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.

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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

While Uncovering a Masterpiece…

0940322471.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr ★★★★
Source: Abe Books
Edition: NYRB Classics (2000), Paperback, 135 pages
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize Shortlist (1980), Guardian 1000 (Love)
Original publication date: 1980

In 1920, Tom Birkin, a young art restorer who’s fought in the great war and come out suffering from shell shock, is hired by a small village church in Oxgodby, Yorkshire to uncover beneath a layer of whitewash what is suspected to be a mural from the middle ages. He makes friends with another war veteran working on the grounds of the same church, archeologist Charles Moon, who has been hired with the same funds originating from a wealthy recently deceased old woman, who desired that the tomb of one of her ancestors who had been buried outside church grounds sometime in the 14th century be found. Tom is paid a pittance for his efforts, but he hardly minds this; he sees this contract as an opportunity to spend the summer in the country, away from London and the stresses of city life and an unhappy marriage to an unfaithful young woman he’d barely known when they’d married. The discomfort of sleeping almost directly on the floor just below the belfry is amply compensated for by the healing benefits of his stay in Oxgodby and his daily contact with Moon, with whom they establish a daily ritual of breakfast before setting to work. The work itself proves incredibly rewarding as he uncovers what is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but perhaps best of all are the unexpected friendships he makes with some of the village people, some of whom take him into their small community and seem to want to convince him to stay among them for good. And then of course there’s the reverend’s wife, Alice Keach, a young woman of great beauty, whom he knows instinctively cannot be happy with her husband, and if he only had the courage, might perhaps be willing…

My only regret with this book was that I wasn’t able to fully plunge into it as I would have liked to. It’s such a short work, that I felt it would have been best ingested in one or two, or three sittings at most. But I read it at night just before sleep, and always fatigued as I am, couldn’t keep awake beyond a dozen pages or so at a time, and it seemed to me the effect was diluted. Still, I can hardly fault the book for this, and it only gives me another excuse for revisiting it, perhaps making room for it in daytime hours in future. Perfectly charming.

220px-A_Month_in_the_Country_posterThere was a British film version released in 1987 starring none other than Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson which I’ll simply have to get my hands on one way or another. 

Rubens’s Wicked Sense of Humour

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Book #173: ♫ A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens ★★★½
Source: Audible
Narrator: Nicolette McKenzie
Edition: Isis Publishing (2014), Unabridged MP3; 7h23
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize Shortlist (1978)
Original publication date: 1978

On the day of her retirement from the sweets factory where she has been working for over 40 years, Miss Jean Hawkins has resolved this to be the last day of her life, and she has made all the necessary preparations to that end. Then she goes in to her last day of work and is given as a cheap retirement gift a five-year diary, and she takes this as an order from above that she’s been given a five-year sentence to live, and that furthermore, she must fill a page from the diary every single day. Miss Hawkins has had up till then a rather sad and uneventful life, growing up in an orphanage, from which she took away mostly unhappy memories of the nasty Matron, who held her back from being adopted into a foster family because she was a good helper around the orphanage, and properly trampled down on any sense of self or individuality, among other minor horrors, and also of finding young Morris’s body, a fellow orphan girl who took her life by hanging herself with the rags used as sanitary napkins, shortly after beginning her menstruation, after which Matron had convinced Miss Hawkins she had had a nasty nightmare and the event never took place, even though Morris was never seen again. In short, nothing since then has come into her life to make her forget these sad events, and nobody in all her decades at the factory has ever even bothered to find out what her first name was beyond the ‘Miss’. Lacking in sophistication or imagination, used to taking orders all her life, she initially has little to say for herself in that diary, until the day she has a sudden inspiration to give herself orders which she must follow up on and then tick off once they are accomplished. At first she starts with easy to accomplish things, such as “watch tv” or “take a long walk”, and eventually she becomes more daring till she works her way up to “meet a man” then once that’s accomplished, “have the man kiss you”, no small thing for a woman who is still a virgin by her mid-sixties.

Rubens’s writing is excellent, and her black humour just as excellently mordant as I enjoyed it to be in The Waiting Game, my first book by her (click on link to see my recent review), but somehow I couldn’t enjoy this novel as much. For one thing, Miss Hawkins is such a pathetic character and so self-deluded, which in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad and might have been very amusing to me if there hadn’t also been a man present to take advantage of her foolishness and rob her of all she had, a situation which I couldn’t help but find unbearably sad. There’s the way in which she goes about finding a man, which is initially very pathetic yet quite funny. It’s mostly in the details, but in essence, she goes to the library and stands in the religious texts sections and there tries to grab the first man she sees by calling out to him “isn’t it a nice day?!”, and sure enough, eventually she does bump into a man and run her line by him, even though it happens to be raining by then. That he happens not to seem particularly interested and then shortly establishes that he lives with his mother who never lets him out of her sight other than to go to the library to get her lurid thriller novels which he picks out purely by how graphic the covers look doesn’t deter our heroine, nor does the fact that he turns out to be a perfect cad who expects her to pay for everything. No self-respecting woman would give a man like that the time of day, but our poor Miss Hawkins has no notions of self-respect, so instead she finds him all the more appealing for it and is willing to enter into a little game with him, and furiously expends her frustrations in an endless scarf knitting project, where she puts all her anger about Matron, which has never abated, even after all these years, into every stitch, never once considering that the man who has been taking advantage of her and stealing her savings should be the target for her anger instead of all the girlish fantasies she indulges in over several years to come.

While I’m able to see the humour in the situation, it also cuts a bit too close to the bone. How many times have we women deluded ourselves to make untenable situations seem rosy just in order to keep going? In that sense, this book is truly brilliant, which is probably what garnered it a shortlisting for the Booker Prize in 1978, but I rated it based on the reading pleasure it did or did not give me, and in this case, while I enjoyed it, I was also rather looking forward to getting to the end of a difficult ordeal. All the same, recommended—Rubens does have such a great wicked sense of humour—but with some reservations of course.

The narrator Nicolette McKenzie was excellent on this audio version, but there is a very minor glitch, with one 3-second bit that was obviously intended to be edited out and left in by mistake.

We’re Open Labour Day

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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
Literature: 4
YA: 4
Historical fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 1
Quarterlies: 1
Series works: 17
Male : Female authors: 11 : 6

Audiobooks: 13
Library: 10
Off the shelf: 5
Unfinished: 1

Ratings:
5 stars: 0
4 & up: 20
3 & up: 6
2 stars: 1

Longest work: The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtenay (27h56 audio / 711 pages)
Shortest work: The Pilot and the Little Prince* by Peter Sís (48 pages)

Oldest work: Le Chien Jaune / The Yellow Dog by Georges Simenon (1931)
Newest work: The Good Girl* by Mary Kubica (July 29, 2014)

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.

Engaging and Fun, Fascinating in Parts

1592404944.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter ★★★½
Source: Audible (Daily Deal)
Edition: Audible (2009), Unabridged MP3; 5h22
Original publication date: 2008

Foreword: I should start out by saying that the last few days were probably not the best time for me to be reading or listening to a book about language and grammar. At the best of time, the notion of grammar seems like Chinese to me, having missed all or most of the lessons on grammar in the three languages I was fluent in at any point as I was travelling from one continent to the other, and for another, one of the features of my migraines is I tend to “lose” words, that is, perfectly familiar words disappear into a black vortex and become temporarily irretrievable unless I go searching for them via a thesaurus equivalent, making the simplest of concepts difficult for me to comprehend when I’m in serious pain.

This being said, McWhorter has managed to write a short book which is obviously aimed at the public at large and in the audio version at least, is a narrator who is engaging and fun and obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously, which kept me going even the more arduous bits (I’ve always had a hard time with grammar). He uncovers some links in the English language which are surprisingly overlooked by most linguists, among others, the connection between the spoken languages of the Celts as well as the Welsh and Cornish who had populated Britain before the invasion of the Germanic tribes, pointing out that not only words, but grammar itself was influenced by these origins. Why historians have ignored these particular linguistic connections is anyone’s guess, and he advances some theories which are interesting.

A noteworthy reminder is for the modern reader is the fact that language was historically transmitted purely orally and on the fly, with no formal schooling in existence and was almost never put in writing, with the bulk of the population being illiterate, besides which written and oral versions of languages were often vastly different (for example, Latin exclusively in many Mediterranean countries for written matter, and Arabic, even to this day different in daily speech and printed matter).

He also goes over quite a bit of ground in this section about the use of “unnecessary do” in the modern English language, as in “do you think this is a good idea?” It took me a while to understand this concept, because we use (unnecessary) ‘do’ so much in our regular speech that we don’t even think about it, but it seems no other Germanic languages use it this way.

The end section was of particular interest to me, because having studied in grade school in Israel, I learned how Hebrew was a semitic language which at one point evolved from Phoenician, and here McWhorter argues that even the proto-Germanic language, from which modern languages such as English, German and Dutch evolved, through the extended sea travels of the Phoenicians, probably had similar influences as well.

An overview more than anything, but fascinating in parts.

Aya Love

2070573117.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Aya de Yopougon by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clément Oubrerie ★★★★½
Source: Municipal library
Series: Aya (1 of 6)
Edition: Gallimard Jeunesse (2005), French edition, Hardcover, 112 pages
Original publication date: 2005

Glad I finally picked up this first book in a series highly recommended by a member of LT a few years ago. Set in 1978, it tells the story of Aya, the most beautiful girl in Yopougon—a popular section of Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast—and of her friends and their families. Though she gets plenty of unwanted attention for her looks (make that harassment), Aya is serious about her studies and contrary to her father’s wishes, wants to become a doctor and have her own career and help people instead of trying to find a rich husband, unlike her girlfriends who only think about going dancing in open air nightclubs and fooling around with men to both tragic and very funny effect. I really felt I was transported to another time and to an Africa beyond all the warring and the famines we see in the news and to what everyday living must be like for young city people like Aya. But what makes this graphic novel shine are the drawings; full of energy and colour and hilariously expressive. No sooner had I finished this first book that I hurried to reserve the second, third and fourth in the series from my local library. Highly recommended (and also available in English translation).

Engrossed in 16th Century Murder Mysteries

f001035b372b141596944436967444341587343Dissolution by C. J. Samson ★★★★½
Series: Matthew Shardlake (1 of 5)
Edition: Vintage Canada (2012), Kindle eBook, 464 pages
Original publication date: 2003

When Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer at the employ of Thomas Cromwell is ordered to investigate a murder in a Benedictine monastery, he finds he is quickly enmeshed in a mystery that just keeps getting more complex, more tangled up and more dangerous day by day. Cromwell, known as a harsh master and a tough man to please, expects to get a quick resolution to avoid having to relate the incident to King Henry VIII, as the details of the crime are sure to greatly displease the monarch. The year is 1537 and England is in the midst of Reformation; the Catholic religion, which had been practiced in England for countless generations is now out of favour, ever since King Henry decided to divorce himself from the Roman Pope and declared himself the head of the Church of England, to enable him to rid himself of his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn in accordance with his pious beliefs. At this time, Anne has been gotten rid of well over a year ago—a beheading which Matthew was ordered to attend much against his will—and Henry’s third wife Jane Grey has just died in childbirth. King Henry’s men, all ardent Reformers, with Thomas Cromwell at the helm as vicar-general, and the newly formed Court of Augmentations (created expressly for the purpose), are busily closing down all the smaller monasteries to replenish the royal coffers and take over land which is to be given over to prominent landowners as royal favours. But Henry VIII and Cromwell’s sights are now set on the large monasteries, from which there are countless riches to be gained, and the monastery of Scarnsea on the Southern coast of England is their next target. The political situation is fragile however, and the king’s men are in no position to force the monks to abandon their holding as they’ve done with the smaller monasteries, since a revolt in the North has forced them to reconsider their strong-arm tactics, and they must employ finer stratagems now to encourage the abbots to give up the monasteries willingly.

The royal commissioner recently sent to investigate Scarnsea has just met with a most violent murder on the premises, and Master Shardlake is expected to find the culprit and conclude the business his predecessor was sent there to take care of. Of course, he fully expects to be met as an unwelcome guest at the monastery; as the vicar general’s man, he has unrestricted access and can question anyone he likes to enable him to find means to put all the monks and their servants, who have been living in the monastery in luxury and comfort for hundreds of years, out on the street. So he is all too aware that he and his assistant, the young Mark Poer, are putting their lives at risk in a place where a murderer has already dared to strike off the head of his predecessor, all the more so when other suspicious deaths take place and a long-dead corpse is discovered. Shardlake, as an ardent reformer, has his share of preconceived notions to contend with before he can see past his prejudices against the Catholic papist traditions of the monks and recognize when he is being told the truth and given clues he should attend to.

I’d seen many glowing reviews for this book and the Matthew Shardlake series in general, but am glad I followed my instincts and decided to put it off until I’d learned about the major players in King Henry’s time and understood more about the political and religious situation of that particular period covered in the book. Reading Hillary Mantel’s excellent Wolf Hall with the assistance of a tutor on Library Thing who is extremely knowledgeable about that period, followed-up with Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which treats specifically on Henry Tudor’s displeasure with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts to eliminate her so the monarch could move on to Wife Number Three, proved to be just the kind of high quality literary background that helped me appreciate this historical crime novel all the more. I also found reading this as an eBook very practical, as it made googling particulars and looking up biographical details on wikipedia available at the touch of a button, but that being said, I don’t think deep historical knowledge is necessary to enjoy this series, with its countless atmospheric details which plunge you right into the 1530s and a fast-paced, complex yet riveting plot that certainly kept this reader completely engrossed and barely able to put the book down. I’ve been told by fans of the series that the Matthew Shardlake books just keep getting better and have now moved on to book 2, Dark Fire, which is proving equally captivating. In fact, I think I’ll go and read a few more chapters now, and am already hoping Sansom puts out more sequels to keep me going for a good long while!