A Little History of the World

I enjoy trivia of all sorts, so when a friend loaned me his copy of E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, I gladly dove into many hours of fascinating reading.

A Little History of the World is a compact volume that tells us the story of mankind, from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb. Told as stories, it’s simple enough for young readers to understand without getting the feeling of being patronized, and entertaining enough for adults who have already gone through years of history classes.

Gombrich, an art historian (you may recognize the name from the book The Story of Art), wrote this book in 1935 with the intention of presenting a history of the world for younger readers. The book was actually originally written in German, was banned by the Nazis for being too “pacifist,” and was only translated in English by Gombrich himself (mostly, reportedly, but the book credits his assistant Caroline Mustill as the translator) towards the end of his life (he died in 2001, at 92, still working on it).

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At long last… The Eight!

I don’t normally pick up a book that people are raving about, but I have to admit that I was really curious about The Eight (book #48 for 2009), especially when fellow Flipper MayD named it her best book of 2008.
I finally got around to reading it last week, which went by in a flurry of activity, leaving medetermined to make some headway on a bunch of books this week to keep my reading rate up.

I don’t want to give away any major plot details, so I’ll try to keep the summary short: The Eight by Katherine Neville is a complex mystery involving Charlemagne’s legendary chess service, a gift from the Moors, that is said to unlock the secret of civilization. Told in alternating timelines by two spirited women, The Eight traces an age-old quest to recover the pieces of the legendary service and yield the secret it conceals, encapsulated in a seemingly endless, real-life chess game involving those who want to protect the service, and those who want it for their own gain.

The Eight started out quite interesting for me, then I got bogged down by the middle chapters, and it picked up again during the latter half of the book.

This novel is longer than your average mystery, but then again, The Eight is far from average. The writing style is not particularly refined or lyrical, but given the intricacies of a two-tiered plot involving multiple sets of characters, anything that’s beyond succinct would probably have been overkill.

There are so many layers to this novel — the chess component, the historical aspect involving many colorful personalities, the mystery-thriller plot, and the cryptic word puzzles, that it tends to get unwieldy if you’re not fully invested in the book; it does take some patience and concentration before the pieces to all fall into place. The faithful reader is then rewarded as the layers come together and reveal their links, and history, romance and mystery are entwined in an intelligent and highly memorable novel that mystery buffs would love to sink their teeth into.

(That said, I wish I’d read it on a long weekend or a vacation when I could have read it from cover to cover without any interruptions. It took me all week to make my way through the first half of the novel, and when I finally got my respite on Sunday, I settled down to read the latter half, and it was then when I started to fully appreciate the book.)

For me, though, the backbone of the book lies in the strong women characters in the novel. As in a chess game, it is the queen that wields true power, and using the chess metaphor, the novel’s central characters — the spirited Mireille from the 1790s, and the feisty Cat from the 1970s, and even the key characters in the story — Catherine Grand, Lily Rad, and the fortune teller — are all female. The males, for the most part, are supplemental and hover in the periphery, and often only function to supply information or provide assistance to the central characters (although I must say the hunky Alexander Solarin is a guy after my own heart! hee hee), and at some point even the dog Carioca had a bigger part than any of the males (and the dog was more than once used as a convenient diversion tactic, may I point out).

While I like the characters in the book — Cat and Lily more than Mireille and Valentine — I think that for a book that’s almost 600 pages long, Neville could have strengthened the characterization, especially for Cat, who is the ultimate key to the mystery. While we know she is smart and sassy, we really do not know who she is aside from her recent work history; I just found it strange that we know nothing about her family or her childhood, or even her life before she got to New York.

It was also kind of annoying for me that in the chapters pertaining to Cat, the author kept preempting future events repetitively, I remember reading so many passages that ended with phrases like (not verbatim) “little did she know how the books would create an impact on her life” and “not knowing that this would turn her into a major player in the game.” For me, it was like neon lights flashing “this is a significant event, take note!” and took away some of the thrill of the mystery.

While it’s not the best mystery I’ve ever read, I still enjoyed reading the book, and I look forward to reading its sequel, The Fire.

The Eight reminds me uncannily of three other books I’ve read that might be of interest to those who’ve read this book: The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, and The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez Reverte.

The Virgin Blue and Labyrinth both use a similar style – two different women in two different times, although in these two books the two women are reincarnations of each other. In The Virgin Blue, the character from the future solves a mystery of the past through dream apparitions of her ancestor. Labyrinth is more eerily similar to The Eight, as the events from the past recreate themselves in the future and it is up to the contemporary character to stop the cycle from happening again. There are also a major plot elements that both books share, but I can’t reveal them without spoiling the book.

The Flanders Panel is also similar to The Eight in the use of chess as a metaphor for the story, and movements across the chessboard as a mirroring of the plot, although the novel is based on a Flemish painting (Van Huys’ The Game of Chess), and not Charlegmagne’s service.

My copy: trade paperback, mooched from the US

My rating: 4/5 stars