12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

12.15–The Red Tent

Anita Diamant has done every single thing right with this novel. It is one of the most stunning pieces of literature I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. In a primarily patriarchal culture, the red tent is a women’s haven where men are not permitted, and the culture within is absolutely beautiful.  The narrator, Dinah, is the only daughter of Jacob (of biblical fame), borne to him by his wife Leah. She is looking back at her life, from her very first memories to the nightfall of her existence, and it is a life full of both joy and sorrow.

Jacob has four wives, and Dinah regards them all as mothers. She is raised in a gaggle of children, always surrounded by playmates and confidantes.  Her best friend and closest sibling is Joseph, though they at some point become sadly estranged. As she and her brothers grow, they all drift slightly apart and fissures appear within the family group. Dinah is also the character in the Bible who is “raped” by the prince of a city, for whom her brothers later take revenge by killing every male resident of the city.  In the novel, however, Diamant portrays this as a love story, with Dinah visiting the city with her mother as an apprentice midwife, meeting the prince, and falling deeply in love with him. They have a whirlwind romance and a clandestine wedding without her parents permission, and they pay a heavy price for it.  Despite the profoundly heartbreaking tragedy of her short marriage, Dinah manages to move on and live a life of productivity, joy, and even enlightenment to a certain degree.

One interesting thing about the novel is that one would expect it to be steeped in Jewish culture and faith, but that is not the case.  Jacob and his sons after him do worship the god of his fathers. The women, however, around whom the novel circles, are of a strange pagan faith–a cult that worships the power of women and of the earth and the moon.  There is very little interference from the men on this topic. I suppose women were not considered important enough at this time to be converted.  This faith is what unites the women, who must come together in the red tent for a week out of every month, conducting rituals and celebrations, performing births together, singing songs and feasting. Each woman is regarded as a goddess in her own right, and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a distance and cold deity. Truly, these women exist in a world apart.

The plot is excellent.  Even in moderately uneventful parts Diamant manages to create enough “action” to keep the reader interested. The novel, as I said, is stunning. It is a beautiful piece commemorating the special culture that exists among women.  In a time when women were thought to have very little power, the bond between these women and the knowledge they possess in secret is inspiring. The men in the story are portrayed as dupes, albeit powerful ones. Dinah herself is a character worthy of awe. Even in her youth she is very wise, and though she is a bit impetuous and emotional, she is for the most part gentle in spirit, in word, and in deed.  She is a lovely narrator, never losing the readers interest for a moment. Her inner thoughts are profound and intriguing, and her words and actions are at times quite amusing.  Diamant’s construction of the entire novel is masterful, her grasp of the English language is that of a fine artist. If there is anything wrong with this book, I missed it. I definitely recommend it to female readers, for its beauty and its uniqueness of subject.

12.14–The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones is exactly what the title may suggest–lovely. A story of a family ravaged by the emotions resulting from the murder of their eldest daughter, it is told by the deceased girl, Susie Salmon.  Susie’s account of her murder and the events immediately preceding it are horrific, it’s true, and have the potential to be off-putting. Yet the novel that follows these morbid events is touching in a way that only the most heartbreakingly truthful accounts of life can be. Sebold writes fiction, but she captures the reality of life in every paragraph.

Susie looks down on her family from “her” heaven. Sebold has created a reality where each person who dies has their own heaven. These heavens occasionally overlap, when the deceased’s interest aligns with another’s. Susie has friends in heaven, and her dog even joins her there when he dies.  But her heaven also allows her to watch the goings-on of Earth, and Susie tells not just her story, but those of the people she was forced to leave behind. What she describes (with a certain detachment) is a sorrowful tale of grief, anger, betrayal, and frustration.  The gaping hole she leaves in the family widens until her parents relationship is in tatters, her elder sister drifts away emotionally, and her young brother is bubbling with anger. She makes somewhat half-hearted attempts (or so it seems to me) to contact her father and alert him to her murderer. Her feeble grasping at the world of the living sometimes manages to break through, and her father is able to receive enough to figure out who her killer is.  Though this revelation and subsequent hunt add an element of suspense to the novel, it is by no means the main focus of the novel.

It is difficult to read at times. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so appealing to read something as sad as this novel. Perhaps it is for the hope of a happy ending despite all. Or perhaps it is because we can be grateful that their sorrows are not ours. Sebold’s story is harrowing and grisly at times, but touching and beautifully written. Susie’s voice contains both the sweet innocence of childhood and the wisdom of one with the ability to see more than humans, and reading her account of events is a pleasure. The book was a bestseller without being fluffy and brainless, and I really admire both the author and the characters she created.  I highly recommend this book to anyone.

12.12–Shaman’s Crossing

I just realized that I’m only on my 12th blog of the year. Kind of sad considering how many books I read last year. I will try to be more on top of both reading and blogging.

The novel about which I post today I picked up in the airport as I was leaving Belfast for Barcelona.  I felt a desperate need for high fantasy that was nearly unquenchable the entire time I was in Ireland.  Unable to find a book quite small enough to carry about with me, I settled on Shaman’s Crossing because Robin Hobb was a name I knew from working in the bookstore. Sadly, it was not at all the fantasy I desired.  Having my high expectations dashed by the book I choose seems to be a common theme these days. Still, it wasn’t bad and it certainly wasn’t boring.

Hobb’s novel tells the story of a boy named Nevarre, who has known his destiny from the moment of his father’s promotion to noble status. As a second son, he is destined for the King’s cavalla (the cavalry of the nation) and a glorious future as an officer in the military.  But his father’s well-intentioned hiring of a savage instructor to give Nevarre’s military education a (somewhat unfair) boost results in a change to Nevarre’s character that haunts and hounds him for the rest of the novel.  He is possessed by an old spirit that tugs him against his loyalties and his destiny.  It sounds as though the reader should have a clear idea of which side of him they’d like to win, but in reality I was very torn. I felt, almost, that I was rooting for the wrong side at all times.

Hobb’s novel has an interesting and somewhat unique plot, though the style in which it’s written is somewhat generic and dull.  There is not much about her writing style or word choice to latch on to.  She tells the story and that’s that.  The cast of characters that she creates, especially Nevarre’s roguish cousin Epiny, is varied and well-rounded, with plenty of heroes to encourage and villains to hate. Nevarre’s patrol-mates have a lot of learning to do over the course of the novel, and they each deal differently with the suffering inflicted on them by the older cadets in the academy.  Hobb has a decent grasp of human psychology, and the myriad possible ways different people can react to the same situation.  Though the novel is ultimately about Nevarre, she has a very large group of characters to develop and maintain, and she does this very well.

Epiny is in a class of her own. By far my favorite character of all, she is everything a proper Victorian lady is not.  She is loud and out-spoken, spoiled, flighty, flirty, and a dabbler in the occult arts.  This practice is encouraged by her mother, who sees it as a way to court favor with the Queen, and despised by her father as a dangerous phase that could get his senseless daughter in trouble. Despite the fact that everyone views her as unruly, stubborn, and somewhat airheaded, Epiny proves that she has both a sharp mind and genuine conjuring powers. In a book that can at times be very heavy, dark, and unsettling, Epiny is usually the lighthearted comic relief that always comes at much-needed moments.

Being a book that is almost 600 pages long, a detailed account of the plot would be too onerous. All I’ll say is that, of course, Nevarre’s path goes wildly off course (isn’t that always the way of it?) and he must use everything he’s learned in his short experience to defeat both corporeal and phantom enemies.  It is sluggish at times, but for the most part was an entertaining read. If you’re looking for a novel to read on your vacation this summer, this one is interesting enough to keep you piqued and long enough to last you a whole trip.

Week 13, Part 2–The Eighth Day

Oh, I’m behind. Forgive me!

First of all, does anyone else find it amusing that week thirteen’s book was called “The Thirteenth Tale”? I just noticed that, and no, I did not do it on purpose. Hah! Funny how life works out.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=Bibliograph07-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=4770030886&fc1=F3EDED&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=040404&f=ifrThe second book I read in week 13 was called The Eighth Day by Mitsuyo Kakuta, a book originally written in Japanese and translated into English. It’s another of those books set in a place I do not know a great deal about, and it’s interesting that our book club chose it mere days before the earthquake in Japan brought the country to the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.  It is an interesting discovery to make as I read–the realization that most of the books I read are set in a fairly limited range of settings.  Thus, though Japan bears great similarities to the United States, I felt fully the cultural differences while reading Kakuta’s book.  Sometimes they brought me down, because it was difficult for me to reconcile the traditionalism of the eastern culture with the invasion of my familiar “western” economy and ideas.

The story is told in two parts. The first part begins in 1985, and is narrated by a woman who, after her affair with a married man ends in her aborting his child, kidnaps the child borne him by his wife.  She lives for four years on the run, in various hiding places, raising the girl as her own. At the end of four years, she is caught and the child is returned to a family she doesn’t recognize as her own.  The second part is narrated by the child herself in the present day, all grown up and struggling to find the truth about her identity and come to terms with her harrowing family situation.  When she meets a barely-remembered friend from her days spent with the kidnapper, she follows their old route around Japan to uncover what really happened during those four years, and who the woman was whom she called mother.

It wasn’t my favorite, I won’t lie. I felt weighted down by a very heavy depression the entire time I was reading.  Literally everyone in the book is screwed-up somehow (I guess the counterargument to that would be which of us isn’t screwed up?) and after a time, it really brought me down. Like so much contemporary literature, there seemed to be little or no resolution or redemption at the end of the novel.  Personally, I enjoy reading as an escape from the monotony and uncertainty of life. It is rare that I want to read about the same depressing things and open-ended questions that I experience in real life. I appreciate the value of documenting modern life in this way, and understand the appeal it may have for others. Indeed, this novel may hold a great deal of appeal for someone whose preferences tend toward this type of novel, as it is an intriguing story and is well written.  For me, however, it’s not a novel I would ever revisit, nor one of which I would speak highly.