Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Book of Unholy Mischief

The Book of Unholy Mischief
By Elle Newmark
Published by Simon and Schuster

Food, Venice, secular humanism and a young man's coming of age are all in this fast-paced and intriguing book by Newmark. This is a thoroughly enjoyable work of fiction that I highly recommend. Although I would consider it in the same type of controversial genre as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, Newmark's writing style is much more mature and vibrant.

My Impressions

The story is set in Venice, Italy in 1498. Rumors of a book that contains the secrets of love, alchemy and immortality are beginning to circulate and eventually consume everyone's thoughts and actions by the end of the book. A young street boy is picked up by the chef of the doge, the Venetian prince. This young boy, Luciano, becomes the chef's apprentice by all outward appearances. As the story develops Luciano becomes more than that. The chef chooses him to be his heir to a strange and secret organization called the Guardians.

The Guardians are the keepers of knowledge. Specifically, they are keeper of the knowledge that the Church does not want in the hands of the general populous. Most of the knowledge that Guardians are to preserve was originally in the ancient library of Alexandria. As the years pass, the Guardians add their knowledge. The interesting part of the Guardians is that they are not scholars or scribes. They are all chefs. The knowledge is passed down in recipes from one Guardian to their heir. Each Guardian knows the names and whereabouts of only two foreign Guardians. It is the responsibility of each to choose their heir carefully and teach them the knowledge they will need.

I loved the details given of Venice, palace and political life (the doge is just a figure-head), the life of those living on the streets and the intrigues within the palace kitchen. What was also wonderful was the complete descriptions of food: the prep work, cooking, and enjoyment of the food. When you read this, be willing to go out to a fine restaurant or do some gourmet cooking in your own kitchen!

I don't want to give much more of the plot away. I found myself trying to read ahead in order to find out the outcome each time Luciano seemed to be in hot water (once literally!). As I said before, this is a fast and fun read.

My Faith Impressions

I have two big problems with the book. The first is with its portrayal of secular humanism which is actually a modern concept. Newmark did such a find job in trying to portray how the cooking was done in the middle ages but she into modern humanism with the ideas of the chef. Certainly the Roman Catholic church was virulently corrupt during this time. However, I do not think that even a secret society would have developed such an idea of humanism. There was some ideas of humanism but this book really is talking about secular humanism.

Beyond just placing secular humanism in the midst of the Renaissance, I have a problem with the concept of secular humanism. The chef speaks of Jesus as just human and the idea of the trinity as a human concept. He says that the church can not explain the Trinity and just asks the faithful to believe. Although there is a great deal about the Trinity that I don't understand, I have experienced the various aspects of the Trinity myself. The book leads one to believe that not only was Jesus just a good teacher but that he also did not die on the cross (what a pagan and bloody idea says the chef) but was saved by a soldier with the use of opium and quick thinking. Here we are trampling on the heretical ideas of Gnosticism that the universal Church has battled since the First Century. So, we seem to get a mixed bag of what might have been known in the middle ages with the modern idea that god is within you and you yourself have the will and ability to be a better person. I highly disagree with that way of thinking.

Final Words

I would love someone else to read this book and tell me what you think. Newmark has cleverly disguised controversial religious and secular humanism thought in a well-written book.

Happy Reading!


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