Friday, October 21, 2011

The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

(In which I embark on a journey to solve a timeless mystery.)


One of my former colleagues from the academy once told me her experience when she took an international standardized examination. In her speaking test, she was asked by the examiner if she agrees that a picture paints a thousand words. She answered, “No, because if a picture paints a thousand words, then we need to speak a thousand words to prove that.” And the examiner beamed at her.

The question and her answer must have been something that Leonardo da Vinci wanted to reconcile when he painted The Last Supper. He created a painting that is innocent on the surface but controversial deep within, so that those who see it would contemplate on all its possible cryptic messages and then talk about it for centuries.

Among the many baffling irregularities depicted in Leonardo’s masterpiece includes the missing halos, the, missing meat on the table, Simon Peter holding a dagger and a rather feminine Apostle John, some of which were attributed with Da Vinci’s veganism, an ancient confusion of theological teachings, Mary Magdalene and ultimately, Leonardo’s heresy – the angles that Javier Sierra wishes to give light in his originally-Spanish novel, made readable to English readers through the translation by Albert Manguel.

This historical thriller is narrated by Agostino Leyre, the Chief Roman Inquisitor and Master General of the Secretariat of Keys as an account of his search of the true identity of The Soothsayer, the secret Hermes who warns Rome of the Milanese Duke Ludovico Il Moro’s heretic plan to revive the ancient Athenian philosophies right under the nose of the Papacy, and the huge part played by Leonardo da Vinci in this heterodoxy. Furthermore, The Soothsayer speaks of the disturbing symbols in Leonardo’s mural in Santa Maria delle Grazie. Assisted by the Domican monks of Santa Maria and fascinated by Leonardo’s genius, Fra Agostino becomes part-witness, part-investigator as a cycle of deaths flows and more revelations surface. The narrator moves from being the man convinced that he is the Sherlock Holmes of this mystery, then later on finds himself as a part of the mystery, then as a victim. Finally, he realizes that the true enigma is not that of The Soothsayer’s but Leonardo’s. And the solution to the latter leads to a more painstaking search.

I am still leery of religious-tainted fiction. But this reading experience opens up something anonymous in me. I could, for the time being, let my reading self not be hindered by matters of conflicting doctrines, or the darkness of every religion’s past, or by the fact that all religions’ claim for truth and supremacy doesn’t seem to end. We read to let our minds be opened, and/or our logic to be sharper, and/or our faith to be rejuvenated.

I feel so free I penned Dan Brown down on my TBR list. But for the meantime . . .

Currently reading

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

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The Secret Supper
Saving Fish from Drowning

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Mentor’s Musing: On Teaching Writing IV

(In which we are both tested.)


Today, in our IELTS writing class that has already run for more than a couple of weeks, I was once again baffled by Janice’ inability to come up with a 150-word essay about a line graph after twenty minutes. And when the inevitable shock and frustration showed on my face, she manifested an unconcerned countenance, explaining she actually didn’t expect to finish the task under time pressure.

Of course I was incredulous.

“You know, I already know I won’t finish it. Just like before.”

“And do you think that’s positive?” I can’t help but ask. I really try my best not to sound condescending so I didn't ask if that's is really something to be proud of. I wouldn’t want to be trained that way, either. All of us have our own pride to salvage.

“I know. But I think writing is not my goal. You know? If I fail IELTS, I will take speaking and reading test when I go back home. So writing is not really my priority. I think having writing everyday is not what I want. So now I’m confused. And I think, if I memorized a lot of academic expressions, I will write better,” she confidently lectured.

For more than two weeks, it filled me with happiness that her organization is improved at some instances. That she can defend her ideas and actually makes a concept map before writing. But IELTS is a timed test. Either you vouch to accomplish the tasks within the time limit or you quit. But I didn’t tell her that.

“First, we don’t have a writing task everyday. In fact, we spend most of our time on vocabulary practice and essay analysis. I understand that you aim for a superior academic vocabulary. And I am telling you, you have the capacity to produce an academic essay – “

“But it is not enough. You know? When I read sample essays, I do not feel frustrated. I feel that the words are important for me. So if I memorize them, I will be better.”

I took a deep breath and told her what I think.

“You know, I also read essays by writers younger than I am, writers who did not even major in English. And I feel frustrated about myself. So when I see a writing style or a vocabulary so awesome, I incorporate it with my own. You’re right. They are helpful. What I’m trying to say is that although I understand your predicament, we still have to stick to our goals. Do you know what our difference in that matter is?” I asked. And with that she looked suddenly stunned.

“I have all the time to spare and contemplate on my writing. You are making do on a limited time to be prepared for an exam. I wanted you to remember the right structure of writing. That is what the usual writing tests are for. I understand that you have a difficulty remembering vocabulary at times, and during the test, you will be too tensed to remember words. And the last thing you need is an unfinished essay albeit with superiorly academic vocabulary. The tasks are for you to be more familiar with writing styles. The time limit is for you to extract what you learn under time pressure. It really surprises me that I seem to be more pressured than you actually are.”

“I know”, he sighed, “but I don’t want to just to finish essay with basic words. I don’t want that.”

In my imagination, I can see her painstakingly searching for words to use in her essay. In her dismay of using late learner, she spent 5 minutes coming up with opsimath and another 5 minutes for somnambulist instead of sleepwalker. Those thoughts furthered my apprehension for the future so I discarded them immediately.

Thus the two-hour class intended for writing tests have been utilized in an open forum, an unfinished essay and an unspoken promise of a cycle.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex

(In which history is a knot woven by art and blood.)


Karen Essex’ Leonardo’s Swans seems to be a modern answer to Joanne Brown’s question asked more than a decade later regarding whether this literary genre is Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History, discussing the problem of truth, balance, accuracy and the necessity for a well-grounded research. Essex’ novel was like saying “Why choose between history and fiction when you can have both?”

The novel traverses the life of illustrious women in Italian history – Isabella d-Este, the high-brow Marchesa of Mantua and her sister Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan; the mistress of Beatrice’s husband, Cecilia Gallerani; and Lucrezia Crivelli, the duke’s later mistress. Most apparent was the central women of the novel, the Este sisters whose prominence and patronage of arts and literature, especially in their outward appreciation of the genius that was Leonardo da Vinci, were historically recorded, but not the possibility of a complicated sibling rivalry that could have encompassed not only their artistic purposes but the attention of the men around them.

Written with prefatory references to dates and excerpts from da Vinci’s notebooks in each chapter provides a channel from then to now and vice versa. It was like peeking at the magnificent labyrinth that was the master’s brain, and then being pulled out to see the old world as it makes his ideas come to pass. All those and intriguing political scandals combine to create a tale worth reading.

Currently reading

The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

Photo Sources
Leonardo’s Swans
The Secret Supper