plot because you should totally read it, but here’s a few major points to moisten your literary tongue. Baudolino, as the adopted son of Frederik I, is involved in the debates about empire and the papacy from a very early age. He’s educated in Paris and helps his adoptive father with his ongoing battles — some bloody and horrific, some comical and near-bloodless — throughout Europe; ultimately book is about Baudolino leading his friends on an epic journey through medieval Europe in pursuit of Prester John, a mythic Christian king, to help resolve the Holy Roman Empire political issue for good. The story and the setting call upon historical fact, myth and religious legends, and the whole adventure is lush and fascinating as a result. Man, I love this book. Umberto Eco, if through some bizarre set of circumstances, you happen across this review (I know if I were an internationally-acclaimed historical scholar, semiotician, novelist, essayist and academic I would have nothing better to do than Google myself looking for random blog reviews of a novel I published eleven years ago), I want to say a sincere thank you for writing this book. It must have been hard, but enjoyable, work, because it’s magnificent.

It’s an exciting romp and adventure, and then it stirs your brain pot and it’s a challenging text on the nature of narrative, stories and lies, and then there is commentary on love, human motives, ambition, searches and quests, and then there’s tears and sex and battles and fun and jokes and religious reliquaries and drunken barfing. And unicorns. It’s incredible. Next on my Umberto Eco list: The Island of the Day Before. I read it in Year 12 for a class in postmodernism, and love-love-love-loved it to pieces, but I suspect, like The Name of the Rose I didn’t understand all of it. I’m really excited about rereading it and see what I find this time around.

Five Quarters of the Orange–Joanne Harris

This is the neglected, rediscovered, and passionately re-embraced novel I was talking about when I was agonising about collecting something New And Sexy from the Book Exchange.

Man, I learned a lot. This book rocks, but for completely different reasons to the two Eco novels just mentioned. Characters: interesting, believable, compelling, and I worried about them and got angry with them. I put the book aside at page 104: the narrator was up to no good and I was angry with her. She was making me tense. The funny thing is, it had taken me ages to nibble my way to page 104 — months, actually, and I’m a fast reader. Anyway, at page 104 I got the huffs and went off to read something else. Then, two days ago, I picked it up and flicked it open (I may have even had a sneer on my face, but I’m not certain) to reassure myself that yes, it was over between us, and I needn’t feel guilty about chucking it aside and grabbing that new book I wanted so badly. Well. It was like we rekindled the spark or something because WOOF I could not put it down. I read it while I was supposed to be working, I read it while I was knitting (held it open with my toes — thanks yoga!) and it was the first thing I thought of when I woke up yesterday morning. “I wonder what happens next in Five Quarters?” I was sold. I roared through the last 300-odd pages in less than twenty-four hours. And I’m glad I did. It has lots of juicy goodness: characters that earn their happy ending through meeting their faults and maturing; love conquering, if not all, then a helluva lot, and certainly the baddies; an horrific past faced; pain resolved; forgiveness, triumph, and the most lush-sounding foods and recipes mentioned casually but significantly. The senses get a good workout in this book, especially smell, and I loved it. This is a cool book: easy to read (I believe that the hiatus at page 104 was a result of my own immaturity rather than a weakness in the book) and interesting.

Plus I think I learned something about finishing what you start, but I’m not going to keep that as a hard rule. I don’t you should finish a book just because you began it: life’s too short to read duds. But I’ll keep in mind that sometimes I get bored with a book not because the book sucks but because it and I are just not on the same wavelength at that point. Which sounds a bit hippy-wafty-wavy-poo: what I mean is that sometimes a book will be better when you’re in a different frame of mind. And that can take years. Look at me and The Name of the Rose: I liked it when I was eighteen, but I freaking LOVED it at twenty-eight, when I understood more of it. I should read it again when I’m thirty-eight and see what’s different.

Five Quarters of the Orange is interesting and exciting: I’m going to return it to the shelves of the Book Exchange at work so that someone else can have a go.

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