Monday, October 29, 2007

My Father Had A Daughter

I finished my dollar-store-bought copy of "My Father Had A Daughter" by Grace Tiffany this past Sunday, and I must say I was surprised to discover that I'd spent over half the day immersed in this well written novel. Though I am not fond of the cliche, it really was a 'page turner' that had me stuck in one position reading for so long I developed a crick in my neck.
The subtitle of the book is "Judith Shakespeares Tale" and that gave me all I need to know to snag my copy and start reading. As a former theater major with a deep respect and adoration of all Shakespeare's work, I was compelled to read this fictional account of Will and his brilliant daughter Judith, twin of Hamnet.
Grace Tiffany, whose day job is working as an English Lit professor at Western Michigan University, has taught Shakespeare at Notre Dame, and it shows as she gets the tone and mileau of the 16th century just right, while also creating believable, fascinating characters and a wonderful plot that never lags.
We're treated to glowing descriptions of the Globe Theater, life in Stratford-on-Avon where Will kept his wife, three children and brother, and of London in the time of the evil Oliver Cromwell and King James. Judith is a delicious protagonist, whose need for her fathers attention leads her to pretending to be a boy in his first production of Twelfth Night. We meet the clown Kempe, and other famed actors of the time, and the descriptions of the crowds and the food and the sights/smells/sounds of the times are so vivid, you feel as if you are there.
The only flaw in the novel, and it isn't really a flaw per se, is that I wanted more at the end. I wanted to know how Judith fared in her later years, and why Shakespeare has no known living descendants (at least that is what I was taught in college) if his daughters both gave birth to live children.
Anyway, I suggest those who enjoy excellent storytelling, theater, history and a bit of romance pick up this gem of a book and dive in immediately. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

"The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language."-J. Michael Straczynski, author (b.1954) and creator of Babylon 5, one of the best TV shows to ever grace the small screen.

I thought I'd start this post with a little wisdom from JMS, one of the best SF TV show writers in existence, and a nice guy too. It has nothing to do with the book I'm going to review, however.

That said, I want to share my thoughts on Labyrinth, a book that took me an entire month to finish.
This book is a grail story set in 13th century France and modern=day France, detailing the life of a woman who encounters an ancient labyrinth symbol in a cave on an archeological dig and has dreams about the life of a woman who became part of a secret society bent on harboring the secret to eternal, (or at least extended) life and keeping it only for "good" men who needed more than one lifetime to do Gods work on earth. Inevitably, there are bad people in both time periods who seek the three books that hold the secret, and they do battle with the good folks trying to save the secret.
Mosse has obviously done a great deal of research into the Cathars and the religions of the 13th century, and the holy grail myths, as well as Egyptian hieroglyphs and their meanings. The characters from 1209-1244 are very believable, and their everyday lives delineated in great detail, so much so that the plot begins to crawl about a third of the way through the book, and doesn't pick up again until thefinal third of the novel. While its fascinating to read about how people lived and loved hundreds of years ago, I feel that a little bit goes a long way, and too much detail is dreadfully dull for the average reader. I do not need to know every thought, every whim, every doubt that crosses the main characters minds. While historical research can make a novels landscape rich and realistic, it can also bog the reader down, miring them with things that are cool for history buffs, but not necessary for readers to know in order to get through the story.
Still, I liked the Labyrinth's focus on female characters and I enjoyed learning about the Cathar version of religion that told believers that reincarnation was probable and tolerance for other religions a must. The Catholic Church of the time was just the opposite, of course, sending the Inquisition to burn Cathars (and Jews, of course) as heretics. It's odd that most of the books I've read lately have been very anti-Catholicism, showing, ad nauseum, the various popes evil doings, the death and mayhem caused by church officials, the crusades, the wars, the inquisitions, the murder of innocents and so on. While I think its important that we never forget the evil that can be caused by humans interpreting religion to their own nefarious ends, I also think its important to realize that those circumstances are past, and while we must abhor them and educate people so that these things don't happen again, I don't think that tarring the Catholic church with history's brush is fair. Todays church is not the nest of vipers it once was, and many religions are allowed to flourish without oppression.
The tone and format of this book reminded me of Dan Browns' Da Vinci Code, which is both a good and bad things. It's good because everyone loves uncovering secret societies and learning that there are some new ways to interpret historical artifacts. Whats bad about it is that its been done to death, and its hard to be original when you're writing a book with the same kind of theme as a bestseller, even if you're focusing on women doing the sleuthing instead of men. Mosse manages to be fairly original, if a bit too stereotypical with her female characters, and gets the book to a solid happily ever after conclusion at breakneck speed in the last few chapters.
I'd recommend this book to Francophiles and lovers of Medieval history and grail myths.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Books that Deal with The Other

I've recently read three books that deal with being an outsider, or a person of a specific group, such as Jews, who are placed in an environment where they must deal with prejudice and stereotypes and the usual ignorant, cruel people who can't get past them being different.
The first book was a re-read, because I'd read it several years ago when I was on a Elinor Lipman spree; that dear author was one of my mentors in graduate school, and I like to think I have her to thank for not becoming a novelist. She insisted that I stick to non fictional prose, because she felt my storytelling abilities were best used describing the characters I'd grown up with and come into contact with in my life. I was bidden to read "The Inn At Lake Devine" again by my Tuesday night library book group. I'd forgotten how deliciously funny Lipman can be, how zingy her dialog is, and how zesty her plots. This particular novel is about a young woman who fights, in her own unique style, the anti-semitism of a WASP-y summer vacation hotel owner who sends her family a letter saying that only gentiles are welcome at their resort. Natalie, the main character, finagles her way into staying at the resort, and eventually falls in love with one of the sons of the owner, in an ironic little twist of fate that plays out in a realistic manner. Mrs Berry, the Inn owner and anti-semitic witch, remains resolute in her view of Jews, even when confronted by Natalie and the daughter of a Catskills resort owner. It is only when her son and Natalie almost die of an inadvertant poisoning that Berry realizes that she can't continue to run an Inn with such a prejudicial attitude. A person of the Jewish faith ends up buying her resort, in another twist that will leave the reader smiling.
"Chasing Cezanne" by Peter Mayle, is another tale of a fish out of water, this time a half-Irish half-French photographer living in NewYork who finds himself thrown into the world of fine French art. (And yes, its the same Peter Mayle who wrote the sublime "A Year in Provence") There's enough skulduggery and intrigue in the novel to keep the casual Francophile interested, and enough romance to keep the average woman reading through to the end. What intrigued me was the twisted and intricate way that the art thieves in this novel managed to replace masterpieces with fakes, and get away with it. There was also insight into the world of "Editor Divas" of big name magazines and how ruthlessly they operate. I liked Mayles clean and masculine prose, and also enjoyed his usual adoration of all things French, especially the food, which is incomparable, of course. His food descriptions could make even the most stringent dieter salavate for truffles and cheeses and fresh bagettes. My only qualm with the book was the ending. It was another one of those last chapters that just fades to black with no real resolution. We don't know if the good guys got away and managed to make things right, or if the bad guys ever got what was coming to them, and ended up in jail courtesy of interpol. Other than that, it was an interesting book,and certainly will have me seeking out other works by Mr Mayle.
"Because of Winn-Dixie" by Katie DiCamilla is a wonderful, sunshiney handful of a book that I was assigned for book group and that I found myself reading to my son Nick. It's a delightful tale of a little girl named Opal who moves to Naomi, Florida with her daddy the preacher and finds friends in a stray dog named Winn-Dixie, for the grocery store he nearly destroyed, and a host of other small-town eccentrics, from the little girl who sucks her knuckles to the town "witch" who is really just a blind old lady with a ready spoonful of peanut butter for friendly dogs and little girls. This book is destined to be a classic in the same vein as "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." You can't read a book this good without developing a bit of a Southern drawl and a speech pattern that meanders along like a lazy summer afternoon. Though Opal and Winn-Dixie are different and outsiders, they have a mature and open-hearted outlook on the world, and the reader can't help but pull for the two of them. Funny, poignient and sweet, I recommend this book for anyone who says that todays' kids are too cynical and tech-oriented to enjoy a good story. Good tales like this never run out of style, and I hope they never will.