Monday, November 2, 2015

A few good reads

The Egyptian by Mika Waltari (2002 reprint)
Written shortly after World War II, the novel The Egyptian was an international best seller, authored by one of Finland’s most prolific and famous writers.  Waltari interweaves exhaustive research with themes close to heart, including man’s search for a lasting ideal greater than himself, the death of innocence and the nature of truth.  He also uses ancient religion and politics to illustrate the modern struggle between despotism and freedom and between humanistic idealism and cynical real politik.
     The Egyptian is set in the Amarna period of ancient Egypt during the reigns of the pharaohs Amunhotep III, Akhenaten, and Horemheb, encompassing the last years of the eighteenth dynasty (1386 – 1293 B.C.E.), which was an era of great religions and political upheaval.  At this time there came to power a pharaoh, Akhnaton, who sought to replace the old gods with a relatively unknown deity called the Aton. Akhenaten’s ancestors had invested great wealth and power in their godly sponsor, who was called Amun,  that the wealth and the power of the priests of Amun began to rival that of the pharaoh.  Some Egyptologists think that Akhenaten was trying to re-establish a balance of power between Amun and the throne.  However, no one knows for certain why Akhenaten sought to depose this ancient God and set up a new state divinity.  He could have been a religious mystic, a political reformer, or more probably, a little of both.

Dersu the Trapper: A True Account by V.K. Arseniev (1996 reprint)
Dersu the Trapper has earned a privileged place in Russian literature.  In this Russian counterpart to the Journals of Lewis and Clark and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Arseniev combines the precise observations of a naturalist with an exciting narrative of real life adventures.  Arseniev describes three explorations in the Ussurian taiga along the Sea of Japan above Vladivostok, beginning with his first encounter of the solitary aboriginal hunter nomad Dersu, a member of the Gold tribe, who then becomes his guide.  Each expedition is beset with hardship and danger.  Through blizzard and flood, these men forge an exceptional friendship in their mutual respect for the immense grandeur of the wilderness.  But the bridges across language, race and culture also have limitations, and the incursion of civilization exacts its toll.  Dersu the Trapper is written as a first person account of Russia’s last frontier and a poignant memoir of rare cross-cultural understanding.  Originally published in 1941, this English translation is reprinted in its entirety now for the first time.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (2015)
He lived his life like clockwork until he met the watchmaker.  In 1883 Thaniel Steepleton returned home to his small London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow.  Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saved his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroyed Scotland Yard.  He set out to find the watchmaker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan.  Although Mori seemed harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggested he must be hiding something.  When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interfered with the investigation, Thaniel was torn between opposing loyalties.  The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey between Victorian London and faraway Japan, as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.  This is Pulley’s first novel.

The Plover by Brian Doyle (2014)
Declan O’Donnell has sailed out of Oregon, deep into the vast wild ocean, having had enough of other people and their problems.  He decides to go it alone, be his own country, beholden to no one.  No man is an island, but then he thinks that he is that very man.  Soon the galaxy soon presents him with a string of odd, entertaining, and dangerous passengers, who become companions of every sort and stripe. The Plover is the story of their adventures and misadventures in the immense blue country one of their company calls Pacifica. Hounded by a mysterious enemy, reluctantly acquiring one new resident after another, O'Donnell's lonely boat is eventually crammed with humor, argument, tension, and a resident herring gull.  Brian Doyle's story is a sea novel, a maritime adventure, the story of a cold man melting, a compendium of small miracles, a watery quest, a battle at sea, and a rapturous, heartfelt celebration of life's surprising paths, planned and unplanned.

The Trigger by Tim Butcher (2014)
On a summer morning in Sarajevo almost a hundred years ago, a teenager took a pistol out of his pocket and fired not just the opening rounds of the First World War but the starting gun for modern history. By killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Gavrilo Princip, started a cycle of events that would leave 15 million dead from fighting between 1914 and 1918 and proved fatal for empires and a way of ruling that had held for centuries.
      The Trigger tells the story of a young man who changed the world forever. It focuses on the drama of the incident itself by following Prinip’s journey. By retracing his steps from the feudal frontier village of his birth, through the mountains of the northern Balkans to the great plain city of Belgrade and ultimately Sarajevo, Tim Butcher illuminates our understanding of Princip— the person and the place that shaped him—and makes discoveries about him that have eluded historians for a hundred years. Traveling through the Balkans on Princip’s trail, and drawing on his own experiences there as a war reporter during the 1990s, Butcher unravels this complex part of the world and its conflicts, and shows how the events that were sparked that day in June 1914 still have influence today. Published for the centenary of the assassination, The Trigger is a rich and timely work, part travelogue, part reportage, and part history.

--Stan Peterson, Head of Maintenance

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