If you like your Homer with a postmodernist twist, Mason’s boundlessly imaginative redo of the Odyssey will charm you. Reading Mason’s 44 “books,” abo...moreIf you like your Homer with a postmodernist twist, Mason’s boundlessly imaginative redo of the Odyssey will charm you. Reading Mason’s 44 “books,” about two to six pages each, reminds me of the experience of turning a prism and launching completely different colors across the room. Sometimes you’re in a bizarrely modern environment, say a sanitarium or a place where books have pages and bindings (i.e. not the ancient world), other times you’re in a variation that skims close to the Homeric narrative but is tipped on its end somehow. You never know which Odysseus (or Achilles or Penelope or Athena) you will meet. He pretends to have papyri and other ancient sources at his fingertips complete with occasional footnotes to guide you through.
Mason plays with the notion of the source of stories, a good postmodernist theme, and one that is also appropriate for an oral tradition. At one point he proposes the conceit that the Iliad was originally a manual for an ancient chess game, its maneuvers transformed over time into tales of battles and what appears to be a more literary endeavor. The Odyssey, in this flight of fancy, a “fantastic parody of a chess book, a treatise on tactics to be used after the game has ended and the board been abandoned by the players, the pieces left finally to their own devices and to entropy.”
I found The Lost Books of the Odyssey entertaining and thought provoking. It takes the idea of reinterpreting the tradition to a whole new level. It’s playful and at times tongue-in-cheek. I don’t entirely get all parts of this book, but I did find epiphanal glimmers sparking regularly. It held me, mentally twisting this way and that my image of Odysseus, the quintessential man of many turns. (less)
Rhys Bowen’s latest offering in her Royal Spyness series, Naughty in Nice, is pure fun. The French Riviera in 1933, Coco Chanel, Mrs. Simpson and the...moreRhys Bowen’s latest offering in her Royal Spyness series, Naughty in Nice, is pure fun. The French Riviera in 1933, Coco Chanel, Mrs. Simpson and the Duke of Windsor lurking on the sidelines, handsome scoundrels and clever thieves, gorgeous gowns and too much champagne, not to mention a dark, handsome lover and a clever if somewhat naïve young Lady Georgiana (cousin to Queen Mary) out to solve all the puzzles even if it puts her life in danger.
Rhys Bowen is the master of the historical mystery that is not quite as tame as most cozies but is delightfully entertaining without vivid violence or ugliness. She combines gentle satire of the English upper classes with a genuine affection for many of her characters, and her depiction of the period, setting and people reflects her careful research and knowledge, all to give her readers an engrossing, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down read.
Click for the rest of the review and a great photo of Coco Chanel and Vera Bate Lombardi, two stars of Naughty in Nice.
Waiting for Robert Capa is both a puzzling book and an alluring one. It contains gorgeous, vivid descriptions of life i...moreTranslation by Adriana V. Lopez
Waiting for Robert Capa is both a puzzling book and an alluring one. It contains gorgeous, vivid descriptions of life in Paris and Spain in the ‘30s. It has long philosophical musings on war and refugees and love and memory, which I found deeply compelling and thought provoking. The portrayal of the Spanish Civil War with its intellectuals and artists as well as its armies was tragic and moving. What I was never persuaded of was that this is a novel rather than a strange hybrid of history, biography, artistic critique, with more imagined pieces to it than any of those writing forms generally permit. This doesn’t make it a bad book, just an unusual one.
We never lose ourselves in Fortes’s imagined semi-fictional world because she tells Robert and Gerda’s story with the all-knowing voice of historical retrospective. It’s not just an omniscient point of view; it’s the voice of history and critique. The book has poetic, involving descriptions, but then there are also moments of narrative disconnect when Fortes has positioned the point of view inside Gerda’s mind and yet somehow future events are known and described. Here’s a passage when Gerda and Capa have recently arrived in Spain that demonstrates both the book’s beauty and its odd narrative voice:
“Gerda and Capa spoke little during those walks. As if each needed to react on their own while facing that land inhabited with skinny dogs and old women dressed in black, their faces chiseled by strong winds, weaving wicker baskets under the shade of a fig tree. She began to realize that perhaps the real face of the war wasn’t just the price paid for the blood and disemboweled bodies that she would soon see, but the bitter wisdom that lived in those women’s eyes, a dog’s solitude as it wandered through the fields limping, a hind leg broken by a bullet.”
Sometimes Fortes’s writing seems more a critique or homage to these two photographers than a novel. For example:
“She was training her photographer’s eye, and little by little, she was developing an extraordinary talent for observation. Curious, she lifted the tip of the cloth with caution and discovered the dead body of a few-months-old baby dressed in a white shirt with lace trimming, whose parents were planning to bury their child that very afternoon. She kept quiet, but went out walking by herself until she reached the edge of an embankment and sat down. Resting her head on her knees, she began to cry, hard and long, with tears that dripped onto her pants, unable to control herself, without really knowing why she was crying, completely alone, staring out into that horizon of yellow countryside. She had just learned her first important lesson as a journalist. No scenery could ever be as devastating as a human story. This would be her photography’s signature. The snapshots she captured with her camera those days were not the images of war that militant magazines such as Vu or Regards awaited. But those slightly inclined frames transmitted a greater sense of sadness and loneliness than the war itself.”
In this passage Fortes starts with a scene, although even here her narrative voice creates a kind of distance between the reader and the character/experience depicted in the scene. But after starting in-scene, she shifts to a description of her journalism—the narrative camera moves outward away from the fictional world into the art critic’s academic voice. Both Capa and Gerda were talented and fascinating photographers. Learning about them was one of the pleasures of this book, and perhaps there was no way to accomplish that without leaving pure story-telling behind, but generally speaking, I prefer historical fiction to pull me more directly into another world and let me forget the academic structures of history and analysis while I’m there.
One other mildly distressing aspect of this book—and it may have come about in the process of translation—is the constant use of sentence fragments, whole paragraphs of them at times. The feeling of an incomplete idea, an unexpressed point begins to creep up on my consciousness as I read these bits and pieces of phrases with no grammatical or logical completion. It’s a stylistic choice, I think, but it may be one tinged with some intellectual laziness. The writer needs to think the idea all the way through and push the heart and mind to the end. It’s painful, but that’s what writing is. Others may feel she’s captured an appropriate mood or flood of emotions with this choice, and I’m just being a stodgy old English teacher, with which I won’t quarrel.
The relationship Fortes describes between Capa and Gerda is complex and multi-faceted. She gives us a weighty, layered portrayal of their lives. The horrors of the civil war are vividly depicted. She gives us the warmth and depth of the many friendships Capa and Gerda had with other photographers, journalists, doctors, and refugees.
There are many reasons to read Waiting For Capa, but don’t expect to get lost in a rich fictional world. The rich world is there and so is the fiction, but the author is at your side commenting throughout. You will not get lost and that might be a loss.
[Please note that I was reading an unedited electronic advance reader copy and there may be errors in the passages I have quoted that will be corrected before publication.] (less)
Hoffner’s Letters from the Hittite Kingdom is a scholarly but approachable collection of translations and commentary on an extensive corpus of letters...moreHoffner’s Letters from the Hittite Kingdom is a scholarly but approachable collection of translations and commentary on an extensive corpus of letters from the Hittite capital of Hattusa as well as other provincial centers from 1600 to 1200 BCE . Hoffner begins with a thorough introduction to ancient Near Eastern letter writing. He summarizes his book in this manner:
“It will be the purpose of this book to acquaint the wider public to the rich epistolary documentation of the ancient Hittite kingdom. The approach will be as follows. First, the subject of letter writing will be explored as it manifests itself in all the major kingdoms of the ancient Hear East (Egypt, Syro-Palestine, Anatolia, Assyria, and Babylonia). Secondly, the practice of writing, sending, receiving, and storing of letters in the Hittite kingdom itself will be outlined. This will provide the necessary background for the understanding of the present letter corpus, which forms the third major division.”
Hoffner’s first two sections are invaluable for anyone wishing to understand how the Hittite king maintained communications throughout his empire. No personal letters have survived, only official mail either between the king or queen and others, or between governmental or military officials.
The letters themselves tantalize the lay reader with glimpses into this complex empire, but they will also frustrate at times since too often the clay tablet is broken off or illegible just at the place where the key information was originally written down. Additionally, the translation of the Hittite language is still a work in progress and, while Hoffner is one of the very foremost scholars of Hittite philology, the meaning of some words in these letters remains to be unlocked. Do not expect to read long, flowing discourses. Instead the reader gains insight in starts and stops as the vagaries of current knowledge and clay tablet survival permit.
At times the voice of the writer (or more often person dictating the letter to a scribe) comes through vividly, as in a letter from the Hittite king (either Muwattalli II or Mursili III) to King Adad-nirari I of Assyria. The Assyrian king has committed the apparently unforgiveable gaff of addressing the Hittite king as “Brother,” the standard term of address between the Great Kings, such as the Egyptian pharaoh and the Hittite king. At this point in time the Assyrian king is not included in this exclusive club of equals.
“So you’ve become a “Great King,” have you? But why do you continue to speak about “brotherhood” and about coming to Mt. Ammana? What is this, (this) “brotherhood”? … For what reason should I call you my “brother”? (From page 323)
At other times the letters sound more like a conversation on a bad cell-phone connection—disconnected words that never quite form sense.
“Because I deferred (lit., “rose”) to Your Majesty, … to Your Majesty, …to Your Majesty, my lord, a finished word…across the…not yet anywhere…I will take the matter in hand, and will look the matters over…, and will write it to the (regional?) palace… the princess of Babylonia not yet…will come down quickly.” ( from page 346)
Read cover to cover, Letters from the Hittite Kingdom will give the dedicated reader a much deeper sense of the Hittite world than secondary sources alone can provide. To hear through these letters the actual voices of Hittite kings, queens, and officials from 1600 to 1200 BCE is an awe-inspiring experience.
This book caught my attention because it is set in Athens and one of the characters is an archaeologist, topics I enjoy. Those two aspects turn out no...moreThis book caught my attention because it is set in Athens and one of the characters is an archaeologist, topics I enjoy. Those two aspects turn out not to be overly central, but I’m glad I read it. The narrative voices and the structure of the novel are inventive and very contemporary in style. Van Booy has created a masterful piece of fiction, although it is not an easy read. I found it disorienting at times, and sometimes the masterful demanded I take notice of the author’s skill rather than lose myself in his characters and their world. So this is an excellent choice for those more interested in a literary tour de force than a story.
At the core of Everything Beautiful Began After are three very flawed characters whose emotional crippling as children leads them to unusual relationships as adults. Love and grief take extreme forms that enlighten and intrigue the reader.
The narrative voices, which vary with each major section of the book, are for me the author’s most distinctive and impressive accomplishment, but also sometimes part of what makes this a challenging read.
For example, Van Booy opens with a Prologue told in a very convincing child’s voice. But because children care little for guiding anyone through their thoughts and they tend to jump through non sequiturs, my first read of the prologue left me very lost. Only at the very end of the book do we figure out (or at least only then did I figure out) who this intriguing child is, and we never get to know her beyond this brief prologue, although her existence confirms a pleasant working out of things at the end of the book—a kind of ah ha! of understanding that fills things out for the reader in retrospect. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue with this child’s voice:
“Once there was a tree upon which she found something growing. Something shuffling inside a small, silken belly webbed to the rough bark. A white sack spun from fairy thread. She visited her magic child with devotion. She spoke quietly and hummed songs from school. Words at their finest moments dissolve to sentiment. She couldn’t be sure, but her child in its white womb was growing, and sometimes turned its body when she warmed it with breath.”
I like the child’s view through which we see a cocoon, which to the adult eye is far less of a mystery, and the dedication the child expends on it, true to many children’s ways. I’m less sure of the purpose of the line about words dissolving. This sounds authorial to me, not childlike. I did find many places throughout the book where I clicked a bookmark (I was reading on my Kindle) because I liked a pithy saying, a philosophical observation. This is one of those sort. So I have mixed feelings about it—these quotable bits are often enjoyed but usually interrupted my train of reading. If you stop to bookmark, that’s a good thing—but maybe not so much if it means you got stopped. One such quote I bookmarked, “Love is like life but longer.”
The narrative voice of Book Two is another of Van Booy’s impressive literary feats as it shifts to a second person point of view. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class and been set this assignment—to write in the second person point of view—you will know that it is nearly impossible to do at all, much less effectively. In Van Booy’s hands it definitely expresses the dire emotional state of his character. It startles us in a vivid, dramatic way. It gives an immediacy to the narrative. But it also, for me at least, constantly drew attention to the author and his writing skills. Here’s a passage to give a sense of this highly unusual narrative voice:
“When you awake, you know that you have to leave but don’t know where to go. Eighteen hours have passed, and you’re tired of being asleep. You’ve almost run out of money and you have no one to ask for help. You sit up in bed, you drink all the water from the minibar and then eat the almonds and the pistachios, throwing the shells into an empty glass. You can smell vomit in the bathroom. Then you shower.”
I enjoyed reading this book because it got me thinking about writing techniques, about how to extend the limits of voice, and about love, grief and the emotional fragility of human beings.
I was reading an electronic advanced reader copy that had not gone through final editing and contained formatting errors, so the quoted passages may not be in their final form of the published book. (less)
This first of three projected novels about Marie Antoinette is getting a good deal of buzz among readers and reviewers of historical fiction for its d...moreThis first of three projected novels about Marie Antoinette is getting a good deal of buzz among readers and reviewers of historical fiction for its detailed portrayal of the period and its in-depth characterization of the future French Queen. In interviews Juliet Grey has pointed out that with this series she is interested in redeeming a much maligned historical figure, who, while usually portrayed as “heedless to headless” was, in fact, a much more sympathetic character. As Grey points out, the history of Marie Antoinette was written by her enemies, the victors of the French Revolution. Now there’s a new version, and it’s worth reading.
Grey begins with the ten-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria on the day her mother, the Empress of Austria, began negotiations for the marriage of her youngest daughter to the Dauphin of France. She opens with a charming scene outdoors between “Toinette” (her family nickname), Charlotte (her favorite sister) and their governess, who is attempting to teach them French, but the girls are more interested in chasing butterflies and painting their governess’s face with their watercolors when she falls asleep in the sun. The scene has the difficult job of connecting us to a child enough so that we care about what happens to her and will read on. In this, Grey succeeds. She makes an excellent beginning in her opening sentence, “My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were ‘sacrices to politics.’” Other chilling details about the girls’ future roles and their mother’s demanding and distant treatment of them create a sharp contrast to the two mischievous girls whom we get to know quite intimately. They seem ordinary in their desire to distract their teacher and in the carefree way they get mud and grass stains on their silk gowns. That Toinette is clearly terrible at her lessons and can’t learn much of anything is another detail that hooks us in. How on earth is this little girl going to become a queen? Grey succeeds both in making us like this child and in causing us to worry about her.
Marie Antointette’s journey to the French throne turns out to be complicated and full of pitfalls. While this is a work of fiction, Grey has based her characterization in history while allowing herself the liberty to imagine what went on both behind closed doors and within the minds of her characters. She has written nonfiction about this period and queen, and listening to her discuss her research, I’m willing to trust that she’s constructed a legitimate “read” of this famous woman, although I’m sure the debate will continue in scholarly and historical fiction circles. Certainly Grey’s version of Marie Antoinette is engaging.
For me the strength of this book lies in Marie Antoinette’s richly developed inner world—how hard she tried to fulfill her mother’s demands, how vulnerable and unprepared she was for the gossipy, infighting French court, how much she yearned to be loved but mostly wasn’t, the bizarre but sweet relationship she shared eventually with her husband. For many people the elaborate detail about clothing, hairstyles, etiquette and court customs will be among the most delightful aspects. I have to confess that sometimes I got bogged down in the repeated dressing and hair-do scenes. Part of the point of them was to show that the young woman herself found them too much, so they served a purpose within the novel, but I sometimes wished for more plot less fashion. Marie Antoinette’s training in the Austrian court to prepare her to be an acceptable bride for the Dauphin was particularly detailed: dance steps, parlor games, walking styles, even, most astonishingly to me, braces made of gold to straighten her teeth. The reader does feel for this poor girl whose every moment seems calculated to point out her deficiencies and improve them.
We are left with a vivid portrayal of a young woman who had no control over the path her life took, having been the pawn of her mother and many French and Austrian men as they tightened and manipulated ties between the two countries. Her efforts to define her own place and role are all the more interesting against this backdrop. That she succeeds at all in “becoming Marie Antoinette” is quite remarkable, and it’s worth going along on the journey. (less)