The Name of the Wind

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I’m lucky to have a husband who loves to read as much, if not more, than I do. He devours books on his Kindle, while I prefer paper. This is not a huge issue between us, since we can both agree that this was a fabulous fantasy story.

Kvothe, an unassuming tavern owner has a secret past. When a famous chronicler wanders in after being robbed and recognizes him, Kvothe is persuaded to tell his story. The true one, that is. I won’t put in many details for the sake of spoilers.

We find Kvothe starting out in a troupe of performers with his parents, to a starving urchin living on the streets in the city of Tardean, to a young student at the University. This is a realistic, as well as magical world, but the magic is not so overblown as to disrupt the storytelling. There is a group of ghostly bad guys that pop up now and then.

The writing style is terrific and keeps the story moving along. The biggest problem was the character of Denna, his love interest.  I just didn’t feel like she was written well.

All in all though, an enjoyable read, if you like fantasy stories.

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Besides that, I’m getting ready for Christmas. We put up our big tree, and our cat is enjoying his time sleeping under it. At least he’s not knocking over ornaments like last year. I also put up a smaller tree with the teapot and cup and saucer ornaments I’ve been collecting over the years.

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Wow, that picture turned out huge! Here is a closeup of the ornaments. Maybe one is not needed!

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I hope everyone is enjoying their holidays, no matter what they are celebrating!

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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…only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean?

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

I have been a reader most of my life. Since I was small, I inhaled books at a voracious rate. Growing up I read constantly, and chose to work for a degree in Literature. At the time, I wanted to be a librarian and spend my life surrounded by books. I studied the classics, both ancient and modern along with contemporary fiction, and major works of history. Later on, I read for pleasure and my shelves swelled with adventures, mysteries, drama, and republished old classics. Nook and Kindle have saved me the need to buy a bigger house for my books.

I say all this because Cloud Atlas is the best book I have ever read in my life. It is more than clever, it is brilliantly conceived and written. I have never read anything like it. The scope is enormous, and its powerful themes are penetrating and audacious.

The story is six interwoven narratives told forward and then backward in time. Each is written in a genre specific to the time and character. It stretches from the mid-1800s to hundreds or even thousands of years in the future. The Buddhist thread of reincarnation runs throughout, and we see the same characters in various roles and even different genders. But we find that people remain the same no matter where and when they are. There are “vicious acts and virtuous acts”  done with both shocking cruelty and profound compassion.

So what is it about? Power, and what some will do to justify, take, and keep it. Racism, greed, and slavery are familiar subjects. And the never-ending quest for more.

More what? I asked. Old Uns’d got everything.

Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ’nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil with crazed atoms an’ donkey bout with rotted seeds so new plagues were born an babbits was birthed…..

Valleysmen’d not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too.

But there are also selfless acts of courage, brilliance in both music and science, and camaraderie that experiences such affinity, it reaches out to find the each other throughout the ages.

Then a peculiar thing occurred. The beaten savage raised his slumped head, found my eye and shone me a look of uncanny, amicable knowing! As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend the Royal Box and, undetected by the audience, communicated his recognition.

This is not a book for light readers. But I encourage people to step out from their comfort zones and take on this marvelous, astonishing story. It is truly unforgettable.

The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackson

92974843Elizabeth has just moved to Willow Cottage in the small village of Matravers and is quietly settling in. She pulls weeds, waits for a break in the weather in order to plant a holly hedge, and starts an herb garden. She makes oils and ointments to sell at the local farmer’s market and minds her own business. However, this solitary lady has a couple of secrets. First, she is a witch and is almost four hundred years old.  Second, she has spent most of that time on the run from an evil warlock named Gideon who made her immortal.

Tegan is a lonely teenager who meets Elizabeth one day while working on her holly hedge. Elizabeth politely tries to rebuff her but the girl is fascinated and comes back again and again. Bonds of friendship are formed and Elizabeth begins to tell her the story of her past, although at first the girl just thinks she is giving family history.

She tells of Bess, a headstrong young woman in the early 1600’s who’s family is almost entirely destroyed by the plague. It would have taken Bess’ life as well but her mother entered into a bargain with a strange, scary man named Gideon who lived out in the woods. The repercussions of that act would be felt for many centuries. She also has a story about medicine in Victorian England and another one of nursing at the front lines in WW1. But when Elizabeth senses the presence of Gideon once again, she realizes that two people’s lives may be at stake this time.

This story is out of my usual genre but I really enjoyed reading it. One of the neat things about having Nook and Kindle is checking out all the sale and free books for the week. I have found many new authors this way. I just got Paula Brackston’s short story The Witches of Blue Well so if I come across a short story challenge, I might actually be tempted to join.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Caroline Blackwood, heir to the Guinness fortune, recounts an unforgettable visit to her great-grandmother’s house. This aristocratic family also includes her frivolous but suicidal Aunt Lavinia and crazy fairy-loving grandmother who tried to kill her brother on his christening day.

After a minor surgical procedure, fourteen year old Caroline went to recuperate at her great grandmother’s house near the sea.  Great Granny Webster was a singular character. Although quite wealthy, she refused to heat or maintain her large freezing cold home and ate horrible food out of  cans. Her days were spent sitting in an uncomfortable high back chair doing nothing but staring into space. She wanted nothing from life and gave nothing back. She is a joyless, stingy creature whose main goal in life seems to be simply existing until she dies.

At one point GGW tells Caroline that she takes after herself and will receive her bed when she dies. Caroline is horrified at the thought of both. Her Aunt Lavinia on the other hand seems determined to get every scrap of fun out of life. The minus side is she often tries to kill herself.  Caroline never met her grandmother but a mutual acquaintance fills in the details of her descent into madness and subsequent attempt to kill her brother. He also sheds light on the possible reasons her father, killed when she was nine in the war, was a frequent visitor at GGW’s house. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t for the money.

This book was supposed to be a dark comedy and there certainly was plenty to work with. But the comedy part fell flat and ended up sounding bitter and rather redundant. The part where GGW  brought out her daughter “out” into London society could have been hilarious.  But over and over again we read what a monster and all around horrible person Great Granny Webster was. Seriously it went on and on. Describe people and situations and let the readers decide for themselves, please.

Caroline Blackwood was supposedly a great beauty and “dazzling raconteur” but in my opinion, not a great writer.  The greatest disappointment was that I thought Great Granny Webster would be one of my favorites for this year.

 

What I Read While Stressed Out

Ok, so I’ve been under an inordinate amount of stress lately. What’s so new about that? I took the drug test for the nursing program today and tomorrow I go to sign enrollment forms and my life away. So at least I only have one day to worry about my pee vial getting switched with some druggy and ruining my life. Yeah, I admit some of my stress is self-induced and highly unlikely to occur but hey, that’s just my way.

During this process my choice of reading has been slightly off kilter. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was first for no particular reason. If you ever saw this movie and thought it was too violent than do not read this book. I have never read anything like it for violence and the torture and inhumane treatment of others is truly sickening. If you can’t get past that, then there is no story and there most definitely is one. Many people call it being inside of the mind of a serial killer. But is it really?

Most of the book details the life of a young, handsome, physically fit, rich young man who works for a powerful Wall Street firm. His life is enviable for many; he buys the best of everything, parties, dines at trendy restaurants.  But inside he is narcissistic, an envious and contemptuous empty shell. How he destroys others is detailed in graphic ways that I will not elaborate on. Most reviewers have used this story as a metaphor for the emptiness of the 80’s, wealthy people get away with everything, blah, blah blah, bad yuppies.

And I have to admit that at the beginning I fell into this line of reasoning too. But during the last third of the story several details come to light including one major revelation that turns the whole thing sideways. My opinion for whatever it’s worth? I don’t think he did any of those murders. It was all in his head. Go ahead and read it, if you dare that is, and really focus on things that are happening and you just might agree with me. Oh and by the way, when taking a break from killing sprees, he is pretty hilarious.

The second book I read was Fight Club. Remember that movie? It was on a couple of weeks ago and I watched part of it after work one night. Edited for TV of course. That, plus those dang commercials ruined it.  But the first time I saw it years ago I loved it and was honestly surprised at the big reveal.  Fight Club is one of the few movies that is actually as good as the book. And it’s a great read.

Fight Club is yet another book that is used as soap box social commentary which for me is oh, so tiresome. If I have to hear another long-winded, America is going to Hell sermon that starts with the words “today’s youth” I may start my own fight club.

Not that I can imagine wanting someone to punch me. Or me wanting to punch someone else for that matter. But hey, whatever floats your boat.

I think I’ve had it for senseless violence for now. It was a weird break from normal and I’m ready to get back to my usual crime dramas and murder mysteries, where people are murdered in much more civilized ways.  Scratch that. Maybe it’s time to pick up a nice cross stitch project.

 

Historical Fiction – The Antidote to a Really Bad Week?

But no, I’m not going to talk about it. Just trust me, bad. Once the dust settled I wanted to settle down with a good book.  On a whim, I clicked on The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick in my Nook library. It was on sale a couple of months ago and I snagged it along with To Defy a King. Just a few pages in and I was hooked! It’s about the life of William Marshall, a 12th century knight at the time of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I had already read a rather dry biography of the royal pair but this story brought them all to life. Marshall is very skilled and known for his loyalty, even when it costs him dearly.

What is it about history that is so comforting? The story is filled with war, family infighting, intrigue of every sort, envy, and betrayal. You know, just like real life. It also has loyalty, love, and hope which is real life also. We all have difficult people to deal with and not all situations end well. In fact, many are tragic. But the bigger picture shows that life and family are good, and so worth the energy and love we put into it.

Sorry if that sounds a little dramatic. I’m feeling very thoughtful these days and need to change gears. Since I finished the book I decided to start a little cross stitch project by Country Cottage Needleworks for my daughter whose baby girl is due in two weeks!!  I hope the blue background doesn’t look too boyish. It’s just supposed to be the sky. Melissa used to sing You Are My Sunshine when she was little and sounded so cute. This reminds me of her.

I hope everyone has a good week and Happy Reading!!

The Benefactress by Elizabeth Von Armin

In this amusing yet insightful story of good intentions gone horribly wrong, Elizabeth Von Armin takes a slightly darker turn than her usual light musings.  Though the world has changed much in the hundred years since this was written, people definitely have not.

Anna comes from a good English family but like many, have no money left and rely on marriage to get it. Her sister-in-law Susie has lots of money and took it upon herself to provide opportunities for Anna to get to that state all girls need to be in. Marriage. And not just anyone you happen to fancy. A proper marriage is to someone with money, no matter how old, awful, or undesirable they may be.

Though very pretty, Anna somehow does not marry, and prefers to spend afternoons in a beautiful church rather than interminable hours socializing with the rich yet unpopular Susie.  What she wants in life is both unheard of and dreadful. Anna wants to help others. When she inherits a property in Northern Germany she feels this is the answer to her prayers. But even out in the country with one’s own money and home Anna cannot escape the drama that others fill their lives with. The story is very amusing and quietly moving.

Elizabeth von Armin is one of those people I wish I knew in real life. Her love of nature, simple living, and solitude finds a kindred soul within me. Like no one else she understands women and the pressures they are under. In her writings, she creates beautiful sanctuaries for herself and invites us to join her. Here in the Benefactress, the haven designed to give a good life for others doesn’t go as she planned; in fact, quite the opposite. Giving seems so noble, in reality Anna’s life becomes enmeshed with drama queens, a power-hungry misogynist, envious neighbors, and plots to steal her money. There was also a hint of anti-Semitism from one of the characters, which given what happened a few decades down the road, was quite disturbing indeed.

I dream about solitude these days. How I would love to have time to center myself in a beautiful garden setting and become me again. But life thrusts its way into everything and responsibility weighs me down. I wonder what would happen if I were to inherit a self-sustaining property out in the country.  Would it be wonderful forever or fraught with difficulties like Anna’s little haven? Since you can’t escape problems or people, I have a feeling more of the latter.

But that’s ok. I’ll read Enchanted April where everything was perfect. Because we all need a daydream escape.

The Passion of Artemisia and Jar City: Rape Through the Ages

“Paint it out of you, carissima.  Paint out the pain until there’s none left.  Don’t take on shame from their mockery.”
 Sister Graziela   (The Passion of Artemisia)

I didn’t intend to read a story about the horrors and aftermath of rape, much less two of them back to back. But the similarities of personal anguish amidst the different settings were so striking that I decided to put these two reviews together. While reading Jar City I began comparing and contrasting the two books in my head. First of all, the genres are different. The Passion of Artemisia is a historical fiction about a real seventeenth century painter while Jar City is a modern Icelandic crime drama. Both came highly recommended, one by a fellow book blogger, one by my hubs. You gotta read this!

The Passion of Artemisia was written by a woman, Jar City by a man. Yet both understood how women are revictimized over and over again through the criminal and justice systems as well as by their own families. None of the rape victims ever saw anything approaching justice their whole lives. Artemisia was raped before her marriage with her husband having full knowledge of what happened. Katrin was married and told her husband forty years later. Both women were abandoned, one by a womanizing husband, the other literally left. Kolbrun never married.

Interesting thing about the so-called criminal justice systems of both times. The men had a front of belief that the woman was the “whore” and “liar”. Both stories featured evidence that was ignored, destroyed, or willfully misinterpreted. Artemsia was tortured to admit her own guilt while the Icelandic Kolbrun was mocked and humiliated. Corrupt men were at the justice helm in both stories. One was in a religious capacity, the other a policeman. It makes me think about the last couple of months in America. Bad, really bad men have some truly great hiding places.

The Passion of Artemisia will top my list of best books of 2011. It is a wonderfully written story about a great painter and woman. Artemisia was a talented, incredibly strong person who did not change her story under torture. I love her for that.  When she was commissioned to paint Lucretia, a woman who committed suicide after being raped, she decided to go in a different direction.

 “This isn’t the Lucretia everyone expects her to be,” Orazio said.  “I know.  But it’s got to be this way, that she isn’t sure, so people looking at it a long time from now, women and men too, might feel badly, might even weep that at some ignorant time there was once a woman raped who was pressured, even expected, to kill herself.”

If only. Artemisia chose to paint Judith slaying Holofernes several times through the course of her life. In one, her Agostino Tassi’s face was on the head in the basket. It did not please her at all.

I couldn’t make the greenish gray face look like anything other than Agostino’s.  That bothered me. I didn’t want to paint out of hate.

Personally I think putting your rapist’s face on a head in a basket would be rather cathartic. Not Artemisia. She is on a higher plane of moral development. I don’t want to give away the story but her search for forgiveness was ongoing, like the betrayals by those who should have stood by her.

Jar City was also a good read.  The title had an unexpected and disturbing meaning. Definitely not for the squeamish.  Inspector Erlander has his own set of problems, chiefly amongst those a drug addicted, train wreck of a daughter. Unlike Orazio Gentileschi however, he did not abandon his daughter to the bad guys. And that was probably the greatest contrast of the two books.

Gentlemen and Players

Both clever and disturbing, this thriller is set in an exclusive British boy’s school named St. Oswalds. The envious child of the former caretaker who used to roam the halls in a stolen school uniform is now back as a teacher and determined to destroy the place where belonging was an impossible dream. The only one who stands in the way is the pragmatic and aging classics teacher Roy Straitley. He is slowly being edged out of his classroom by the new computer department but the intrepid teacher follows the clues to reveal a narcissistic and bold nemesis.
The plot of this story is excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it develop. Harris is terrific at characterizations and how people interact in small communities. The various reactions among staff as minor mishaps turned deadly was especially fascinating. Harris revealed that she had actually taught at a school similar to the fictitious St. Oswald’s for many years so that must be why it was so realistic. Roy Straitley was by far my favorite character and I rooted for him all the way.

I guessed the twist early on but never figured out who it was until right at the end. But since the story was so good it was fun to relax and enjoy every angle.

Echoes of the Haitian Revolution

Martin Munro – Elizabeth Walcott Hackshaw – Editors

Univ of West Indies Pr (January 2009)

Paperback – 191 pages

It’s not every day that I review a college textbook but this one was so important that I sent my husband down to U of O to borrow it. Happy side note: all we need to borrow books at the University library is our regular old library card.

In 2004 the Haitians celebrated the bicentennial of their independence.  Most Americans were unaware or did not care. Yet this country owes a great deal to that victory. In fact, our nation would be very different if those brave Haitian slaves had not risen up against their oppressors. In a series of essays we receive a careful analysis of the events and circumstances surrounding the revolution. We also learn about the terrible effects of racism and how it renders certain countries invisible.  Haitian art forms, books describing the horrific lives of slaves, and modern cultural influences are discussed as well.

The introduction and first essay give the history behind the revolution. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson’s delegates purchased from Napoleon Bonaparte the territory known as the Louisiana Purchase. Because of its natural resources, farmland, and most of all, it gave us that all important port of New Orleans. In many ways it is considered the backbone of the American rise to world dominance. If Bonaparte had taken possession, or New Orleans had remained in the hands of Spain or France, we would have a very different country today. It would either be under the thumb of France, unless Americans had crawled back to the British for help to defeat them.

As Bonaparte was poised to launch his Louisiana expedition, the revolution had already begun in Haiti. Thousands of French soldiers had already died of yellow fever and when Haitian leader Toussaint was betrayed and kidnapped, they rose in open warfare.  Almost all the black and mulatto population actively turned against the French and even though thousands were killed, Bonaparte eventually found he no longer had sufficient troops to occupy either St. Domingue or Louisiana.

Because of his defeat by the Haitian people, there would be no American empire for Bonaparte. He sold the vast Louisiana territory because he did not think he could control it, deciding instead to profit off it. But it was America who profited from the sale while the blood of the Haitian people  paid for it.

Some have said that the Haitians won their revolution because Americans helped them. Not so. In fact all evidence goes the other way, that we abandoned them to the French. Imports on sugar and coffee fell to half what the normal was and claims of arms going to them simply has no credence whatsoever.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the whole thing was how America discounted and turned the first black republic into an invisible country. Racism is at its core. One has to dehumanize a race or people first in their  mind and in turn it allows that person to do anything, including depraved and inhuman, acts to them.

One of the essays reviewed two books about women who were driven to the edge because of their husband’s philandering with their female slaves. Unfortunately it did not move them to compassion but rather to imitate the psychopathic treatment of their men. The descriptions of torture and murder are ghastly.

The term “racist” has been overused in recent years, kind of like “abuse”. It waters down the meaning significantly, turning it into a few nasty comments or a turned down job. As bad as those things are, I believe it overlooks the sinister aspect of true racism and the inhumanity it produces in those who believe themselves superior to other races.

Let’s not forget what the Haitian slaves were up against, and what they are still up against as free people.

Help Haiti. We owe it to them.