Posts from June 2014
June 30th, 2014
Our book today is A Face Turned Backward, the 1999 second installment in Lauren Haney’s delightful series of murder mysteries set in ancient Egypt and featuring stalwart (and easy on the eyes) Lieutenant Bak, commander of the Medjay police force in the frontier town of Buhen during the reign of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut. The book’s (indeed, the series’s) habitual focus on how blasted hot it is in Buhen and its surroundings makes A Face Turned Backward and its companion volumes particularly on-point reading as the first touch of genuine summer weather finally makes ready to be felt in Boston.
Even though it’s clear from that aspect of these books that if Haney ever visited Egypt, the unearthly heat of the place made a lasting impression on her (it certainly did on me – the only place I found hotter than Egypt’s deserts at midday was my Cairo rooming house at midnight), she’s too adept an old plotter to let it take over her stories, which are always not only elegantly constructed but richly detailed. Take just this moment of heroic Bak’s progress through the city on his way to a murder scene:
Bak, armed with his baton of office and a sheathed dagger at his belt, hurried through the towered gate, staying well clear of the ant-like line of men, backs bent low beneath heavy sacks of grain, who were unloading a squat cargo vessel and hauling its contents to a storage magazine inside the fortress. Their dissonant voices rose and fell to the words of an age-old workmen’s song. The stench of their sweat and the earthy smell of the grain tickled Bak’s nose, making him sneeze.
If you count them off on your fingertips, you’ll recognize this as Fiction Writing 101’s standard appeal to all five human senses, and the rest of A Face Turned Backward is equally immersing. In this adventure, what begins as a fairly routine concentration on foiling upriver smuggling uncovers a much bigger and darker kind of criminal plot, and Bak (and his hapless assistants) are thrust into the middle of forces that seem bent on toppling the monarchy itself. And along the way, Haney pauses the narrative with refreshing regularity to remind is that there’s more to Bak than a pretty face. He’s a contemplative young man. When he comes upon the mysterious wreck of a merchant vessel, for instance, he instinctively imagines her in better days:
Bak felt unaccountably saddened by the wounded vessel, an ordinary trading ship of moderate size, unadorned except for the eye of Horus painted on the prow. Yet seen from a distance it must have been beautiful, sweeping up the river with its weathered wood dark and glossy, its rectangular sail spread wide like the wings of a gigantic bird.
It’s been more than a decade since the last Lieutenant Bak mystery, and Lauren Haney is no spring chicken; it’s possible we’ll have no more of these adventures, which makes the ones we have all the more savory. I strongly recommend them all.
May 1st, 2014
Our book today is something simply called Ancient Egypt, a slim 1942 volume from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; it began life as a fairly straightforward guidebook to the museum’s vast and impressive collection of artwork and artifacts from ancient Egypt, which a later editor very accurately characterized as “not the most extensive but perhaps the most distinguished outside of Cairo.”
The original book became something of a surprise hit, not only in the museum’s always-bustling gift shop but also with the general reading public. Subsequent editions followed (we’re looking at the most comprehensive and last of those editions, reprinted in 1960), each more generously illustrated than the last, and all featuring the clear-as-a-bell narration brought together by the museum staff. There’s nothing musty about their descriptions of even the most familiar subjects, like this refreshing description of the new near-monotheism of the rogue pharaoh Akhenaten:
Far simpler than the old religion, it laid emphasis upon truth, or rather, upon individual liberty. With this was bound up a love of nature, for the life-giving powers of the sun were universally expressed in all living things.
The book’s narrative extends far beyond the collection’s actual objects, of course, and those passages, too, are surprisingly evocative:
At Tell al Amarna, in a sandy plain where the eastern hills make a wide curve away from the river, Akhenaten created a new city which was intended to provide a more congenial background for his religious experiment. Patterned somewhat after his father’s palace at Birket Habu in western Thebes, there were rambling palaces and villas surrounded by orchards and gardens pleasantly interspersed with pools and little summer-houses. Gay wall paintings and vines and flowering shrubs concealed the signs of hasty construction.
The writers in Ancient Egypt are always careful to move their familiar curated objects mentally back through the centuries into their original settings – something museum docents are forever despairing of getting their distracted patrons to do:
The impressive seated statue of the goddess Sekhmet in dark stone is representative of the temple sculpture of the time. It was one of many such figures which lined the court of the temple of Mut erected by Amenhotep III south of the Amon temple at Karnak. These lion-headed female figures must have been grimly effective standing in long rows against the walls.
I have no idea how many hours I’ve spent wandering around the MFA’s Egyptian collection, both alone and in the company of friends. I’ve done it in all weathers and all moods, and depending on those moods and weathers, some pieces have struck me more than others. But I have my favorites, as you’d expect, and the first of these is the beguiling statue of the pharaoh Mycerinus and his wife, both of them radiating calm love and contentment even now, an unthinkable expanse of time after they lived and breathed. I’ve never read a description that does this pair true justice, but I like the simple elegance of this book’s attempt:
Thus in a slate pair, Queen Kha-merer-nebty stands beside her husband, placing one arm around his waist while her other arm rests upon his arm. One feels in this statue, as in the other great pieces of Dynasty IV, that the ideal of kingly majesty has been achieved. Everything superficial has been eliminated.
Certainly there are larger and more elaborate guidebooks, both to ancient Egypt and for the Boston museum’s great collection. But this one is a wonderful combination of art and scholarship, and it’s slim enough to fit in your shoulder bag – even if you know its contents well enough not to need it there.
August 31st, 2011
There’s something oddly calming about reading a murder mystery set in the past, and surely a big reason why that would be so is that the whole enterprise stresses continuity: not only did people kill each other in desperate and sometimes ingenious ways even in the distant past, but other people disliked that fact and worked hard (and in recognizable ways) to bring the killers to justice. And the idea of righting the balance between right and wrong largely looks the same, give or take a ritual disembowelment or two.
If that’s part of the comfort, it must also be part of the allure of reading murder mysteries set in ancient Egypt – it’s such a forbiddingly alien setting otherwise: strange customs, strange gods, strange preoccupations. In such a weird vanished world, a plain old murder is a welcome thing, as are the sleuths who set out to solve the crimes. The Egyptian faces half-smiling at us so serenely from behind protective glass at the Museum of Fine Arts seem almost like they wouldn’t even notice a murderer in their midst – it’s nice to know somebody cares.
Three somebodies, in the case of the three most popular ancient Egypt murder mystery series offered to readers in recent years. One of these three we’ve met here at Stevereads already: Lynda Robinson’s nifty series featuring the adventures of Lord Meren, the upright and rigorously intellectual inquiry agent for teen-pharaoh Tutankhamun, a reserved and diligent man about whom one character in Robinson’s second novel, Murder at the God’s Gate, says, “he can smell intrigue as the hound scents the oryx.” Like everyone else around the young king, Lord Meren is older and wiser than Tutankhamun, frequently prone to drop subtle bits of guidance into conversation, as when the two of them get some fun out of watching the scandalized reactions of a priest when confronted with an immense new statue of the pharaoh:
“Did you see him?” the king asked. “Did you see how red he turned when he realized how great was the size of my image?”
Meren risked a sidelong glance at the king. Tutankhamun was maintaining a regal demeanor. He stared straight ahead at the west bank, away from the eastern city and its countless temples.
“Aye, majesty. Thy image is indeed that of a living god.”
Tutankhamun lifted a brow and met Meren’s bland gaze.
“It was your idea too,” the king said. “So don’t pretend you don’t enjoy his discomfort.”
“But our joy must be a silent one, majesty.”
We have a different pharaoh and a very different hero in Lauren Haney’s The Right Hand of Amon, the first of her delightful and densely packed mysteries starring Lieutenant Bak, commander of the Medjay police in the frontier fortress of Buhen during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. Where Lord Meren is very much a grey eminence, Lieutenant Bak is cut in much more of the recognizable action-hero mold: he’s twenty-four and broad-shouldered and black-haired and, well, dreamy. In this novel, Bak is assigned to escort a statue of Amon up the Nile on a mission of mercy, and Haney wastes no time showing her skill at immersing her readers in period atmosphere – in this case, the stunning, ominous heat of Egypt:
The day was hot, sweltering. The kind of day when predators and prey alike hid among the rocks and under bushes or in the depths of the river. They hid not from each other but from the sun god Re, whose fiery breath drew the moisture from every animal and plant, from the life-giving river itself. Only man, the greatest predator of all, walked about.
Haney writes a ‘classic’ murder mystery, complete with intelligently handled clues, a couple of red herrings, and a climactic confrontation that’s both bittersweet and action-packed. Her studly hero does far less hob-nobbing than Lord Meren – and gets his hands dirty far more often.
Striking something of a middle course is Judge Amerotke in P. C. Doherty’s The Horus Killings. Amerotke teams up with Queen Hatusu, widow of the pharaoh Tuthmosis and would-be pharaoh herself, Egypt’s first ruler-queen … the two of them must solve a series of killings on the sacred precincts of Horus, and both of them suspect that might be the work of divisive elements at court itself. Amerotke, the Chief Judge of Thebes, is a “tall, severe-looking” man accustomed to dispensing absolute justice in his court, and although he has something of Lieutenant Bak’s bravery (it never even occurs to him to flee when a disgruntled criminal attempts to kill him, for instance), he has much more of Lord Meren’s cerebral reserve. Doherty fills the book with rich detail-work and chooses a refreshingly unfamiliar period in Egypt’s vast history to lay his scene. Amerotke is sensitive to the squalor he sees around him:
They passed the grey, crowded huts which housed the workers who flocked to the outskirts of the city looking for work and cheap food. An arid, smelly place. A few acacias and sycamores provided some shade; the ground was peppered with piles of refuse, the field of fierce battles waged by dogs, hawks, and vultures. Men were at work rebuilding their frail brick houses damaged by a recent storm. Idlers stood along the path staring with swollen eyes or smiling in a display of teeth spoiled by bad flour and rotting meat.
Even while he’s grateful for the freedom from squalor that his standing allows him:
The gate swung open. Amerotke stepped into his own private paradise, feeling guilty at the poverty he had just glimpsed. This was his oasis of calm. Apple, almond, fig and pomegranate grew here in glorious profusion. Sunbaked plots full of onions, cucumbers, aubergines and other vegetables gave off a pleasant savoury odour.
All three books are passionately, exhaustively researched, and all three give off that delicious vibe of a well-constructed and well-executed whodunit. As far as mystery’s histories go, readers could do far, far worse.
December 4th, 2010
Some Penguin Classics seem like the most unlikely choices in the world, and this is surely one of them. We might expect Penguin to publish popular-audience studies of the vast funerary literature of the ancient Egyptians, who were, after all, a writing people and who left behind an enormous amount of literature of every type. But “The Book of the Dead”? The ancient Egyptians no more had such a single, unified book than the earliest Christians had a “Bible.” It’s not the lucky fate of most religions to have a singular, discreet, all-encompassing revelation ( like the Mormons), one incredibly haggled-over central text (like the Jews), or one extremely productive board meeting (like the Unitarians) – most of them are bewilderingly incremental and contradictory things that accumulate over centuries (like Barbara Walters).
And if not “The Book of the Dead,” then sure as hell not this “Book of the Dead”! The 1909 ‘recension’ (a vigorous compilation of dozens of sources, conflated and then translated as an organic whole) – updated and expanded from its 1899 debut – of Sir Edward Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge has been mocked and pitied by scholars almost from the moment of its publication. This present volume’s editor, John Romer, correctly points out in his Introduction that the mention of Budge’s name is met largely with embarrassment in current Egyptological circles, despite the fact that he wrote some 140 books and did more than anybody in the early 20th century to popularize all things ancient Egypt. For the editorial team at Penguin Classics to add this particular title to their lineup at the late date of 2008 must have struck some people as nothing short of lunacy.
If so, it’s the inspired kind of lunacy that’s pretty much always guided this imprint. As Romer points out in his Introduction (which is slightly breathless and ends with a quote from Michel Foucault that is, as usual, less than enlightening), Budge’s Book of the Dead has enjoyed a popularity of such enormous and wide-ranging dimensions that it’s entered Western culture as a thing itself, regardless of provenance (although Romer’s contention that it’s “the bestselling edition of any ancient text” ignores a certain royally-commissioned translation of the Bible). Romer points to the surprising amount of influence Budge’s rolling, powerful diction has had on writers as varied as Joyce, Tolkien, and Jim Morrison. And reading through this satisfyingly plump Penguin Classic, I was overjoyed to see that prose come into its own again after all these years. Open the book to any page and you’re submerged in the incantatory hallucinations Budge channeled so well. Here’s part of the papyrus of Mut-hetep, singing a hymn to the setting sun:
Thou settest as a living being in the hidden place. Thy father Ta-tuten raiseth thee up and he placeth both his hands behind thee; thou becomest endowed with divine attributes in thy members of earth; thou wakest in peace and thou settest in Manu. Grant thou that I may become a being honoured before Osiris, and that I may come to thee, O Ra-tem! I have adored thee, therefore do thou for me that which I wish. Grant thou that I may be victorious in the presence of the company of the gods.
Or this purification prayer from the papyrus of Nabseni:
I sit among the great gods, and I have made a way for myself through the house of the Seheptet boat; and behold, the mantis hath brought me to see the great gods who dwell in the underworld, and I shall be triumphant before them, for I am pure.
Or the text on the fourth doorway-arch of the dead man Ani:
The name of the doorkeeper is Khesef-hra-asht-kheru; the name of the watcher is Seres-Tepu; the name of the herald is Khesef-at. The Osiris Ani, triumphant, shall say: “I am the Bull, son of the ancestress of Osiris. O grant ye that his father, the lord of his godlike companions, may bear witness for him. I have weighed the guilty in judgment. I have brought into his nostrils the life which is everlasting. I am the son of Osiris, I have made the way. I have passed thereover into Neter-khert.”
Budge was a professional grave-robber for the British Museum long before he was its Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities for 30 years; whatever he could steal, swindle, or smuggle from Egypt, he did. And like many trailblazers who open a new cultural doorway, he then immediately turned around and planted himself athwart it, trying to prevent anybody else from coming through – he hated the surging growth of Egypt-mania that he did more than anybody to bring about, and he mocked the Egyptology departments that began to spring up at major universities everywhere.
But in this great, weird, manufactured book of his, he found the greatest and highest calling for all his freakish learning, all his partisanship, and all the novelistic dreams he had no novelist’s skill to otherwise exploit. Romer and the Penguin Classics team are entirely right: this particular Book of the Dead is a classic in its own right, despite how angry it would make any ancient Egyptian who saw it.
And now that Penguin Classics has demonstrated that it’s not above enshrining liturgical works, perhaps we’ll finally see a Penguin Classic Book of Common Prayer (the pre-1950s version, of course) …
May 26th, 2010
Our book today is Eve Bunting’s superb 1997 childrens title I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert, with rich, glowing artwork by David Christiana. The book is told in a very loose, lovely verse, as a young girl from thousands of years ago relates the remarkable story of her life and afterlife:
I am the mummy Heb-Nefert,
Black as night,
Stretched as tight
As leather on a drum.
My arms are folded
On my hollow chest
Where once my live heart beat.
My ears are holes
That hear no sound.
Bunting unobtrusively weaves many authentic details of ancient Egyptian life into her story, always with the stress on how natural everything was to the people who were living it all. Young Heb-Nefert catches the eye of the Pharaoh’s brother – she dances for him, and they fall in love:
Handmaidens dressed me every day.
They kept my head so sweetly shaved,
Pumiced and polished till it shone.
They painted me with yellow dye,
Darkened the lashes of my eyes with kohl,
Shadowed my lids with blue,
The color of the evening sky.
My nails were hennaed red as jasper beads,
My flaxen wig was jewel woven.
And on the top
A cone of scented fat
Melted to liquid in the summer warmth
And smelled of flowers.
In bright colors, we’re given elegantly chosen scenes from their life together:
We sailed upon the Nile,
My lord and I,
The wildfowl rising from the reeds
Along the bank,
The ripples of the sacred river
Soft against our boat.
Sometimes we saw a hippopotamus,
Great jaws agape,
But we were ever safe.
We’d wander in the gardens, he and I,
Beside the pleasure lake
Where lotus blossoms grew.
The servant girls would come
On soundless feet
And bring us fruit – grapes, dates, and figs –
The baskets balanced on their heads,
A cloth of linen spread
Beneath a canopy that kept us from the sun.
And we would feast
While harpists played.
Time eventually passes for the pair, and while still young, Heb-Nefert dies. She floats above herself and watches the complex process of her own mummification. And soon enough she watches her loved one approaching the afterlife as well – and their shared journey toward the incomprehensible:
My Noble One grew old
And also left that life
To lie at last beside me
In the night that followed night.
Time passed and time,
Dark time and years,
Till we were found,
Our bodies moved,
Placed in glass coffins
In quiet rooms.
I rose above myself and watched
As people came,
They peered into the cases where we lay.
The words unknown to me
But understood as they were said.
“This was a person? This … and this?”
Heb-Nefert was no wise woman in her own time, no prophet or seer. Nevertheless, her words as she becomes aware of these awestruck museum gawkers are suffused with a serene wisdom that utterly, wonderfully preserves the weird, imperative dignity of the ancient Egyptians. The concluding line of I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert never fails to move me in its quiet, knowing way:
How foolish that they do not see
How all things change,
And so will they.
Three thousand years from now
They will be dust and bones.
I am the mummy Heb-Nefert,
Black as night,
Stretched as tight
As leather on a drum.
Once I was beautiful.