One-Minute Book Reviews

October 12, 2009

A Review of Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ – The Copycat Cover Isn’t The Only Thing It Has in Common With ‘The Secret’

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:09 am
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Spoiler Warning! Please stop here if you don’t want to read about the ending of this novel or to hear more about the “massive sex organ” mentioned in yesterday’s post.

The Lost Symbol: A Novel. By Dan Brown. Doubleday, 509 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

Were the publishers of The Lost Symbol so worried about its sales that they tried to steal some of the thunder of The Secret, the bestselling nonfiction book of 2007? The covers of both books show lit-from-behind crimson wax seals against a background that looks like parchment with cryptic markings. And the similarities don’t end there.

Dan Brown’s first novel since The Da Vinci Code is the book we might get if Rhonda Byrne turned to fiction, a mishmash of New Age mysticism and scientific half-truths. Both The Lost Symbol and The Secret hinge on the idea that ancient secrets can transform the lives of people who are enlightened enough to hear them. Byrne calls her “secret” the “law of attraction,” the theory that your thoughts can manipulate physical reality: diseases, lottery tickets, your bank account. She quotes the “personal empowerment advocate” Lisa Nichols: “When you think of the things you want, and you focus on them with all of your intention, then the law of attraction will give you exactly what you want, every time.”

Brown doesn’t mention the “law of attraction” in The Lost Symbol but draws on noetic theory — which he calls noetic “science” — a realm of metaphysics that deals with forms of consciousness typically ignored by mainstream science. And the characters in the novel often sound like Byrne. The plot involves efforts by Harvard professor Robert Langdon to find the wealthy Peter Solomon, a kidnapped Washington, D.C., Mason who speaks of “secrets that transcend your wildest imagination.”

But no one sounds more like Byrne than Peter’s sister, Katherine, who plays Lois Lane to Langdon’s Clark Kent. Brown says that Katherine’s research had proved “that ‘focused thought’ could affect literally anything” — the growth rate of plants, the direction in which fish swam. “Katherine had created beautifully symmetrical ice crystals by sending loving thoughts to a glass of water as it froze.” Katherine agrees. “I have witnessed people transform cancer cells into healthy cells simply by thinking about them,” she says. And: “Our brains, if used correctly, can call forth powers that are quite literally superhuman.” Langdon realizes as he listens to Katherine: “Human thought can literally transform the world.”

All of this has at least one problem that The Secret does: The writing might make you think warmly of Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins and all other writers who, bad as they were, at least didn’t italicize every passage written in the free indirect style.  Brown says of the man who has kidnapped Peter Solomon and chopped off his hand:

“His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.”

Let’s leave aside that the first sentence in that passage says there were two “archways” and second says that there was one. Let’s also ignore that unless the man had no scrotum, more than one sex organ was hanging beneath his “archways of mystical power.” And let’s overlook that this passage is as purple as – well, do you need to be told? Apart from all of it, the mention of that “heavy shaft” is one of those “gratuitous” sexual details that actually is gratuitous instead of just offensive to some tastes: The size of that “massive sex organ” has nothing to do with the plot. The man never uses for its intended purposes, and if it had once been his “source of carnal pleasure,” it would also have been his “source of carnal pleasure” if it had been smaller.

The Secret has writing that, in its own way, is as bad. But The Lost Symbol has another problem that relates to its function as a potboiler. Thrillers often begin slowly and gain speed as the bodies pile up. The Lost Symbol has the opposite problem: It starts briskly but loses momentum and crawls through its last third. The slowdown occurs in part because Brown has the literary equivalent of a stutter: He can’t stop repeating himself. It also occurs because he’s cross-purposes with himself: He can’t decide whether he’s writing a thriller, a lecture, a homily, a defense of Freemasonry, or a tourist brochure.

Brown gives you hundreds of pages about codes, ciphers, symbols, cryptograms, pictographs, and New Age arcana that you expect ultimately to snap into place like the solid colors on the faces of a Rubik’s cube. But the ending washes out. The Lost Symbol doesn’t build toward an ingenious final twist – as good thrillers typically do – but to a message you might hear from a football player pointing toward the sky in the moments after his team won the Super Bowl. On the next-to-last page, Brown writes, “Nothing is hidden that will not be made known; nothing is secret that will not come to light.” Rhonda Byrne couldn’t have said it better.

Best line: “’Google’ is not a synonym for ‘research.’”

Worst line: See the Sept. 24 post “Dan Brown’s 5 Worst Lines From ‘The Lost Symbol” and the Oct. 6 post on “The Dan Brown Chuckle Meter”. A few more worst lines: No. 1: “His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.” No. 2: “Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations.” No. 3: “Twelve are the signs of the zodiac. Twelve are the hours of the day.” No. 4: “According to Nola’s spec sheet, the UH-60 had a chassis-mounted, laser-sighted, six-gigahertz magnetron with a fifty-dB-gain horn that yielded a ten-gigawatt pulse.”

Editor: Jason Kaufman

Published: September 15, 2009

Furthermore: You may also want to read the Sept. 29 post, “Is The Lost Symbol ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?”

About the author: Brown’s other Robert Langdon novels are Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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