As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Robert Langdon and Dante lead me down a winding path.
Brown, Dan. Inferno. Doubleday. 2013. 462p. ISBN 9780385537858. $29.95. F
In a twisty, evolving, and cleverly shifting thriller Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon returns to Italy, this time to the stunning cities of Florence and Venice. He awakes in a hospital bed, suffering a head wound from a bullet, and cannot remember anything that has happened to him in the last few days. Saved from a relentless assassin by one of his doctors, he escapes the hospital and flees into the city—haunted by visions of a woman commanding him to seek and find. Soon Langdon is caught in a puzzle and must navigate Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, and the Chart of Hell Botticelli created to illustrate Dante’s terrifying world, and a series of clues spread through works of priceless art and stunning architecture. Tracking his every move are others intent on beating Langdon to the answer at the heart of Brown’s high-stakes plot: where has a brilliant and desperate scientist hidden the seeds of a new and terrifying plague? The pace is fast and engrossing, the art and architecture are glorious, the history is compelling and integrated well, and the twists are never ending.
Pearl, Matthew. The Dante Club. Random. 2004. 400p. ISBN 9780812971040. pap. $15. F
Fans of Brown who want another intricate thriller centered on the heady terrors of Dante’s Inferno may enjoy Pearl’s clever and compulsively readable novel about a murderer reenacting the tortures of the poem. Set in Boston during the middle half of the 19th century, the novel is a smart detective story featuring members of the Dante Club, a group devoted to introducing the poet’s work to American audiences. Its membership includes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, already working on the first American translation of Dante; Oliver Wendell Holmes; and James Russell Lowell. These brilliant men must put their considerable skills to use when high-profile members of society are killed in ways that eerily echo Dante’s worst punishments. Not as quickly paced as Inferno, the draw of this book for Brown fans will be the way details of the poem are worked into the story, the strong sense of place, and the clever plotting.
Reilly, Matthew. Temple. Saint Martin’s. 2002. 560p. ISBN 9780312981266. pap. $8.99. F
For Brown fans who want speed and one seemingly-no-way-out-trap after another, suggest this often overlooked book by Reilly, notable for its nonstop action, vivid sense of danger, and well-realized detail. In this rocket of a read, William Race, an everyman college professor who is an expert on ancient languages, is recruited by the U.S. military to join a mission to the jungles of Peru in search of an ancient Incan relic. Shrouded in lore, protected by legendary beasts, and made from a rare metal that can be used as a weapon of mass destruction, the relic was never meant to be disturbed. Clues to its location are hidden in a 400-year-old manuscript that Race must translate and decipher. As the team heads into the jungles, they are not alone. Multiple groups are also vying for the statue and will stop at nothing to succeed. Filled with running battles that see the fate of the relic turn on a dime, Reilly’s twisty revelations and fun, over-the-top delights, this book will thrill Brown fans who don’t mind trading Florentine art for Incan legends.
Berry, Steve. The Paris Vendetta. Ballantine. 2010. 496p. ISBN 9780345505484. pap. $9.99. F
Berry’s long running (but unnamed) series featuring Cotton Malone, a former U.S. Justice Department operative, is characterized by a winning blend of rocket-fueled modern thriller action intertwined with historical mysteries. His books frequently involve conspiracies, lost secrets, and fascinating clues and feature well-drawn characters—the able and deft Cotton and an array of sinister, determined villains. Topped off with vivid descriptions and intriguing detail, Berry’s books make for great next reading for Brown fans. For readers not wanting to start at the beginning of the series, this fifth book makes a good entry point as it provides useful background context but quickly pulls readers into a high-stakes adventure involving a legendary treasure amassed and hidden by Napoleon and a modern-day secret cabal that is plotting to destabilize the global economy.
Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. Farrar. 1997. 464p. Tr. from Italian by Robert Pinsky. 9780374525316. pap. $21. POETRY
Readers of Brown are sure to be curious about Dante’s poem. Translations abound, but turning Dante’s complicated rhyme scheme into English is not an easy task nor is tracing his many allusions. This means that all editions make trade offs and that finding a version that will sing to its reader will be in large measure a matter of personal preference. Start with former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Inferno. It is notable for its power, grace, and accessibility and makes a good choice for first time readers of the epic poem. Other excellent versions include those by John Ciardi (W. W. Norton), Robert and Jean Hollander (Anchor), Clive James (Liveright), and Allen Mandelbaum (Everyman). If you are working with a reader who wants a bold and iconoclastic take on Dante, suggest Mary Jo Bang’s contemporary version (Graywolf) with references T.S. Eliot, John Coltrane, Shakespeare, and Fleetwood Mac.
Quammen, David. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. W. W. Norton. 2012. 592p. ISBN 9780393066807. $28.95. SCIENCE
The quest at the heart of Inferno is to stop the release of a virus that will trigger a new global plague event. For readers who become interested in such terrifying possibilities and want to read further, suggest Quammen’s compelling mix of science and travelogue in which he explores the evolution of zoonoses—diseases that make the jump between one species and another. His lucid and frightening accounts of such deadly threats as Ebola, AIDS, SARS, and bird flu paint a picture of a coming storm of potential disaster and his persuasive explanations of how human behavior creates the perfect transmission passage for plague events is terrifying. Readers who are more interested in the history of the Black Death, a topic that also infuses Inferno, might want to read The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, John Kelly’s compelling cultural account of how the plague spread from Asia through the Middle East and Europe and triggered a series of horrifying repercussions.
Anthes, Emily. Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. Farrar. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780374158590. $26. SCIENCE
Another topic threaded through Inferno is the idea that humans should push evolution along by biologically engineering the species. While scientists have already made a number of advances—vaccinations, pacemakers, and growing new ears on arms—Anthes takes readers further into the biotech frontier, where scientists are creating new kinds of animals with strange features that open troubling ethical debates. With a quirky sensibility and vivid clarity, she delves into the potential benefits and deeply disturbing possibilities such tinkering affords as she explores cloning, gene splicing, DNA storage of rare species, cyborg insects, and pharming animals (turning animals into factories that can create pharmaceuticals). The thicket of possibilities and terrors Anthes conjures should resonate with Inferno fans who become interested in the themes of germ-line viruses and transhumanism.
Altcappenberg, Hein-Thomas Schulze. Sandro Botticelli: The Drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Abrams. 2000. 360p. ISBN 9780810966338. $75. ART
As with The Da Vinci Code, art holds center stage in Inferno. While Gustave Doré, Giorgio Vasari, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Michelangelo are all featured, it is Botticelli’s chart of Dante’s hell that Brown highlights. Unlike his large, vibrant, and winsome paintings, Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy were smaller and done in silverpoint on parchment, much of which has faded to what looks like faint pencil lines. Only a few are in color; many are incomplete. Remarkably, Botticelli would sometimes put Dante and Virgil into an image more than once to show their progression through the scene. The result is very much like a flipbook fanned out, an early attempt at animation. Readers wanting a book of the images should turn to this finely produced exhibition catalog, which is well worth tracking down through interlibrary loan if necessary. However, an excellent view of the chart can be found online at The World of Dante. It offers a scaleable image as well as an interactive and annotated version.
Glenn Andres, John Hunisak, and Richard Turner with principal photography by Takashi Okamura. The Art of Florence. Abbeville. 1999. 1312p. ISBN 9780896601116. $185. ART
It is hard to read Inferno and not wonder about the art Brown describes and the buildings in which critical scenes take place. There are any number of books that should help transport readers to the world of Vasari, Ghiberti, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, including Judith Testa’s excellent guide to the stories and history of key pieces, An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence. However, for sheer grandeur it is hard to find a more sumptuous work than this two volume set that explores everything from Giotto’s frescoes, to Michelangelo’s David, to Ghiberti’s doors. With more than 1,500 images, close to half of them in full color, the work is a visual feast. It is also a great reference as the accompanying essays are accessible and provide a strong context to the politics, culture, and artistic environment of Florence from the late 1200s through the 1600s.
Haselböck, Martin. Dante Symphony & Evocation á la Chapelle Sixtine. 1 CD. NCA. 2011. $24.99. CLASSICAL
A concert of Franz Liszt’s symphonic adaptation of the The Divine Comedy is the setting for a crucial scene in the novel. If your readers are curious to hear the work suggest the version conducted by Martin Haselböck, a Liszt specialist, featuring the Vienna Academy Orchestra and the Chorus Sine Nomine. The orchestra employs period instruments and the symphony is presented in an authentically High Romantic style, suitable to the period in which Liszt worked. It is a thundering, crashing, spiraling, and soaring experience that strongly evokes the shifting tones of terror and adoration in the poem. If you just want a taste of the symphony there is a version on You Tube illustrated with Gustave Doré’s eerie illustrations.
McKennitt, Loreena. The Book of Secrets. 1 CD. Verve. 1997. $13.88. NEW AGE/FOLK
Drawing from Celtic and a number of other European and literary influences, McKennitt creates a blend of folk, world, and new-age music notable for its warm and transporting tonal qualities. In Inferno, Robert Langdon mentions that McKennitt’s adaptation of Dante is one of his favorites. Curious readers can track down the song, entitled “Dante’s Prayer,” on this album. McKennitt was inspired to compose it while reading Dante and traveling across Siberia in 1995, during a period of upheaval and war in Russia. The song’s connection to the poem is direct (it begins with a dark wood and there are multiple mentions of stars) and imaginative listeners can place Beatrice (the woman Dante loved all of his life and who serves as a guide in the poem) at its center.