Monday, May 29, 2006

The reading hell into which I descended

So I finally got through the other ingenious and erudite book. I'll give it "erudite." "Ingenious" is perhaps too generous — maybe I'm too stingy? would I call any book ingenious? A blurb from me would say "pretty clever" and "way cool." (But what do I know? Neither do I review books for the New York Times nor am I Doris Lessing — if I met either of these conditions I might be ready and confident to call a work "ingenious.")

The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl, is what I've been reading the last couple weeks, along with a couple old kids' books I'd dug up. I've been consumed with work — a good thing in the grand scheme of my life, but sheer hell for the now. There is an irony to the fact that the editing project that caused me so much anxiety was in fact about anxiety disorders. One panic attack, another, 782 references to verify, trouble sleeping, yes, I must have panic disorder, I'm sure of it, letting the house go hell in the meantime, no, it's generalized anxiety disorder, job performance anxiety, checking, double-checking, triple-checking, it's obsessive—compulsive (Copyediting! Turn your OCD into a career!), but it's over now, I did a damn good job, and I'm pretty sure any remaining anxiety symptoms I have are subsyndromal.

(This has nothing to do with anything: Did you know only 60% of OCD sufferers are women? That's a significantly lower proportion of women than for any other anxiety disorder. And OCD is the only anxiety disorder for which neurosurgical treatment is actually occasionally considered to be a viable option. Do you think those facts might be connected? A lot of men have OCD, so it must have a biological basis, we can't just keep them drugged up... No, I'm not a psychiatrist or otherwise qualified to draw any conclusions from arbitrarily juxtaposing those two facts. It's just something I noticed and thought odd.)

Oh, right, The Dante Club. In 1865, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was working on a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and met regularly with Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and publisher JT Fields to work through some difficulties. This much is historical fact. They grapple with Board politics at Harvard. Meanwhile, some apparently Dante-inspired murders terrorize the city. The victims are sinners representative of those Dante encountered in Hell and are punished accordingly. Boston's brains are on the case. Premise: way cool.

I really hated the first 60 pages. None of the characters were at all differentiated from each other. This muddle was made somewhat muddier by the fact that I know absolutely nothing about Longfellow, Holmes, or Lowell, let alone Dante. But very suddenly, I couldn't put the book down, in part because these characters were finally given back stories and I could finally distinguish between them (a little late perhaps for the average lay reader — I seriously considered giving up on this book, something I never do but am with age considering the merits of), but I think mostly because my work project was wrapping up and I could finally allow myself to give myself over to the story.

The resolution of the murder mystery was somewhat disappointing, but I say that about every single mystery I read, so this criticism of mine really doesn't mean anything. I don't like most endings to most books. Maybe I just don't like them to end. The thrill of the journey and all that.

So, what does this give us? A tedious beginning, a lame ending. And I loved it. Really. Go figure. Plus, I'm dying to check out Dante now.


Check out the gallery of covers. I have a UK edition (I don't know why) — the flies are in glossy relief on an otherwise smooth matte cover and are realistically unsettling.

In related news, Matthew Pearl has a new book out, The Poe Shadow, featured during Slate's pulp fiction week (the recent boom in historical fiction is briefly discussed). Pearl lists his top 10 books inspired by Poe.


rachel said...

I'm fond of the Mandelbaum translation, myself, but I hear the new Hollander is very readable. Get one with facing-page Italian, if you can, because the Italian is important. Even if you don't read Italian, it's fun to occasionally glance over and read it aloud for the musicality of it.

Ella said...

I dare you to change your slogan from "Inky and tentacled" to "Ingenius and erudite".

Isabella said...

For the record: Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club was considerably more ingenious and erudite than was Allen Kurzweil's The Grand Complication.

I'm actually somewhat embarrassed now for not saying nicer, or at least more coherent, things about The Dante Club. Never forget the world is listening. Mr Pearl was kind enough to email me, thanking me for the links. He gets extra points for excellent PR.

Danielle said...

At least you are honest!! I have looked at The Dante Club so many times, but I have just never felt compelled enough to buy it. Maybe I need to reconsider. I am always a bit fidgety about fictional books with characters who were real people. Are you going to read The Poe Shadow?