Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Dark Monk

The Dark Monk
Author: Oliver Pötzsch (Translated from German by Lee Chadeayne)
Mariner, 2012
512 pages

(I read the first book in this series -- The Hangman's Daughter -- in February 2011. Click here to read that review and some additional background on the characters that's not included in this entry.)

The Dark Monk is the second in a sweet historical mystery series set in 17th Germany. All three main characters are back: Jakob Kuisl, the village executioner who has a side business in traditional herbal medicines; his young adult daughter, Magdalena; and Simon, the university-educated physician who has his eyes on Magdalena. They live in the Bavarian village of Schongau along the Lech River, not far from the Alps. Schongau is still recovering from the Thirty Years' War, (referred to as the war with the Swedes), which had a significant impact on the region and on European society in general. It's an interesting setting and time period for a mystery series, and the author does an excellent job of blending historical detail with a thrilling whodunnit.

The Dark Monk opens when a priest -- realizing he's just been poisoned and is about to die -- desperately scratches a cryptic message into the winter frost. Jakob and Simon find it and are immediately led to more cryptic messages, riddles, and clues as they investigate the priest's murder. Enter Benedikta -- a confident French-speaking, pistol-packing woman who joins the investigation and quickly becomes a bit of a competitor to Magdalena for Simon's attentions. Simon and Benedikta soon realize all those clues are leading them down the trail of an old Knights Templar treasure. But someone's watching them. A band of hooded monks, including one who smells like violets, lurks stealthily in the background. And some people may not be who they say they are . . .

A jealous Magdalena tries to distract herself by helping the town midwife. When the midwife (who also appears in the first book) needs some herbs and other supplies, Magdalena volunteers to travel to the nearby city of Augsburg to fetch them, thinking the trip will distract her from the Simon-Benedikta drama. Little does she know things are about to get even more dramatic.

Meanwhile, highway robbers are attacking travelers the roads leading from Schongau, and that's not good for business. Jakob is called away from his investigation of the priest's death to find the robbers and bring them to justice. Once again, his morals will be tested, and his humanity will be revealed. I love this character.

This series is a keeper. The third book, The Beggar King, is due in January. I've already pre-ordered it!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why We Get Fat

Why We Get Fat
Author: Gary Taubes
Anchor, 2010
288 pages

I've lost nearly 60 pounds this year. (For my UK friends, that's just over four stone. Not bad, huh?!) One of the books that inspired me was Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, a book recommended by my friend JB.

Why We Get Fat begins by examining the weight issue from the perspective of scientific studies and ethnographic-type data, crossing continents, cultures, and decades (centuries, even). Turns out, overweight/obesity isn't just a current phenomenon, nor is unique to the USA or the 'western' cultures. The concept of the middle age spread isn't new, either, and has been documented in many parts of the world -- especially among women.

Yet for the past half-century or more, we've been told the key to weight loss is simple math: we need to cut calories by eating less and/or exercising more. We've also been taught that fat is evil, and encouraged to consume low fat versions of dairy, meat, and other products.

We've done all this. But we just keep getting fatter.

Through the studies and data presented in Why We Get Fat, Taubes proposes that it's not about calories and . . .  shocker! . . . fat isn't bad for you. The problem? Carbohydrates. Carbs increase our blood sugar, which in turn wreaks havoc on our body's metabolism and hormones.

While I don't agree with everything in Why We Get Fat, I was impressed enough with the argument and the writing that I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who's struggling with issues of overweight/obesity. I wish it were required reading for everyone. It's not just another diet book.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bliss

Bliss
Author: O.Z. Livaneli
St. Martin's Griffin, 2007
304 pages

Recently, I visited Istanbul for the first time. While there, I learned of this book, which was originally published in Turkey in 2002. I couldn't find a Kindle version, so I ordered a paperback and began reading it as soon as it arrived.

Bliss focuses on three characters: Meryem, a fifteen year-old girl from a small village in eastern Turkey; her cousin and former childhood friend Celem, a soldier fighting in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict; and Irfan, a middle-aged professor from Istanbul.

As the book opens, Meryem has been brutally raped. She declines to name her rapist, who happens to be her uncle and the spiritual leader of the village. Meryem's culture considers rape to be the fault of the female, who is typically expected to commit suicide afterwards. Meryem refuses to kill herself, and instead prepares to be sent away.

Returning home from a bloody war, Celem just wants to get on with his life. But his father (the rapist) orders him to take Meryem away and perform an honor killing. Meryem thinks Celem is going to take her to Istanbul. For the first time in her life, she leaves her village. On the two-day train ride, Meryem meets all sorts of people, including a left-wing family with a young daughter who speaks openly in front of men and doesn't cover her hair; a middle-aged Turkish woman who reads risque magazines; and an American journalist who's asking a lot of questions. The more she sees, the more curious she becomes.

In the meantime, Irfan has become dissatisfied with his wealthy wife, their shallow friends, and his meaningless job. In classic mid-life crisis mode, he emails a goodbye note to his wife, then sets off on a quest to find his metanoia. Irfan's story is a philosophical one full of both sadness and humor as he works things out. There's a really funny scene involving the language barrier that I liked so much, I read it to my BFF who laughed out loud -- as I think anyone who's done any significant international travel will do.

Meryem and Celem make it to Istanbul, where Meryem will be amazed with wonder and will also see the downside of big city life. Most importantly, both she and Celem will meet people who challenge their assumptions, but they will also challenge the assumptions of others and leave an impact wherever they go. It's a lot like life that way. :)

Bliss is an excellent tale, but it's much more: It's a revealing portrait of a very diverse country. I'm glad I read it just after I returned, when the images, sounds, smells and tastes were all fresh in my mind. But even if you haven't been to Turkey, if you enjoy good fiction, you will certainly enjoy Bliss -- one of the best books I've read so far in 2012.  It's also a movie which I haven't seen, but hope to do soon.