Rich, Dark and Fascinating

f82e1d6edf8d49759716a676a51444341587343♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Source: Audible.com
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012

Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
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When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.

Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.

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Five Stars for this Gem

0385509634.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
Source: Audible
Edition: AudioGO (2007), Unabridged MP3, 12h22
Awards & Distinctions:
Booker Prize Longlist (2006)
Original publication date: 2006

This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the West) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the East) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other “outsiders” to take over power.

Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as “Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows”, Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin’s great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth and power, and she seems just as taken with Thurstan as he still is with her, when he finds his love for her has not abated over the years.

We learn early on in the novel that Thurstan’s most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia’s return on the scene and the considerable influence of her relations, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naïvety and youth show he has yet much to learn and ought to know better, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.

A jewel of a book which I can’t wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed upon first reading; I also loved Andrew Sachs’ narration in this audio version; a well-earned five stars for this gem, which only makes me want to read yet more of Unsworth’s wonderful prose. Lucky for me, I still have his 1992 Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger and it’s follow-up, The Quality of Mercy, as well as The Songs of the Kings, all historical fiction novels also, as well as the travel memoir Crete to look forward to in my vast personal reading and listening library. It’s not unlikely I may end up trying to get hold of everything Unsworth has written in his long and fruitful career, during which he published a total of 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.

A Great Place to Start

ed9e40c2ecbcc40596865366a41444341587343The Waiting Game by Bernice Rubens ★★★★½
Source: Audible
Narrator: Anna Bentinck
Edition: Isis Publishing (2014), Unabridged MP3; 8h47
Original publication date: 1997

This is without a doubt among the best books I’ve read this summer, and indeed, all year. I’ve been meaning to read Bernice Rubens’s books for several years now, ever since another avid reader brought her to my attention. Until then, I wasn’t really aware of her work. I’d heard of the movie Madame Sousatzka, based on her novel, because Shirley MacLaine had played the lead role, but had it not been for Kerry, Rubens might have gone on being completely unknown to me for decades longer, which would have been a sad loss. As it is, I’ve slowly been accumulating some of her books, and was delighted to discover Isis Publishing had recently put out audiobook versions of a number of her novels, all read by very good narrators.

The Waiting Game of the title takes place at Hollyhocks, a distinguished home for the aged close to Dover, where only the gentry need apply for admission. Matron, who keeps things well in hand, has always seen to that, and she has always been able to sift the scent of class from the other less pleasant effluvia of aging. Lady Celia is queen among the patrons, being the only one of the residents holding a title, and all the other residents defer to her in all matters. Of course nobody has any idea she makes a comfortable living with a thriving blackmailing concern which she runs with the help of a partner and Mr Venables, aka The Ferret. Yet, though they all show her respect, most of the residents dislike Lady Celia because their instinct tells them she will outlast them all. Jeremy Cross has more reason than most to hate her as he’s made outliving everyone his one and only obsession. He keeps a constantly updated list of those who have passed away before their time and has every intention of outliving all the other residents at Hollyhocks, especially Lady Celia.

Each resident in the house has his or her secrets and when newcomer Mrs Thackeray arrives, she and Mrs Green become friendly and embark on seemingly harmless fantasy-ridden retellings of the past. After all, Mrs Thackeray had endured a miserable and sexually abusive marriage which isn’t fit to talk about, while Mrs Green, well.. she perhaps has more reasons than most to wish to reinvent herself. Of course, for the most part, only the reader is privy to everybody’s secrets, though in the end a very big surprise is revealed to everyone. I admit I saw it coming, but this didn’t take away from my pleasure one bit especially given Rubens’s speciality happens to be a very dark brand of humour, one of my personal favourites.

I’m not sure why it is I enjoy reading about elderly people so much (and here I should specify when I say ‘elderly’, I do mean old and frail enough to need to be in retirement homes)—it probably has to do with the fact that having lived so long, and lived through many generations, they’ve inevitably accumulated life experiences, have fully blossomed into the unique individuals those experiences have forged them into, and invariably have stories to tell, and in the hands of skilled writers, these characters can yield pure magic. Two of my all-time favourite novels feature men and women who are in the winters of their lives: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (click here for my review). Both gems which I intend to revisit often and heartily recommend.

I can see lots more Rubens in my future, and this was a great place to start. Next up will be A Five Year Sentence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978 and which I’ve pre-ordered on audio and will be released on Sept. 1. Among the endless book stacks there is Madame Sousatzka and The Elected Member, which was the Booker Prize winner in 1970. I should really clear off the cobwebs and read that one soon given how long it’s been lying around.

Signature Sís

0374380694.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry by Peter Sís ★★★★
Source: Municipal InterLibrary Loan
Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 48 pages
Original publication date: 2014

I guess you could say I’m somewhat of a Peter Sís enthusiast by now, having read over a dozen books he’s contributed to in one way or another, either solely as illustrator or as both writer and illustrator, and it’s safe to say he’s evolved a signature style when it comes to biographical subjects (his graphic novels Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin immediately spring to mind here), telling the stories with words and pictures, and pictures within pictures that give the impression at first glance of complex tapestries that you can stare at for a long time to discover endless fascinating detail. For this reason, I find I can never take in his books in one short sitting, no matter how slender the volumes are, as they are intellectually stimulating and pack a lot of information.

Here the subject is the author of that iconic children’s book The Little Prince (which I happened to grow up on and venerate), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Sís introduces us to Saint-Exupéry from his birth in 1900 onward to what seems to have been a fascinating and adventure-packed life, most of it having been devoted to flying and writing in more or less equal measures. Unbeknownst to me, he had made a name for himself as a hero for his flying adventures on the one hand and as a successful author on the other well before  his iconic little book about the prince from another planet was published, with his books based on his flying adventures, one of which became an international bestseller in 1931 and won him the Fémina Prize and which inspired the venerable French perfume house Guerlain to issue a perfume named after that novel two years later, Vol de Nuit, (known as Night Fligh to English readers). Sadly, he disappeared during a flying mission on July 31, 1944, when he took off in an unarmed P-38 on his ninth reconnaissance mission from an airbase on Corsica and vanished without a trace. His legend lives on.

A gorgeous book, much recommended to lovers of Sís and/or Saint-Exupéry. I was already interested in reading more work by the legendary author/adventurer, but I think I’ll seek out his other books more actively now.

(click on images to view larger)

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Straight to the “To Reread” List

 

35f278be44eaca2593149705377444341587343Amsterdam by Ian McEwan ★★★★½
Edition: Vintage Canada (1999), Paperback, 178 pages
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize (1998), 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 Edition)
Original publication date: 1998

Sometimes going into a book knowing little to nothing about it reserves great surprises. I picked this one up more or less unplanned as I was needing a dose of literature, having indulge plenty in lighter fare this summer with lots of YA and detective mysteries and promising myself since long ago to read more books by Ian McEwan. This one did not let me down. The story starts at the cremation site of Molly Lane, which is attended among others by two of her ex-lovers and longtime friends, Clive Lindley and Vernon Halliday. One thing that has united them through the decades, other than their devotion to the lovely Molly, who was taken too early by a mysterious illness which robbed her of the control of her body and mind at the age of 46, is a common hatred of her hugely wealthy husband George Lane, who took advantage of her reduced state by taking over her life and keeping all her friends at bay in her rapid decline. Clive is a renown composer who has been commissioned to write a symphony to bring in the new millennium, while Vernon is the latest editor of a newspaper which has been struggling to remain competitive. Also there is the much reviled Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, who was also one of Molly’s ex-lovers, though the two friends can’t understand what she ever saw in him. They are both horrified at the prospect of being struck down with a debilitating illness as Molly had and like her, unable to make decisions for themselves as the end approaches, and agree that should the worst happen and either one lose his mind, the other would ensure to end his friend’s death in a humane way, with euthanasia a procedure which has been legalized in Amsterdam.

When George, who owns a 1.5% share of The Judge, Vernon Halliday’s paper, calls the editor up and says he’s got photographs which will make his sales positively explode, things become complicated. The photos were taken by Molly and they are intimate photographs of Garmony in feminine wear. Vernon immediately sees their potential for sending sales through the roof, though Clive, whom he shares this story with, is appalled. Surely Molly would never had wanted to make those photos public and cause a scandal, or to disgrace Garmony; therefore wouldn’t George and Vernon be dishonouring Molly’s memory by publishing them? Meanwhile Clive is under pressure to deliver his symphony within a tight deadline, even though the millennium itself is still years away, and he is hell-bent on delivering a piece that will mark him as a genius. He works night and day and makes his composition his only priority, to the point that when he witnesses a rape taking place in the Lake District when he is struck by a momentary inspiration while on an outing, he decides to ignore the despicable crime and keeps taking down notes.

From there the stage is set for the drama to unfold. I was reminded, once again of why I enjoy McEwan so much. This seems like highbrow entertainment, but also makes for highly entertaining reading, with everyone out for themselves at first, and then everyone out for revenge in the end, a combination which I’d say is impossible to resist. I’m putting it straight on the ‘to reread’ list.

Bathtime Reading

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Slightly Foxed: No. 18: The Sensation of Crossing the Street by Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood (Editors) ★★★★⅓
Edition: Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly (2008), Paperback, 96 pages
Original publication date: 2008

I discovered this wonderful little quarterly last year when I became a member of the Folio Society. One of the perks of membership is the Folio magazine, a small and lavishly illustrated biannual publication covering a variety of topics loosely connected the world of Folio, with articles by various authors and contributors. In the first such magazine I received there was an advertisement for Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly which so effectively grabbed me that I decided then and there that I needed to order a trial issue. Published in the UK since 2004, the publication itself is really lovely. Just 6 x 8″ and printed on good cream-coloured paper with cover illustrations by different artists, and charming b&w spot illustrations throughout, it’s got everything going for it as far as aesthetics go. But the contents are what keeps you coming back for more. Written by passionate book lovers, most of whom are published authors, it contains articles about old favourites, from well-known classics to rather obscure, now out of print gems. You might ask why an LTer (shorthand for ‘Library Thing member’) such as myself, exposed to a daily dose of reviews by friends and acquaintances, would willingly pay for an overseas publication to read yet more book reviews, but the quality of the articles—which in themselves make for very pleasant reading—and the range of books covered (many of which I would probably never have heard of otherwise) is reason enough. The kind of little publication that had me brave the claustrophobic feeling induced by my closet-sized bathroom and encouraged me to start taking baths again after over 12 years of quick showers, just so I could enjoy the pleasure of a reading session in my (minuscule) tub.

Issue No. 18 had a lot to keep me gratified, with several articles about favourite books and authors, the first of which is “The Sensation of Crossing the Street” where author Sue Gee writes about her first experience reading Mrs Dalloway in 1968; another article by ex-foreign correspondent Chris Bird, is about Ryszard Kapuściński’s work, a recently discovered and now beloved author (which I should mention I first came across via the Folio Society’s gorgeous edition of Travels with Herodotus) which had me swearing I would eventually read his entire bibliography, or at the very least those books mentioned; The Emperor Shah of Shahs, Another Day of Life, The Soccer War, Imperium and The Shadow of the Sun. But then part of the fun of Slightly Foxed is reading fascinating articles about works I knew little to nothing about and may or may not read someday, with, among others in this issue, Memoirs of a Buccaneer: Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World, 1697, Ernle Bradford’s Ulysses Found, Ludwig Bemelmans’s Hotel Splendide and a article about Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, most famous in the UK, which gave me a long-time fan’s insider perspective.

The Young Ardizzone (Slightly Foxed Editions No. 12)

The Young Ardizzone (Slightly Foxed Editions No. 12) is now available as a paperback.

I could list what the contents of my first trial issue was, but then I might as well just supply a link to the recently released Index to Slightly Foxed, published this year to mark their 10th anniversary. I’d barely finished reading that first trial issue that I became a subscriber and then set about collecting all the back issues I could get my hands on. These are, wonderfully enough, kept in print by Slightly Foxed, and also found on the secondary market for the most part, other than the earliest issues which are best obtained directly from SF as otherwise sold at impossibly inflated prices. One of the dangers once one gets addicted to these lovelies though, is that SF also publishes limited editions of otherwise out of print memoirs that are imminently collectible, printed on the same creamy paper, in a small pocket-size cloth-bound format, and once those are sold out, available as equally appealing paperback issues. I now have a growing collection of their memoirs, and own quite a few of the quarterlies, an almost complete set starting from issue 16 to the newly released issue No. 41. I alternate between reading the latest releases and catching up on the back issues, so these are now a permanent fixture in my bathroom. But wherever you end up keeping them, once you start reading this treasure-trove of a publication, odds are you’ll want to keep reaching out for more again and again.

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Back issues of can be ordered here as sets or individually.

Revisiting Old Favourites

0694523445.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy ★★★★⅞
Series: The Border Trilogy (Book 1)
Edition: Harper Audio (2004), Unabridged MP3; 9h46, Narrated by Frank Muller
Original publication date: 1992

I finished All the Pretty Horses last night and really loved revisiting this book after several years, as part of what we’re calling the American Authors Challenge over at LibraryThing, where we each pick a book by a chosen American author every month, though I adapted it a bit to fit in books I already own. We had Willa Cather in January, for which I read O Pioneers! Then in February we had William Faulkner, and I chose As I Lay Dying, which I have in a lovely Folio Society Edition, but as it turned out, I wasn’t at all in the mood for difficult reading last month, and I gave up on it early on. This month we’re featuring Cormac McCarthy, and I’ve been wanting to complete his Border Trilogy for a long while, but let too much time pass since I read the first book and felt I needed to refresh my memory before moving on. The audio version worked very well, with Frank Muller giving lots of colour to these characters. Not only that, but he gave such a sensitive reading that he made the gorgeous passages describing the cinematography, scenery, lighting and supporting characters and ‘extras’ very vivid. I use movie jargon quite on purpose because there’s something about McCarthy’s prose that brings up clear images in my mind of what he’s describing, very much like a cinematic experience, and I say this as someone who has not seen the movie version, and also as someone who rarely can imagine the scenes described in books, which might be surprising given I’m a visual artist, but so it is. I also couldn’t help but feel this story was closely connected with another beloved Western story, Brokeback Mountain, because of how attune we are to these young boys even though we are never told how they are feeling or processing events, and rather shown with, in the case of John Grady Cole, rather less than more dialogue. Though of course being shown rather than told is the mark of a good writer. The other connection to that other book was that I have seen the movie version of Brokeback Mountain and kept imagining our young hero John Grady as Heath Ledger and the way he portrayed Ennis del Mar, with a similar kind of reserve and perhaps similar looks as well, very attractive, but not in the last self-consciously so and a bit of a scamp.

For those who are not familiar with the story, it is about two boys, ostensibly cousins, both sixteen, sometime in the late 40s leaving home on horseback from their impoverished Texas lives, and in John Grady Cole’s case, a broken home, to make their way to Mexico to seek work. On their way there, he and Rawlins are joined by a young boy who claims his name is Jimmy Blevins (the name of a radio personality). He also claims to be sixteen but is probably no more than thirteen and riding atop a huge bay horse which seems much too fine a specimen to belong to him, and they suspect the boy has stolen him and will probably only bring trouble, so want nothing to do with him. But Blevins follows them doggedly until they are forced to accept him as a travel companion. Eventually the boys lose Blevins along the way (to reveal more would be a big spoiler) and find employment on a large ranch owned by a wealthy, old money, and therefore powerful family. He falls in love at first sight with the owner’s daughter, and his love is very much requited, so that the two quickly become lovers. The girl’s great-aunt holds the reins in the family and soon warns off John Grady, though in a most civilized way, by first inviting him to play a game of chess during which she tells him part of her life story, of having been educated in France and being a thinking woman, difficult to accept in society in her days. Of course, he doesn’t heed her warning and soon enough the boys are arrested under a charge of horse theft and sent to the worst kind of Mexican penitentiary, where they are forced to rely on their survival skills.

I hadn’t been as conscious of how much of the story rides on the aunt in the first reading, when I was concentrating on the story from the boy’s point of view and mostly saw Jimmy Blevins as the pivot to the all the major events, but now I see clearly he and the aunt are the two poles in this world, both pulling and pushing our two young friends along difficult paths. Another thing I noticed this time is how almost unbelievably clever and accomplished John Grady is, which is something I took completed for granted on first reading. He’s skilled with horses, which he has a great affinity for, and knows how to break and earn the trust of even the wildest creatures in record time, to the admiration of all the ranch workers and locals who congregate to watch him at work, which in itself is believable enough. But when comes time for him to defend himself and survive against the worst kinds of odds, he almost turns into a Western version of James Bond, which is of course a slight exaggeration since there are no gadgets or tricks or explosions or superhuman villains, but at the same time the feats he manages to accomplish against the direst of circumstances seem almost miraculous. Though of course in the deft hands of McCarthy, it is all very much in the realm of possibility, if one assumes that the boy is probably blessed with an good dose of intelligence and above average common sense when faced with immediate danger, along with the love of a young and beautiful woman. I would also throw in he’s probably got a good star watching over him, to make up for his raging hormones. Such things do happen and usually make for great stories, as evidenced by some the best mythological tales, which must have their roots in actual occurrences and almost, but not quite superhuman heroes, whose fates rest on the wills of the gods.

I remember reading from a softcover edition the first time and at first being a little bit daunted by McCarthy’s stream of consciousness style*, featuring very little punctuation as that style tends to do, but after the first couple of initial pages, which I read over more than once to get used to the tone and rhythm, it flowed very naturally and it was easy enough to let oneself float along in his stream and let the story take hold of the imagination. Does it sound like I loved this novel? That’s because I did, and I’m very happy I revisited it before moving on to the next book in the Border Trilogy, which I hope to do in near future while this one stays relatively fresh in my unreliable-at-best memory.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain came to mind as I was reading this, minus the homosexual overtones.

 

* And speaking of my unreliable-at-best memory, as an afterthought and just before hitting ‘publish’ for this post, I thought I might search my now 7-year old blog to see if I’d written anything about this novel before, and sure enough, found this, which I’d obviously completely forgotten about. Seems it took me more than ‘a couple’ of pages to get into the flow of things and I was in fact practically about to give up about 40 pages in. One thing’s for sure, my complaints about the writing style don’t hold at all for the audiobook version, where the narrator makes everything perfectly clear by giving each character his own speech mannerisms.