Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Why change the world if the world is not watching?

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Angels and Demons is a tale of adventure that transports us from the fairly mundane world of New England academia to a high stakes scavenger hunt in ancient Vatican City where the lives of many are on the line [Never go in against a Sicilian when Death is on the Line!] Robert Langdon, a professor of art history at Harvard, is unwittingly embroiled in the turn of events, and becomes the unlikely protagonist in our tale. A series of brutal murders and brandings reignite the flame of a secret society, the Illuminati, who were borne (centuries ago) of the desire to protest the church's unwillingness to acknowledge and support scientific discoveries (read: code for stop torturing, exiling, murdering, etc., scientists who made unpalatable discoveries). The events that ensue are thrilling, bizarre, and packed with pieces of fascinating history. Robert and his lady-love, the brilliant scientist Vittoria Vetra, each have their share of near-death experiences, but all is well in the end.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was a fairly enjoyable read. Definitely better than The Da Vinci Code, imho, but not what I would call a 'classic that will stand the test of time and timely test itself.' Certainly a fun romp and a well thought out thriller, but the stuff of a few hours or a few days, and not, methinks, something that will be rooted in the annals of literature bests. That said, if you are looking for a summer read and need an adventure, definitely snag a copy and go on the ride - it is, above all, an entertaining one.

- Upside down and right side up
This book is a tad obsessed with the ambigram:

ambigram - a word, art form, or other symbolic representation whose elements retain meaning when viewed or interpreted from a different direction, perspective, or orientation.


I recognize that this is likely harder to view on a computer than it is in a book. Perhaps you have all just tried to flip your computers upside down and broken them into a million tiny pieces onto the desk, or perhaps you have given yourself a neck cramp trying to turn your head just so to view it. My apologies!

In any case, I thought it was an interesting idea, but Not As Cool As Langdon Thought it Was. 

- Iron-fisted foreshadowing
Brown seems to be a fan of the 'leave-nothing-to-the-imagination' foreshadowing, writing sentences like: "He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life."

I seemed to recall this being a pattern in books from the list, so I went back and took a peek. Here are a few other serially hyperbolic foreshadowers:

Frank Herbert, Dune:
"Heavy foreshadowing - Not of the tiptoe, but the CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP variety
Much like Mr. Dickens and Mr. Irving, Herbert seems to be a big fan of the smack you over the head kind of foreshadowing. I like to be curious about what's to come, and in my opinion, a little goes a long way. So maybe you should consider DIALING IT BACK a bit, hey?"

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
"It's called foreshadowing, not 'beat-you-over-the-head'-shadowing
Part of my annoyance with this book stemmed from the fact that Irving was, as I put it to Diana, 'more heavy-handed than Dickens with his foreshadowing.' And let me tell you, that's Saying Something. It's one thing to know from the beginning of the book that Owen will die, but Every Single Event was something we Already Knew Was Going to Happen. Hello, Irving, where's the element of surprise?"

Herman Melville, Moby Dick
"Much like in Frankenstein, this book had a great deal of heavy foreshadowing (drenching rain, sermons on death, graves at the seaside church before departure, a prophet foretelling their doom, etc.) and I just don't get it! It's a great story - why do you want to GIVE IT ALL AWAY? Save some for later, okays? 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
"Shelley is very heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, and she says things like, "Those were the last days of my life that I enjoyed happiness." I understand the idea behind foreshadowing, but at a certain point, it kind of GIVES EVERYTHING AWAY. It's like starting a story off with, 'Yesterday, I went to the doctor's and it was the last appointment I'll ever have in my life." Hello, leave a little suspense, will you?"

- Maximilian Kohler, the evil faucet villain
As is often the case in Dan Brown novels, there are a few villains and a few red-herring-villains. Mr. Kohler, as it turns out, is of the latter variety, but for quite a large stretch of the book, you feel certain he is a No-Good-Very-Bad-Man. Every time I read his name, though,  I giggled a bit, because all I could think of when I read the word 'Kohler' was faucets. I imagined Kohler plotting some evil plan to destroy the Vatican by planting faulty faucets and ruining the water supply. ;)

- Shoot for the... FINGERNAILS!
"He could not imagine her whipping out a weapon in St. Peter's Square and blowing away the kneecaps of some killer while the global media looked on." Langdon is not a particularly cool character (which I imagine is supposed to be part of his charm) and frequently makes weird references to acts of violence that are out of his academe's purview. I thought it was hilarious (and bizarre) that he kept referencing Vittoria shooting for people's kneecaps - who shoots for the kneecaps? Really - when ever in Life have you seen someone in a show or a movie sizing up their opponent and saying to themself, 'OK, I've got it. Let's aim for those kneecaps."

- Pieces of me
I frequently find strange remnants of past readers in books when I read a used copy. Usually they're slightly odd footnotes, or margin-scribbles, or dog-eared pages. I enjoy these little treasures because they make reading, which is generally a solitary experience, a shared adventure, just for a moment. This copy had a series of long black hairs. Either the reader had a habit of riffling through her hair and letting it casually fall in between the pages, or she was carefully storing hairs to keep her page. Ooh! Or perhaps she had a very long-haired cat.. or dog. The possibilities are really Endless. I kept getting confused thinking it was my hair, and then realizing that (a) I had not read that far in the book yet and (b) my hair is brown, not black. 

- The Vatican - an island unto itself
Granted, this is a work of fiction, but there were many pieces of fact that I was totally unaware of. (Like that there's a vicious secret society trying to Take Over the World! JK.) Not being Catholic, and not having ever been to Rome, I was intrigued by the various papal traditions and intricacies of Vatican City. In particular, I did not know about...
    The Swiss Guard - The Pontifical Swiss Guard is a small force maintained by the Holy See. It is responsible for the safety of the Pope, including the security of the Apostolic Palace. The Swiss Guard serves as the de facto military of Vatican City. Recruits must be Catholic, single males with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with the Swiss military and can obtain certificates of good conduct. Recruits must have a professional degree or high school diploma and must be between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 5 ft 8.5 inches tall. Blast. I am disqualified for So many Reasons! ;)
Conclave - a papal conclave is a meeting of the College of Cardinals convened to elect a new Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. The pope is considered by Roman Catholics to be the apostolic successor of Saint Peter and earthly head of the Roman Catholic Church. The conclave has been the procedure for choosing the pope for almost a thousand years, and is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution. That's pretty cool, if you ask me!

- Robert Langdon = cat?
Robert Langdon comes so close to death so many times that he must be a cat (get it? what with his Nine Lives and all? haghaghaghag #icrackmyselfup). His final parting gift from the Vatican for helping to thwart the evil crimes (which were not mentioned here - read it yourself if you want to know!) is one of the Illuminati brands (again, the Famous Ambigram): 

Langdon, being an art historian and obsessed with this particular 'piece of history' and all, is Thrilled with a capital T. He plays with the brand like a giddy schoolboy, and Vittoria is all, what's cooler and sexier, me or the brand? And he's all, oh, YOU of course, and I'm all, EXQUEEZE ME did we forget it's a Brand to use on Human Flesh? Not cool. Not interesting. Not neat-o, Wacco, whizbang, wizard, smashing, just GROSS. And evil. So what I would have said to Langdon in Vittoria's place is not, "What's sexier, me or the brand?", but 'Don't touch it! It's E-Vil!."

- Have a little faith
There were several interesting ponderances on faith, religion, science, and the intersection of the three in this novel. Here are a few that resonated with me:
  • "Although he studied religion for years, Langdon was not a religious man. He respected the power of faith, the benevolence of churches, the strength religion gave so many people ... and yet, for him, the intellectual suspension of disbelief that was imperative if one were truly going to 'believe' had always proved too big an obstacle for his academic mind." This is often how I feel. Much like Langdon, I often find that I 'want to believe', but struggle to take the final leap. 
  • "Faith is universal. Our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth, that which is greater than ourselves." I am sure there are many people in the world who would find this reductive reasoning offensive, but I find it has a great deal of merit. 
  • "Very little in any organized faith is truly original. Religions are not born from scratch. They grow from one another. Modern religion is a collage ... an assimilated historical record of man's quest to understand the divine." Again, likely not a happy description for some out there in the world, but the patchwork makes perfect sense to me. These passages made me respect Brown for his introspectiveness, as well as his willingness to explore a very charged and complex issue. So many of the books on this list have dealt with the question of faith, and the philosophical questions it raises. Here are a few snippets that I recall capturing the way I feel about religion and faith:
Philip, from Of Human Bondage:
"Perhaps religion is the best school of morality. It is like one of those drugs you gentlemen use in medicine which carries another in solution: it is of no efficacy in itself, but enable the other to be absorbed. You take your morality because it is combined with religion; you lose the religion and the morality stays behind."

Owen Meany, from A Prayer for Owen Meany

Me, on Levin, from Anna Karenina
"But what I liked about Levin was his honesty, his willingness to question conventional thought without fear of retribution. He wonders quite openly about the existence of God, about what happens after death, and whether his life is truly imbued with any meaning."

Anne, from Anne of Green Gables
"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I'd look up into the sky - up - up - up - into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."

With that, I leave you. Happy Sunday to you all, and may you enjoy a quiet, enjoyable, and restful remainder of your day, wherever you are and whatever you choose to do. I'm off to So Loud on the Eastern Vanguard (turn that music down!). ;) Just two (pht!) books left! 

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