Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants *

2356412883.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #99: ♫ Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants / Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants* by Mathias Enard ★★★★½
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Audiolib (2011), Unabridged MP3 CD; 3h20
Awards & Distinctions: Goncourt des lycéens (2010)
Goncourt Shortlist (2010)
Original publication date: 2010

I picked up this amazing little book because it came highly recommended in a “best of” directory consisting mainly of French writings (La bibliothèque idéale RTL edited by Bernard Lehut); it has not been translated into English yet, but it can only be a matter of time given it won a prestigious French literary award, its vastly famous protagonist—the artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, aka Michelangelo—and the compelling premise that the great Italian Renaissance master had made a trip to what was then known as Constantinople in 1506 after being invited by Sultan Bayezid II.

Portrait_of_Sultan_Bayezid_II_of_the_Ottoman_Empire

8th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II (1447 – 1512)

From a few verifiable facts, Mathias Enard has weaved a highly poetic tale on the premise that following the Sultan’s invitation, (which Michelangelo’s famous biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the great master did in fact accept the invitation and spent three months in Constantinople to present plans for a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the great capital. Sultan Bayezid II has been mostly forgotten by history, but it seems he was a great visionary who promoted learning, fine arts, poetry and earned the epithet of “the Just” because of the smooth running of his domestic policies. Among other things, he organized the evacuation of Jewish and Muslim Spanish civilians who were evicted from Spain as part of the Inquisition, and granted them full Ottoman citizenship. Bayezid II was keen to have a bridge designed by one of the great Italian Renaissance masters, and asked Leonardo da Vinci to submit his designs first. This drawing is still in existence today, but it seems the proposed bridge was deemed impossible to build with the technology available at the time and it was rejected by the Sultan’s engineers, after which Bayezid II turned to Michelangelo.

The story he weaves here begins with Michelangelo’s arrival to Constantinople in May 1506, where is he given shelter by an Italian merchant and greeted by one of the Sultan’s protégés, the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. The two men couldn’t be more different; Mesihi, though now still considered as an important contributor to Ottoman letters, having died young in an impoverished state and total obscurity, while Michelangelo went on to become rich and famous and died towards the end of his ninth decade. Mesihi enjoyed much food and drink, and openly courted both men and women, while Michelangelo was of an ascetic nature, refusing all drink and eating little. But here Enard imagines the two men developing an unlikely friendship and the poet introducing the renaissance artist to a performer of great beauty and indefinable sex during one of their outings. The language is sublime, and we are privy to some of Michelangelo’s actual correspondence with one of his brothers, which Enard has translated into French for his book.

As for the intriguing title of the short novel, the author took the sentence from Rudyard Kipling’s preface of Life’s Handicap, a short story collection. This preface contains a fictive conversation between Kipling and “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who explains the art of telling stories:

“Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night”.

Such a beautifully told tale that it’s well worth reading twice in a row.

*Proposed translation for the English title

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.

Play It Like It’s 1986

0385368267.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_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.

Friendship Across the Class Divide

90fe459fa16fd4d597235456a51444341587343The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters ★★★★⅓
Source: Audible
Edition: Penguin Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 21h28
Original publication date: 2014-09-16

London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances’s two brothers were killed in the war, her father’s death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter with debts to pay. They’ve had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they’ve decided to take on paying guests; the word “lodgers” will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They’ve arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber’s quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn’t exactly to Frances’s liking. Frances is dismayed by all this; she has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-companion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber’s arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.

For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women’s domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it’s residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won’t reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.

I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson’s impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can’t say I’m overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one, as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.

Hey, they can’t all be winners…

1483018989.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #167: ♫ The Good Girl by Mary Kubica ★★
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Narrators: Lindy Nettleton, Johnny Heller, Tom Taylorson, Andi Arndt
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 10h37
Original publication date: 2014-07-29

 

 

Product description as seen on Amazon:

“Born to a prominent Chicago judge and his stifled socialite wife, Mia Dennett moves against the grain as a young inner-city art teacher. One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn’t show, she unwisely leaves with an enigmatic stranger. With his smooth moves and modest wit, at first Colin Thatcher seems like a safe one-night stand. But following Colin home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia’s life.

Colin’s job was to abduct Mia as part of a wild extortion plot and deliver her to his employers. But the plan takes an unexpected turn when Colin suddenly decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota, evading the police and his deadly superiors. Mia’s mother, Eve, and detective Gabe Hoffman will stop at nothing to find them, but no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family’s world to shatter.

An addictively suspenseful and tautly written thriller, The Good Girl is a propulsive debut that reveals how even in the perfect family, nothing is as it seems….”

Here’s my take on it:

Comparisons are made with Gone Girl, but other than a surprise twist which you have to wait till the very end for, and some seriously unsympathetic characters, I’d say the two don’t have much in common. For one thing, Gillian Flynn’s writing had me completely enthralled from the very first words to the last. Mary Kubica? Had me mostly moaning and groaning with frustration at how pedestrian and déjà vu everything about her storytelling, her prose, her characters was. Gems like “She was shaking to the point of uncontrollable” had me gritting my teeth. Then there’s the narration device: the story is told from the point of view of three of the protagonists in the story; Eve, Mia’s mother, Colin, her abductor, and Gabe, the Chicago detective trying to solve the case. But where’s Mia in all this?

I’ve given up on perfectly good audiobooks within the first hour, and I’ve no idea what made me hold on with this one, because I felt right from the beginning that I was onto a dud, and there was nothing about it, at any moment that made me change my mind. The completely predictable Stockholm Syndrome, with Mia falling in love with her kidnapper, might please readers who are into romance and who buy into Colin being a really good guy after all, seeing as ‘he cares so much about his mom’, but I thought it was all a bunch on nonsense. Call me cynical. But then, this book was released by a Harlequin imprint, so that kind of twist had to be expected. I give it an extra star because I was sure I’d figured out the ending, and so was too lazy to figure out the alternative, and when it finally arrives it does put a more interesting twist on things, but still doesn’t make up for just how dull getting there was. I blame a really bad migraine that made me put up with this low-grade entertainment, in the same way a tv buff would sit and watch mindless sitcoms, just because that’s what happens to be on and the tv remote is out of reach so why bother? kind of thing.

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.

Fairytales, 21st Century Style

cb4ab9a9733059f59754d516a41444341587343Cinder by Marissa Meyer ★★★★
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Science Fiction
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Series: The Lunar Chronicles (1 of 4)
Edition: Macmillan Audio (2012), Unabridged MP3; 10h02
Original publication date: 2012

Lots of people I like and respect in the Library Thing group I’m most active on have taken a great liking for this series in the last couple of years, but still, I was skeptical: YA/Fantasy/Sci-Fi are three categories that are always iffy at best with me, with no dependable formula to rely on to guide me on whether any given book in those genres is likely to work for me or not, and to be honest I was seriously skeptical about this one in particular. Well, I needn’t have worried, because the overall effect worked its charm on me. Loosely based on the classic fairy tale of Cinderella, our heroine, here renamed Cinder, is a cyborg and the best young mechanic in New Beijing in a dystopian new world which has been rebuilt following WWIV.

According to the author Marissa Meyer, the first version of Cinderella was written in China in the 9th century, where small feet were considered sexy, so she wanted to bring the story full circle by setting it in China again, only this time she plays around with the small shoe trope, because from the very first moment we meet Cinder, she’s fitted herself out with a new mechanical foot to replace the previous one, which was much too small, so right from the beginning, you know our heroine is a take-charge kinda girl who isn’t going to wait around for her fairy godmother to make the magic happen for her. All the other elements are there: the Charming Prince, only in this case he insists Cinder call him by his first name, Kai and practically hounds her so she’ll accompany him to the ball, which she’s determined not to got to even though he’s undeniably attractive; the evil stepmother, who treats Cinder like the second-class citizen she is, because cyborgs don’t have rights like normal human beings do in this society, and who at one point commands Cinder to leave her foot in the hall in a bit of surrealistic sadism, and of course the ball itself which Cinder ends up attending, but not just so she can capture to prince’s heart, which she’s done already without trying to, but so she can save the earth from the threat of the Lunars and their Evil Queen, who threatens to dominate humanity with her mind-control form of totalitarianism.

This story is full of surprising twists and turns, and for one expecting just a few quirky takeoffs on a familiar tale, it’s like a ride around a theme-park on a strong dose of LSD. There’s no denying it’s a fairy tale first and foremost and a teen one at that, so that suspension of disbelief must be set in place so the show can magically go on. But I joined along in the proper spirit, wanting to be fully entertained, and so the magic worked on me too. End result: I was charmed, and I’ve now put the second book,  on hold at the library. Perfect summer reading fun. Getting it ‘free’ (i.e. on my tax dollar) helps too, I won’t lie.