Day 1169: A Treacherous Curse

Cover for A Treacherous CurseA Treacherous Curse is the third Veronica Speedwell novel by Deanna Raybourn. I don’t think much is lost in reading the novel out of order. Background information is provided as you go.

Veronica Speedwell is apparently a woman well ahead of her time. She is a scientist and a feminist who believes in free sex. She wears trousers and picks locks. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales. Is she a very likely character for 1888? Not so much.

Veronica and her professional partner, Stoker, are working with a collection of artifacts when they begin hearing about a curse on the Tiverton expedition to Egypt. Soon, the news of the expedition affects Stoker, whose wife deserted him for John de Morgan, a member of the expedition. De Morgan and his wife left the expedition, apparently with the diadem, one of its most important finds. His wife has returned to her parents, but de Morgan is nowhere to be found.

The police want to question Stoker about de Morgan, because their enmity is well known. The story has reopened all the rumors of Stoker’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon, where he was left for dead by his wife and de Morgan, and the lies they told about his relations with his wife. So, Stoker decides he must find de Morgan to clear his name. Any notion that he is going to do this without Veronica’s assistance, he must speedily dismiss.

Concerned parties are the Tivertons and their assistant, Mr. Fairbrother, and Caroline de Morgan. Stoker and Veronica begin looking into the incident, but they can find no trace of de Morgan beyond his landing in Dover. Oddly, though, apparitions of the god Anubis, which haunted the Tiverton expedition, have now relocated to London.

For some time, I followed Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, a mashup of the mystery and romance genres. I tired of the series because of the cliché of the couple always arguing about the wife taking part in the investigation. Apparently, Raybourn has decided to hold the couple of Stoker and Veronica apart indefinitely, maybe hoping to avoid this problem.

link to NetgalleyBut I don’t like Veronica nearly as well as I did Lady Julia, and there is something about the breezy, sometimes slightly racy narration that I find irritating. Too many young men are stripping to the waist for no apparent reason, for one thing, in a time that was much more modest than our own. As I mentioned before, I find Veronica not very believable for the time period.

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Day 1162: Classics Club Spin! Letters from Egypt

Cover for Letters from EgyptLetters from Egypt is the book I drew for the latest Classics Club spin! A book like this one is hard for me to evaluate. Lucie Duff Gordon was an English gentlewoman suffering from consumption who spent the last seven years of her life in Egypt, hoping the climate would help her. The book of her letters is heralded as a first to deal with the Egyptian people rather than the scenery and monuments. She was by all accounts beloved by the people she lived among in Luxor from 1862 to 1869.

I try to judge books as best I can by the standards of their own time, but sometimes with this book that was a struggle for me. Duff Gordon is known for being kind to the people she met, particularly the Arab fellaheen, who by all accounts were the despised of Egypt. Certainly, she was loved by them and is careful to follow their customs, but she does patronize them in just about every word of her letters. She also takes pleasure in telling stories about how much they love her and what courtesies they exchanged. She adopts their customs and learns to speak Arabic, all very laudable. However, it seems to me that she takes their part to the point of perversity, for example, sprinkling Arabic words into her letters to friends and so participating in their customs that she speaks casually of such things as buying slaves (for herself), always for their own good, thirty years after England outlawed slavery. Further, she favors the Arabs by putting down other groups, like the Copts, the Jews (even though she meets hardly any), and some of the Turks but not all, even though the Turks would seem to be to blame for the dire state of the country.

If you are feeling politically correct, you may not appreciate her frequent use of the N word, and her constant mention of the color of the various people she meets, although that is clearly a difference in the standards of the time.

The book does have descriptions of various ceremonies and customs, which are interesting. And Duff Gordon’s behavior toward the people was clearly better than that of most “Franks.” Another slight issue is that she tends to use Arabic and Egyptian words without always explaining what they mean, which can be confusing.

I want to compare this book to West with the Night, which was written 90 years later. Beryl Markham was raised with Masai playmates in what was British East Africa. Never does she treat her native friends condescendingly. Not only that, but her book provides a better sense of the landscape and society of Africa, although admittedly more oriented toward the European. Another contrast is Tales from the Queen of the Desert, in which Gertrude Bell ventures into even more remote corners of the Arab world while not once patronizing anyone.

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Day 865: Arctic Summer

Cover for Arctic SummerFrom its description, I thought that Arctic Summer might be one of the most interesting books I’m reading from the Walter Scott Prize list. It is described as a fictional biography of E. M. Forster, particularly leading up to his publication of A Passage to India.

That is certainly the time period the novel covers, and A Passage to India is one of its preoccupations. But the novel spends most of its time on Forster’s obsession with his homosexuality and his desire for sexual experience. As I’m not all that interested in reading about anyone’s obsession with sexuality, this novel was not the best fit for me.

The novel begins in 1912 on Forster’s first trip to India. While he is there, he will visit a good friend, Masood, and he has hopes that his life will open up, particularly in regard to sex. At the age of 33, he is still a virgin, his fear of disgrace holding him back from expressing his sexuality at home. Perhaps in India he will have an experience, maybe with Masood, whom he loves.

Unfortunately, Forster, who goes by Morgan, has a tendency to fall in love with heterosexual men and prefers men from a lower class, so nothing quite works out the way he wishes. Even when he finally has some encounters, years later, what he is actually looking for is love, which he never finds. The novel follows him during the long gestation of his novel about India, back to England, to Alexandria during World War I, and back to India again. During this time, his most significant relationships are with two friends who do not return his feelings.

The novel is extremely well written, and Galgut deeply characterizes Morgan, if not the other characters. It did make me wonder if any person could be so relentlessly focused on sex, although of course he is also lonely. It also made me wonder how, if he really felt this unrelenting focus, he ever got anything written. Certainly this novel makes you feel for Forster—he was a sad man.

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Day 805: Blood & Sand

Cover for Blood & SandRosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer of historical novels from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. She is best known for children’s literature, and most of the books I’ve read by her are set in Britain during or shortly after the Roman occupation. She also wrote a series of Arthurian novels, placing Arthur in the time just after the Roman withdrawal, which is a much more likely time period for him than the Middle Ages, if he existed at all.

Blood & Sand is for adults, however. It is based upon the life of Thomas Keith, an actual Scottish soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, who was captured in Egypt while fighting for Britain. Keith converted to Islam and went on to become the governor of Medina.

Blood & Sand is full of adventure and fighting, but it also depicts a sincere conversion to Islam and a love for the desert. It has beautiful descriptions of the desert landscape. Several times I was reminded of the line in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, where Prince Feisal describes Lawrence as “another of these desert-loving English.”

Thomas takes the name Ibrahim and makes a good friend of Tussun, the younger son of the Viceroy of Egypt. Part of his decision to convert is because of the opportunities for advancement with the Sultan’s army, and he becomes involved in trying to free the holy cities of Arabia from a group of religious zealots called the Wahabis. Some of the issues in the latter part of the book have echoes for us in modern times, showing us that these kinds of battles have been going on for hundreds of years.

link to NetgalleyI mildly enjoyed this novel. The characters are concerned with issues such as honor and are not terribly well rounded. The descriptions of Thomas’ life in Egypt and Medina and the customs of his new people were more interesting to me than the action scenes. There is a small bit of romance in the novel as Thomas marries a girl to protect her and ends up loving her, but it is not very important to the novel, and she herself is not fleshed out. The writing is at times, especially in the descriptive sections, quite beautiful, however.

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Day 482: The Map of Love

Cover for The Map of LoveBest Book of the Week!
The Map of Love is an absorbing novel to read now, just after the Arab Spring and during the troubled times that have continued on. It is a love story certainly, its title tells you that, but it also explores the roots of the political turmoil in present-day Egypt and some of the other countries that used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire.

The novel follows the course of two cross-cultural love affairs 90 years apart. In 1900 Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt in an attempt to overcome her grief. She is the widow of a man who recently served in the Soudan, and even though their marriage was not a happy one, she is sorrowful that she could not help him overcome his despair at participating in an unjust war. Almost accidentally, she meets Sharif al-Barroudi, a Cairo lawyer and activist, and falls in love with him.

Anna’s diary and letters are discovered by her great-granddaughter, Isabel Cabot. Isabel herself has fallen in love with ‘Omar al-Ghamwari, a famous Egyptian-American orchestra conductor who is rumored to work with the Palestinians. ‘Omar feels that their age difference is too great for a relationship, but he suggests that Isabel take her find to his sister Aman in Cairo so that she might help Isabel translate some of the materials.

Aman becomes absorbed in reading Anna’s diaries and letters and realizes very soon that she and Isabel are related, for Anna’s beloved sister-in-law Layla is Aman’s own grandmother. With Layla’s diaries of the same time period, she begins to reconstruct Anna’s story and that of Egypt’s history during a turbulent period. Aman has returned from life abroad to live in Cairo in another turbulent time.

Anna’s courtship is fraught with difficulties, but once she and Sharif are married, she is caught up in his work for Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire and from British oversight. As the years go by, his efforts extend to attempts to keep Palestinian land, once owned by his family and by his neighbors and occupied by hundreds of thousands of Muslims, from being bought up by Zionists who would expel them.

The blurb for this novel stresses the similarities between the two love stories, and there are many points of similarity, but the focus of the story in the current time is more with Aman than with Isabel and ‘Omar. Aman is at first at loose ends in Cairo, but she becomes involved with trying to help the fellaheen who occupy her family’s land, as they are treated unjustly by a corrupt and paranoid government. I was frankly more interested in Aman and in Anna and Sharif than I was in Isabel and ‘Omar, who are much less present in the novel.

For me, not very politically aware in regard to problems in this part of the world, this was a fascinating and revealing reading experience. It points up the complex history of the area from a point of view we westerners seldom hear. It is affectingly told in the context of a great love affair between two lovingly created characters. The characters of the two sisters, Layla and Aman, are also vivid. This novel is beautifully written and evokes for us a vibrant culture.

Day 415: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraOf the Shakespeare tragedies I have been reading, I think I have the least sympathy for the characters in Antony and Cleopatra (except perhaps for Othello–I have no sympathy at all for him). One of the problems is in, of course, how their relationship has historically been portrayed–with Cleopatra as a manipulative slut instead of a sovereign trying desperately to save her kingdom from being swallowed up by the Roman Empire. But the victors always get their way in portraying the conquered.

Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, the play about the last years of the relationship between Marc Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt, their political maneuverings with Rome and particularly with Octavius Caesar, and their deaths.

I believe the traditional way of looking at this play is of the great man brought down by his fascination with a rapacious woman. However, pay attention to the difference between how the characters talk about the nobility of the Romans and how the Romans actually act. I think something more subtle is going on here. I don’t see much evidence of a great man in this play. I see a soldier who pretends to be a noble Roman and is not. I see a female ruler who is more of an enigma, who controls her own shifting image, like a chimera.

image of The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald ArthurNot having the strongest grounding in classical literature, it is not always clear to me what is going on during the political maneuverings and battles, and which characters are on whose side. Of course, it is a historical fact that Cleopatra fled the battle of Actium with her ships at a strategic point, causing the battle to be lost. Why she did so is still a mystery.

For a different view of Cleopatra, although maybe a closer view than Schiff thinks, see Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography.

Day 340: Death on the Nile

Cover for Death on the NileIn this classic Agatha Christie mystery, Hercule Poirot observes a young couple at a restaurant in London and thinks their behavior indicates that the woman loves the man too much. A few months later he meets them again in Egypt, but the man, Simon Doyle, has married the woman’s rich friend Linnet. The first woman, Jacqueline de Bellefort, is haunting their every move during their honeymoon. Poirot thinks no good can come of it and tries to tell Jackie to leave the Doyles alone.

The Doyles sign on for the same Nile river cruise as Poirot. To their fury, Jackie appears on board. Also on board is Poirot’s friend Colonel Race. Race is hunting a criminal who has murdered several people. He believes the person is on board, but has not been able to identify him.

On a tour of some ancient ruins, a boulder falls, nearly missing Linnet and Simon. The obvious suspect is Jackie, but she was on the boat the entire time.

That evening, the drunken Jackie makes a scene in the lounge and then shoots Simon in the leg. The next morning Linnet is dead from a gunshot wound, but both Simon and Jackie seem to have solid alibis. The nurse was with Jackie all night, and Simon was incapacitated with his injury. Poirot and Colonel Race begin looking into other enemies that Linnet may have had.

I think Agatha Christie is the best of the “Golden Era” mystery writers at characterization. She quickly sketches convincing and sympathetic characters. Sometimes you even sympathize with the murderer. Her books are also often set in exotic locations and give you a flavor of a certain place and time. I always find Christie’s mysteries to be enjoyable, and they make fun beach reading.