historical fiction

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.14.2017
Book from: Gift from K. – THANK YOU!

So fucking dark and anguished. Julia Gfrörer’s Laid Waste is a desperate song about human love amid plague-stricken Europe – like a graphic novel cousin of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Grasping, bony fingers and limp corpses.

Gfrörer intercuts long passages of the deepest existential despair with wisps of dark humor – two children flatly discussing how best to avoid breathing in the smoke from a bonfire, for example – and with the fragile suggestion of divine grace. Better, though, than the questionable blessing of unlooked-for survival, is the desperate strength of human connection: “Everything outside of this is darkness.” “Yes.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so deeply, with both mind and body, the vast loneliness and despair of one of history’s darkest periods – and humanity’s baffling, tragicomically stubborn resilience in the face of unrelenting loss.

Like her storytelling, Gfrörer’s art feels both delicate and terrifyingly honest. It establishes a territory somewhere between Dürer and Egon Schiele. Meticulous hatching contrasts with wavering, slightly uncomfortably organic shapes. That wavering quality creates a strange sense of movement even when she’s working through one of a series of mostly stationary panels, which compel us to wait and watch and feel with her characters. With most other artists, the inconsistency of shape and anatomy would register as a technical shortcoming; with Gfrörer, it’s another means of expression.

I feel very, very lucky to have been introduced to Gfrörer’s work through a generous gift from friend K.; I plan to write about the two other comics he gifted me, Black is the Color and Flesh and Bone, over the next few weeks, and hope to buy the rest of her comics soon.

Go to:
FLOOD Magazine: Sex, death and suffering – a conversation with Julia Gfrörer, author of Laid Waste

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.11.2016
Book from: Personal collection 

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries—and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled.

Elizabeth Marie Pope wrote a grand total of two novels in her lifetime, which is a damn shame. She spent most of her time as a professor of English at Mills College in California, Wikipedia informs me (in addition to being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, oh gosh); I can only assume that she was delightful in the classroom. Her first novel, the dark, Tudor-era Tam Lin retelling The Perilous Gard, is one of my tippy-top favorites – I had a probably 10-year streak of rereading it annually, starting from when I was about ten. It took me quite a while longer to turn my attention to The Sherwood Ring. Subconsciously I was afraid it couldn’t possibly measure up.

Resemblances between the opening chapters of The Perilous Gard and The Sherwood Ring:

  • Habitually solitary heroine
  • approaches an ancient estate
  • through a dripping wood
  • where she encounters a mysterious hooded lady.
  • (Also, the two novels are alike in taking inspiration from folklore/balladry: The Sherwood Ring‘s title isn’t a coincidence, as the spirit of Robin Hood is present throughout.)

All of this made me smile hugely – how comforting to see the familiar shape of a beloved story subtly transfigured (and to recognize an amusing partiality on the part of the author).

The Sherwood Ring immediately strikes a different tone from Gard: even shot through as it is with the melancholy of Peggy’s solitary childhood and her cold treatment by both her father and uncle, The Sherwood Ring quickly registers as a comedy – a sparklingly witty and romantic comedy. Though battles, imprisonment, and privation all eventually, necessarily feature in Peggy’s ancestors’ wartime history, Pope plays a game of sustaining suspense while nimbly dodging any possibility of mortal stakes. The protagonists, both female and male, are all clever, dashing, and buoyant, executing numerous daring escapes and double-crosses in order to emerge triumphant (and happily engaged).

The Sherwood Ring falls short, though, in its breathlessly brisk handling of Peggy herself. Though Peggy receives a few scenes in which we can fully register her as a person – her quiet determination, her hopes for companionship from Pat, and her loneliness – Pope, unfortunately, mostly uses her to perform a few perfunctory acts of mystery-solving, thereby cueing the reemergence of her ancestor-ghosts, so that they can continue to unreel their bigger, brighter story.

So while The Sherwood Ring absolutely measures up to The Perilous Gard in terms of brilliance of prose, historical detail, and dialogue, it feels more like a charming pageant and less like a full, human story; I truly wish Pope had treated the framing story with more depth. Still, the mischievousness and elegance of her writing is rare and to be treasured: The Sherwood Ring has both sweetness and panache in spades.

Related reading:
Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999): review by Emera

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Rikki Ducornet, “Wormwood” (1997)
Available in the Iowa Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Word ‘Desire’

Strange, jagged, haunted, heated – like an animal taking little bites out of a freshly killed rabbit. Two children whisper dark stories and dirty, childish love-words to each other as a grandfather lies dying and a terrifying sculpture presides. The last batch of short fiction that I read by Ducornet – her collection The One Marvelous Thing – tended to the precious, in my opinion. I much preferred “Wormwood” for its rawness, its closeness to nightmare or fever-dream.

Stephen King, “A Death” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

A spare Western tale of moral doubt and casual miscarriage of justice. I admired its extreme tautness of language, and darkly funny dialogue. I had to read it two or three times before I’d satisfied myself that I’d explored plot possibilities other than the most obvious one presented at the story’s end.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

and

Rikki Ducornet’s “Bazar” (1991)
Available in the Chicago Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Complete Butcher’s Tales

These two get filed together on account of both being stories of repressed homosexual desire – one narrated by a Nigerian man revisiting his childhood friendship with his parents’ houseboy, and the other set in the heat and clutter of a bazaar in French Algeria shortly before its war for independence in the 1950’s.

“Apollo” is quietly tragic; disappointed affection turns into a moment of severance, of irreversible cruelty; this brings us back round to contemplate things initially unsaid by the the adult narrator. The story is also very much about class, and about the wary orbit that children maintain around their parents, and about reevaluating things seen at a distance (parents included).

Speaking of orbiting: Adichie relates in the accompanying interview that the etymology for “Apollo,” a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, might have to do with the Apollo-11 mission, and the American Academy of Optometry confirms so here. In the body of the story itself, no etymology is mentioned, and so I loved the term’s potent mysteriousness – its bittersweet glow, its intimations of an idealized, youthful homoeroticism, and of health and healing. (On revisiting the story, I noticed that the houseboy who preceded Raphael has the similarly suggestive name of “Hyginus” – also Greek, and having to do with health.)

Ducornet’s “Bazar” is almost explosively cruel by comparison – further explosions being foreshadowed by the impending Algerian War – though interspersed also with extremely funny dialogue between the bazar-owner and his bossy, canny American-expat friend. As with “Wormwood,” there’s a nightmarish viciousness to it; Ducornet’s trademark baroque language tumbles, slithers, lurches, and plunges among the crowded topography of the bazar, and the pitfalls of its proprietor’s psychology.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.19.13
Book from: Personal collection

 

Sakuran cover

I expected Sakuran to be fun – racy, rambunctious, ornate. Brothel life in Edo-era Japan, oh yeah. And it is fun, sort of – bubbling over with scheming, ambition, spectacle, and biting exchanges of emotional violence.

Sakuran opening spread

But it’s also deeply, and more lastingly, sad. Kiyoha is fifty times the usual feisty protagonist: she’s crass, arbitrarily malicious, and often outright violent. While this can all be amusing, even admirable, it’s also a disturbing, straightforward statement about the molding influence of a system founded on mistrust, competition, and the basic cruelty of buying and trading young women. Sure, Kiyoha might just be a queen of cats by inclination, but we also bear witness to the events that progressively eat away at her humanity, at her willingness to trust and share and be kind.

The courtesans’ lives are haunted by a desperate craving for love, and by its impossibility. If I recall correctly, only one of the girls eventually marries her favorite patron; the rest are fated to disappointment, or even death, at the hands of patrons, or their own desperation. The manga culminates in a quiet emotional ruin: in a few pages, we see Kiyoha – at the ripe age of twenty-something – eaten completely hollow by love’s casual betrayal. Sakuran is an anti-romance, in other words.

While I have nothing but praise for Sakuran‘s emotional daring and honesty, there are several practical stumbling blocks to enjoying the manga. Moyoco Anno draws only a veeeery narrow range of facial features, so it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the oiran (and many of their patrons, too) except by their wardrobes. Flipping frantically between pages to double-check which girl with what dialogue bubble had the kimono with the crane pattern and not the peony pattern and these hair ornaments not those hair ornaments, was about as fun as it sounds – and then you get to do it all over again as soon as the scene changes and everyone’s wearing different clothes! Which happens often, since the manga drifts from vignette to vignette, with little connective tissue. This works to create a sense of drifting and dislocation, of the oiran existing in an unmoored twilight realm whose essential drudgery is punctuated by episodes of bizarrely heightened emotion. But my god, it wouldn’t have hurt for everyone to look a little bit more different, would it?

Productionwise, there’s a lot to love about Vertical Inc.’s sophisticated visual design, as usual (ohhhh that glamorously garish metallic cover), but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translation. While a certain degree of informality seems apropos to the manga’s earthiness and irreverence, many of the anachronisms (“spacing out,” “twerp”) just seemed silly and misplaced. And, too, most of the lyrical reflections don’t quite reach the height of fluency and elegance that they need to work as emotional transitions between scenes; they contort into fortune-cookie-esque awkwardness, e.g. “Castle-topplers whisper idle nothings to trap their guests.”

Still, the underlying substance of the manga is so very excellent that it more than made up for all the practical distractions; I look forward to the added fluency of comprehension that a reread will bring. If you didn’t like Memoirs of a Geisha (I didn’t), or maybe if you did, too, but are ready for a more hard-bitten take on the courtesan-memoir, I strongly suggest you give Sakuran a try.

Go to:
Moyoco Anno: bio and works reviewed

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gone-with-the-wind-tara-cake-book-margaret-mitchell-partial

View Recipe: Gone With the Wind Tara Cake

I envisioned nothing less than a grand, massive tiered cake for Margaret Mitchell‘s sweeping 1936 romantic epic, Gone With the Wind.  This famous and controversial novel has all the good bits– war, betrayal, unrequited love, mis-timed requited love– and a spoiled southern belle forced to experience the worst of humanity who then seizes her life back though hard work, womanly charms, and sheer force of will. This recipe is meant to capture the full range of history, time and emotion in the novel, as well as convey an atmosphere of grandness throughout.

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Date read: 12.21.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The cover-flap copy for this book is so absurdly, inveiglingly charming that I just have to post the whole thing:

What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller – one that chills the body with foreboding of dark deeds to come, but warms the soul with perceptions and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story by Jane Austen.

Austen we cannot, alas, give you, but Susan Hill’s remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as the late twentieth century is likely to provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero one Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.

So, yep, a good old English Gothic. Hill provides a smoothly paced, carefully detailed ghost story, meditative in tone and full of lovely, eerie descriptions of the silvery salt marshes and sudden “sea frets” (fogs) that surround the requisite abandoned mansion.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of much other praise for the book beyond words like “accomplished” and “polished.” Hill’s easy mastery of all the conventions of the genre – the meticulously built-up suspense, the confident young narrator whose rationality slowly buckles – has the effect of making it all feel rather tidy and expected, particularly since her prose feels about the same.  In the twisty-turny thrillery department – I guessed the overall shape of the plot about 20 pages in, and foresaw most of the twists after that well in advance.

All in all, a pleasantly chilly read for a winter night, with one or two lingeringly unsettling images, but nothing that really bit deep.

Go to:
Susan Hill: bio and works reviewed

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Date Read: 1.16.07

Book From: Boston Public Library

Reviewer: Kakaner

I happened across this book during one of my genre frenzies (this particular one being religious fiction), and after being bombarded with recommendations for this book in every genre search I conducted, I decided to read it. The story is about Father Agostino who is sent by the church inquisition to investigate Leonardo Da Vinci’s current painting, The Last Supper, and to find proof to convict Da Vinci as a heretic. Cue Christian religion conspiracy subplots.

As I am sure you can tell from the gist of my setup, this was like The Da Vinci Code in 300 pages, of which you may have already discovered Emera and I are entirely not fans. Admittedly, it wasn’t as excessively dramatic as The Da Vinci Code — now that would be an amazing feat– but it was an intensely painful read. Above all, it was *boring*, one of those books where you stop every 20 pages to look at the cover or read the blurb again to get a sense of what you’re holding out for. The main character was completely devoid of personality, although the supporting characters were slightly more developed. There was a crapload of anagramming and cryptogramming that required huge reaches of the imagination to seem plausible. Not only was the plot weak, but each 3-page chapter was also a subplot that didn’t really lend any meat to the overarching story, therefore rendering the quality of storytelling nil. Overall, I’d say this experience was a frustrating waste of time.

I’m curious as to whether this novel was influenced directly by The Da Vinci Code/Angels & Demons. After all, both garnered international fame and were published before The Secret Supper. However, it seems that Sierra has been publishing historical intrigue for many years and perhaps it’s just bad luck that he chose Da Vinci at this time and that I’ve been holding him up to Dan Brown.

Interestingly, The Secret Supper won the Premio de Novela Ciudad de Torrevieja award, a Spanish literary prize which is awarded to a promising unpublished novel and the third highest monetary literary prize in the world. Whew. I’d venture a guess and say Sierra‘s writing is probably stronger in his native language, and the translation may have messed with the word games, but I doubt it would still be able to make up for all the plot and story faults.

Go To:

Javier Sierra

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Date Read: 1.29.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

When Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters move to Lyme Regis, resigned to a life of spinstershood tucked away in a modest English seaside village, she finds herself befriending a queer fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Through Elizabeth’s education and readings, and Mary’s instinctive knowledge of the shore, they grow together in their mutual love for paleantology and fossil hunting. But the lives of the Philpots, Annings, and the very town are turned upsidedown when Mary discovers a prehistoric extinct fossil, causing an uproar in the scientific community and the entrance of many distinguished gentlemen in the field. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth and Mary explore a friendship that is strained by their respective failures to find a suitor, and interwoven with the fervor and drama of scientific discovery in a male dominated intellectual society is the sorrow and resignation that comes with spinsterhood.

Review

For me, Tracy Chevalier has never quite accomplished the same breathtaking, luminous achievement that was The Girl with a Pearl Earring  with her other books, but Remarkable Creatures is a complete turnaround. I ran away to BNN one day, picked it up for two hours, and simply could not put it down so I paid the $26.95 + tax to have the privilege of finishing it that very night in my bed. Overall, Remarkable Creatures is the historical novel I’ve been craving for a long while, whisking me off to 19th-century seaside England and embroiling me in the scandal, loneliness, and scientific discovery of the time.

Remarkable Creatures made me fear for my own life, made me examine my aspirations and accomplishments, and specifically the incredible brevity of a lifespan. Elizabeth and Mary have such purpose and drive, and are both gripped by an urgency to uncover more and more truths, working furiously to overcome social and cultural barriers. I, on the other hand, sit in my cubicle writing mundane scripts and am safe from the discrimination and prejudice of a century ago. And once Elizabeth and Mary reached a certain age in their lives, the despair seeped in, and both resigned themselves to many stagnant, loveless remaining years.

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Date Read: 12.14.06
Book From: Boston Public Library
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Bucino is a dwarf who serves one of the most beautiful and successful courtesans in Rome. However, the war forces them to flee to the courtesan’s birthplace, Venice, where she is forced to build her career and reputation again out of nothing.

Review

In a much tighter and well-written second novel, Sarah Dunant takes us through the intriguing and dazzling world of the courtesan. The plot is basic yet appropriately ambitious, the simple voyage of a determined woman who manages to rebuild her life through hard work and large helpings of wit. The linearity of the story made room for a lot of other elements to shine through, particularly character development. It is apparent that this book was well-researched, and Dunant’s comfort with the subject matter allowed her to weave a fresh story with historically educational tidbits. Sometimes there were couple page long descriptions of courtesan techniques and how-to’s for wooing men, and they were terribly fun and interesting. Despite the very controlled approach to the novel overall, Dunant definitely took some liberties towards the end and added some flair and drama to the story. However, the novel as a whole was very effective and engaging, a relatively easy read for any historical fiction fan.

Go to:

Sarah Dunant

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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