Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

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

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Bedtime Stories – Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

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.

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Adventure, suspense, childhood, a memoir and a touch of the supernatural

Tick Tock – Dean Koontz

There was a time, years ago, when I went through a Dean Koontz phase and read a bunch of his books and enjoyed most of them. Then I moved on to other writers. And not long ago I found this book at a clearance sale and thought, hey, it’s been a while, let’s see what this one is about.
Tommy Phan is an American of Vietnamese origin. He finally has the job of his dreams and has bought a car to celebrate. That night he finds a doll on his doorstep, a cotton doll with stitches for eyes and mouth – and he brings it inside the house. Big mistake. The doll has a plan and that’s not good news for Tommy who finds himself running to stay alive. The deadline is dawn and in that one crazy night he meets a woman who will help him, learns new things about his family and gets the shock of his life when he finds out who made the doll and why.
I was surprised as well, which was great. The book however falls into the “light read” category, and because of its silly action and dialogue, I was relieved to find out from the note to the reader at the back, that it was meant to be like that, just a bit of fun after writing another one of his books which the author describes as “one of the most intense and arguably most complex books I had ever done”. Ok then, that makes sense.

Tales of the Otherworld – Kelley Armstrong

Just reading the blurb on the back of this one made my fingers ache to start turning the pages. And because it was a short story collection I decided to start in the middle, with a story called Beginnings, in which Clayton, a young professor, falls in love with Elena, one of his students. The real trouble begins when he finds himself caught between the desire to tell her who he really is, and trying to lead a normal life under the pretense of being a normal person. But that’s difficult because he’s a werewolf and she’s a normal human girl. I liked how the story unfolded and how “normal” it seemed. I was sorry to reach the end but then, big surprise, I found out this is just a part of a bigger story, a series to be more exact. Ah, I hate it when that happens…. This story took about one third of the book.
Rebirth is about Aaron, a young farmer who gets stabbed one night and wakes up to discover he’s a vampire, not because he was attacked by one, but because it was a trait passed down from generations on his mother’s side. What I liked about the story was the different take on the vampire myth and how it was seen as a blessing rather than a curse. In a way, the whole story made sense.

The stories in the book are connected through different characters. I just wish I knew that this was a series, because apart from the Beginnings and Rebirth, the other stories didn’t really click with me. Witches working as detectives in the real world did not appeal to me as much as werewolves and vampires, but most likely it’s just a question of preference rather than a fault of the stories.

She, A History of Adventure – H. Rider Haggard

After reading King Solomon’s Mines years ago and enjoying it very much I was curious to see if this book was just as good.
A family story that descends to the times of pharaohs, a love story that spans centuries and a terrible act that changes the fate of a family and its descendants, Haggard’s book was a delight to read. Holly and Leo embark on the adventure of their lives when they decide to solve the mystery that’s always been in Leo’s family. Holly is his guardian and friend, and on their journey to the heart of Africa they survive a storm, travel along a mosquito infested river, live among the Amahagger and at last meet She-who-must-be-obeyed who holds the key to the mystery. She had been alive for centuries, waiting for the rebirth of the man she had killed in a fit of jealousy, and she believes Leo is that man, the reincarnation of her beloved Kallikrates. History and philosophy, religion, the quest for immortality and above all this, love and obsession, make this classic story one of a kind. Written in 1887, the author says about the book:

“The fact is that it was written at a white heat, almost without rest…I remember that when I sat down to the task, my ideas as to its development were of the vaguest. The only clear notion that I had in my head was that of an immortal woman inspired by an immortal love. All the rest shaped itself round this figure.”

One of my favorite passages:

“But so it has always been; man can never be content with that which his hand may pluck. If a lamp shines for him to light him through the darkness, straightaway he casts it down because it is no star. Happiness dances ever a pace before his feet, like the marsh-fire in the swamps, and he must catch the fire, and he must win the star! Beauty is naught to him, because there are lips more honey-sweet; and wealth is poverty, because others can weigh him down with heavier shekels; and fame is emptiness, because there have been greater men than he. Well, thou dreamiest that thou shall clasp the star. I believe it not, and I name thee fool, my Holly, to throw away the lamp.”

A Season of Unlikely Happiness – Laura Munson

I’m beginning to like memoirs more and more – the idea of reading about someone’s true experience makes the whole story very appealing and this book was no exception. Laura Munson has one great quality I admire: she never gave up. She never gave up when her marriage started to crumble, and never gave up on her dream of publishing a book, even if that meant to keep writing a good number of novels that met with rejection. Just reading about how many she actually wrote made me admire her even more. Maybe it’s no surprise that the book that got published was one based on her experience. In this memoir she writes about her marriage and love and kids and how difficult it was sometimes to balance all of them. I’m glad I read it and even though her writing doesn’t have that polished quality that makes you think of words flowing effortlessly on the page, she makes up for it with her own style which rings true and very life-like.

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery

This book was given to me by one of my friends, and because she has never recommended a book I didn’t like, I was curious to read it.
Anne is an orphan girl sent to live with Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew. She is eleven years old, with red hair and a lot of energy, and also with a penchant to speak up her mind about everything. The tranquil life at Green Gables, the small farm owned by the Cuthberts, is turned upside down by her arrival, as Anne’s vivacity and rich imagination get her into trouble frequently.
This is a book I loved – I was afraid that the story of an American childhood would feel alien to me but it wasn’t. It reminded me of holidays spent in the countryside when I was the same age as Anne, it made me feel nostalgic and also grateful for having had the chance to experience that. As for Anne, she was an interesting character whose adventures kept the story alive to the last page. Even though she talked too much – a trait I’m fine with in books but which I find annoying in real life – there was an innocence to her words and a heartwarming sincerity which I found endearing. I would like to re-read this book one day, and also the other books in the series (there are eight of them, including this one).

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