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 


At Play with 420 Characters

420 Characters by Lou Beach ★★★★
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), Kindle eBook with audio selections


“Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?” says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?” says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask.”

Lou Beach is a well-known artist (but recent discovery to me) who has done many illustrations for clients such as Wired, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (where he was a regular contributor to the Book Review). The bio on his website starts with the following paragraph: “I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.”

Right away, you know you’re dealing with a highly creative individual who doesn’t take himself too seriously, especially given the kinds of illustrations which animate his site (see below). I discovered Beach when I was looking up reviews for The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann, offered as a Kindle daily deal one day and landed on the NYT review page featuring one of his gorgeous illustrations. Looking up his blog, I found out he’d published this book, which is a collection of short stories exactly 420 characters long, including punctuation, which he had initially published as his Facebook status updates when the site only allowed that specific amount of text. The kindle edition includes some illustrations and several audio selection read by Dave Alvin, Ian McShane, and Jeff Bridges. As can be expected from this sort of project, the results are a mixed bag. There are some sublime moments, some ho-hum moments, and some head-scratching ‘WTF?’ moments, but undeniably, the man had fun with the form and a reader is bound to find something that appeals. A few examples that worked for me:

The servants seem peculiar lately. The kitchen help, the housekeeper, and the gardener move about in a shuffle, mumbling, glazed. When I confront them they appear startled, as if just awakened. Only Claude, the chauffeur, retains his old demeanour, sneering or scowling, smoking a Gauloises as he leans against the Packard, wiping a long black fender with my cashmere sweater.


A bird lives on my head, nests in my hair, pecks at my scalp. A finch, I believe. When I go out in public I cover it with a hat, so it’s away from prying eyes and cats who would climb my body to catch it. Sometimes on the bus I notice others wearing hats, and if there are seeds or an errant feather on their shoulders, I nod and smile and preen.


I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle. It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.


And my favourite:

“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there,” and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.


More stories which weren’t included in the book can be found on his site:

Sunday Shopping

Illustration by Lou Beach from the NYT

Just had a mega shopping spree on the cheap with an amazing lot of Kindle Daily Deals* today. They have Ecco Press (an offshoot of HarperCollins) e-books on special, a few of which had been on my wishlist, but I also discovered a lot of new-to-me authors and titles I might not have found otherwise. It took me a couple of hours to work my way down the list because I kept looking up reviews both on LibraryThing and in The New York Times and Guardian, and am feeling really happy about what I’ve culled. Here’s the list of my purchases with links to the online reviews for those interested:

Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski
Post Office by Charles Bukowski – he’d been on the WL for a long time
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles – another 20th century giant I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann – historical fiction set in 18th c Sweden; a couple of my LT friends really loved this one, and the NYT did too. Thanks to that NYT article, gorgeously illustrated by artist and writer Lou Beach (as shown above), I followed the links to his blog and discovered his book of short stories (each exactly 420 characters long), which it turns out several LTers loved too (not to mention Jonathan Lethem, and well, the NYT, obviously):
420 Characters by Lou Beach (not a Daily Deal)
I’ll have to do a blog post on him eventually because I’m crazy about his artwork and am looking forward to reading him too. I can’t believe I didn’t know this guy already, considering what I used to do as a job. I’ll blame it on early onset Alzheimer’s.
Ask the Dust by John Fante – this book was apparently a huge inspiration to Bukowski and has become a cult classic. The Guardian loves it too.
The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge is a great companion piece to my recently purchased Folio Society edition of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf (currently on sale), and once again, The Guardian has nothing but good things to say about it.
D.V. by Diana Vreeland – the autobiography of a powerful 20th c woman and high priestess of fashion. Couldn’t resist.
Hotel de Dream by Edmund White – the book description at the bottom of this page was enough to convince me, and it also led me to get the free kindle edition of The Red Badge of Courage. Then there’s the Guardian review.
Last but not least, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare – a topic that fascinates me, and apparently Nathaniel Philbrick for the NYT too.

Total cost: $32.89 including tax.

Among many others, there’s also The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (which I’ve read and highly recommend), The September of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, and Just Kids by Patti Smith (all of which I already own) on offer.

* Kindle ebooks available on today, Jan. 26th, though may be currently be available at the same price in other countries (?)

A Not So Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman ★★★★

Author Anne Fadiman has book love well anchored in her genetic pool. A cursory glance at wikipedia tells us she is the daughter of the renowned literary, radio and television personality Clifton Fadiman, who among other things, was in charge of The New Yorker’s book review section between 1933 and 1943, while her mother is author and former World War II correspondent Annalee Jacoby Fadiman. She  also attended Harvard University, graduating in 1975 from Radcliffe College. I would say therefore, that I have one major grudge with this book: that the title “Confession of a Common Reader” is quite misleading, if the word is taken to mean  “ordinary”. But my grudge won’t hold. True to her scholarly and literary background, Fadiman’s title pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s essays written under the title The Common Reader.  A 1925 review of Woolf’s Common Reader in The New York Times stated: “Anything that Virginia Woolf may have to say about letters is of more than ordinary interest, for her peculiar intelligence and informed attitude set her somewhat apart.” and also: “Mrs. Woolf is no common reader, try as she may to be one.” These words could equally be applied to Anne Fadiman. Continue reading