“Origin” by Dan Brown

Origin by Dan BrownIt’s a little embarrassing to come out of the closet as a Dan Brown fan. Most of my bookish friends disdain his pedestrian prose, flagrant overuse of italics and cardboard characters. Even legendary Hollywood nice guy Tom Hanks, who has starred in no less than three films based on Brown’s books, threw shade at the author in a recent New York Times By the Book column:

Q: Which genres do you avoid?
A: Novels of murder and conspiracy.

Sick burn, dude!!

Considering that Inferno (the most recent Brown film adaptation) tanked at the box office, my guess is that Hanks will not be making a return appearance as Robert Langdon, so he can go ahead and talk smack about the best-selling series. But here is why I read Brown’s books:

1. The European settings. Brown is like a Rick Steves for literary thrill-seekers. I always have to read his books with my phone at hand so I can look up photos of all the places he references. In Origin, set in Spain (a country I have, unfortunately, never visited), they include the Sagrada Família, Guggenheim BilbaoValle de los Caídos, El Escorial’s Pantheon of the Kings and Casa Milà.

2. Conspiracies and secret societies. Unlike Hanks, I love ’em. The designated bad guys in Origin are members of the Palmarian Church, a bizarre and apocalyptic offshoot of Catholicism with its own pope and saints. There are also hints of wrongdoing in the upper echelons of Spain’s royal family, headed by a dying king who is close to a very conservative bishop.

3. Puzzles. Langdon is a professor of symbology, and every book requires him to solve numerous brain-teasers in order to get to the bottom of whatever enormous conspiracy he’s delving into (always in the company, of course, of an insanely smart and gorgeous woman—in this case, Ambra Vidal, director of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Brown’s fictional world; the real-life director is this sixtysomething Spanish dude). Incidentally, I discovered a coded message in the jacket copy of Origin; fun!

4. Page-turning factor. I always race through these books, and one reason is that Brown knows how to hook you. One of his clever tricks: end a chapter with a huge cliffhanger, but then don’t resolve it until a few chapters down the road. You’ll keep reading because you’ve got to find out what happens!

Origin kicks off as Edmond Kirsch, a genius billionaire inventor/futurist who is depicted as a combination of Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, is about to make a presentation at the Guggenheim Bilbao that will change the world. Since he’s such a secretive and eccentric guy, no one in the room knows what he’s going to say—and his entire presentation is on a password-protected server. Naturally, he’s assassinated just as he’s about to type in the password. Langdon, Kirsch’s friend and former professor, puts his own life at risk in order to track the killer and access the presentation. Besides the beautiful Ambra, who also happens to be the fiancée of the crown prince of Spain, Langdon is assisted by Winston, an artificial intelligence bot invented by Kirsch. (Not surprisingly, Winston is perhaps the most intriguing and fully-realized character in the book.)

The problem with having a book revolve around a message that is so profound and significant that it will impact everybody on the planet is that eventually, you have to produce said message, and I’m not sure that Kirsch’s presentation would actually cause religious leaders to throw in the towel because “oh well, we’re irrelevant now.” Events of the last year or two have made an Age of Reason seem farther away than ever. Brown seems like something of a techno-utopian atheist, and the acknowledgments section of Origin gives thanks to a long list of scientists and thinkers. There are plenty of Big Ideas to grapple with in Origin, but mostly, it works as an entertaining travelogue-thriller.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreWhen my book group was assigned to read a modern-day take-off on Jane Eyre, I thought that perhaps I should spend some time with the original source material first. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel is one of the many works of classic literature that I have never read—I’ve never even seen any of the movie adaptations. Because the basic outline of the plot is a pretty well-established part of pop culture, I did know more or less what happened to Jane, and that the famous line “Reader, I married him” figured in somewhere.

The edition of Jane Eyre that I borrowed from my local library is around 550 pages long, and at first, it was kind of tough going, since the writing is definitely not like what one encounters in today’s novels. (Brontë was a big fan of semicolons; almost every sentence in the book employs several of them; there are also some archaic words, but luckily, my edition had footnotes; eventually, I just got used to her style.)

Before long, though, I was really caught up in the book, which is incredibly plot-heavy. Brontë packs a ton of drama, romance and tragedy into Jane Eyre‘s pages. I’m going to assume most people reading this have already read the 170-year-old book or at least know what happens in it, so I’m not going to be as concerned about potential spoilers as I usually am.

One thing that struck me about Jane Eyre is that the brooding Mr. Rochester (who is 20 years Jane’s senior) is really not a very admirable hero. He plays a lot of tricks on Jane, from disguising himself as a “gipsy” fortune-teller in order to trick her into speaking openly about her feelings, to telling her that he’s going to marry the wealthy, beautiful Miss Ingram just to see what her reaction is. He also throws in the fact that she will have to leave Thornfield, Rochester’s estate where she is employed as a governess for his ward Adèle, and go to work for a family in Ireland. Jane’s reaction is to sob “convulsively,” at which point Mr. Rochester says, Psych! I’m actually in love with you. Let’s get married ASAP! Instead of running in the opposite direction, Jane is overcome with joy, thinking “only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.”

However, it turns out Mr. Rochester is already married, and his “crazy” wife lives right above Jane’s room! But that’s a big secret (any noise coming from upstairs is blamed on the “seamstress,” Grace Poole, who is actually Bertha’s caretaker). Jane only finds out about her groom’s bigamy when they’re literally standing at the altar. Pretty much every single aspect of Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Bertha is highly problematic, even by 1847 standards, apparently, since mental illness was already being dealt with in more humane ways in the U.K. Even back then, Bertha’s windowless room and lack of company (except for the heavy-drinking Grace Poole) would have been considered unacceptable.

This beautifully-written piece from Harvard chaplain Vanessa Zoltan brings up yet another dicey issue: Bertha’s mixed-race heritage (she’s part-Creole). She calls Bertha “a real victim,” and measures her love of the novel against her discomfort with the harsh treatment of the “madwoman.” The passage she quotes, in which Rochester speculates how he would act toward Jane if she were mad (“Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me…”), does definitely indicate that there’s some big difference between the two women. Apparently a mentally-ill white orphan would be easier to love than one who is half-Creole and from a wealthy family. (Bertha’s plight has fascinated many other writers over the years, from Jean Rhys, who penned a “prequel” about Bertha called Wide Sargasso Sea, to feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.)

Nevertheless, taken simply as a ripping tale, I found Jane Eyre to be very much worth my time. Jane is a strong heroine, and to her credit, Brontë goes out of her way to let us know that she’s not a beauty, meaning Mr. Rochester loves her for who she is: “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts… to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true.” When he’s making statements like that one, Mr. Rochester does, indeed, seem like an ideal romantic hero.

“Gone to Dust” by Matt Goldman

Gone to Dust by Matt GoldmanI read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but you know who appears to read far more of them than I do? Lee Child. It seems like half the books I pick up these days have a blurb from the author of the best-selling Jack Reacher series prominently displayed on the cover. Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman, for instance, boasts this Child quote: “A perfect blend of light touch and dark story—I want more of Nils Shapiro.”

I’ve been suspicious of blurbs ever since a certain best-selling writer once told me at a mystery conference that she doesn’t actually read most of the books she blesses with her public praise. She said it jokingly, but I suspect she may have been kidding on the square. I’ll say this for Child, though—his “light touch and dark story” comment actually sums up Gone to Dust pretty well. And it’s a fast read, so I’m going to guess he really did get through its 300 pages. (I will pause here to note that Child is a great guy who is truly supportive of his fellow crime-fiction authors; he is just so promiscuous with his blurbs that I find it kind of funny.)

The premise of Gone to Dust is pure genius: the killer empties dust-filled vacuum-cleaner bags all over the victim and throughout her house, thus making it virtually impossible for the crime scene unit to do their usual thing, picking up stray fibers with tweezers and the other stuff you see on “C.S.I.” Maggie Somerville lived and died in the tony Minneapolis suburb of Edina, which hardly ever has murders occurring within its city limits. The lack of usable physical evidence means this crime will be especially tricky to solve, so police detective Anders Ellegaard calls in his old chum, private eye Nils Shapiro. (He’s Jewish, but was named after the Scandinavian man who saved his dad’s life.)

Shapiro is divorced, but still hung up on his ex-wife, with whom he remains on friendly terms (and by “friendly,” I mean they still sleep together). He’s pushing 40, but like so many wisecracking P.I.s you meet in novels, women seem to find him irresistible. He begins interviewing Maggie’s friends and exes, and eventually learns that there’s a lot more to the case than meets the eye—and those revelations create conflict with the police department that hired him.

Goldman, a former TV writer who worked on “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and several other shows, is a Minnesota native, and I’m sure locals will appreciate the copious references to Twin Cities geography (“The north end of the office park is bordered by Highway 494 and the south end is bordered by Normandale Lake, the Hyland downhill-ski area,” goes one typical passage). I’ve only been there once, so I don’t know my Lake Street from my Lake Calhoun, but the author’s descriptions of the snow and frigid cold of a Minnesota winter impart a sense of place more than the GPS-style navigation.

A first novel, Gone to Dust contains perhaps a few too many private-eye tropes, but for the most part it’s a clever and well-paced whodunit.

“Murder in Matera” by Helene Stapinski

Murder in MateraOne of my favorite genres is the “Family Secret” book, in which an intrepid journalist investigates some scandal in his or her family’s past and uncovers shocking surprises. A couple of my favorites are Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret and After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey.

Now comes Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski, who grew up hearing stories about her notorious great-great-grandmother Vita, who immigrated to New Jersey in the late 19th century. Legend had it that Vita fled Italy with her sons after murdering somebody back in the Old Country, but no one seemed to know what actually happened. Stapinski decides to find out.

She’s concerned that crime may somehow be deeply encoded in the family genes, and how that may affect her own children; the author recounts the criminal backgrounds of many of her relatives, including cousin Mike the mob consigliere and Grandpa Beansie, who murdered a guy in a fight. “Most of the criminals came from the Vena side, the Italian side,” she writes. “The name Vena can be translated a number of ways… But Vena’s main meaning is vein, as in a vein that runs through a family, a trait passed down from one generation to the next. In our case, a penchant for crime.”

Her first trip to Matera, with her mom and two young children in tow, is less than successful due to the fact that it’s hard to conduct an in-depth investigation with kids around. So she waits 10 years and goes back alone, hiring a couple of researchers to help her out. Things have changed a bit—Francis Ford Coppola has opened a 500-euro-a-night hotel in Bernalda—but echoes of the past are everywhere, from the caves painted by monks in the Middle Ages to the two-foot-tall books of documents stored deep in local archives. With the help of her researchers, plus a policeman and lawyer, she eventually finds out what happened to cause Vita to make that long ocean voyage to America.

The one problem I have with his book, and it’s kind of a big one, is that Stapinski frequently departs from the nonfiction narrative to deliver chapters that flash back to Vita’s life in the 1800s. In the afterword, she explains that she used her own “Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how [Vita] would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life,” but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with so much conjecture. No photographs of Vita exist, but Stapinski describes “the curve of her neck and the way she tilted her head when she listened. She was smart and wise all at the same time… Liveliness and love of life was hard to find in a place as miserable as nineteenth-century Bernalda. And Vita had it. Vita had it in spades.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the book, almost as though Stapinski really wanted to write a novel about her ancestor based on true events, and came up with this somewhat awkward mash-up instead. She also takes some huge leaps of imagination in a couple of situations where there’s no solid evidence of what really happened.

Still, the one thing that comes through loud and clear is how incredibly difficult life was for her Italian forebears, who constantly faced death and deprivation. My own Swedish relatives came to the U.S. a couple decades after Vita, and life in Sweden was equally grueling for many of its own poor citizens. It’s never a bad thing to pay tribute to the people who made it possible for us to live comfortably in modern-day America, and to think about the immigrants who continue to come here today, often fleeing violence and famine, hoping to find a better life for their families and all the generations to come.