Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Read Like an Egyptian

The Great Pyramids, the winding Nile, archeological treasures from ancient civilizations—the lure of Egypt is irresistible. Whether it is recreating the lives of ancient Egypt, solving mysteries with mummies, mixing the modern world with ancient mythologies, or exploring the nuances of the country’s long political history, stories that revolve around Egypt are destined for drama and adventure.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips, 2004, Random House Books (Historical Fiction)

In the 1920s, Egyptologist Ralph M. Trilipush (secretive, arrogant, and paranoid) has pinned all his hopes on Atum-hadu. Trilipush translated and published the ancient Egyptian king’s erotic verses, but his fame in the field rests on finding the pharaoh’s tomb and accompanying riches. Trilipush is not especially well respected by his fellow scholars and he’s maddeningly jealous of Howard Carter’s recent discovery of the tomb of King Tut. But now he’s got the funding (from his opium-addicted fiancĂ©’s wealthy father) for his own dig, and he knows that Atum-hadu is out there, under the Egyptian sun, waiting to be uncovered. If things don’t go according to plan—and with an Australian detective on his tail, investigating the disappearance of an explorer who had connections to our arrogant Egyptologist, plans might very well go awry—Ralph M. Trilipush is equipped with exactly the kind of raving megalomania to cope with the situation. Author Arthur Phillips’ tale of deceit, self-deceit, and exposure unfolds through a series of letters to and from Trilipush. With a streak of macabre humor peeking out amongst the drama and a mean twist of an ending, The Egyptologist is a strange, darkly comic creation that is sure to shock and surprise.

Crocodile on the Sandbank: Amelia Peabody Mysteries, Book 1 by Elizabeth Peters, 1988, Mysterious Press, originally published 1975 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

The first thing Amelia Peabody does when she gets her independence after the death of her father is to head out and explore the wonders of Egypt. Not your typical Victorian spinster, Amelia is destined for adventure. So when she collects an elegant damsel in distress, the handsome archeologist Emerson brothers, and a walking, talking (well, moaning), two-thousand-year-old mummy along the way, it should come as no surprise that the iron-willed, umbrella-wielding Englishwoman knows how to deal with supposed curses and fainting ladies. But in the hot-tempered personality of dashing Radcliffe Emerson, Amelia appears to have met her match. It is hardly spoiling the story to reveal that the comically tempestuous relationship that develops between Amelia and Emerson is the force that drives not just Crocodile on the Sandbank, but the other eighteen books in the series. The real appeal lies not so much in the mysteries (though crime does indeed abound among the ruins of the ancient pharaohs) but in author Elizabeth Peters’ dynamic cast of characters and impeccable re-creation of the sights and sounds of Victorian-era Egypt. Peters has been writing about Amelia and her unconventional family, quirky friends, and deliciously wicked enemies for nigh on thirty years. The books take place in the years 1884 to 1922 (Amelia ages gracefully but never grows an ounce less resolute) and each explores another facet in the relationships of the Peabody-Emerson clan, another archeological site in Egypt, and another chapter in the ever-evolving history of that ancient nation. Fans can also check out Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium, a lovely big book overflowing with details about Amelia and her brood, how they thought, what they did, and what they saw in glorious Egypt.

Amelia Peabody Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters
1. Crocodile on the Sandbank
2. Curse of the Pharaohs
3. The Mummy Case
4. Lion in the Valley
5. The Deeds of the Disturber
6. The Last Camel Died at Noon
7. The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
8. The Hippopotamus Pool
9. Seeing a Large Cat
10. The Ape Who Guards the Balance
11. The Falcon at the Portal
12. He Shall Thunder in the Sky
13. Lord of the Silent
14. The Golden One
15. Children of the Storm
16. Guardian of the Horizon
17. The Serpent on the Crown
18. Tomb of the Golden Bird
19. A River in the Sky

The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet: A Mamur Zapt Mystery, Book 1 by Michael Pearce, 1990, Doubleday Books (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

The complex international politics of early 20th century Egypt provide the background for this first book in a series that stars Captain Gareth Owen, head (or “mamur zapt”) of the Cairo secret police. In 1881 Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive, nearly bankrupted the country and caused a major rebellion. Britain stepped in to “help”—and never left. Egypt is firmly under British rule in 1908 when our story takes place, with a slew of nationalist and anti-nationalist movements (some more extreme than others) striving to make their voices heard. A member of one of these factions must be responsible for the attempted assassination of politician Nuri Pash. A poor villager comes forward with a tale of revenge, but when police determine that his weapon was British army-issued, things become much more complex. This is the case Owen must solve, even as the city seethes with anticipation of the annual religious festival that celebrates the return of the Holy Carpet, the silk wrapping for the sacred stone at Mecca. Owen has many higher-ups to satisfy and many clues to navigate, but the heart of the story is the tentative friendship he forms with his Egyptian counterpart, Mahmoud el Zaki from the Ministry of Justice. The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet (and the other titles in the series) is carefully plotted, precisely paced, and character-driven. Author Michael Pearce offers an authentic perspective into the politics and society of colonial Egypt, evokes a richly detailed Cairo that is a character unto itself, and presents an intricate political thriller to boot.

Mamur Zapt Mysteries by Michael Pearce
1. The Return of the Carpet
2. The Night of the Dog
3. The Donkey-Vous
4. The Men Behind
5. The Girl in the Nile
6. The Spoils of Egypt
7. The Camel of Destruction
8. The Snake-Catcher’s Daughter
9. The Mingrelian Conspiracy
10. The Fig Tree Murder
11. The Last Cut
12. Death of an Effendi
13. A Cold Touch of Ice
14. The Face in the Cemetery
15. The Point in the Market
16. The Mark of the Pasha

Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake, 2007, Harper Collins (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

The ancient pharaoh Ahkenaten is an enigmatic figure even to Egyptologists today. Author Nick Drake re-imagines the king and all the glory of his time in Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead. Ahkenaten is power-hungry and driven, and he’s got a lot on his mind. He’s built a new capital city, created a new style of art and culture, and imposed a new religion on his people. But his vision is severely compromised when his beautiful and beloved wife Nefertiti goes missing. The pharaoh summons Rai Rehotep, chief detective of the Thebes police force, to solve the mystery in ten days—or die trying. Rehotep accepts that his life (and the lives of his family, who will also die if he fails) are in the hands of the strange king, and sets his whole mind and being to the search for the lost queen. He’s given three assistants—ruthlessly ambitious Mahu, cautious Khety, and earnest young Tjenry—and the king’s leave to poke into every nook and cranny of the palace and the city. Rehotep is surprisingly modern in his investigative techniques. He analyzes gossip, interviews suspects, collects forensic evidence, and finds himself deep in conspiracy, scandal, and a fierce battle for power. Ancient Egypt is given the royal treatment in Nefertiti. Ahkenaten is a personality to be reckoned with, the new city of Ahketaten is teeming with intrigue, and readers are completely caught up in Rehotep’s race against time. Nefertiti is the first of a planned trilogy about detective Rehotep; book two is Tutankhamun:  The Book of Shadows.

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, 2008, Random House Books (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Miss Agnes Shanklin is a spinster schoolteacher in rural Ohio, the plain Jane in her family who is loved but overlooked nonetheless. She’s spent her life quietly obeying her hard-working mother and living vicariously through her sister. But when the Great War and the Great Influenza take her family away from her, Agnes is forced into the spotlight. Leaving her grief behind, Agnes takes her modest inheritance and her cheery little dachshund, Rosie, to Egypt. It’s 1921 and the world is still recovering from all those years of trench warfare, but in Cairo a peace conference is underway. Luminaries like Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and Lawrence of Arabia are meeting to determine the fate of the Middle East. When Agnes wanders into their midst, her mild manner gives way to a sharp mind that serves as an ideal sounding board for their plans and ideas. Her attention is also drawn to Karl Weilbacher, an affable gentleman who showers Agnes with more kindness than she’s experienced in an entire lifetime. Karl is excessively interested in everything Agnes has to say—particularly when it relates to Churchill, Bell, Lawrence, and the plans of the European diplomats. Author Mary Doria Russell vividly portrays the real personalities who created the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, but it is Agnes, the fictional character who narrates this history, who readers will relate too. Inexperienced but by no means uninformed, Agnes navigates the waters of Egypt’s shifting political intrigues with a sense of wonder and wry intellect that is appealing and intimate.

The Professor’s Daughter by Joanne Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, 2007, First Second Books (Fantasy/ Historical Fiction/ Graphic Novel)

It’s a romance for the ages, told in that most colorful of narrative forms: the graphic novel. Lillian (pert and pretty) and Imhotep (dashing and dapper) are in love, and the duo makes quite a splash as they gad about Victorian-era London. Of course, many obstacles stand in their way—Lillian is the daughter of an eminent archeology professor, and Imhotep is a bandage-wrapped mummified Prince of Ancient Egypt. Imhotep is three-thousand years old and somewhat out of touch with modern life (a single cuppa turns him into a drunken mess, insulting gentlemen and wrecking tea rooms), and Lillian’s father is unlikely to approve the match (“You are the property of the British Museum. You are dead. Stay out of this!” the Professor cries when he discovers the mummy and his daughter in each other’s arms). Imhotep’s own mummified dad, the British police force, and Queen Victoria herself get tangled up in this whimsical romantic omedy. As the sprightly forms of Lillian and Imhotep dart across the pages, readers become enchanted by the pair’s hijinks and adventures. Originally published in France in 1997, The Professor’s Daughter was translated by noted graphic novel press First Second Books in 2007. Author and artist collaborators Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert are in fine form here—cheeky humor and expressive illustrations combine for a truly delightful romp.

The Red Pyramid: The Kane Chronicles, Book 1 by Rick Riordan, 2010, Hyperion Books for Children (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Author Rick Riordan is best known for his Percy Jackson and the Olympians books that combine the pantheon of Greek gods with a rag-tag bunch of modern kids on a heroic quest to save the world. In his new series, The Kane Chronicles, Riordan mines the equally rich Egyptian mythos for a similar but no less exciting adventure. Book one introduces Carter Kane (age 14) and Sadie Kane (age 12). Since the death of their mother six years ago, these siblings have lived separate lives. Carter roams the globe with his Egyptologist father, Julius, while Sadie lives in England with grandparents. The scattered family is reunited one Christmas Eve when Julius Kane brings his children to the British Museum. What happens there results in the destruction of the Rosetta Stone, the disappearance of Carter and Sadie’s dad, and the unleashed power of the ancient Egyptian god of chaos. This god, Set, is of course out to destroy the world and Carter and Sadie—who begin to display some unique powers of their own—are the only ones who can stop him. They are aided (and educated in Egyptian lore) by a colorful cast of magicians, gods, goddesses, and monsters. Sadie is cheeky and tenaciously curious; Carter is cautious but steadfast. The siblings’ banter (the tale is presented as a transcript of an audio recording) is as much fun as the action-packed chapters, and it’s a refreshing to have a female hero join a genre that finally features main characters with a biracial heritage (the Kane kids have a black father and a white mother). Riordan brings ancient Egypt to life and sends it crashing into the modern world. The result is non-stop, dynamic, rip-roaring adventure.

Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King by Christine El Mahdy, 2000, St. Martin’s Press (Nonfiction/ Ancient Egyptian History/ Pharaohs/ Biography)

Name an Egyptian pharaoh. Ten to one, the words “King Tut” came rolling out of your mouth almost automatically. When Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s untouched tomb was discovered in 1922 filled to the brim with gold and precious stones, it caused a worldwide sensation. And when several of the people involved in the excavation died of “mysterious causes” attributed to an ancient curse, Tut’s popularity went through the roof. But really, we know very little about the actual life and death of this immensely famous ancient ruler. With Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King, British Egyptologist Christine El Mahdy investigates the mystery that lies behind the legend. El Mahdy devoted most of her life and career to the study of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, which ruled the country more than 3,500 years ago. She outlines the ancient geography, culture, religion, politics, and society. She relates Tutankhamen’s family tree and describes the unique period into which he was born—the pharaoh before Tut was Ahkenaten, the heretic king who turned his back on Egypt’s traditional array of gods and built a brand new city in sole honor of the sun god. She describes the riveting account of the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter. And she constructs a new biography of Tutankhamen, this young man who was crowned king at the age of seven, died in his tender teenage years, and was entombed with almost unimaginable wealth. Tutankhamen is accessible, intriguing, intellectual, and brimming over with the author’s unmistakable enthusiasm for her subject.

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