Thursday, September 15, 2005

World's First Murder, Lost Wife, Cerebral Detective: New Books

(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.

Simple Lives

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:
Edward Nawotka at
Last Updated: September 15, 2005 00:23 EDT

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

`Dunces' Statue Survives Along With New Orleans's Literary Past

`Dunces' Statue Survives Along With New Orleans's Literary Past

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Sept. 14 (Bloomberg) -- With his flannel shirt, baggy pants, scarf and hunting cap, Ignatius J. Reilly was properly attired for a snowstorm, not Hurricane Katrina.

Before the massive hurricane struck New Orleans last month, the life-size bronze statue of the main character in John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer-winning novel ``A Confederacy of Dunces'' was moved inside the Chateau Sonesta from its outdoor perch under the hotel's famous clock on the edge of the French Quarter.

Unlike so many homes and businesses, the statue survived the worst storm ever to hit the Big Easy -- a city with a long literary tradition.

From Tennessee Williams's ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' and Nelson Algren's ``A Walk on the Wild Side'' to Walker Percy's ``The Moviegoer'' and Anne Rice's ``Interview with the Vampire,'' New Orleans is the setting of some of the most popular plays and novels of the 20th century.

Rice, Toole, Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote are all natives, but the list of writers who lived in the city or spent considerable time there also includes luminaries such as Williams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter and Jack Kerouac.

Fitzgerald, Faulkner

``A Confederacy of Dunces,'' Toole's satirical masterpiece about an eccentric 30-year-old man still living with his mother in New Orleans, occupies a special place in the city's literary history.

After failing to get his book published, Toole committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31 by piping carbon monoxide into his car with a garden hose. Through the dogged efforts of his mother and the support of Walker Percy, the book was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer for fiction the following year.

The Reilly statue mimics the book's opening scene, where he waits for his mom to pick him up outside the D.H. Holmes department store (now the Sonesta), a favorite meeting place for generations of New Orleans residents. Clutching a shopping bag, the shabbily dressed Reilly studies the crowd ``for signs of bad taste'' -- something he has no trouble spotting during his hilarious job-hunting adventures around the city.

Fitzgerald wrote little during his time in New Orleans, but developed a fondness for the potent local Sazerac cocktail. Faulkner, who grew up in Mississippi, wrote his first novel, ``Soldier's Pay,'' in New Orleans and the building where he lived in the French Quarter became a charming bookstore called Faulkner House.

Bohemian Lifestyle

Hellman describes her childhood in New Orleans in the early pages of her memoir, ``An Unfinished Woman,'' and Rice has used the city as a setting for many of her gothic fantasies featuring vampires and witches.

The town's bohemian lifestyle has attracted many artists and musicians, as well as writers. Algren chronicled the city's excesses in his 1956 novel ``A Walk on the Wild Side,'' which inspired Lou Reed to write a song of the same name. During the 1950s and '60s, Kerouac and fellow beat writers Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs often visited New Orleans and wrote about the city.

New Orleans continues to inspire writers interested in the supernatural, such as Jewell P. Rhodes, whose 1995 novel ``Voodoo Dreams'' is based on the life of 19th-century New Orleans priestess Marie Laveau. Another writer influenced by Rice is Poppy Z. Brite, who has switched from horror stories to crime fiction in ``Liquor'' and ``Prime,'' which both feature felonious and feckless New Orleans chefs.

Crime Novels

Crime has been a popular activity in New Orleans ever since ``Gentleman Pirate'' Jean Lafitte landed there in the early 1800s. Among the crime novels set in the city are David Fulmer's intriguing Valentin St. Cyr mysteries, and James Lee Burke's popular Dave Robicheaux series.

Just as famous as its criminals and musicians are Louisiana's colorful politicians. One of the finest political novels of the 20th century is Robert Penn Warren's 1947 ``All the King's Men,'' which was inspired by the life of former Governor and Senator Huey Long. A.J. Liebling's 1961 ``The Earl of Louisiana'' tells the story of Long's brother Earl, a three-time governor who was once committed to a mental institution.

Nancy Lemann, whose 1985 novel ``Lives of the Saints'' gives a classic portrayal of New Orleans high society, also has written about Louisiana politics. Her 1987 book, ``Ritz of the Bayou,'' is an excoriating portrait of former Governor Edwin Edwards, who went to prison for racketeering.

Yellow Fever

The city's roguish history continues to provide writers with material. Josh Russell's 2000 novel ``Yellow Jack'' vividly tells the story of a young daguerreotype photographer who documents the yellow fever epidemic that hit the city in the 1800s.

Other novels have addressed the changing character of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. John Biguenet's 2003 ``Oyster'' chronicles the rivalries between oyster-fishing families and oil companies, while Tim Gautreaux's 2004 ``The Clearing'' details a conflict between 1920s Louisiana swamp loggers and Sicilian immigrants.

Robert Olen Butler's short story collection, ``A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,'' which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, is partly set among Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans.

One of the most familiar voices coming out of New Orleans these days doesn't even have a Louisiana accent. It is that of Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian emigre who is a regular contributor to National Public Radio and the editor of a local literary magazine called ``The Exquisite Corpse.'' Codrescu has published numerous paeans to his adopted city, including 1993's ``The Muse is Always Half Dressed in New Orleans.''

To contact the writer of this story:
Edward Nawotka at
Last Updated: September 14, 2005 00:06 EDT