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Monthly Archives: June 2014
Paris, 1785. A year of bones, of grave dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love…. A year unlike any other he has lived.
Jean Baptiste Baratte is a young provincial engineer trying to make a future for himself in Paris. He is given a task, to clear the cemetery of les Innocents, to remove the corpses piled up in the pits year after year, to demolish the church, to cleanse the foul air which is spreading throughout the neighborhood. It is not an easy or pleasant task but the young man sets to it and tries to do his job as best he can. He hires men to dig the pits, finds a new place for the old sexton and his young niece to live in, survives an attempt on his life which leaves him with horrendous migraines, and falls in love with Heloise, a young prostitute.
From the back cover blurb I thought this book would be a perfect fit for me. The promise of an adventure, of sinister discoveries, of mysteries unraveled, together with the beautiful cover design which reminded me of Poe, it looked like one very interesting book. But no, it wasn’t meant to be. Not quite, anyway.
It’s not the melancholy air of the story, or the beautiful rhythmic prose which I really loved, or the characters – no, dear story, it’s not you, it’s me. I wanted more – more, when there were whispered rumors about a beast living in the deep charnels of the cemetery, more when the men discover the bodies of two young women buried decades ago but still in near perfect condition, more when Jean Baptiste is attacked in the middle of the night and left to bleed to death in his room. These were tantalizing morsels spread throughout the book but unfortunately they were not given much room in the story.
Instead, we get a lot of details about the lives of the miners who leave their jobs in a provincial town to come and dig the graves of les Innocents – taciturn men under the rule of a mysterious leader with violet eyes (how intriguing, I thought, I wonder who that man is, but this is yet another unexplored thread). Their lives are ruled by their job and soon enough it’s beginning to get too oppressive. Drink is allowed, then tobacco, and then women, to enliven their dreary work of digging the bones. Ironically, it’s the things the church condemns that keeps the men at their jobs, as if erasing the place from the city requires letting go of rules and reverting back to a more instinctual state. The church is demolished and in the process a man dies, an accident. Then follow rape and suicide, unexpectedly.
Even though the people who live in the vicinity of the cemetery appear not to approve of its demise – the death of a cemetery, there’s a certain poetry to that – none but one dares to do something about it. What they do doesn’t change the plans regarding the cemetery but it profoundly alters Jean Baptiste.
It’s the end of an era, it’s a big change for the neighborhood, and some people have trouble letting go. Some lives begin and others end in the slowly disintegrating world of bones and foul miasmas. The cemetery is but the backdrop for all the dramas unfolding, a breeding ground for love and hope, despair and violence – the old priest is slowly losing his mind, for the sexton’s niece, Jeanne, is the end of her childhood, for Jean Baptiste is the beginning of a new life.
The stories are told in rich detail, the dialogues in particular – Jean Baptiste’s interview with the minister who hires him is one of my favorite scenes in the book. And yet, I wanted more, more mysteries and more answers. My dissatisfaction with the story is no doubt due to my penchant for ghost stories, for horror and suspense, for the deep dark pits of the human soul. So, dear story, we’ll part ways as friends. I do like you very much but I wish I could have loved you instead.
Some of my favorite passages:
about the Palace of Versailles:
The palace is full of mirrors. Living here, it must be impossible not to meet yourself a hundred times a day, every corridor a source of vanity and doubt.
Some of those who lived beside the cemetery had started to find the proximity an unpleasant one. Food would not keep. Candles were extinguished as if by the pinch of unseen fingers. People descending their stairs in the morning fell into a swoon. And there were moral disturbances, particularly among the young. Young men and women of hitherto blemishless existences…
For his part, Jean-Baptiste prefers not to think of bones as having owners, names. If he has to start treating them as former people, farriers, mothers, former engineers perhaps, how will he ever dare sink a spade into the earth and part for all eternity a foot from a leg, a head from its rightful neck?
For the time it takes to walk back to the house and up the stairs to his room, he imagines himself the happiest man in Paris. He does not light a candle – he sits on the bed in the cool almost-dark as thought wrapped in the purple heart of a flower.
How simple it all is! And what idiots we are for making such a trial of our lives! As if we wished to be unhappy, or feared that the fulfillment of out desires would explode us! Briefly – the old reflex – he wants to examine what he feels, to name its parts, to know what kind of machine it is, this new joy; then he lies back on the bed, laughing softly, and like that comes close to sleep before sitting suddenly bolt upright, everything uncertain again.
*My rating: 3.5/5 stars
*Read in June, 2014
Today is the last day of the Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge that Carl has been hosting every year from March 21st until June 21st on his blog over at Stainless Steel Droppings. Any books that fall into any of these categories: fairy tale, folklore, fantasy and mythology, can be included in the challenge.
I read about djinni (in two books!), a golem, angels, fairy tale re-tellings, a quest for immortality, fairies and genies (the kind that come in a bottle) and a half woman-half bird character that traveled with a circus. The only book I didn’t finish was Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, and that’s because there were many versions of the same tale and it got quite boring after a while so I decided this is the kind of book I would dip in now and again rather than try and read it all at once.
My favorite book was The Golem and the Djinni – most of all because I didn’t know much about these two fairy tale characters and this book brought them together in a very original and interesting way. This is also one of the best books I’ve read this year and would recommend it to everybody.
A big thank you to Carl for hosting this challenge; I can’t wait for September, when it’s time for R.I.P.
Here’s a list of my reviews and this is Carl’s review site for the event:
Frozen – movie review
The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker
Poison – Sarah Pinborough
Fate – L.R. Fredericks
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – A.S. Byatt
Angelology – Danielle Trussoni
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me – FORTY NEW FAIRY TALES edited by Kate Bernheimer
Dreams & Shadows – C. Robert Cargill
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
Did you participate in the challenge this year? What was your favorite book?
This has been a most interesting week. I had planned to read two books and managed to do that but I also got to see what other bloggers chose for this event and their perceptions shed a new light on my own thoughts. I’m in two minds about Carter’s work. I found The Bloody Chamber quite enjoyable but Nights at the Circus was a bit too rich for my taste. I am, however, grateful for having read this author because even if it hasn’t made me a great admirer, I can certainly appreciate good writing and Carter is one of the most resourceful authors I’ve read so far.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people joined Caroline and I for this week of fairy tales and symbolism. The most popular choices seem to have been the novels Love and The Magic Toyshop.
A big thank you to everyone who has participated, and if you haven’t done it yet, please add your link to Mr Linky here.
Thanks to Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat, my co-host for this event. You can find a list with all the reviews in her wrap up post. I hope we get to organize more events like this together and I hope many of you will join us again.
Now I’m off to read Marina, a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón which I discovered this past weekend. So far it has echoes of Great Expectations and I’m enjoying it.
Have a great week, everyone!
Today is the last day of Angela Carter Week, an event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat. Because of all the different time zones of all the participants and because, if we want to be accurate, this event ends at midnight on Sunday the 15th, the last post will be up tomorrow and will include the links to the reviews of all book bloggers who joined us in reading the work of this unique author.
I managed to finish Nights at the Circus today, but in all fairness, it wasn’t easy. What began as an intriguing journey into the fantastical world of Carter’s work with the stories in The Bloody Chamber, proved to be a different thing entirely with this novel.
The story begins with an interview. Sophie Fevvers (which is just another name for feathers) is a miracle of nature. She works in a circus as an aerialiste, displaying her talents with the flying trapeze and dazzling the world with her wings. Part woman, part bird, she claims to have been hatched and not birthed, and Jack Walser, a young American journalist sets out to find out the truth behind this incredible story.
“Is she fact or is she fiction?” is the aerialiste’s favorite slogan and together with her trusted chaperone/friend/foster mother, she spins a story that literally makes Walser dizzy. From being found by Lizzie on the doorsteps of a London whorehouse to a childhood spent playing Cupid for the customers, to working in a house with other girls such as Sleeping Beauty and the Wonder, through kidnaps and a train wreck, this story is a roller-coaster filled with so much symbolism it made my head spin. Fairy tale characters abound, there’s also a pig who can spell, tigers who can dance, monkeys who take matters into their own hands, a shaman, a clown who loses his mind during a show and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Carter crams every page with philosophy, symbols, and references to various literary works or authors including Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dante. No paragraph is left free, no sentence untouched, and the story spins in all directions, here telling the tale of a character, here we find out about another, all linked and tied together to the mysterious bird-woman or the journalist who follows her across countries in the name of curiosity and later, in the name of love.
Almost nothing is what it seems here – Fevvers herself most of all. She is a “giantess” with a “big bosom”, blonde hair and blue eyes. She farts and spits and blows her nose with her fingers, drinks copious amounts of alcohol with the finesse of a drunken sailor, yet her vocabulary is only matched by her lust for money and that is great, indeed. Showered with gifts by admirers, invited to fancy diners, she is the wonder everybody admires, desires and obsesses over, but her calculated avarice and cunning saves her from more than one sticky situation.
I’m not sure if I liked this book. I certainly admire and appreciate the writing but certain passages I could have done without. The first part of the book – in which Fevvers goes down memory lane – was more interesting, and as for characters, I didn’t like any of them in particular. Reading this book was an odd sensation, and I’m beginning to think Carter works best for me in smaller chunks. Her prose is rich and abundant, a cornucopia of words spilling from the pages; her views on marriage, the freedom of women and the nuisance of men, quite obvious – sexuality, abuse of women, madness, fantastic elements, all are present or hinted at one way or the other.
While I did enjoy the nuances and musings, a few sprinkled here and there are fine, but a deluge is not, and at the end of the day I want to enjoy a good story without digging my way from under the symbolism. I am glad I read her work, even if it hasn’t made a fan out of me – not yet anyway (though I still think her short stories are great and would recommend them), I’m not sure if I would try and read any of her other books any time soon.
My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in June, 2014
This is my first contribution to Angela Carter Week, a reading event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat.
The Bloody Chamber is a short story collection based on legends and fairy tales which take place in Gothic castles, great houses or dark woods, complete with grim surroundings, acts of cruelty and plenty of blood. Vampires and werewolves, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots, the tales remodeled, the protagonists are changed, not in name but in behavior.
The first story, The Bloody Chamber, is based on the legend of Bluebeard, the famous man whose brides meet a gruesome death when they disobey his order – never to enter the forbidden room, you may have the key but not his permission. The temptation is great and the new bride only finds what the price for her betrayal is at the end, after the act is done – the consequences are never articulated but rather shown. What is different with Carter’s approach is the power she invests in women which gives them a chance at salvation. This was my favorite story – a perfect combination of exquisite language, mystery, and a great ending that’s not exactly happily ever after but close enough.
I loved this line:
“…the unguessable country of marriage.”
The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride tell the story of “Beauty and the Beast” in a new way. While the first begins like the original story, and is of a more delicate, romantic nature, the second is brutal and horrific in its originality – the young girl has to face the Beast as one would a master, after all, her father had lost her at cards and she was now his property. It’s a battle of wits as the protagonists try to get what they want but find themselves surprised by the answer to their requests.
It was the strangest thing, reading this – I liked the story very much but when I finished the last sentence I realized it was not the first time I had read it. Does this mean I was so engrossed in the story it totally blotted out the memory of my first reading it? I hope so.
I liked this new version of Puss in Boots in which a poor young man falls in love with the beautiful young wife of an old rich miser who reminded me of Scrooge so much I could almost see his bony hands counting the coins, eating meager suppers and keeping his wife under lock and key, much as he did with his money. Puss is the narrator, which makes for an amusing point of view as he describes the things he does for his master, from stealing dinner to delivering messages, and planning some risky escapades.
The Erl King and The Snow Child were two very strange stories and I’m not exactly sure what to make of them.
The Erl King has ample references to Red Riding Hood but the story is so full of symbolism it’s almost like a riddle. Are the main characters people? I have my doubts. It feels more like a love poem to nature, the words rich and laden with subtle meaning which I can’t quite grasp.
The Snow Child begins with a wish made by a count who goes horse-riding with his wife, a wish for a girl “white as snow, red as blood, black as that bird’s feather.” While I liked the beginning of this story in which the man – and not his wife – wishes for a daughter, the ending had quite the opposite effect on me.
The Lady of the House of Love – this is a story I have read before and read it again this time and liked it just as much. A vampire story, but like with the other stories in this book, it’s not what one might expect. The decrepit old house with its old, time-eaten furnishings, a young woman – a vampire – living in seclusion, spending her long years dealing Tarot cards, trying to see the future which is always the same. Until one day it isn’t, and a young man comes to this forgotten place and of course, that changes everything.
In The Werewolf, an unnamed girl is on her way to grandmother’s house but she has to confront a wolf on her way there and that’s not the most interesting part by far. The girl is tough, in spite of her tender age, she can handle a knife like any hunter and she uses it; it’s a story in which the characters switch places and there’s a big surprise at the end which reminded me of another famous fairy tale.
The Company of Wolves is the story of a young girl and the day she leaves behind her childhood. Gone are the days of a Red Riding Hood skipping merrily on the path through the forest, picking flowers. There are no flowers here but a game of seduction where the prize is life.
Wolf-Alice is about a girl who spent her early years with wolves but she is found and taken away and sent to live with people. She goes to live with nuns and later on, with an old duke who’s not exactly human. It is a strange tale in which the wolf-girl does what comes naturally to her and in doing so brings back the duke’s mortality.
This was perhaps the strangest collection of short stories I’ve read so far, not only because the characters sometimes switch places, or the unguessed endings which came so suddenly it was delightfully shocking but mostly because of the language. I found The Bloody Chamber the most accessible and the best of the whole collection. In it, the right amount of sensuous, descriptive, romantic and also brutal and tender language is used to tell a story in which the woman is not doomed as an act of curiosity (a second chance for biblical Eve if you like) but she is saved and not by a knight in shining armor either.
The heroines are mostly young girls on the brink of womanhood, that time in-between filled with confusion, apprehension and sexual curiosity. The men are either beasts or helpless, and the women hold the power – a feminist approach if ever was one.
The writing is rich and intricate, perhaps a bit too much, like the lilies cloying the atmosphere with their perfume in The Bloody Chamber – at times I felt like being in a dense jungle without a machete to make my way through. While I can appreciate the opulence of the language, there were moments when I wished for a cleaner, less intricate way of telling the story.
My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in June, 2014
I’m now making my way through Nights at the Circus, a novel this time – I’m nearly 80 pages in and very curious about it and glad to see the luxurious language is not as thick as in the stories, something which I find more enjoyable. Hopefully I will finish it by Sunday if not sooner.
What are your plans for this week and if you’re taking part in this event, how do you like Angela Carter’s work so far?
Angela Carter Week is finally here. What started as a casual remark on Beautyisasleepingcat, one of my favorite blogs, led to a one week event co-hosted by Caroline and I, as part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge.
Here are the guidelines:
– The event lasts for a week
– Choose one of the two badges for your blog/website
– You can read/listen (to) anything by Angela Carter
– Leave a comment with the link to your review here or on Caroline’s blog (or both) at any time starting today until the last day of the event.
Anyone can join, just leave your name in a comment. You can find my intro post with a list of Angela Carter’s work here and a list of all the participants here.
For this week I plan on reading a short story collection – The Secret Chamber, and a novel – Nights at the Circus. I’ll post the review for the first sometime next week, and hopefully I’ll get to finish the second by Sunday, the last day of the event.
Thanks to all the participants for taking part in this. I look forward to reading your reviews!
Richard Matheson is a writer who doesn’t need a big introduction. Among his most famous novels which were later adapted for the big screen are A Stir of Echoes, I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. Famous horror writer Stephen King cites Matheson as “the author who influenced me the most as a writer”. It was this quote on the front cover that caught my eye at the bookstore, and the intriguing blurb at the back – a story set a century ago, Apaches, and a mysterious man “who may not be entirely human”.
The story starts with a meeting between a group of Apaches led by chief Braided Feather, and representatives of the U.S. government. Some of the important characters in the story are introduced right away – Billjohn Finley and David Boutelle among them. They have gathered to sign a treaty, which is followed shortly by the death of two young men who are discovered not long after the act, a fact which puts the whole treaty under question as the Apaches are blamed for their deaths. The men’s older brother is intent on revenge, and when he sees the strange tall man wearing the clothes of one of his brothers, he realizes he’s found the killer. But the stranger is after one man, the Night Doctor, and everybody who stands in his way is bound to end up dead. Who is the strange man, whose neck bears a savage scar, whose words came out as if he’d just learned to speak, and whose sight makes men lose their courage? There is no bullet that can stop him, no man who can stand in his way – his appearance strikes horror among people, and even the Apaches are afraid of him. Why else would they abandon their camp and seek refuge elsewhere?
This story gave me nightmares but I loved it. It’s told in a straightforward way, building on the suspense, and even if some scenes were predictable, the horror and savagery certainly made up for this little disadvantage. Matheson has incorporated into the story well-known elements of a Western – a tribe of American Indians complete with a shaman (or Night Doctor), an Apache whose drinking problem has kept him away from his people, an American who is able to see things in their true light and tries to keep peace between the two nations. I liked the book for its mystery, for the bravery of its characters, and not least of all for reminding me of the great Apache chief Winnetou, from the novel with the same name by Karl May, a novel I loved as a teenager. This may not be a novel with passages to swoon over but at a little over 200 pages long it’s a good story and a great choice for fans of the horror and Western genre.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in May, 2014
In other news, Angela Carter Week starts this Sunday, the 8th of June, a reading event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@beautyisasleepingcat as part of the Once Upon a Time challenge. For more details, including a list of Angela Carter’s books, please follow this link. A big thank you to those who have decided to join us and helped by spreading the word. If you’d like to be a part of this you’re more than welcome, just leave a comment and I’ll include your blog in the list. Also, if you decided not to participate after all, please let me know and I’ll delete your name from the list (but I hope that won’t happen).
The participants (so far):
Caroline @ Beautyisasleepingcat
Delia @ Postcards from Asia
TJ @ mybookstrings
Vishy @ vishytheknight
Fleur @ Fleur in her World
Priya @ Tabula Rasa
Vasilly @ classicvasilly
Helen @ shereadsnovels
Brona @ bronasbooks
Brian @ briansbabblingbooks
TBM @ 50yearproject
Yasmine Rose @ Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog
Stu @ Winstonsdad’s Blog
Kailana @ The Written World
Ellie @ Lit Nerd
Cathy @ 746books
Violet @ Still Life With Books
Candiss @ Read the Gamut
Mel U @ The Reading Life
Pearls & Prose
Danielle @ A Work in Progress