♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
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.
Above: Pierre Lefebvre, Collines (Hills), 2011, Oil on panel, 48 x 60″ (detail)
My friend Kim, whom I haven’t seen in many months is coming over in just 30 minutes or so. She’s invited me to attend a vernissage at Gallerie de Bellefeuille on Greene avenue, which is just up the hill from me, to see the work of an artist who is the friend of a close friend of hers, as she’s been wanting to introduce me to both the friend and the friend of the friend, who is apparently a hermit like me, though I’ve no idea why she thinks this is a good idea, because I’ve never heard of hermits getting along together particularly well. But I’ve seen Pierre Lefebvre’s work online and he is very talented, so should be interesting to see it and he in person at least. Also, Kim has always encouraged me to promote my art and live from it somehow and this gallery is very well known and I think she imagines I could eventually be represented there too somehow, even though I haven’t picked up a paintbrush in at least a couple of years now and have maybe all of 1.5 finished paintings to my name, and unsigned ones at that… I guess miracles are known to happen, and it’s nice knowing there are people who believe in my talent as possibly leading me somewhere eventually, even at this late stage and with the little energy I do have.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell ★★★★⅓
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
Edition: Listening Library (2013), Unabridged MP3; 8h56
Original publication date: 2013
When new girl Eleanor shows up on the school bus one day, things start out very badly for her when nobody wants to make room for her, even though there are still plenty of empty seats left. She’s overweight, has long wild curly, very red hair and is dressed pretty strangely, and though this is 1986 and new wave music and punk rock rule, her kind of weirdness just doesn’t fly. Park happens to be a misfit of sorts too, being the only half-Korean in an otherwise all-white or black Omaha, Nebraska, though he’s managed to fly under the radar with strategic friendships and alliances, and he’s not sure he’s willing to compromise that for the new girl, but he can’t help himself from wanting to help Eleanor when he bluntly tells her to just sit next to him on that first day, and there she’ll sit henceforth on their daily trips to school and back. He doesn’t find Eleanor attractive exactly, but for some reason, he starts sharing his beloved comic books with her, like the Watchmen series, and then introducing her to some of his favourite music like The Smiths and The Cure and Alphaville and Elvis Costello (and the list goes on and on as the book progresses).
Eleanor has never heard any of this music, so he makes her mixed tapes, but in her typical brusque way she refuses to take the first one, till he finally figures out she’s refusing because she has no way of listening to it; she then just as rudely refuses when he helpfully offers to loan her his Walkman, till his kindness and insistence wear her down. They’ve soon got a friendship going, based on all the things Park likes, including many more mixed tapes, which prove to be a salvation for Eleanor, because her home life is a living hell. Her mother’s taken up with a violent alcoholic called Richie who doesn’t hesitate to hit on his wife on a whim and threaten Eleanor and her four younger siblings with unnamed injuries. They’re so poor they don’t have a phone in the house, in which the bathroom and the kitchen share a space and aren’t even separated by a door. To add to her misery, Eleanor is being bullied at school, persecuted by one of the most popular girls, and then regularly finds disgusting pornographic inscriptions on the covers of her school manuals which she has no idea who could be putting there.
As friendship progresses to declared love, Park invites Eleanor into his home. Eleanor knows the respite she finds there with his parents, who slowly come to accept her despite her strange appearance and awkward ways, can only be temporary, because her parents, and especially Richie, are bound to find out about this relationship, which over the months she’s been passing off as time spent with a fictitious girlfriend, and she also knows without a doubt there’ll be a price to pay when Richie finds out. Only, things keep getting better and better with Park, who fills her life with music and makes her feel things she never knew she had the capacity to feel before.
Many people on LT raved about this book and I remained skeptical about whether I’d like it too since YA fiction doesn’t always do it for me, but it ended up being a big winner. I happen to be the same age as our two main protagonists, so was just as influenced by most of the music which is mentioned in the book (The Smiths were my all-time favourites back then), and though I thankfully never had the kind of nightmarish home life Eleanor has, I could definitely identify with her feeling like the odd girl out and the bullied misfit at school. Rainbow Rowell writes sensitively and realistically about what it feels like to be a teenager and to experience first love and complete bewilderment and fear, all this in a way that also makes for compelling reading. She also has an interesting take on the parents, who each deal with challenging life situations in their own individual ways, some showing willingness to grow and evolve, and some, not so much, just like real-life people in other words.
This book ended up causing me to spend a small fortune on iTunes. I haven’t been listening to much music of late because am constantly plugged into audiobooks, but I was compelled to create my own “1986” soundtrack and made lots of new additions to my golden 80s oldies collection. I partially based myself on Rainbow Rowell’s own playlist as posted on her blog; music which inspired her as she wrote the various scenes of the book, then added a few from a list the songs mentioned in the book. I added to that all my favourite Smiths songs missing from my catalogue beyond How Soon Is Now (I’d forgotten how arty the music video was), like Shout by Tear for Fears, which was a huge deal when it first came out one day at school, when everyone just went nuts over it, banging on every available surface. Added too a nice serving of The Psychedelic Furs and other music from Pretty in Pink, and a bunch of other music I remember listening to back when I was 16 (The Cure anyone?) And I can’t believe I’ve survived with only 3 Suzanne Vega songs up to now! (Fixed). Not sure when I’ll make time to listen to it all, because audiobooks really are my thing lately, but I’ll make time for it here and there; Alphaville’s Forever Young and A Flock of Seagulls’s I Ran (So Far Away) while I was walking in the sun with Coco happily running around in the park yesterday really made my day.
I was completely blown away last night at the National Theatre Live presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire, performed at London’s Young Vic Theatre, with Gillian Anderson playing the lead role of Blanche DuBois. Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski and Vanessa Kirby as Stella were also standouts, but Gillian Anderson was so completely imbued with the character, she was actually physically transformed to the point of being unrecognisable until the very end during the standing ovation. The role of the self-deluded, blind-drunk, neurotic, loud, talkative aging beauty seemed to suit her to a T, and you had a sense she must have practiced it all her life, either that or she was showing us her true personality (somehow unlikely), so totally convincing was she. Every time she downed a mouthful of “alcohol” and careened along, you fully believed it and felt the booze was coursing through her veins, and the intensity of her performance, down to the funny-yet-heartbreaking little broken giggle she let out after every utterance didn’t let up for a moment. It was truly an electrifying performance. I don’t know if it helps that I never did manage to sit through the movie version with the oh-so-beautiful Marlon Brando when I was younger, making the material seem that much fresher to me. You could have cut the tension between Stanley and Blanche with a knife and I hated Ben Foster with all my might, believing him to really be Stanley, so fully was I invested in the play. The whole cast was outstanding, and director Benedict Andrews made this now nearly 70-year old Tennessee Williams play feel absolutely fresh and timeless. I’m even considering going to see the encore performance. Nothing light and easy about it, more blow your socks off, tear you heart out, but oh my, what powerful entertainment! And what a role of a lifetime for 46-year-old Gillian Anderson, who certainly seized the opportunity to leave her mark on an unforgettable Blanche performance. Five-and-a-half stars! ★★★★★½
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Book #175: The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann ★★★½
Source: Amazon Daily Deal
Edition: Ecco (2012), Kindle Edition, 433 pages
Original publication date: 2012
A young man called Emil Larsson decides to seek for help when he is told by his boss of a new policy wherein he needs to find a wife in short order to keep his post as a bureaucrat. He puts his hopes in a French-born fortune-teller who goes by the name of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, known to give counsel to King Gustav III himself, over the course of eight days she sets out a spread of eight cards, known as the Stockholm Octavo, which are to indicate to him the eight people who are to help him along his path to fulfilling his future. But young Emil Larsson can’t be sure who the eight are, and he gets lost amid the turmoil of late 18th century Stockholm, when the whole Western world is rocked by the revolution in France, and King Gustav III of Sweden is at pains to try to save Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette from the guillotine, and his own skin as well from the plots and conspiracies surrounding him. Among young Emil’s eight individuals is a baroness, knows as the Uzanne, who with her connections might well lead him to his future wife. But the Uzanne is a dangerous woman and has a singular obsession with hand-held fans, which she collects in the hundreds and which she claims to manipulate with such skill that she is able to perform magic with them. The Uzanne has one goal in mind, which is to bring down King Gustav, and before he knows it, Emil Larsson is involved in a plot which suddenly has much further ramifications than the need to find a wife so he can simply hold on to his post as a sekrétaire and his satisfying life of drinking and playing at cards.
This novel held promise for me. I’m a great lover of historical fiction for a start, and this story is based on true events and dangerous times: the plots against King Gustav III of Sweden and his eventual maiming by a gunshot in 1792, leading to his death when his wound got infected less than two weeks later (though here his death is attributed to other factors). The character of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, who in the novel is obsessed with the King and acts as a foil of sorts to the Uzanne, is based on the real-life Ulrica Arfvidsson, a famous medium of the Gustavian era, who had more or less predicted to the King the attempt on his life. Engelmann devotes much of the narrative to the fans themselves, so that they become a character in their own right, what between the Uzanne and her obsession with one particular fan from her collection called Cassiopeia which she loses at cards and is then willing to literally kill for in order to reacquire, and a fan-maker from France called Nordén and his Wife who are also part of young Larsson’s eight. I found this focus on fans interesting at first, but the problem I ended up having with the book is that, unlike Karen Engelmann, I haven’t grown up admiring a collection of folding fans as she has, and they simply seemed to take up too much room in the narrative, so that what already seemed like a difficult story to keep together, considering the wide cast of characters encompassing various story tangents, became unwieldy. There were plenty of interesting details and incidents to keep going, but none of the characters felt especially well developed or seemed to want to lift off the page, and the whole felt somewhat disjointed, much as Emil Larsson’s quest appeared to fall flat in the end. But then, I don’t seem to take to devices in novels, and just as I didn’t appreciate the astrological aspects in Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries, I found the aspect of the Octavo spread distracting and perhaps didn’t read into it as much as another more discerning reader might have.
I found the NY Times review pretty great: Eight Degrees of Separation
Happy Labour Day everyone! We celebrate it here in Canada too; mostly it means the end of summer (sniff!) and the turning of a new leaf.
August Reading Stats
Total books: 28 (same as July)
Graphic Novels: 9
Mystery / thriller: 7
Historical fiction: 2
Series works: 17
Male : Female authors: 11 : 6
Off the shelf: 5
5 stars: 0
4 & up: 20
3 & up: 6
2 stars: 1
A Quick Summary
A long month of bad migraines left me pretty brain-dead and unable to tackle anything too complex, so graphic novels were very welcome (the complete Aya* series was prominently featured, and also an omnibus of Edward Gorey’s work, Amphigorey Again), as were quick entertaining reads like the Montalbano and Maigret mystery series and a few YA adventure novels of the Harry Potter and the more recent Cinder* varieties. I did manage to fit in a bit of literary fiction, and Amsterdam* was a major hit, as was my first Bernice Rubens, with The Waiting Game*, probably because both of them featured lots of black humour, whereas more poetic novels like The English Patient, though really gorgeous, left me scratching my head and wishing I had a few more working grey cells to rub together so I could fully appreciate it. Plenty more series planned for the September Series & Sequels theme on LibraryThing (my scary list of options is here), though I will try to fit in a bit of literature in there too, like the long overdue The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell, book 2 in the Empire Trilogy. Am off to a great start with The Stockholm Octavo, briefly mentioned on this blog once, which I started on a couple of days ago and which manages to blend historical fiction and literary mastery both.
* click links for my recent reviews.