Some of you might remember from my last post that one of the many books I grabbed during one of my recent library visits was Kingdom of Strangers: A Novel. Though mainly a reader of nonfiction, over the last few years I’ve been branching out and reading more fiction, especially stuff by authors from outside the United States. While the author of Kingdom of Strangers Zoe Ferraris is an American, she lived in Saudi Arabia for a period of time with her then husband and was able to witness firsthand life inside the Arabian kingdom. Drawing from the wellspring of experience, her 2012 novel begins with the discovery in the desert of 19 decapitated and dismembered female corpses. Investigators soon learn that they are bodies of Asian domestic servants, either missing or on the run from their Saudi employers. Assigned to the case is lead inspector Ibrahim Zahrani, who is assisted by forensic scientist Katya Hijazi, one of the few women employed by the department. To make matters worse, Ibrahim’s mistress has gone missing and even though he strongly suspects the serial killer’s foul play, he’s unable to tell the authorities for fear he will be arrested and tried for the capital crime of adultery. Working to solve the murders while at the same time secretly searching for his missing mistress, Ibrahim covertly enlists his police colleague Katya. Racing against time with the hopes that Ibrahim’s mistress might still be alive, not only must Katya keep Ibrahim’s predicament a secret, but she must also battle her male colleagues’ sexism and the kingdom’s oppressive mores if she is to help save the day.
Ferraris’ novel excels not just as a whodunnit, but also as a great window into the complex and somewhat hidden world known as Saudi Arabia. It’s also a novel about everyday people and the choices they must make in order to live in such a society. After being pleased with Kingdom of Strangers and later learning that it’s part of larger trilogy, I’m thinking about reading Ferraris’ City of Veils and Finding Nouf. Kingdom of Strangers also makes a great follow-up book to both John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises as well as Joseph Braude’s The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. Lastly, another reason I liked Kingdom of Strangers is it counts as part of the Middle East Reading Challenge. Plus, it also counts as part of the Global Reading Challenge in addition to the Library Book Reading Challenge. (Incidentally, Kerrie, the host of the Global Reading Challenge reviewed Kingdom of Strangers on her blog back in late January.) And of course, I love it when a book counts towards more than one reading challenge.
I got to thinking the other day, with all the trips I’ve made to the library over the first quarter of this year, I’ve yet to do a Library Loot posting for 2013. Well, time to remedy that. Here’s a brief summary of the books I recently grabbed from the shelves of my local public library. As you can see, a number of these books count towards a few reading challenges I’m taking part in this year. Since I’m also participating in the Book Dragon Lair’s Library Books Reading Challenge, of course all of the books you see here count towards that challenge.
An Indonesian man so encrusted with warts he’s been dubbed the “tree man” by his fellow villagers. A former model turned teacher who, despite her best efforts to practice impeccable personal hygiene nevertheless reeks like rotten fish. A young New Yorker who experiences horrific seizures whenever she hears the song “Temperature” by Sean Paul. A Canadian woman unable distinguish one human face from other picks up the wrong child at her daughter’s daycare center. A German classical musician cursed with a sense of hearing so hypersensitive he can hear his own eyeballs moving back and forth in their sockets.
With a book filled with crazy stories like these, I could not resist grabbing Ann Reynolds and Kenneth Wapner’s Medical Mysteries: From the Bizarre to the Deadly . . . The Cases That Have Baffled Doctors when I stumbled upon it during my last trip to the public library. Published in 2009 as a companion piece to ABC’s Primetime TV series, the book is a collection of short, light but entertaining vignettes with each one devoted to a particular medical oddity. While I wouldn’t put this book in the same league as stuff by Oliver Sacks and Robert Desowitz, it’s still fun to read. If you’re a fan of the TV show House, this book is probably right up your alley. (The other morning while hanging out in one of my neighborhood coffee shops and reading this book, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the show’s theme song, “Teardrop” by the British band Massive Attack being played on the shop’s stereo, presumably courtesy of Pandora.) While Medical Mysteries isn’t fancy, it’s interesting and entertaining enough to supply you with some great material to share at your next cocktail party.
Long before Maphead’s Book Blog came to WordPress, I had quite the affinity for books about infectious disease. It probably started years ago when I mentioned to a medical professor my fondness for Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. Upon hearing this he eagerly recommended I also read Berton Rouche’s 11 Blue Men. After following his advice and being pleased with his recommendation from there I moved on to other books like Plagues and Peoples, Virus Hunter, The Forgotten Plague and The Great Mortality. In retrospect it seems over the last few years that my diet of these books has dropped off a bit, with just Inside the Outbreaks, The Ghost Map and The Fever featured on my blog.
Don’t ask me why but for whatever reason, I recently found myself once again hankering for books about polio, cholera, tuberculosis and the like. So, during my last visit to the public library I picked up a couple of books which I hope will feed this reawakened desire. One of those books I picked up happened to be Jeanette Farrell’s Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease. Published in 2005 as a revised and updated second edition of her original 1998 book, Invisible Enemies is one of those straight-up, no-nonsense kind of books written probably as an introductory text. But it’s also more than that. Thanks to Farrell’s clear writing and her ability to deliver the right amount of information in order to adequately cover the subject matter at hand without being dry or tedious, this book works for novices and seasoned readers alike.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from reading this book is that most pandemics are the unintended consequences of human actions. For thousands of years cholera was endemic just to India, but thanks to fast-moving steamships the disease circled the globe in the 19th century. While the Mongol Empire unified much of Eurasia and created a reliable East-West trade route, that same conduit allowed the plague infested fleas to hitchhike on rodents across the continent from East Asia to Southern Europe. Later, from that part of the world sailing ships, aided by advances in maritime technology, spread infected fleas and rodents from Italy to the rest of Europe. AIDS was restricted to the interior of Africa until a combination of truck drivers, prostitutes and modern highways helped spread the disease throughout the continent. Later, commercial jet travel would allow those infected to bring the disease to the rest of the world. (Things went from bad to worse in the US, where a combination of government inaction and sexual irresponsibility would have disastrous consequences.) Lastly, diseases like smallpox and malaria were absent from the Western hemisphere until their introduction by conquistadors and slave traders.
I’m hoping this book will be followed by others of a similar nature. During that recent library visit, in addition to grabbing Invisible Enemies I also helped myself to Gerald Callahan’s Infection: The Uninvited Universe, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age by Nathan Wolf and Medical Mysteries: From the Bizarre to the Deadly . . . The Cases That Have Baffled Doctors by Ann Reynolds and Kenneth Wapner. With those three library books plus my own copy of David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic sitting on my desk waiting to be read I’m guessing this wont be the last book about disease featured on this blog.
Filed under History, Science
For the better part of 10 years I’ve seen Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings: 500 Hundred Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge for sale in bookstores and advertised in catalogs. Based on its relative popularity (not to mention its sexy title) I figured it was a worth reading, but I never consciously incorporated it into any of my to be read lists. Then one afternoon as I was rummaging through the shelves at my neighborhood library and spotted a copy of Sex with Kings my curiosity got the better of me. With Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge inspiring me to read books about Europe (and my own personal series Reading the Renaissance and Farewell to the 15th Century inspiring me much the same way) little wonder I could resist an opportunity to read about the sordid sexual adventures of Europe’s great royal families. As I grabbed Herman’s book it became immediately apparent that the hardcover copy I selected was considerably worn and battered. Knowing from experience that a well-worn book is usually a well-read one – and therefore one worth reading – I added it to the three or so other library books already clutched in my hands and headed to the automated check-out machines. After I finished it a few days ago over my morning coffee it looks like my instincts were correct. I picked a very good book.
Rest assured this is not some cheap laundry list of royal sexapades. Sex with Kings is a sophisticated read that’s both well-written and well-researched. With intelligence and at times dry humor, Herman pulls back the curtain on centuries of royal bed-hopping not to mention palace intrigues, sexual jealousies and cuckoldry. Along the way you meet Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV who for all practical purposes ran the French state until her fall from grace after France’s defeat in the Seven Years War, a war she helped instigate. One mistress of England’s Charles V, when confronted by an anti-Papal mob yelled, “I’m a Protestant whore, not a Catholic one!” and was promptly greeted with supportive cheers, blessings and sent upon her way. One former royal mistress while taking a break from the fetes and delights of European high life, moved to California’s rough and tumble Gold Rush country and managed a gold mine before heading back to the old country. There’s plenty in Sex with Kings to keep the reader entertained.
If I can ever put a dent in the tower stack of library books perched precariously near my bed, I’d like to read Herman’s other books Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics and Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope. While I’m at it, I should also read Karl Shaw’s Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty since according to a well-read friend of mine, it contains quite a lot of dirty laundry when it comes to Europe’s great royal families. Hopefully before it’s all said and done, I will.
Feeling inspired by Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir was not the only book Europe-centric book I grabbed during my recent library visit. Out of a surprising number of books about the Balkans available at my library for me to choose from, I chose a somewhat battered and bruised hardcover copy of Peter Maass’ 1996 book Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. In Love Thy Neighbor, Maass recalls the time he spent in war-torn Bosnia and environs during the early 1990s as a correspondent for the Washington Post. At first I was hesitant to select a first hand account of a war that ended over 25 years ago. However, after picking it up and noticing how good it felt in my hands I decided to take a chance on it. After finishing it last weekend I’m glad I took that chance. While there are parts of this book that are grim and depressing, Maass describes the bloody Bosnian War with passion and intelligence. On top of that, it’s well-written.
I’m old enough to remember seeing a lot of this senseless carnage on the TV news and covered in the newspaper. One of the reasons this book resonated so much with me is its ability to provide background and analysis of the stuff behind those horrific headlines. By doing so, Love Thy Neighbor served as a damning indictment of the West since the European Community and America did little if anything to stop the slaughter of innocent Bosnian civilians until its leaders were finally pressured to so something. Just like in Zlatko Dizdarević’s Sarajevo: A War Journal the UN Peacekeepers come across as impotent and devoid of resolve. Traditional rules of international peacekeeping might be fine if it’s a fair fight, but according to Maass this one certainly wasn’t.
As I’m so fond of saying on this blog, you know a book is really good when after finishing it, you want to read more. For a number of years I’ve been itching to read Michael Parenti’s To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia and with Love Thy Neighbor still fresh in my mind, why not now? In order to illustrate the absurdity of war, throughout Love Thy Neighbor Maass makes several references to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Right now I can glance across my bedroom and see an old paperback copy of Heller’s classic novel that’s been sitting on the shelf ignored and unread for many years. Probably high time I read that book too. Inspired by Love Thy Neighbor, hopefully I will.
I’m sure you can guess by looking at my blog that I don’t read a lot of fiction. However, when I do I tend to gravitate towards stuff by international authors. Several years ago, thanks to my public library I discovered the publishing house Europa Editions. Through Europa I was introduced to the fiction of Algerian-Italian novelist Amara Lakous as well as that of Israeli Yishai Sarid. Well, thanks to Europa I can add another Israeli to that short but distinguished roster of excellent novelists. Not long ago during one my weekend library visits I spotted a 1989 Europa edition of Benjamin Tammuz’s 1981 novel Minotaur. Knowing that Europa’s been pretty good to me so far, I took a chance on Minotaur. Crazy thing is once I started Tammuz’s novel, at first I didn’t like it. However, once I got rolling, Minotaur really grew on me. By the time I finished it, I was enjoying the heck out of it.
On its surface, Minotaur is the story of a 40 something Mossad agent, his long-term romantic obsession with a much younger English woman and his attempts over the years to woo her through passionate love letters while at the same time keeping his identity secret. But what makes the novel fun is Tammuz’s employment of small but powerful cast of flawed characters. As the novel unfolds the story shifts from the vantage point of one character to another, including their respective backstories. With two characters English, one Greek (a former resident of Alexandria, Beirut and Berlin) and one Israeli (a first generation Sabra with a Russian Jew father and a Swiss Gentile mother) for an Israeli novel Minotaur has more of a European feel than that of a Middle Eastern one. The novel is also hard to classify. Even though one character is a spy, since there’s not a lot of what we would consider espionage going on, I can’t consider Minotaur a spy novel. Without divulging too much, it’s not really a love story either. Perhaps the New York Times said it best when it called Minotaur “a novel about the expectations and compromises that humans create for themselves.” And considering the flawed nature of the novel’s international cast of characters, no wonder Minotaur slowly but surely won me over.