Modern Lit: The Fountain of St. James Court, by Sena Jeter Naslund

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

imageFor the past decade, Sena Jeta Naslund has been writing novels with distinctly literary themes, drawing on material first treated by such giants as Herman Melville (Ahab’s Wife) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock in Love). Now she gives a nod to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Fountain at St. James, or The Portrait of An Artist as an Old Woman.

There are two female protagonists in Fountain, one imaginary and the other real. Kathryn Callaghan is a 21st century novelist who has just completed the first draft of a biographical novel. The subject of that novel is famed 18th century portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, who painted highly acclaimed works of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers. Kathryn’s story takes place within a single day, as she takes stock of her life, now that she’s in her sixties and contemplating how best to spend her final years. In doing so, she learns something about how far she will go to protect those she loves.  Interspersed with Kathryn’s experience is a reading of  her new novel, told in the first person by the artist herself.

Of the two lives presented here, Vigee-Le Brun’s is by far the most momentous. As she dares to become the most pre-eminent female painter of her time, Elisabeth tells about her childhood with a much-loved father, her relationship with the Queen of France, and her flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. Along the way, she will lose the person she most loves, her daughter Julie. But to my mind, Kathryn’s story is the more compelling one, as she comes to terms with love, loss, and age,  and finds the courage to  ward off  a very real threat to the life of her own beloved son. While Elisabeth thinks of her life in visual, artistic terms, Kathryn relates hers to literature and its themes. But both spend considerable energy reflecting on the relationships that defined their work, their lives, and the choices that each made.

As a novel, Fountain is deeply contemplative rather than action-based, and as a result, lags in many places. Still, the novel-within-a novel structure is interesting, and as always, Ms. Naslund’s writing is eloquent and evocative.

Thriller: The English Girl, by Daniel Silva

image

  My rating:     5 of 5 stars

The English Girl is author Silva’s thirteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, the brilliant, honorable, and ruthless Israeli intelligence operative. The book opens with a summons from number 10 Downing Street. The PM has been conducting a secret affair with Madeline Hart, a political aide who was just kidnapped while on holiday in Corsica. Hoping to keep this potential scandal from the press, the Brits are calling in a favor, asking Allon to find and rescue Madeline.  Reluctantly, and against his better judgment, he agrees.  What follows is a kind of Russian doll of a situation,  made up of plots within plots that grow ever more perilous,

Just as Allon is the consummate master of his trade, so too is Daniel Silva. There is no writer working today who is better at crafting a credible, mesmerizing thriller, one that reads like a James Bond movie. Allon, his wife Chiara, and his team, are by now old friends of readers, serve as the hook on which to reel us in. But Silva’s secondary characters are equally three-dimensional, and in this case include the killer for hire  who recently targeted Allon, the Don of the Corsican underworld,  and a peasant woman who can read the future in a bowl of water and olive oil. The exotic settings, which Silva brings to life with rich detail, and the intricate plots that never grow stale or predictable, add to the enjoyment.  As for the icing on these cakes, the geopolitical situations underlying all the intrigue provide the moral reason for the mayhem.

All of the Gabriel Allon novels can be read as stand-alones, but, for the richest experience, it’s best to take them in order. Highly recommended for those attracted to literary thrillers.

Medieval Art: February in Les Tres Riches Heures

Medieval art is my favorite genre in the visual arts, and one of the most interesting forms is the illuminated book of hours. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (literally: “the very rich hours of the duke of Berry”) is the most renowned book of hours ever produced. It is often referred to as le roi des manuscrits enluminés (“the king of illuminated manuscripts”), and it is one of the most important pieces of artwork in history. In terms of historical and cultural importance, it is certainly equal to more famous works such as the Mona Lisa, marking the pinnacle of the art of manuscript illumination. Today it is located at the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

Like most books of hours, the Très Riches Heures depicts numerous biblical scenes and saints, and the initial capital letters and line endings are lavishly decorated. But unlike most books of hours, this work includes landscapes (most well-known are the twelve miniatures for the months of the year), as well as unusual subject matter like the “anatomical man,” the garden of Eden, the fall of the rebel angels, and even a plan of Rome. To what extent the artists had a say in the subject matter, and how much was determined by the patrons, is unclear.

Desolate winter is dazzling in this landscape for the month of February. Snow blankets the countryside and chills a peasant bringing his wares to town with the aid of a donkey, while a farm family warms themselves in a wooden house. Pale light from a wan sky falls onto the whitened countryside. The starkness of the snow underlines planes and accentuates details, giving the landscape a particular sharpness. In the distance a village hides its snow-covered roofs between two hills. In the foreground, a farm is represented, its every element executed with meticulous care: the dovecote, heehives, cart, casks, sheepfold, a hare tree, the house and the wattled enclosure. Near the farm a young man cuts wood; in front of the dovecote a benumbed figure clutching a wool coat over his head and shoulders hurries home. A large fire shines from the wooden house in which two peasants immodestly warm their legs; looking more closely, it is possible to observe that they do not wear undergarments, a detail of interest to textile historians! The mistress of the house, elegant in a lovely blue dress, warms herself with more decorum. Linen has heen hung to dry on rods along the walls, and smoke curls from the chimney. The severity of winter is further emphasized by the birds huddled near the house, scratching for food which the snow makes it impossible to find elsewhere.

Additional information about this glorious masterpiece can be found at http://www.christusrex.org/www2/berry/berry1.html

and http://historymedren.about.com/od/booksofhours/p/riches_heures.htm , from which these excerpts were taken.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction: The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker

The Caves of Perigord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Major Phillip Manners has just buried his father, and his inheritance included a small piece of paleolithic wall art depicting a bull. He takes the painting to Lydia Dean, expert in the preclassical department of a London auction house, for valuation. Astounded by what she sees, she identifies the work as characteristic of the wall paintings found in the caves of the Dordogne, and warns Manners that it probably qualifies as a stolen artifact. Manners informs her that his father brought it home from France after WWII, when he was stationed there to assist the Resistance forces. Lydia, taking that as her jumping off point, stores the stone securely and agrees to research its provenance. The very next day, it’s stolen yet again. A reward is posted, and Manners convinces Lydia to travel to the Perigord region with him, in hopes of locating the cave in which the painting was originally made.

The Caves of Perigord has a three-fold plot. Author Walker, an NPR commentator, relates Lydia’s quest in the present time, and intersperses into her tale two back stories from this region, one from the Ice Age and the other from the second world war. In doing so, Walker show off his research, descriptive, and creative skills to good advantage, recreating the Ice Age and bringing to life humankind’s earliest visual artists and their milieu. The animals, customs, societal hierarchy, and painting techniques are all vividly portrayed, mainly through the experiences of Deer, a young artist in training. Taylor does an equally impressive job writing about the role of the Brits and Americans who trained and supplied the French Resistors in 1944, centering upon Manners’ father, the Capitaine. These chapters are truly harrowing; the region is a minefield, literally and figuratively, militarily and politically, and Walker evokes the brutality of the struggle much as Leon Uris did in his war novels. He knows how to tell a gripping story and make his readers care about his characters, empathizing with their joys and struggles.

If the book has flaws, they are minor, and lie in the absence of a map, and some extraneous detail that interrupted the action. Some photos or diagrams of the cave art wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

View all my reviews

Modern Lit: Peaches for Father Francis

Peaches for Father Francis (Chocolat, #3)Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vianne Rochet is content, selling chocolates from the Seine River houseboat she shares with Roux and their two daughters. Late in the Parisian summer, she notices a change in the wind, and wonders what it portends. When a letter arrives from a recently deceased friend, Vianne Rocher returns for a visit to the village of Lansquenet, where eight years ago she ran a chocolaterie, using her own secret recipes.

Times have changed in the riverside bastide. In Vianne’s long absence, many Muslim families have moved into part of the town, and Father Francis, once her nemesis, hopes she can help him cope with what has grown into a full scale religious conflict. He’s in trouble with the diocese, his bishop accusing him of being out of step with today’s culture, and the Muslims blaming him for the fire that burned down their school. Vianne re-immerses herself in Lansquenet, savoring her memories and drinking in the new ambience, unsettled though it is. And she has a demon of her own with which to grapple.

Joanne Harris has composed yet another lyrical tale, using the tropes of food, water, fire, and empathy to spin it out. Many of the characters, in addition to Francis, return from her first novel, Chocolat (I will always picture Vianne as Juliet Binoche and Roux as Johnny Depp), though she has changed and developed them considerably. The new, Muslim characters are credible and in some cases, delightful. The narration takes place in two voices, Vianne’s and Francis’, and by listening to their perspectives, the reader is drawn into the complexities of the personal and cultural struggles. Vianne continues to possess some “magical” traits, but these are restrained, and it’s a joy to watch her use food and intuition as her bridge to friendship and understanding. As the novel progresses, the growing animosity and danger render its title ingenuous, but the theme and its beautiful execution should give it wide appeal.

Judging from the ending, a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to spending more time with Vianne.

View all my reviews

Cats in Folktales – Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots is a very old European folk tale, known in many variations in many countries. The best known version is  that recounted by Charles Perrault in his 1697 collection of Mother Goose Tales in French. Basically, it is the story of a clever and magical cat who helps his poor master become rich by means of trickery. Folklorists believe that Puss in Boots originated as a tale in the oral tradition, and was first written down in Italy during the 1500′s.

Puss in Boots

Once upon a time a poor old man died and left his only three possessions to his three sons. The oldest boy got his mill, the second got his donkey and the youngest one got his cat.

The young boy was disappointed, and consoled himself by thinking he could always eat the cat. To save himself, the cat began to speak to him and struck a bargain: if the boy would give him a bag and a pair of boots, the cat would repay him by making him rich. The boy agrees, and the cat put on his new boots, grabbed his new bag, and went out to catch a rabbit. Carrying it in the bag, Puss in Boots brought the rabbit to the King in his palace, saying that it was a present from his master, the Prince of Carabas. After that the cat caught many more animals, and each time offered them to the King with the same message.

One day the King went for a ride in his coach near the river, and Puss in Boots, knowing this, told the miller’s son to go for a swim. While he was in the water, the cat hid his clothes, and then ran to the road and told the King that his master, the Prince of Carabas, was swimming when some thieves had stolen his clothes. The King wrapped the boy in a rich robe, and took him into his fabulous coach, seating him next to his daughter, the beautiful Princess.

Puss in Boots sprang into action, running ahead and threatening all of the farmers he encountered that if they did not tell the King that the all the fields belonged to the Prince of Carabas, they would all be chopped into pieces. Naturally, hearing this, the King believes the miller’s son is very rich indeed.

In reality, however, the lands were the property of a great and terrible ogre. Puss in Boots confronted the ogre at his castle, challenging him to prove the rumor that the ogre could turn himself into any animal he chose. Unable to resist showing off, the ogre changes himself into several different creatures. When he turned into a mouse, Puss in Boots pounced upon him and ate him up. As the King’s coach rolled onto the castle grounds, Puss in Boots greeted the royal party, presenting the ogre’s castle and all of his land as that of the miller’s son. The King was so impressed that he offered the boy the hand of the princess in marriage. So they were married and lived happily ever after. As for Puss in Boots, according to Perrault, he “became a personage of great importance, and gave up hunting mice, except for amusement”.

Great Nonfiction: Hiking Through History, by Kirk Ward Robinson

Hiking Through History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I feel something profound in places where tangible history survives to the present, as if by touching the walls I can transport myself across time,” writes Kirk W. Robinson in Hiking Through History. Primarily an outdoorsman and natural historian, Robinson is no “if it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium” sort of tourist. He prefers a slower pace, on his own and on a tight budget. I picked up his travel journal because of my interest in Joan of Arc. I also enjoyed reading about his treks through Hannibal’s Alps and Robert the Bruce’s Scottish Highlands, but his chapters on Joan and France are the ones that shine. Robinson quite literally follows in Joan’s footsteps on her quest to make France victorious in the Hundred Years War with England, and to put Charles VII firmly on the throne. Starting in her birthplace, Domremy, he traces her journey to Chinon, Reims, Orleans, and Rouen. The countless biographers of “La Pucelle” have done so in more detail, but Robinson’s account stands out in its ability to make Joan and her struggles real, to convey a real sense of the astounding courage and influence that this 18 year old peasant girl achieved.

We need more writers who can make history come alive so vividly that you wish you’d been there. This guy truly does know how to connect.

View all my reviews

Medieval Art: December in Les Tres Riches Heures

The page for December depicts the end of a wild boar hunt in the forest of Vincennes, with the chateau in which the Duke de Berry was born, on November 30, 1340.  At that time, the Château de Vincennes had not reached the proportions shown here, having been completed nearly 25 years later by Charles V.  Here are seen the huge rectangle formed by the walls and nine towers, with the dungeon rising in the center.

The action takes place in the forest of Vincennes, which attracted many kings of France. Louis VII built a hunting lodge there; Philippe Auguste undertook the construction of a small château enlarged by Saint Louis, who is believed to have  dispensed  justice under one of its oaks. This has been a successful hunt. The huntsman at left has speared the boar, and the hounds have set upon it. The victory is proclaimed by the hunter at right, shown blowing the news on his horn. The bloodhounds and boarhounds are painted with amazing realism, suggesting that the artist was familiar with the hunt.

In the tympanum, Saggitarius pursues Capricorn across the skies.

Great Nonfiction: The Vanishing People, by Katherine Briggs

The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and LegendsThe Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katharine Mary Briggs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The fairy people in the British Isles, not to say all over the world, vary so much in character, size, appearance and powers, that it is not surprising to find that they inhabit all kinds of places on land and water, under the earth and above it”. So writes Katherine Briggs in a chapter introduction, and in this exhaustive study, she draws upon folklore, oral history, and scholarly research to illustrate the extraordinary range of “others” once believed to live along side humans, though usually invisible. As in many things, different cultures all over the world held amazingly similar beliefs about this topic, considered rather esoteric today. This collection of tales and traditions is fascinating, but perhaps even more valuable is the appendix to The Vanishing People, in which she includes a glossary of the types of fairies (woodwives, water horses, and their like), an index of tale types (visits to fairyland, changelings, etc.), and an index of motifs (taboo, transformation, and magical substances, for instance.) Interesting reading and a great reference as well.