(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)
By Edward Nawotka
Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- In this week's new books, global bestseller Paulo Coelho depicts an author whose life unravels after his wife leaves him, Alexander McCall Smith delivers the second of his ``Sunday Philosophy Club'' series about a thoughtful Edinburgh sleuth, and novelist David Maine re- imagines the story of Cain and Abel in his second novel based on the Bible.
Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho's ``The Zahir'' (Harper Collins, 304 pages, $24.95) has already reached number one in over two dozen nations, from India to Iran, Argentina to the U.K. He is one of the best-selling authors on the planet, with an estimated 65 million copies of his books in print in 150 countries.
Coelho's most enduring work has been his 1994 novel ``The Alchemist,'' a fable about a shepherd who goes on an enlightened quest to find a treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. Its New-Agey message to follow your dreams made it a favorite among celebrities. Politicians, too, have embraced the book, making Coelho a regular guest at the World Economic Forum.
``The Zahir'' is the first-person story of a best-selling Brazilian author -- much like Coelho himself -- who is living in Paris and whose wife, Esther, a war correspondent, leaves him after returning from Iraq.
She is last seen in the company of a mysterious young man named Mikhail. The word ``Zahir,'' writes Coelho, comes from Islam and describes ``something which, once we have come into contact with them or it, gradually occupies our every thought, until we can think of nothing else.'' Esther becomes the author's Zahir.
On the Trail
The author picks up her trail through mutual friends and acquaintances to whom she has given the blood-soaked remnant of a dead soldier's uniform as a kind of totem. One day, Mikhail presents himself at one of the author's book signings and invites him to a quasi-religious nightclub act where the writer witnesses a cross between public confession and a whirling dervish performance. After a few tame Parisian adventures with bohemian youth, the pair embark on a trip to Kazakhstan to seek out Esther.
Together they experience spiritual transformation through Tengriism, the indigenous religion of the nomads.
In ``The Zahir,'' Coelho focuses his musings on the nature of love and marriage and concludes that, ideally, love is a form of acceptance. While this is not necessarily a profound message, the sheer enthusiasm with which Coelho delivers it, via globetrotting plots and colorful morality tales drawn from all variety of religious faith, is likely to entrance even the most cynical of readers.
Alexander McCall Smith doesn't preach spiritual self- improvement in his books. Instead, his characters live simple, moral lives. The Scotsman is best known for his six ``No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency'' novels, which are set in Botswana and star Precious Ramatswe, a kindly, middle-aged female detective who dispenses folksy wisdom to clients over cups of red bush tea. These have sold millions of copies in America, where they are popular with book clubs.
Last year, Smith began a second series, ``The Sunday Philosophy Club,'' featuring another lady detective, Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher living in Edinburgh who edits the Review of Applied Ethics.
She attends classical music concerts, has illuminating conversations with her housekeeper and concerns herself with small moral quandaries such as whether it is appropriate to publish an article that praises vice. (She decides not.)
Beyond the Grave
In ``Friends, Lovers, Chocolate'' (Pantheon Books, 261 pages, $21.95), the second book in the ``Sunday Philosophy Club'' series, Isabel becomes intrigued by the story of a man who, having just had a heart transplant, is haunted by visions he suspects may be the dead man's memories.
Her investigation takes her traipsing around Edinburgh searching for the man in the visions. Meanwhile, Isabel finds herself debating whether it is appropriate to try and break up her niece's relationship with a Bugatti-driving Italian suitor in favor of a young bassoonist Isabel might fancy herself.
While the story lacks any significant intrigue, McCall Smith knows how to lay on the charm. The book delights with its whimsical characters and vivid portrait of day-to-day life in Edinburgh, a city Smith clearly knows intimately and depicts in detail worthy of a good travelogue.
Old Man Cain
David Maine's first novel, ``The Preservationist,'' was a bold, uncensored portrayal of the biblical story of the great flood, complete with sex, animal feces and family strife aboard Noah's Ark. His follow-up, ``Fallen'' (St. Martin's Press, 256 pages, $23.95), depicts the story of Cain, Abel, Adam, Eve and the world's first murder.
As the book opens, we discover Cain is an old man; by the next chapter, we realize Maine's provocative plan is to tell the story backward, first depicting Cain as a tortured, angry adult marked by God, and then allowing him to devolve into a more innocent creature. In fact, as the pages pass, characters are brought back to life, including his brother Abel, their large extended family and eventually his overwhelmed parents, Adam and Eve.
Maine, an American who lives in Pakistan, is anything but reverent and his modern recasting of these all-too-human characters is bracing. Adam and Eve's young family suffers terribly at the hand of God, who speaks here in a booming voice. He is seemingly indiscriminate in his favoring the can-do-no- wrong son Abel over Cain, and it becomes evident that the fratricide is much more complicated than mere murder.
Blame the Parents
As the novel takes us back to the Garden of Eden, the relationship between God, nature and man becomes more intertwined. We are reminded the principal sin of the book is that of the parents and not of the son.
It's a very modern sensibility -- to blame your parents for your shortcomings. Each of the four principle characters, Cain (the eldest brother), Abel (the favored son), Adam (the awkward father) and Eve (the beleaguered mother), has their say. All the while, the pleasure for the reader comes from the particulars of their predicament as the first people on Earth.
Maine describes the discovery of music, weaving and sex and Eve's worries -- what it's like to be pregnant for the first time without knowing what to expect when you're expecting, and, most intensely, what it might be like to know you're responsible for destroying Paradise.
Maine has blown breath and life into the story of Cain and Abel, engendering a terrific and terrifying novel.
To contact the writer of this review:Last Updated: September 15, 2005 00:23 EDT
Edward Nawotka at firstname.lastname@example.org.