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Amy! You can visit her blog here.
This was the second giveaway of the “Dickens in December” event hosted by Caroline and I. The wrap up post will be on the 30, so if you’d still like to participate with a review of a novel or short story, go for it!
Congratulations Amy, “Dickens at Christmas” is coming to you!
The legend of Dracula, the vampire who inspired so many stories, gets a new makeover in this lengthy novel by American writer Elizabeth Kostova. At a little over 800 pages in the paperback version, Kostova spins a tale in which history and fiction blend together into a beautiful story that goes back and forth in time, from the reign of Vlad Ţepeș, the famous ruler of the 15th century Wallachia – a region on the territory of present-day Romania – and well into the 21st century.
Written from the point of view of one of the characters that remains unnamed throughout the book, the story has the distinctive feel of a journal. There are letters, together with snippets from old documents and even a sprinkle of Romanian words. The story starts in 1972, when the adolescent daughter of an American diplomat finds an old and mysterious book with the image of a dragon at its center, on a shelf in her father’s library. Prompted by her discovery and also by the contents of an equally mysterious letter, she asks her father about them and he, reluctantly, tells her the story of the fascinating objects and how they came to be in his possession.
The story is told in fragments, breaking off at intervals in which the author comes back to the present – a tantalizing technique that almost made me skip some pages. But I didn’t. Going back to his student days, Paul tells his daughter about his beloved professor Bartolomeo Rossi, who disappeared from his university office one night after he showed Paul an old book with the picture of a dragon at its center, and about the frantic search generated by this disappearance. The search took Paul to countries in Eastern Europe, and with the help of a group of scholars and accompanied on his journey by Rossi’s daughter, Elena, Paul was determined to find the missing professor and discover as much as he could about the mysterious book with the dragon image.
I thought this was a pretty long story that could have probably easily dispensed with a couple of hundred pages or so to make it more condensed. On the other hand, the amount of research done was quite impressive and I can understand why the author would want to share all that information with the readers. Exciting finds, a story within a story, letters and journeys into other countries, they all bring their own richness to the tale. I actually felt a pang of homesickness when I read about Romania (it’s been two years since my last trip home), and was pleasantly surprised to find details that were accurately described: the food and drink, the clothes, the names of various characters – it all felt familiar.
This is no gory tale – in brings into focus a lot of history but has very little scary elements. Yes, there are some encounters with vampires and even Dracula himself makes a few appearances but things are pretty tame in that department. I liked how the story focused more on history and the actual person behind the legend, Vlad Ţepeș himself – although descriptions of his cruelty (which I’ve learned of in school so there were very few surprises when I encountered them in the book), made me cringe a little.
I have enjoyed the book a lot. I finished it in the early hours of a Sunday morning, and then let it sink for a few days until the words came to me and I was able to gather them in this review. My companions in writing were a glass of sweet red wine and a beautiful melody from Elizabeth Kostova’s website, whose melancholy notes made me love it instantly and listen to it obsessively. You can find it here.
I’ve read this book for Carl’s R.I.P. reading event.
*Read in October, 2012
From the book jacket: “The tales collected here represent the essence of the storyteller’s art, with its ancient roots in fantastical legends and tales told around a fire.”
I bought this book thinking it would be just the perfect read for R.I.P., a reading event hosted by Carl on his website stainlesssteeldroppings. Besides that, I loved the fabric cover with the attached bookmark, and after looking at the authors who contributed to this short story collection, A.S. Byatt, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Neil Gaiman, Vladimir Nabokov, Guy de Maupassant, Ursula K. Leguin, Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, and Washington Irving (to name just a few) I decided to read it. A few words on some of the stories (there are 18 of them altogether):
The Bottle Imp – Robert Louis Stevenson
A tale of a man who gets a magic bottle inhabited by an imp that can give him anything he desires. But there is one condition to be fulfilled, or his soul is forever doomed to burn in hell, and as the bottle changes hands, it becomes more and more difficult to fulfill that condition. Finally, the bottle is bought by a man named Keawe and the story follows his rise to good fortune and also his adventures in trying to get rid of the bottle. The story made me turn the pages anxiously to see if Keawe gets rid of the bottle in the end.
The Country of the Blind – H.G. Wells
A man falls into the country of the blind. Literally, because he was climbing a mountain and his fall separates him from his climbing partners. Lost and hungry, he finds himself in a valley populated by a strange group of people: they are all blind, but that doesn’t seem to hinder them in any way – in fact they seem to manage just fine, and the stranger that comes to them is amazed by their life-style. Things take a turn for the worst however, as the stranger is forced to make a life changing decision. This story actually made me cringe a little, as I cheered the man on: run, just run!
Night (A Nightmare) – Guy de Maupassant
“I love night passionately. I love it as one loves one’s country or one’s mistress. I love it with all my senses, with my eyes which see it, with my sense of smell which inhales it, with my ears which listen to its silence, with my whole body which is caressed by its shadows.”
A great start to the story, and it continues in the same vein, describing the unnamed character’s love of the night with its shadows and smells and the feeling of vigor it gives him. Beautiful passages give way to fright and in the end the night is not “one’s mistress” but one’s doom.
A little too short to be truly creepy. It left me wanting more.
Troll Bridge – Neil Gaiman
Had I not read this story (twice!) it would have been my favorite in the collection. “Troll Bridge” is a retelling of the classic children’s tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff”, and a very enjoyable one, too. I’ve reviewed it a few months ago when I read it in Smoke and Mirrors a collection of short stories by the same author.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Washington Irving
What a surprise to see this story – my thoughts went instantly to the movie version, which goes by the shorter name of “Sleepy Hollow”, in which Johnny Depp plays the main character, Ichabod Crane, and Christina Ricci is his love interest, Katrina Van Tassel. Although I think that usually the book is better than the movie, in this case I’ll make a joyous exception and proclaim the movie much better and far, far creepier.
The story in fact did not feel scary at all – it was the tale of a rather clumsy country teacher who planned to get rich by marrying Katrina, a wealthy farmer’s daughter; the legend of the headless horseman is but a pinch of spice into this simple recipe and not the horrific story one might expect. Well, at least now I can say I’ve read the original version.
The Tiger’s Bride – Angela Carter
A re-telling of “The Beauty and the Beast”, this is my favorite story in the collection. Like Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter manages to combine the elements of a well-known children’s tale to create something fresh and also very different. Scary? Not really, but sad and lovely and with a good ending.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Buttons get the surprise of their lives when their son is born. Wrinkled and old, Benjamin Buttons is strange to say the least. What’s stranger is his family’s (and especially his father’s) inability to treat him the way he should be treated as Benjamin has the customs of an old man (that includes smoking) instead of a young boy’s. Years go by and Benjamin gets younger. He marries, has children and his transformation affects his family. What a weird and sad tale! In this case I’ll say the story is as good as the movie.
The Dragon – Vladimir Nabokov
After finishing this story I closed the book and confusion took hold of me. It was a lovely story, and I really liked the dragon, poor thing, but I just didn’t get it. And then when I read the ending again, days later, it finally came to me and I thought, brilliant, that’s a great idea! A character of legend, the dragon, decides to get out of his cave for the first time. In his exploratory journey he arrives in a city at night and tired, he goes to sleep. What the townspeople do when they see him makes for the most interesting part of the story. It’s sad actually, and the end makes perfect sense: there is no place for mythical creatures in today’s world.
The Dancing Dwarf – Haruki Murakami
“A dwarf came into my dream and asked me to dance.” So begins Murakami’s tale, of an Orwellian-like world in which one of the elephant makers – yes it’s weird and it gets weirder – dreams about a dwarf who can dance like nobody else. He is so good in fact, that the man who dreams about him makes a pact with the dwarf in the hope of getting the girl of his dreams. But all’s not as easy as it sounds and the man finds himself on the verge of losing his end of the deal.
What a strange and wonderful story! Who would think of an elephant-making factory? But maybe this is just a nod to endangered animals and how the world will try to compensate for their disappearance. Also, for some reason, I keep thinking of Rumpelstiltskin and I wonder if this is one of the ideas the story is based on. This is my second-favorite story in the book. Makes me think I should take out “Norwegian Wood” and read it now.
Read in September & October, 2012
In other book-reading news, a few days ago I’ve started on a novel by Neil Gaiman called Neverwhere. So far, it’s going really slow, so slow in fact that another book caught my eye – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, which I like better, so far. I hope to finish both by the end of this month.
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.
“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with (some dark) chocolate.”
The little insertion is mine, the rest belongs to Mr. Charles Dickens. 🙂