High Expectations, Mediocre Results

The Lost Symbol, Where Men Win Glory

Photo by Nicole Wagner
  • The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. Doubleday Books, $29.95. Brown’s previous books include Deception Point, Angels and Demons, and The Da Vinci Code.
  • Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer. Doubleday Books, $27.95. Krakauer’s other books include Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Eiger Dreams.

Lost Symbol is a thriller, but by no means a classic

By Corey McMahon ’11 & Noah Grumman ’12

Action, suspense, secret cults, and a Harvard professor in his infamous tweed jacket have all become expected from a Dan Brown novel. But with the release of his newest novel, The Lost Symbol, prospective readers are all asking the same question: Can he play on the series’ strengths while keeping the book original?

In some aspects, absolutely not—and that is a good thing. The Lost Symbol follows the same protagonist we have come to love: Robert Langdon, the made-up expert in the field of symbology, and a head of a fictional department at Harvard. And just like in the previous books, Langdon receives an impromptu phone call from someone who happens to have an urgent situation involving symbology.

However, this time Langdon shows up in Washington D.C. and quickly realizes that a man known only as Mal’akh has kidnapped Langdon’s best friend and mentor. Langdon is forced to give in to Mal’akh’s demands and search for the most hidden and ancient of the Freemasons’ secrets. He travels from clue to clue, most of which are famous landmarks or pieces of art around D.C. and falls in love, yet again, with a beautiful, brown-haired woman.

The novel is thrilling, but the story is nothing new, because Brown seems to simply be recycling his old formula for thriller novels. While the plot is extremely similar to The Da Vinci Code and one may get the feeling that the names and places have simply been changed, Brown does find a way to create exciting plot twists and incorporate new technologies.

If there is one aspect of Dan Brown’s novels that is consistently unforgettable, in a good or bad way, it is the villains. In The Da Vinci Code, there was Silas, an eerie, self-flagellating albino and devoted member of cult-like Opus Dei sect. But somehow, Brown finds a way to outdo himself in The Lost Symbol, because Mal’akh, a drug-using, tattooed maniac, seems straight out of a comic book.

The best quality of The Lost Symbol is that it shares the fast-paced tempo and action that has become the trademark of the series. One minute, Langdon is observing a severed arm dropped in the Capitol Rotunda, the next exploring forgotten rooms under the city, and then running from the CIA through the Library of Congress. Everything ends with a cliffhanger—thrilling, yet at times frustrating because no scene ever ends when the reader wants. However, Brown still has the ability to masterfully keep readers on the edge of their seat page after page, for all of the 133 chapters. Even the ending takes a twist that will catch the reader off-guard. At least you will never get bored, right?

Maybe not bored, but perhaps a bit disenchanted. Of course, Dan Brown books will not ever be realistic, but this third installment goes a little more down the path of science-fiction than most will probably expect.

In The Da Vinci Code, hypotheses and claims about the beginnings of the Christian religion were so masterfully woven into interpretations of real art and evidence that they were thought-provoking and compelling. In Angels and Demons, the idea of anti-matter made the story believable because it does actually exist and has been created.

But in The Lost Symbol, Brown incorporates the study of the human brain’s ability to affect matter, called Noetic science. In the book, Noetic science is more similar to discovering telekinesis, which seems a little far fetched even in a book full of ancient secrets and hidden symbols. It loses the “What if it was true?” appeal that made The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons so captivating.

Regardless, Brown has the art of the thriller novel down almost to a formula. First, there is an ancient cult or secret society—in this case, the Freemasons. Add to that a surprising or dangerous secret that has been guarded for centuries. Throw in Langdon, multiplied by the incredible number of imminent death situations that he miraculously avoids, add a good-looking woman for a little romance, and Brown has himself an entertaining, albeit recycled, novel.

So while the terms in Brown’s formula may not add up to a timeless classic, it definitely continues to create an entertaining, leisurely read.

The tragedy of Tillman: Jon Krakauer revisits the life and death of the Army Ranger, former NFL player

By Noah Grumman ’12

If having Jon Krakauer write a book about your life story is something you aspire to, then you had better start doing something shocking, dangerous or unexpected.

The people Krakauer has previously written about include daring climbers, free-spirited adventurers, and religious extremists. And Pat Tillman’s life story has plenty in common with this group.

A standout player in the NFL, Tillman passed up a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after 9/11. In Afghanistan, he was reported to have been killed by the Taliban. More controversy and investigation ensued when it was it was revealed that the Army had really covered up his death by friendly fire.

Though his tragic, unexpected death is a fairly well-known story, Krakauer tells the other unbelievable but much less well-known aspect of Tillman’s story—his life before stardom.

As a 5’ 5,’’ 120 lb. freshman in high school, Pat Tillman quit baseball after being disappointed that he did not make varsity. Not letting his size and lack of experience stop him, he took up football his sophomore year and went on to be a standout player at Arizona State University and later in the NFL.

But the unexpected twists in Tillman’s story do not end there. In high school, Tillman was involved in a fight after a party that left him charged with a misdemeanor assualt and 30 days in jail, an offense that could have lost him his scholarship to ASU.

While the book has some compellling and interesting insight into Tillman’s life, it frequently gets off track or into far too much detail. For three chapters straight, Krakauer gives a long, drawn-out description of the battle of Nasiriyah—a battle that Tillman had nothing to do with. Krakauer also wastes a large portion of the book giving a long and drawn out history of Afghanistan, which again has little to do with Tillman other than the fact that he died there.

When the book does focus on Tillman, it is quite interesting. Using journals that he kept throughout his life and the testimonies of his friends and family, it gives one a real sense of who Tillman was—fearless, free-spirited, curious, and unafraid to go against the grain.

It is an incredible and inspiring story, but the book is not as interesting as Into the Wild or Into Thin Air, also by Krakauer. Into the Wild, details the life of Christopher McCandless, an idealistic young man from a well-to-do family who unexpectedly donated all of his money to charity, foraged and adventured around the US, and ended up dying in the Alaska wilderness in an abandoned bus. The difference is that Tillman’s story is fairly well-known and widely covered in the news, so all Where Men Win Glory can do is talk about his character and motivations. In Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless’s story was unknown and pieced together.

This is not to say that Tillman’s story is not worth hearing about again. It may not measure up to Into the Wild, but for fans of Krakauer’s previous books, Where Men Win Glory is worth reading.