Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Eleven—Pierre Michon (Trans. by Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays)

Francois Corentin numbered among those writers who were beginning to say, and surely to think, that the writer served some purpose, that he has not what he was believed to have been until then; that he has not that exquisite superfluity at the service of the Great, that resonant, gallant, epic frivolity to be drawn from the sleeve of a king and exhibited for scantily dressed young girls in Saint-Cyr or the Parc-aux-Cerfs; not a castrato or a juggler; not a beautiful sparkling object set in the crown of prince; not a procuress, not a chamberlain of the word, not a steward of pleasures; not any of those things but a way of thinking - a powerful mix of sensibility and reason to throw into the universal human dough to make it rise, a multiplier of man, a force for man's growth like the retorts for gold and the stills for wine, a powerful machine to increase man's happiness.

This was one of the three Early Reviewers books I got in the December batch.

The story was something of a labor of love for author Pierre Michon, who wrote it after something like 15 years of research and work on it, and is based on actual historical events and paintings. The fictional main character, Francois-Elie Corentin painted an important historical piece representing the eleven members of the Committee of Public Salvation during the French Revolution. The story alternates between the commission of the painting and its subjects (more of the historically accurate parts) to telling about the life of the fictional artist.

Beautiful language. Lots of quote options. I would be interested to read the original French version (especially since that's actually a pre-translated language I could read!) and see how literal is the translation; how many of the well-stated phrases are Michon's as opposed to the translators. A short book with an intriguing, concise story. I will say it's kind of a throwback to the French writers of the 1800s, who utilized a great deal of exposition in their stories. Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its ridiculous amount of pages of description of Paris before you even meet Quasimodo. Additionally, like the Classics, there are long passages of exposition with very little punctuation. Which leads to long pages with not a lot of stopping points. But definitely a worthwhile, short read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dead Reflections—Carol Weekes

It is ubiquitous. It walks naked through sunlight and dances through the nocturne. It sings quiet tunes that fade in and out with the melancholy discord of broken chimes. It keeps rooms and it takes in guests on a regular basis. Some chambers are darker than others, temporal scorpions hiding within the folds of time and space. Death is a dark flower, its perfume heady and dangerous as it pulls you into its bosom. It maintains many levels within the bloom of its existence, some of them pockets of toxic waste. (3)

Yet another of my wonderful prizes from the Librarything Early Reviewers program, although my first e-book. My strategy has been to "bid" on any of the books that I find even slightly interesting, and it seemed to pay off this time because I won three books in the December batch. All three of them were ebooks, which may mean that you have a higher chance of winning because less people are bidding on that mode of publication. Either way, exciting to win three books!

I read this one first, in conjunction with another of my recent wins: reading this one during the day, and the other after dark when my overactive imagination made it ill-advised to continue in this book.

That's a good sign, that the book was something I couldn't read after dark. It was sufficiently creepy and supernatural, while also keeping my interest. I appreciated the structure of the book, and actually found it very interesting; it began with a novel, then was followed by alternating poems and short stories. I greatly enjoyed the writing, which was thoughtful and expressive. As someone who is often accused of being morbid - which I can't claim to understand, imagining that everyone just assumes if somebody doesn't answer their phone they've probably been murdered - I appreciated that particular aspect of the book.

There were some things that were not necessarily bad, but rather observations of trends that were not necessarily realistic. Not that stories with supernatural slants are intended to be realistic. I found it odd that all of the lead characters in the novel and short stories were male. Especially considering that the author is a woman, it seemed like the lead characters were terribly inclined to not share the weird happenings with their wives, and in fact sometimes made comments to themselves about their wives freaking out or not believing them.

Additionally, it seemed that all of the children who were featured in the stories either didn't have natural intuition or chose not to trust it. While kids don't always know what's going on, and they are fairly trusting, they also have great instincts.

Overall, an entertaining and fairly quick read.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Thirteenth Tale—Diane Setterfield

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. (8-9)

Perhaps it was the particular nature - and biblio atrocity - of the last book that I read, but less than ten pages into this book, I knew that I was going to like it. As is evidenced by the quote above, it was eminently clear to me from the get-go that this author had a love of books that was at the very least equal to my own.

This book is a wonderful portrayal of a story-within-a-story. Our narrator invites us into her life, as she herself is invited into the life of a reclusive author, Vida Winter.  The mysterious author has long been an enigma to interviewers and those interested, especially with regard to a first printing of one of her books. The original title was Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. However, the book only contains twelve chapters. For years, people have been wondering about the thirteenth tale - even though the book was recalled and the title changed. Readers have long memories.

All her life, Miss Winter has made up a different story every time she was asked for personal information. Now, as she is dying, she feels the immense desire to tell her own story, the true one. She chooses Margaret Lea to assemble her biography, having read an amateur biography that Margaret had written about two brothers. As Miss Winter (aka Adeline March, as we come very quickly to learn) relates her story, it seems as though she is telling a ghost tale, of a sister who lost a part of herself when her twin died in a house fire. Setterfield does a remarkable job of making the March manor seem haunted, making in fact even Miss Winter seem haunted, as a result of the tragic events. She doesn’t allow Margaret to ask questions, insisting that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there will be no peeking at the ending of this particular book. This insistence by her character allows Setterfield to hold onto the twist - resolution - of the story a bit longer.

Along with learning about the life of Vida Winter, we also get snippets of the sadness that is Margaret Lea. She feels a kinship with Miss Winter, as she discovered a long while ago that she once had a twin - who died soon after their birth - and her parents never told her. She struggles with having a relationship with her parents following what she sees as them withholding information essential to her identity. She is able to grow and learn from her experiences with Vida Winter, to gather the strength to discuss her twin with her father, to acknowledge to those outside of herself the immense incompleteness she has always felt as a result of that loss.

While reading, I marked so many quotes as possible openers for this blog post, that I had to share some particularly poignant extras below. Setterfield’s way with words is so unassumingly poetic, I found many turns of phrase that particularly resonated with me.

People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex  you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic. (17) 

Peasants and princes, bailiffs and bakers’ boys, merchants and mermaids, the figures were all immediately familiar. I had read these stories a hundred, a thousand, times before. They were stories everyone knew. But gradually, as I read, their familiarity fell away from them. They became strange. They became new. These characters were not the colored manikins I remembered from my childhood picture books, mechanically acting out the story one more time. They were people. The blood that fell from the princess’s finger when she touched the spinning wheel was wet, and it left the tang of metal on her tongue when she licked her finger before falling asleep. When his comatose daughter was brought to him, the king’s tears left salt burns on his face. the stories were shot through with an unfamiliar mood. Everyone achieved their heart’s desire - the king had his daughter restored to life by a stranger’s kiss, the beast was divested of his fur and left naked as a man, the mermaid walked - but only when it was too late did they realize the price they must pay for escaping their destiny. Every Happy Ever After was tainted. Fate, at first so amenable, so reasonable, so open to negotiation, ends up by exacting a cruel revenge for happiness. (27) 

The other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words; here in the library you could breathe. (41) 

Why recall the picture now, you must be wondering. The reason I remember it so well is that it seems to be an image of the way I have lived my own life. I have closed my study door on the world and shut myself away with the people of my imagination. For nearly sixty years I have eavesdropped with impunity on the lives of people who do not exist. I have peeped shamelessly into hearts and bathroom closets. I have leaded over shoulders to follow the movements of quills as they write love letters, wills and confessions. I have watched as lovers love, murderers murder, and children play their make-believe. Prisons and brothels have opened their doors to me; galleons and camel trains have transported me across sea and sand; centuries and continents have fallen away at my bidding. I have spied upon the misdeeds of the mighty and witnessed the nobility of the meek. I have bent so low over sleepers in their beds that they might have felt my breath on their faces. I have seen their dreams. My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.(113) 

His voice had the unmistakable lightness of someone telling something extremely important. A story so cherished it had to be dressed in casualness to disguise its significance in case the listener turned out to be unsympathetic. (220) 

I’d definitely read other books by Setterfield, and would strongly recommend this book to anyone. (Thanks to Jess - and Rose - for their recommendation of it to me!)