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.

Writing About Poetry, Victoria’s Secret Models, and Dogs

0375503803.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins ★★★★
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Random House (2001), Hardcover, 192 pages
Awards & Distinctions: ALA Notable Books for Adults
Original publication date: 2001

I’m not a natural to poetry; I really have to make a special effort to make time for it and pay attention to it and work at appreciating it, which is odd, because I have my quiet and unexpressed poetic way of looking at the world, but too often the language of individual poets is obscure to me, the imagery too specific or too filled with references I don’t understand, rhythms I can’t pick up on, moods I’m not in tune with. Billy Collins is new to me, and I decided to give this poetry collection a try after seeing a few of his best poems on one of my LT buddy’s threads. This collection gathers some “new” selections (as of 2001), as well as older ones from collections from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991) The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998), the latter of which includes one of my absolute favourites poems by Collins, which my buddy Joe transcribed in full on one of his threads, called Victoria’s Secret. It’s rather long, so here are just the first three of nine verses:

Victoria’s Secret

The one in the upper left-hand corner
is giving me a look
that says I know you are here
and I have nothing better to do
for the remainder of human time
than return your persistent but engaging stare.
She is wearing a deeply scalloped
flame-stitch halter top
with padded push-up styling
and easy side-zip tap pants.

The one on the facing page, however,
who looks at me over her bare shoulder,
cannot hide the shadow of annoyance in her brow.
You have interrupted me,
she seems to be saying,
with your coughing and your loud music.
Now please leave me alone;
Let me finish whatever it was I was doing
in my organza-trimmed
whisperweight camisole with
keyhole closure and a point d’esprit mesh back.

I wet my thumb and flip the page.
Here, the one who happens to be reclining
in a satin and lace merry widow
with an inset lace-up front,
decorated underwire cups and bodice with lace ruffles along the bottom
and hook-and-eye closure in the back,
is wearing a slightly contorted expression,
her head thrust back, mouth partially open,
a confusing mixture or pain and surprise
as if she had stepped on a tack
just as I was breaking down
her bedroom door with my shoulder.

What appealed tremendously to me about this particular poem I guess is I heard an inner voice, or was it the voice of my own mother maybe, who has a mean sense of humour and has always liked to put words in the mouths of the models on the glossy magazines we always had laying around the house, so there was something familiar about it, which took nothing away from the humour of it, and just made it all that more engaging in fact. Collins often writes poems about the process of writing poetry which are surprisingly appealing. There’s often a sense of playfulness in his work, though in his “new” work, there is more talk of death, since it seems he lost his mother around 2001 and was quite understandably more focused on themes of death and dying, but not always. My favourite poem from that particular collection is about a dog and like so much of his work, just seems so spot on:

Dharma

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

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.

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. 

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Fans

ebe9ad16d94aa71596877676777444341587343Book #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