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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Part 4: Worst Reads of 2011

Books are like people. Some you take an instant liking to. Some take a while to get to know and warm up to, but are worth the time and effort. Some are kind of annoying, but since they also have great qualities, you’re willing to put up with them. Once in a blue moon, you come across some that you feel were meant to be in your life, if only for a short while. There is the rare, but wonderful occasion when you come across one you want to have in your life forever. Some really repel you, but you’re fascinated by this very repulsion and can’t help yourself from wanting to find out more about them, if only to confirm what you already know: that you really don’t like them. The books I’ve listed here are mostly in the latter category. Continue reading

And the Booker Prize Goes to…

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt ★★★★½

Actually, I have no idea who the prize might go to this year, having only read two of the six shortlisted novels so far, but this one certainly was a fun ride. Not a fan of Westerns? I didn’t think I was either until I read this one.

Hired by the powerful Commodore to kill a man by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm in the mid-19th century, brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters embark on a road trip from their home in Oregon City to the California of the Gold Rush frenzy to find their mark. As Eli, who tells us the story from his perspective informs us, there is a lot of bickering and arguing between the brothers from the get-go. There is the matter of their horses to start with; after their last assignment in which their steeds were immolated, Charlie got first pick among two other mounts and chose the aptly named “Nimble”, while Eli, who had loved his previous horse and still has nightmares about the horrible way in which the creature died, got stuck with “Tub”, who is as quick and lithe as his name implies. Though Tub poses a very real threat as an impediment to their next assignment, Charlie won’t hear of replacing him before they’re done with the job, for which he informs his younger brother that he has been chosen as the lead by Commodore and will therefore also earn more money. Eli is already ambivalent about what they do to earn a living—and well he should be, as the sensitive and poetic soul he is—and he can’t help but view his brother with a measure of contempt, quick as Charlie is to anger and given his brutal ways and hard drinking. But for all that, there is no denying the brothers make for a formidable and fearsome team, and as they make their way to California and to H. K. Warm, they find plenty of opportunities to stay on top of their game when it comes to killing, maiming and stealing, as they encounter various individuals along the way. It seems a sure bet that Hermann K. Warm doesn’t stand a chance against this duo, and though the brothers have proved time and again that (almost) nothing can stand in their way, they are completely unprepared for what awaits them when they finally find the man. Continue reading

Romance, She Wrote

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner ★★★★★

My latest read was a true revelation. I had put this book on my wishlist back when I’d culled all the “Best Of” lists and prize lists and 1001 Books lists and what have you, and this Booker Prize winner, while the storyline didn’t seem all that exciting to me, also intrigued me, being as it is a story about a woman around my age who is in the process of re-evaluating her life. Edith Hope is a reasonably successful writer of romantic fiction who has been exiled to Switzerland and the Hotel du Lac by her friends who expect her to sort out her life. The hotel “… was a stolid and dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming  the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism. It had made little effort to smarten itself up for the passing trade which it had always despised. Its furnishings, although austere, were of excellent quality, its linen spotless, its service impeccable. As far as guests were concerned, it took a perverse pride in its very absence of attractions. There was no sauna, no hairdresser, and certainly no glass cases displaying items of jewellery; the bar was small and dark, and its austerity did not encourage people to linger. It was implied that prolonged drinking, whether for the purposes of business or as a personal indulgence, was not comme il faut, and if thought absolutely necessary should be conducted either in the privacy of one’s suite or in the more popular establishments where such leanings were not unknown.”

When she arrives the season has nearly ended, there are only a few guests remaining, and as she has been forewarned, the hotel offers no activities of any kind, so with few distractions ahead, Edith hopes to make progress on her latest novel Beneath the Visiting Moon. “I make no claims for my particular sort of writing” she says, “although I understand that it is doing quite well.” We find out that she has been having an affair with a married man with whom she maintains a one-sided correspondence, but on the whole we are given to understand that she has mostly led a quiet and unassuming existence. Edith thinks she looks like Virginia Woolf, and it’s obvious that Brookner has been influenced by that author in the best way, with stream of consciousness prose which is absolutely true to life and which is filled with the kinds of observations on people that are only arrived at after much time given over to mulling on such matters. The story relates the time Edith spends at the hotel, where she befriends other guests, including the widowed Mrs Pusey and her preternaturally youthful adoring daughter: “Reciprocity was a state unknown to Mrs Pusey, whose imperative need for social dominance, once assured by her beauty and the mute presence of an adoring husband, had now to be enforced by more brutal means.”

While the story itself is quite good, the quality of the writing is what makes this little novel truly exceptional and I absolutely loved this book. I’ve given this one five stars, a rating I only reserve for those books which have managed to become instant favourites and which I am very likely to read again in future. Wholeheartedly recommended.