Internet Review of Books

Book Review: The Tenth Parallel

My review of Eliza Griswold’s book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, is live at The Internet Review of Books.

“Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold spent seven years investigating and reporting on religious conflict around the globe. That she lived to tell about it is remarkable. Her travels took her to some of the most troubled, and often violent, countries in the Eastern Hemisphere: Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.” To read more….

While I found the majority of the book to be a fairly bleak forecast due to politics, global climate change, not to mention religious intolerance, I was heartened this past week when thousands of Egyptian Muslims stood watch as human shields so Coptic Christians could celebrate their Christmas worship without fear of violence. To see a modicum of tolerance and unity among differing faiths was uplifting.

Perhaps the United States could take a cue from that event.

Betancourt Memoir

I just reviewed Ingrid Betancourt’s new memoir, Even Silence Has an End, for The Internet Review of Books. It is a story I have been waiting to read, a story I followed for six plus years while Betancourt was held captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces  of Colombia, the FARC.

There are a couple of reasons I like reviewing nonfiction books. One, obviously, I get to read the book, but, two, more often than not I’m inclined to research the material beyond the actual reading. In the case of Betancourt’s book, I found myself shuffling through hundreds of Internet pages for days on end, fascinated by all the controversy surrounding the woman.

One of her fellow hostages, Keith Stansell, an ex-marine, called her “the most disgusting human being I’ve ever encountered.”  Wow. That’s pretty blunt. So, I went looking for more information.

Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, and Marc Gonsalves were US defense department contractors hired to locate guerillas and coca fields in southern Colombia. Their single-engine Cessna Caravan was not suited to the rugged terrain and crashed in FARC territory about a year after Betancourt was kidnapped. Pilot Tommy Janis and a Colombian army sergeant, Luis Alcedes Cruz, were executed by the rebels, but the three Americans survived and spent five years with Betancourt before they were all rescued by the Colombian army in July 2008.

The three Americans  have written a memoir together, Out of Captivity. In the book, Stansell and Howes accuse Betancourt of endangering their lives by telling the FARC they were CIA agents. Stansell has also said he “watched her try to take over the camp with an arrogance that was out of control…. Some of the guards treated us better than she did.’’

The third American, Marc Gonsalves, does not corroborate Stansell’s accusations. Nor does Colombian Senator Luis Eladio Perez, held for over six years by the guerillas and a close friend of Betancourt’s.  Perez does say that Betancourt was a controversial figure long before she was captured by the FARC. While running for a Colombian senate seat, as a political stunt she handed out condoms to ward off corruption. A very attractive woman she used to wear mini skirts in the Senate creating jealousy among her female counterparts. Perez says she has always been savvy at manipulating men who might be slightly naive.

But why is Stansell carrying a grudge? It is true that Betancourt and Gonsalves had a close and very tender relationship during their time together in captivity, and, according to Gonsalves,  it caused much jealousy among the other prisoners. While it is almost impossible for me to imagine wild orgies happening in those gulag-like conditions, it is known from Betancourt’s memoir that she and Gonsalves wrote to each other daily describing intimate details of their lives. The guards finally separated her from the other prisoners to stop them from communicating. She was bereft.  When asked about it in an interview, Betancourt said, “It was like love.”

Psychologists say that people who have endured something horrific generally band together afterward and forgive one another for any uncivilized behavior that occurred. Betancourt writes in her memoir with insight and compassion for her fellow hostages, explaining that much of the contention between them was manufactured and manipulated by the FARC.

So one wonders what is really bugging Stansell about Betancourt? Is it purely macho ego or something deeper? Perhaps the jealousy stems from her fame. However much he dislikes her, the ironic truth is those US contractors might never have gotten out of the jungles of Colombia had it not been for their high profile fellow prisoner, Ingrid Betancourt.

She is back in the news these days, suing Colombia for 6.8 million dollars for her abduction by the FARC, lost work time, and  her physical and mental suffering. Colombians are outraged. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but, whatever happens, it keeps her in the news.

Good Junk Books~

These days I read nonfiction almost exclusively. If I read fiction at all it is seldom a murder mystery that I choose, but at one point in my life I devoured them like candy bars. My mother calls them Junk Books, a bit like watching TV but more active for the brain, and we both agree that there are good Junk Books and bad Junk Books. Of the good variety, I think I have read all of Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, the MacDonalds- both Ross and John D––, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and many, many others. These days I find the real world at least as twisted and gripping as any mystery.

So it was with great pleasure that I encountered a writer of mysteries that I enjoyed again. The author’s name is Arturo Perez-Revete. He is Spanish, and one of the most widely translated of that country’s contemporary authors. He was a journalist (how many times have we heard this as a valuable background for a writer), as well as a war correspondent before he took up writing fiction. His favorite subject is finding mysteries surrounding ancient documents.

I recently finished his mystery, The Flanders Panel. Published in 2004 it is the story of a young art restorer, Julia, who has been commissioned to document and restore a 500-year-old painting going to auction. Working on it in her studio she becomes engrossed with the subjects of the painting, the Duke of Flanders and his knight locked in a game of chess while a lady in a dark dress sits in the background, reading. Julia also discovers a message hidden under all the paint, left by the painter himself. She is determined to solve the puzzle and it takes her on a mysterious and dangerous journey.

All this is par for the mystery writer. What I enjoyed about Reverte’s writing is his use of language. Granted the book has been translated from its native tongue, Spanish, but the imagery is really lovely. He is also a complex thinker, delving into art, chess, and human nature as the story progresses. He also describes in detail scenes not particularly central to the story. I liked this one where Julia is wandering through a flea market:

After a while she went back down the steps and stopped at a shop full of dolls. Some were clothed, others were naked; some were dressed in picturesque peasant costumes or complicatedly romantic outfits complete with gloves, hats, and parasols. Some represented girls and others grown women. The features of some were crude, others were ingenuous, perverse. Their arms and hands were frozen in diverse positions, as if surprised by the cold wind of all the time that had passed since their owners abandoned or sold them, or died. Girls who became women, thought Julia––some beautiful, some plain, who had loved or perhaps been loved––had once caressed those bodies made of rags, cardboard, and porcelain. Those dolls had survived their owners. They were dumb, motionless witnesses whose imaginary retinas still retained images of scenes long erased from the memories of the living: faded pictures sketched among mists of nostalgia, intimate moments of family life, children’s songs, loving embraces, as well as tears and disappointments, dreams turned to ashes, decay and sadness, perhaps even evil. There was something unbearably touching about that multitude of glass and porcelain eyes that stared at her unblinking, full of the Olympian knowledge that only time possesses, lifeless eyes embedded in pale wax or paper-mache faces, above dresses so darkened by time that the lace edgings looked dull and grubby.

I could go on with this passage, but I will stop. It does relate to the story in the end, the philosophy behind that passage. Reverte weaves these throughout the book slowly building the tension and the underlying theme so subtlety. Gorgeous writing, I have to say.

On the down side, I was a bit disappointed that it was one of those mysteries so complex that the writer finds it necessary in the end for the villain to confess and then explain his motive in the crime. I really didn’t mind, in this case, because the writing is so good. My only other minor complaint is that our heroine, Julia, happily smokes like the proverbial chimney whilst stripping varnish off a 500-year-old painting. But Spaniards do smoke like campfires, God love them, so it is probably in character for her to do this.

I will try another of his books; fortunately he has many.

Book Reviews~

I’ve been writing book reviews as of late. Well, one book review, and the only book review I’ve ever written. I’m happy to say that my review of Mark Doty’s book, Heaven’s Coast, currently appears on the Internet Book Review’s (IRB) Web site in their November issue under their “Second Glance” section.

Writing a review is an interesting proposition. It not only requires a deconstruction of the book but it also requires a sharing of the reviewer’s self in reaction to the book. I have been reading a fair number of them and find I am partial to the ones that share the reviewer’s personality and perspective more than a straight description of the book itself.

It was tough going, writing this review, as IRB wanted something personal and intimate that drew me to the book. It was a good exercise for me, and the editors Carter Jefferson and Ruth Douillette were very patient, insisting that it was there and needed to come out. I learned a lot about the process, as well as a bit more about myself and some boundaries I thought were firm but, in fact, are more malleable than I expected.

Please use the link above or the one in the sidebar to the right and read all the reviews for this November. And please read mine as well.